September 15: James Chisholm, Priest, 1855

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About this commemoration

James Chisholm was the rector of St. John’s Episcopal Church in Portsmouth, Virginia.

In 1855, an aggressive yellow fever epidemic swept through tidewater Virginia. Many of the region’s wealthy citizens were able to escape the area to avoid exposure and contamination. In most cases the physicians and clergy who served them departed as well. This left the area’s poor bereft of doctors, caregivers and, in some cases, the basic provisions of food and water to sustain life.

James Chisholm sent his family away to safety, staying behind to provide whatever care for the sick he could. Chisholm provided food, amateur medical assistance, and pastoral care. He was even known to have dug graves for those who had died.

As the ravages of the plague were beginning to subside, Chisholm, weary to the point of exhaustion from his faithful priestly service, contracted the yellow fever and died.

An account of Chisholm’s sacrifice, written only months after his death, marvels at the inner strength that Chisholm discovered that enabled him to stay behind and serve the people many of whom were only waiting to die. Before the crisis, Chisholm was not thought of as a particularly strong man in body, and was described as having been retiring to the point of bashfulness, delicate, weak, and lacking much fortitude. When faced, however, with the call of these priestly duties in the face of great hardship, Chisholm showed a strength and courage few knew he possessed.


Merciful God, who didst call thy priest James Chisholm to sacrifice his life in working to relieve his parishioners and the people of his city during a yellow fever epidemic: Help us remember that in giving up our lives to thy service, we win the eternal crown that never fades away in that heavenly kingdom where, with Jesus Christ our Savior and the Holy Spirit, thou reignest, one God, in glory everlasting. Amen.

Merciful God, you called your priest James Chisholm to sacrifice his life in working to relieve his parishioners and the people of his city during a yellow fever epidemic: Help us remember that in giving up our lives to your service, we win the eternal crown that never fades away in that heavenly kingdom where, with Jesus Christ our Savior and the Holy Spirit, you reign, one God, in glory everlasting. Amen.


Sirach (Ecclesiasticus) 38:9–17

2 Corinthians 1:3–11

Matthew 24:1–8

Psalm 116:5–9

Preface of God the Son

Text From Holy, Women, Holy Men: Celebrating the Saints © 2010 by The Church Pension Fund. Used by permission.

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11 thoughts on “September 15: James Chisholm, Priest, 1855

  1. Hebrew reading: This reading is about physicians. During the yellow fever epidemic mentioned in the bio the doctors and caregivers were among those who fled tidewater Virginia. So we are extolling physicians in the reading… yet they were the ones who fled?

    Gospel: How is Matthew 24 related to this commemoration?

    Bio: Mr. (after all, it is Virginia) Chisholm was born, when?
    5th paragraph: ‘contracted the yellow fever and died.’ To the end of that sentence might be added ‘that same year.’

  2. This collect could be improved in a couple of ways. Mentioning ‘yellow fever’ in it makes it sound like a citation for a medal rather than a prayer; I’d suggest ‘to sacrifice his life in working to relieve the people of his parish and city in a time of great trial’ or something along those lines. I have a bigger problem with the petition, though: ‘Help us remember that in giving up our lives to your service, we win the eternal crown that never fades away’ sounds like salvation by works. Something like ‘help us, like him, to live by the faith we profess, following in the footsteps of Jesus Christ our Lord, Who with the Father and the Holy Spirit’ etc would be less likely to be misunderstood.

  3. September 15: James Chisholm, Priest, 1855
    Philip’s suggestions about the collect sound right on the money to me, and Michael has very good questions about the focus and the readings. My questions aren’t just about what’s there. I also have questions about why it’s there.
    Each time I read through the bio, I feel it’s the same exact story as the Martyrs of Memphis, with the names, place, and date changed. It’s the same “plot”, and theirs was less than a week ago. I have to ask why we need this; it feels like a re-run. The calendar is crowded and I don’t see a point in making this a separate observance.
    Secondly, I previously raised critical observations about “being and doing” in the title lines: “Priest” doesn’t describe what this write-up is about. My critique was that clergy get by with a statement of their ordination status (what they are) while lay people on the calendar are listed by what they do. None just say, “Lay Person” or “Baptized Christian” or “Faithful Disciple of the Lord.” As ordained, myself, I have no hesitation to recognize outstanding exemplars of ordained service, but part of our “discovery” of the importance of Baptism is the way it grounds and clarifies our common and fundamental calling and service in Christ – all of us.
    The “Martyrs of Memphis” (Sept 9) are commemorated, presumably, because they’re martyrs, not because they’re ordained or under the vows of a particular Order. (Granted, Constance is listed as Nun, but at least one doctor, an unspecified number of nurses, and two matrons were also included – and their fate largely ignored – and I would guess they were Laity.) In today’s observance what makes Chisholm memorable is, to a good extent, his role as an EMT and emergency responder, not particularly as priest. There’s not much here about what he did specifically as a priest. In fact, the line about his “lacking much fortitude” and being retiring to the point of bashfulness, delicate, and weak, don’t give a great impression of his overall ministry history.
    I have, then, two points. First, do we want to separate or duplicate this commemoration (taking up a separate calendar day) when it is so similar to the Martyrs of Memphis commemoration just six days prior , and secondly, do we want to head it “Priest” when it really highlights a dramatic response of service that every Christian could possibly “own” as part of their response to the Lord, and which (for the most part) has no overriding connection to his having been ordained?

