Episcopal Diocese of Northern Indiana Archives

Jackson Kemper, Missionary Bishop, 1835-1849

Riding on a flatboat on the Ohio River in November 1835, the Rt. Rev. Jackson Kemper, the newly created Missionary Bishop of the Northwest, looked out at the Indiana shoreline and commented, “Indiana looks woody, interesting, and inviting.” Two months earlier, Kemper had been consecrated bishop in St. Peter’s Church, Philadelphia, after being tasked by the General Convention to plant the Episcopal Church in the states of Indiana and Missouri, and then to expand his labors to the whole Northwest, an area of 446,781 square miles that included not only Indiana and Missouri, but also Wisconsin, Minnesota, Kansas, and Nebraska. He rode down the river with the Rev. Samuel Roosevelt Johnson, a young cleric from New York who would accompany Kemper through many of his wilderness journeys.

The task involved acceptance of a rough, frontier lifestyle with few amenities, but it came as such an honor that Kemper could hardly walk away from it. In a letter to a friend written just before his consecration, he observed, “How could I refuse an honor so peculiarly conferred? How could I flee from a station with so much toil and danger without being stigmatized a coward – perhaps a traitor to that cause to which I had consecrated my life? I hope I am not deceived. I have reflected deeply and calmly on the subject, and I think the path of duty is plain before me.”

No other individual is more responsible for planting the Episcopal Church in the upper Midwest than Jackson Kemper. His patience, devotion, and perseverance under difficult conditions, as well as the enormous success of his ministry, has earned him a feast day in the national Church. Yet his story is not widely known outside of ecclesiastical contexts.

Born on Christmas Eve 1789 in Pleasant Valley, New York, David Jackson Kemper was the son of Col. Daniel Kemper and second wife Elizabeth (Marius). The father had served as an assistant aide-de-camp in the Revolutionary War under George Washington, taking part in the battles of Monmouth and Brandywine and later receiving from Washington an appointment as an officer in the New York Customs Service. Young David Jackson soon dropped his first name and grew up along the Hudson River. He entered Columbia at age fifteen and graduated in 1809 as its valedictorian. He studied for the ministry under the Rev. John Henry Hobart and Dr. Benjamin Moore, who later became Bishop of New York. He was ordained to the diaconate in 1811 by Bishop William White of Pennsylvania.

Kemper's first assignment was to serve as White's assistant with several churches in Philadelphia, but White also dispatched him to the western part of the state to do missionary work among its frontier settlements in 1812 and again in 1814. Later that year White ordained him to the priesthood, and in 1819 Kemper received an appointment as trustee of the newly established General Theological Seminary. During these years Kemper had married Jerusha Lyman, but she had died two years later without children. His second marriage to Ann Relf, a friend of his wife's younger sister, took place on 9 October 1821. The couple had three children, Elizabeth, Samuel, and Lewis, before Ann's death in 1832.

Ann had urged her husband to leave Philadelphia and its numerous epidemics for a parish in the country, which she perceived as more healthy. Accordingly, Kemper accepted a call to be rector of St. Paul's Church, in Norwalk, Connecticut. He continued to do missionary work, however, and in 1834 the Missionary Society sent him to Green Bay, Wisconsin, to investigate problems with an Indian mission. His efforts proved so successful that they led to his consecration the following year as Missionary Bishop. At the time he expressed his astonishment at the honor in spite of the General Convention's confidence.

The assignment presented many logistical obstacles, not the least of which was transportation through the territories to find Episcopalians. Indiana, in particular, had such dim prospects for the church that Bishop Philander Chase of Illinois had exclaimed, "Indiana was forever lost to the Church." Only one missionary, the Rev. Melancthon Hoyt, resided in the state, and no effort had been made to construct a church building.

