May 24: Jackson Kemper, First Missionary Bishop in the United States, 1870

Welcome to the Holy Women, Holy Men blog! We invite you to read about this commemoration, use the collect and lessons in prayer, whether individually or in corporate worship, then tell us what you think. For more information about this project, click here.

When the General Convention of 1835 made all the members of the Episcopal Church members also of the Domestic and Foreign Missionary Society, it provided at the same time for missionary bishops to serve in the wilderness and in foreign countries. Jackson Kemper was the first such bishop. Although he was assigned to Missouri and Indiana, he laid foundations also in Iowa, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Nebraska, and Kansas, and made extensive missionary tours in the South and Southwest. Kemper was born in Pleasant Valley, New York, on December 24, 1789. He graduated from Columbia College in 1809, and was ordained deacon in 1811, and priest in 1814.

He served Bishop White as Assistant at Christ Church, Philadelphia. At his urging, Bishop White made his first and only visitation in western Pennsylvania. In 1835, Kemper was ordained bishop, and immediately set out on his travels.

Because Episcopal clergymen, mostly from well-to-do Eastern homes, found it hard to adjust to the harsh life of the frontier—scorching heat, drenching rains, and winter blizzards—Kemper established Kemper College in St. Louis, Missouri, the first of many similar attempts to train clergymen, and in more recent times lay persons as well, for specialized tasks in the Church. The College failed in 1845 from the usual malady of such projects in the church—inadequate funding. Nashotah House, in Wisconsin, which he founded in 1842, with the help of James Lloyd Breck and his companions, was more successful. So was Racine College, founded in 1852. Both these institutions reflected Kemper’s devotion to beauty in ritual and worship.

Kemper pleaded for more attention to the Indians, and encouraged the translation of services into native languages. He described a service among Oneida Indians which was marked by “courtesy, reverence, worship—and obedience to that Great Spirit in whose hands are the issues of life.” From 1859 until his death, Kemper was diocesan Bishop of Wisconsin. He is more justly honored by his unofficial title, “The Bishop of the Whole Northwest.”


I.   Lord God, in whose providence Jackson Kemper was chosen first missionary bishop in this land, that by his arduous labor and travel congregations might be established in scattered settlements of the West: Grant that the Church may always be faithful to its mission, and have the vision, courage, and perseverance to make known to all people the Good News of Jesus Christ; who with thee and the Holy Spirit liveth and reigneth, one God, for ever and ever.  Amen.

II.   Lord God, in your providence Jackson Kemper was chosen first missionary bishop in this land, and by his arduous labor and travel congregations were established in scattered settlements of the West: Grant that the Church may always be faithful to its mission, and have the vision, courage, and perseverance to make known to all people the Good News of Jesus Christ; who with you and the Holy Spirit lives and reigns, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.


Psalm 67

Exodus 15:22–25

1 Corinthians 3:8–11

Matthew 28:16–20

Preface of Pentecost

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

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We invite your reflections about this commemoration and its suitability for the official calendar and worship of The Episcopal Church. How did this person’s life witness to the Gospel? How does this person inspire us in Christian life today?

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13 thoughts on “May 24: Jackson Kemper, First Missionary Bishop in the United States, 1870

  1. First thoughts are all quite positive and I’ll try to put them in words later.

    As for now, there’s just a point in the bio that seems unclear, “Kemper established Kemper College in St. Louis, Missouri, the first of many similar attempts to train clergymen, and in more recent times lay persons as well, for specialized tasks in the Church. The College failed in 1845 from the usual malady of such projects in the church—inadequate funding. ” How did Kemper College train lay persons in recent years if it founded 150+ years ago?

    On a different note, does any one get the impression that the first part of that paragraph is designed to make the PECUSA of history sound as WASP-y as possible? Not saying it’s not true — it just seems oddly emphatic.

    Finally, is it really worth bringing up the legal structures that relate TEC to DFMS so early and then not mentioning them again? Might it be better just to write something like,

    “When the General Convention of 1835 committed itself to missionary activity in the rapidly developing American West, it provided at the same time for missionary bishops to serve in the wilderness and in foreign countries. Jackson Kemper was the first such bishop.”

    Or something like that… (Don’t get caught up on my reference to the American West; I’m don’t know anything about the Church history of this era, it just sounds like something they might have done)

    • Michael W — Nice catch! I’ve used this one for years and like it. But the 1845 closure and the “more recent” comment (for a non-clergy purpose) really don’t fit together. –JFL

  2. I am very much impressed by the work which has gone into “Holy Women, Holy Men” and I find it very useful for enrichment of personal and communal prayer. Except for the major commemorations I wonder at the wisdom of printing references for Scripture lessons particular for each commemmoration. This seems to take away from the importance of the continuous reading lectionary cycles for the seasons of the year. Perhaps the particular Scripture readings could be reserved for those places where the holy person being commemorated is particularly well known or whose memory is held in greater reverence.