  4. What is the preface of God the Son, and where is it? It isn’t in the BCP, now in the index of HWHM., but is is assigned to several feasts.
    I had never heard of James Chisholm until today, when I read the biography. His commoration seems appropriate, and I see no reason not to mention the yellow fever in the collect. The Sirach readin is about doctors and misses the mark. The Corinthians reading is OK, but the gospel seems to suggest that God caused he yellow fever epidemic to punish the people, and really needs to be replaced.

    • Re: the preface of God the Son.

      Page 377 and 378 of the Book of Common Prayer 1979 lists three Proper Prefaces of the Lord’s Day. #1 is titled: Of God the Father; #2 is titled: Of God the Son; and # 3 is titled of God the Holy Spirit.

  5. I would like to see a reference in the sub-heading to the reason why he has been selected. It is not because he was a priest. There is no easy, pithy phrase to describe a person who sacrifices his life to tend the victims of a deadly epidemic. Maybe “Priest and Caregiver to the Sick and Dying”?

    I always like to see the date of birth, or an approximation if the actual year of birth is unknown–e.g “Born about 1815”.

    The lower case “yellow fever” is inconsistent with the capitalization used for “Constance and Her Companions” (September 9). I recommend upper case in line 1 of the second paragraph.

    Delete the redundant “yellow” in the last line of the fourth paragraph.

  6. For some reason, the comments I made yesterday got lost in internet ether. Why cannot James Chisholm, the former rector of St. John’s Parish, Portsmouth, Virginia not be combined with Mother Superior Constance and the others who are listed as martyrs for their deaths in the 1878 yellow fever epidemic in Memphis, Tennessee? Yellow fever and the mosquito which carries the disease were brought from Africa as a result of the slave trade and periodic epidemics in which the mortality rates were as high as 85% occurred periodically in the United States from the 17th through the 19th century. The last yellow fever epidemic in the U.S. was in 1905 in New Orleans. Yellow fever is a mosquito borne viral hemorrhagic fever for which there still is no treatment. Unlike malaria which is carried most often by mosquitoes which bit as night (and why mosquito netting is effective as prevention), the mosquito which carries yellow fever (most commonly Aedes aegypti) bites during day light hours from dawn to dusk. And so effective prevention requires removal of stagnant water and tight screening of windows and doors, use of insect repellants and vaccination. Yellow fever is a re-emerging disease in African and South America with 200,000 or so cases a year with 30,000 deaths a year. The vaccination which was developed in the 1930s is very effective but many poor countries cannot afford the cost of vaccination programs.

    According to the Rev. James Chisholm’s Memoir, his birth date was 30 September 1815.

    The expression “avoid exposure and contamination” in the second paragraph is incorrect in part. Yellow fever is not contagious in the usual meaning of the word. And use the 19th century terms evokes fear when none is really needed. Yellow fever cannot be passed from one human to another by contact with a sick person or any articles with which the sick person may have been in contact. The illness can only be passed when a female mosquito bites an infected person within several days of infection. The yellow fever virus has to replicate in the mosquito and get into the salivary gland. Then when the infected mosquito bites another person who has not developed immunity from a previous mild infection the yellow fever is spear to another person. The cooler weather of the mountains made the mosquito less parvalent and so the disease was less common. In the fourth paragraph, it is implied that the Rev. James Chisholm contracted yellow fever because of exhaustion. Again this is an error. There is no cause and effect between his degree of tiredness and the infection. The Rev. Chisholm was unfortunate enough to have been bitten by an infected female mosquito.

    Most know the story of Walter Reed and the Yellow Fever Commission, but if you do not, may I suggest:

    I am not sure of the focus. Here are are two almost identical commemorations of persons who exhibited exceptional courage and compassion in the fact of an epidemic which was not understood at the time. In time, there may be some who are remembered because of their courage at the beginning of the AIDS epidemic. Is the focus on their extraordinary courage or on the public health aspects to remind us all that we can be participants improving world wide health?

    Also, I do not see the use of the term “yellow fever” to be redundant in the 4th paragraph. Most deaths are not due to the fever but late complications from the disease “yellow fever” such a liver failure or hemorrhage. To say that the Rev. James Chisholm died of fever would almost certainly be incorrect.

  7. The Psalm reading stops with “No one can be trusted,” which is a very strange conclusion (and I suspect was not intended). It should be extended to the end of the Psalm, or at least through verse 11.

  8. John LaVoe and Suzanne Sauter raise excellent points as to the rationale of commemorating James Chisholm on an entirely separate day from Constance, given the growing shortage of open days. This is not to diminish his acts, but simply to note the similarity of those feast days … and to acknowledge that Sept 9th already mentions “three physicians, two of whom were ordained Episcopal priests.” Granted, this is a different city, but both feast days are addressing the same struggle and same Christian response.

  9. We celebrated this commemoration at a regular weekday Eucharist in my parish, and the consensus among those attending was the the Rev. Mr. Chisholm’s life and witness are sufficiently exemplary and heroic as to merit inclusion in the calendar.

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