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Philander Chase and the General Convention of the Episcopal Church

Philander Chase was elected the first Bishop of Ohio on June 3, 1818, less than a month after the death of his beloved spouse, Mary. It took eight months and nine days before he was consecrated to that office. The why and wherefore of this is an important story and fodder for another article. To whet your appetite, there were some in the church who tried to malign Philander’s character by stating that he had been a slaveowner while serving as the rector of Christ Church in New Orleans, Louisiana. For more information about this attempt to refute his election (and indeed his worthiness), see Smythe’s History of the Diocese of Ohio. Happily, for Philander and the fledgling church in Ohio, the issues were resolved beyond reproach and on February 11, 1819 the Right Reverend Philander Chase was consecrated a Bishop in God’s church by William White, assisted by John H. Hobart, James Kemp, and John Croes. The very next day, he mounted a horse and headed back to his diocese.

Philander served in the ministry of the episcopacy with absolutely no salary or benefits. He supported his family
and ministry by farming and by teaching at an academy in Worthington, Ohio. There were no consecrated churches in Ohio. There wasn’t a network of roadways or railroads connecting the “urban” areas of the diocese. No telephones. No such thing as instantaneous communication.

This may explain why Philander Chase did not attend the General Convention of 1820 (which officially recorded his consecration). He was busy with organizing parishes in Ohio, getting married to his second wife (Sophia), farming, teaching, and devising what would become Kenyon College. Bishop Chase did send a letter giving a report about the status of the church in Ohio which was entered into the Journal of the General Convention. In his report he recorded that since his consecration he had confirmed 234 persons and that the clergy resident in his diocese numbered six. Chase also did not attend the General Convention of 1823. (He was off in England
raising money to build Kenyon.) He again sent a letter giving the state of the church in Ohio. However, he did not include a list of clergy in the diocese. For the purpose of the General Convention Journal, a list was put together from the publication “Sword’s Almanac for 1823" which indicates that in addition to the bishop, one deacon and five priests were resident in the diocese and that occasionally “the Rev. Joseph Doddridge, canonically resident in Viginia, officiates at services in the diocese."

The 1826 General Convention met at St. Peter’s Church, Philadelphia. Bishop Chase did attend this convention, along with two priests. No lay deputies from Ohio were in attendance. The General Convention Journal records that printed diocesan convention journals from 1823 through 1826 were received from the Diocese of Ohio at the 1826 Convention. The State of the Church report for the Diocese of Ohio recorded
the deaths of the Rev. Philander Chase, Jr. and the Rev. Roger Searle. This report also announced “a Diocesan Theological Seminary, having the power of conferring degrees in the Arts and Sciences, under the name and style of 'The President and Professors of Kenyon College in the State of Ohio,' has been established by the ecclesiastical authority, and recognized civil legislature, since the meeting of the last General Convention. A landed estate, giving great promise of its future enhancement in value, has been purchased in a healthy and central part of the State (Gambier near Mount Vernon). The present number of students is 30 and candidates for holy orders numbers three.” The 1826 General Convention Journal records, in addition toBishop Chase, Ohio had seven priests and one deacon.

The 1829 General Convention met at St. James Church, Philadelphia. Chase did not attend. Two diocesan presbyters were in attendance. No lay deputies from Ohio attended. The state of the church report for Ohio reports the number of clergy in the diocese, besides the Bishop included 13 Presbyters and one Deacon. The following appeal was also included: “In casting our eyes over this extensive Diocese, where the hand of God has lavished its bounties, we grieve to see the moral waste that spreads around. Multitudes there are without a Sabbath, without a preacher, without a sanctuary, without ordinances, living without hope and without God in the world. Our hope is in God to bless Kenyon College. Under him that institution may furnish missionaries to the wandering and unsettled, and pastors to organized congregations. The center building (Old Kenyon) has been completed but much remains to be done and all is lost if the effort be relaxed..."

By the 1832 General Convention in New York City, Bishop Chase had already resigned his position as Bishop of Ohio and President of Kenyon College (which happened on September 9, 1831 over “control issues” between Kenyon, the bishop, and the clergy of the Diocese) and moved to a farm in Michigan. Bishop McIlvaine had already been elected to replace him. Two clerical deputies accompanied Bishop McIlvaine to General
Convention at which there was considerable debate about whether Philander Chase had actually resigned as bishop. This matter alone and ratification of Bishop McIlvaine’s election took up quite a bit of time and
consumed much of the work between the House of Deputies and the House of Bishops during this triennial meeting of The Episcopal Church. When all was said and done, the Convention found that Bishop Chase had indeed resigned and Bishop McIlvaine had in fact been duly elected and the testimonials of the election were duly certified. Charles P. McIlvaine was consecrated on the final day of the Convention on October 31 at St. Paul’s Chapel, New York City, along with John H. Hopkins (Bishop of Vermont), Benjamin B. Smith (Bishop of
Kentucky), and George W. Doane (Bishop of New Jersey).

This, however, was not the end of Bishop Chase’s relationship with the General Convention. Chase went on to be elected first bishop of the Diocese of Illinois in 1835, just ahead of the General Convention that year which he did attend. He was also present at the General Conventions of 1838 and 1841. Eventually he became the senior bishop in The Episcopal Church by virtue of his age and the fact that he had outlived all of his peers. As such, he assumed the role of Presiding Bishop on February 15, 1843 and presided over the House of Bishops
at the General Conventions of: 1844, held in St. Andrew, Philadelphia, PA; 1847, held in St. John’s Chapel, New York, New York; 1850, meeting at Christ Church, Cincinnati, Ohio. The General Convention of 1850 was the first and only time Bishop Chase returned to Ohio after he departed in 1831. During his tenure as Presiding Bishop he consecrated 8 bishops including William Jones Boone as Bishop of Shanghai for Missionary Work in China (1844); George Washington Freeman bishop of Arkansas and the Indian Territory (1844); Horatio Southgate
as missionary bishop "for the dominions and dependencies of the Sultan" (the Ottoman Empire). Chase also had the difficult task of pronouncing presentments of suspension against two brothers in the episcopacy: Henry U. Onderdonk (1844) on allegations of intemperance (later revoked in 1856) and Benjamin T. Onderdonk (1845) on allegations of misconduct. Chase left the office of Presiding Bishop on September 20, 1852 on the day of his death, after having been thrown from a carriage by his horse at the age of 77. He served as Presiding Bishop for nine years and 218 days.

In a memorial minute some years later, Benjamin Smith wrote of Bishop Chase: “in after years, when as Presiding Bishop... he appeared, on public full canonicals, all were impressed with the idea that a great branch of the Church coextensive with the limits of a Continent, could have found in no human form, not even in that of Daniel Webster, a more fit representative, as its Patriarch.”

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