The third bishop of the Diocese of Indiana was elected in May 1883, four months after Joseph Talbot's death. David Buel Knickerbacker of Minneapolis had served as rector of Gethsemane Church, building it up in 26 years from a small mission in a town with just 200 souls to a thriving parish that attracted national publicity.
Knickerbacker was born on 24 February 1833 in Schagticoke, north of Albany, New York, the son of Herman Knickerbocker and Mary Delia (Buel). The family was affluent, and the father, who was sometimes nicknamed "Prince," was a relative of the author Washington Irving. Irving once introduced him to President James Madison as the model for the author of the Knickerbocker History of New York. Young David seems to have changed the spelling of the family name, perhaps because of the Knickerbocker association. In his youth, he went to Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut, and then attended General Theological Seminary in New York. Upon graduation in 1856 he was ordained a deacon by Bishop Potter in Trinity Church on Wall Street. He married in New London, Connecticut, Sarah Moore, though their three children predeceased them.
Knickerbacker's first assignment came in Minnesota when he was stationed at Holy Trinity Church in St. Anthony's Falls. He opened a church in a public hall in Minneapolis, then a small town of less than 200, and consecrated it as Gethsemane Church in December 1856. Bishop Kemper ordained him a priest the following year, and he became the formal rector of Gethsemane, remaining there 27 years and building it up into a sizable parish. He devoted himself to missionary outreach, creating parish organizations that helped with the work. His men's organization, the Brotherhood of Gethsemane, provided lay readers for missions in nearby towns. The church also opened Cottage Hospital, later renamed St. Barnabas Hospital, and also established, with the help of an Episcopal nun, an Industrial School for girls. Knickerbacker also opened an orphanage in the early 1880s known as Sheltering Arms. His successes earned him much attention in the national Church and led to his election as dean of Seabury Divinity School and as Missionary Bishop of Arizona and New Mexico, but he declined both offers.
In 1883, after Bishop Talbot's death, the Diocese of Indiana elected as his successor the Rev. Isaac Lee Nicholson of St. Mark's, Philadelphia, but Nicholson declined. A second convention in June led to Knickerbacker's election. He accepted and was consecrated in October that year and given an annual salary of $3,000. On his arrival he found the diocese in some level of decline due to Talbot's long illness. The Episcopal Church had parishes in missions in only 33 of Indiana's 92 counties, and only 3,884 communicants out of a total population of two million. There were now 40 parishes, with an additional five organized and two unorganized missions. Talbot had indeed expanded the diocese from what he had inherited in the 1860s, but much work remained to be done. Indiana had become a difficult mission field because of indifference or prejudice toward the Episcopal Church that was widespread across the state. As a liturgical church, it had more difficulty reaching the unaffiliated than did the Baptist or Methodist churches, which focused on preaching and revivals.
Writing in 1888, the Rev. William M. Pettis of Lafayette observed: "There was, and is, a dense ignorance of the Church among all classes of people in Indiana, and a great indifference to religious things. Moreover, in their free and easy style, they do not readily take to anything like the formality of rites and ceremonials, or fixedness of expression. The man with the gown, the set forms of a book, a manuscript sermon, and an Apostolic lineage, is not the one to whom the people of Indiana most readily turn."
Three years after his election Knickerbacker presented to the Annual Council his plans for the diocese, which reflected in large measure his experience in Minnesota. First, he stated that he regarded the whole state as a grand mission field with many opportunities for growth. Second, he expressed his wish to establish schools as well as other benevolent organizations, including hospitals, orphanages, and homes for the aged, all under the care of the Diocese, as a means of encouraging growth. Third, he wanted to improve Sunday school education across the state. Fourth, he wanted to improve stewardship, saying that it was a "blessed privilege" for one to "consecrate their giving" for the benefit of the church. In the same vein he argued that the diocesan endowment needed to be increased, and finally, he sought to create a "grand working Diocese" in which every member took his or her part to be "Christ's faithful soldier and servant unto their life's end."
Like Talbot before him, Knickerbacker expended a great deal of energy attempting to bring the Episcopal Church to counties and towns that did not have any representation. To do it, he traveled by rail and by horse and buggy to reach every county at some time during his episcopate. He often preached in some local public hall as Kemper had a generation earlier and invited the curious to form congregations. He encouraged his clergy already stationed in a parish to do more to reach out and establish additional missions. Lay readers became a key part of the strategy. If a priest could only officiate at a mission irregularly or during the week, a licensed lay reader could conduct Morning Prayer competently in the absence of a priest. By 1884, he had appointed 24 lay readers and had filled all but six vacant parish posts.
Two of his successes in northern Indiana included the founding of Howe School in Lima, Lagrange County, in 1888, and the founding of a school in Barker Hall at Trinity Church in Michigan City, both after gifts from large benefactors. A third school for girls, called Knickerbacker Hall, was built in Indianapolis but did not survive his episcopate. He gave a great deal of attention to the establishment of Grace Church in Indianapolis, which he designated as a pro-cathedral in 1885. The building, a plain structure, had stood on St. Clair Street but was moved to a square on Central Avenue, where it was refurbished. Knickerbacker attempted to raise money for an orphanage and a home for the aged in an adjoining complex, and he urged parishioners to send him postage stamps off of old letters to sell to philatelists and dealers as a way of raising money. As odd as the plan seemed, he managed to raise only $1,670 out of a necessary $10,000 for the project by 1891 and only $3,000 more two years later.
Clergy under Knickerbacker's authority planted a relatively large number of churches in the 1880s and early 1890s as a direct result of his missionary focus. In the northern part of the state these included missions at East Chicago (1892), Garrett (1885), Gas City (1892), Hammond (1888), Huntington (1884), Kendallville (1892), Kewanna (1889), Kokomo (1885), Marion (1885), and New Carlisle (1885). Six of them would eventually become parishes. Moreover, the bishop consecrated a church at North Liberty that had begun as an unorganized mission under Talbot, but it later closed. He also tried and failed to establish a church in Rochester after preaching there. Overall, the missionary effort was mixed. Some of these missions soon folded while others thrived, in part because of changing economic conditions that brought in new church members to sustain them. The boom in natural gas exploration in central Indiana was key to the successes of Marion and Gas City, while the industrial growth of East Chicago brought immigrants that sustained that church.
Knickerbacker demonstrated skill at financial management that benefitted the diocese. The Rev. G. A. Cartensen remarked that the bishop "had the business capacity that qualified him to be president of a railroad if his walk in life had fallen in that direction." He proved himself adept at raising money for the diocese from east coast sources. Through his management skills he also eliminated the diocesan debt of $7,500 and left an endowment for the episcopate of $39,000. Between 1883 and 1894 contributions from within the diocese itself for missions rose from $4,000 to $15,000. Women, now organized under the auspices of the Women's Auxiliary, raised money both for their own parishes and for missions. In his eleven years as bishop he saw the construction of 29 churches, fourteen rectories, and twelve parish houses, while the number of clergy increased from 23 to 40. He also oversaw changes in musical offerings throughout the diocese with thirteen vested choirs organized in larger parishes and a new prayerbook and hymnal published, though the hymnal was not widely accepted at first.
Knickerbacker died on 31 December 1894 after coming down with pneumonia after Christmas. His episcopate was characterized by even more energy than that of Talbot. He had wanted to divide the diocese, assuring followers that "it will come in time." For many, Knickerbacker's death was seen as a strong argument for the division, since Indiana came to be seen as too much work for one man.