On his first visit in 1835, Kemper and Johnson visited Madison, New Albany, and Evansville, before continuing on to St. Louis. At that time efforts were made to establish congregations in all three of those towns as well as at Crawfordsville, even though no church construction had begun and no missionaries were on hand except Hoyt at Crawfordsville. After a lengthy tour inland in Missouri, the new bishop made return visits to Indiana in 1836 and 1837, traveling by coach and horseback over rough roads filled with mud, ruts, and stumps and using the rivers, where possible. All of his worldly good he kept in his saddle bags: his vestments, prayerbook, diary, and toiletries. He was said to be more fastidious about his personal appearance than many of his contemporaries, shaving daily, cleaning his clothes, and remaining well groomed. In 1836, a coach in which he was riding tipped over, throwing him on top of the Rev. Daniel Van Meter Johnson but leaving him otherwise uninjured. On other occasions he traveled on horseback with Samuel Roosevelt Johnson through the thick forests. By the end of 1838, he saw some tangible evidence of success. New missions had been formed in Indianapolis, Mishawaka, Michigan City, Lafayette (where Johnson was made rector), Jeffersonville, Richmond, and New Harmony. By 1839, that number had grown to include La Porte, Fort Wayne, Vincennes, and Lawrenceburg. If Indiana had ever been lost to the Church, she was surely now regained.

Kemper's mode for planting a church remained essentially the same throughout his ministry. He would arrive in a town, inquire about the whereabouts of local Episcopalians, if any, meet with them informally and quietly, and then hold services in some public place, such as the courthouse or a borrowed church. If he perceived enough interest, he marked it as a suitable place for sending a future missionary. He was a competent but not exceptional preacher and won coverts through interpersonal contacts rather than pulpit oratory.

Even with these early successes, many challenges remained. Kemper faced difficulty recruiting clergymen in the East willing to accept employment in the western mission field with all of its privations, and those that did arrive were often less talented as preachers or administrators. Some, like Benjamin Hutchins at Fort Wayne, quickly abandoned their mission stations to the bishop's irritation. Transportation and living conditions continued to vex him, including travel by packet on mosquito-filled canals, sleeping in cold guest rooms, and eating a pioneer diet largely of corn pone and bacon. 

The Diocese of Indiana was organized in 1838, but Kemper refused election as its formal bishop, opting instead to remain a missionary. Elections of three other clergy as bishop were declined, including the Rev. Thomas Atkinson of Maryland (who, as a pro-slavery southerner, was offended by the strong feeling in Indiana against slavery), the Rev. Samuel Bowman of Pennsylvania, and the Rev. Francis Vinton of New York. The new diocese's financial insecurity proved a major deterrent, as was its lack of infrastructure. Its new Standing Committee had difficulty meeting because its members lived too far from one another. Some congregations borrowed too much money and built edifices they could not afford. Many were not self-supporting, and he called the practice of building before the raising of funds "ruinous." He warned, too, of overextending the diocese's budget, which was heavily dependent on the Board of Missions in New York.

Some theological issues also arose. Kemper disliked slavery but refused any mixing of religion with what he perceived as political, not moral, concerns among his clergy, a position for which he should be rightly faulted, given the strong abolitionist positions of both the Presbyterian and Methodist churches. While he was favorably disposed to the innovations of the Oxford Movement, he was not an Anglo-Catholic, and he condemned those who advocated reunion with Rome, saying, "All hope of a union with a Church which is usurping and idolatrous, which abounds in superstitious practices and claims infallibility and supremacy, is absurd if not impious..." Even with these beliefs, Kemper was instrumental in forming Nashotah House Seminary in Wisconsin, which came to be regarded as the most Anglo-Catholic in the Church.

Kemper's role as Missionary Bishop of Indiana came to an end in June 1849 with the election of the Rev. George Upfold of Trinity Church, Pittsburgh, as bishop. He continued to spend time in Missouri and Wisconsin, eventually accepting election as Wisconsin's bishop in 1854 but retaining his missionary duties until 1859. He died at his home in Delafield, Wisconsin, in May 1870, and was buried on the grounds of Nashotah House. He is best remembered for his heroic work to plant the Episcopal Church in a state where it was not always welcomed and enduring great hardships to make it permanent.

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