    • Robert — Amen! (Well, it’s Easter season, so make that Amen. Alleluia, alleluia!)
      I agree with you 100% on both counts — that the commemorations are a great help, blessing, and enrichment, AND that there’s an inherent rivalry between the recommendations for the feasts and the daily office lectionary. I’m retired now, but worked with a string of churches and clergy colleagues who would come together regularly on a given day for any of our parishes where a small group would support a noon service. We’d have Eucharist on major feasts and Noonday Prayer the other days, and use the collect and narrative from LFF in conjunction with the service — but we used the daily office readings (except for the major feasts). That’s what I hear you suggesting. I just want you to know it’s a good suggestion, it’s done at least in some places, and unlike the Sunday lectionary (which has an obligatory standing — with very few and occasional exceptions) we’re not breaking any rules by having and making that choice. Thanks for an important reflection! –JFL

  3. Jackson Kemper, First Missionary Bishop in the United States, 1870
    GENERAL: I greatly admire Jackson Kemper. I expect, living in the present age, we have no concept of how difficult it was to live in an area without the infrastructure we expect and depend on anywhere we go. The recent tornados in St Louis and Joplin Missouri should remind us, at least for the time being, that life “on the frontier” could indeed be (in Thomas Hobbes’ words) “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short” – for many reasons. Yet, his faith led him to undertake this most challenging of ministries which, obviously, not many other bishops were willing to do. That faith and courage, I find inspiring.
    Paragraph 1: I’m not sure why the reference is included to the Domestic and Foreign Missionary Society, and I doubt many hearing this will make sense of it either. Omitting it requires recasting the opening sentence, which is easily done. The two sentences beginning with “Kemper was born…” sound like they belong at the head of paragraph 2.
    Paragraph 2: The first sentence continues the biographical sketch. The second seems to take a swipe at, Bishop White – surprisingly – for never visiting the western part of his diocese, an 800 mile journey, (except once, at age 78 when hounded by his assistant). [Do we really want to take that shot at someone with such a large impact on the organizing of PECUSA, and commemorated in HWHM (lionized is more like it) on July 17?] The third sentence repeats a bit from the paragraph preceding, leading me to wonder if the generalizing summary of paragraph 1 should be appended as part of the ENDING of what is now paragraph 2, opening the narrative, in effect, with Kemper’s birth data, college and graduation date, priest and diaconal ordination dates, service at Philadelphia with Bishop White, ONLY THEN mentioning his consecration and charge as bishop, and the other places where he made a contribution.
    Paragraph 3: We WERE WASP-y (that’s just genetics) but it doesn’t make sense that Kemper established Kemper College BECAUSE of contrasting conditions in the eastern and the more westerly frontier regions. He opened the college for other reasons, which I’m no expert on, but “to address a lack of educational facilities” and “to train men for ordination and ministry” seem likely – not because the weather was bad and easterners were sissies. (I’m going to cry if you say that again.) Michael W caught an important point about Kemper College failing in 1845 and then saying “in more recent times” it trained lay persons. That requires a change! Failing “from the usual malady of such projects in the church” is an editorial aside – it could be specified and explained more lucidly or else omitted. Funding was indeed an uphill battle without a significant financial infrastructure of churches, alumni, and donors in place, and the efforts to sustain such an institution are daunting, even today! (Nothing is said to indicate that.) That “Nashota House” is a seminary, (its name doesn’t suggest that automatically to those who wouldn’t know) and that it has trained generations of clergy even to the present day, seems worth mentioning. (I don’t know from personal knowledge its other contributions.) I believe “beauty in ritual and worship” is intended as a reference to a specific high church style of church décor and conduct of liturgy. There is also beauty in the restrained devotional purity of a well appointed low church aesthetic. I wish our narrative didn’t sound like there are two Episcopal ritual and worship styles, “beautiful” and “not-beautiful.”
    Paragraph 4 is totally acceptable to me, although I expect some comments may address terminology. Part of the Oneida Nation relocated to Wisconsin while another part remained in New York State. I expect the Oneida, whose service Kemper so appreciatively characterized, were those residing in his own diocese. RW Albright, “A History of the Protestant Episcopal Church” claims, “he often referred to himself as the ‘Bishop of All Outdoors’” (p. 225). (I like that better than “the Whole Northwest” – especially since he travelled far beyond north or west!)
    COLLECT: This is an important collect. “Lord God” is a little generic, but perhaps is appropriate for such an apostolic personage. The Precis is accurate (I doubt people will think of Wisconsin and surrounding states at the mention of “the West” but they’ll hear the locale mentioned in the narrative.) The Petition says what it needs to say for this commemoration: that the church may “be faithful to its mission.” The second petition (“and have the vision, courage, and perseverence, etc.”) is, in effect, a “so that” clause. I prefer we say it as a “so that” rather than a “wish list” – lest we give them impression our collects are a visit to Santa, but I can’t expect everything. Its substance is good.) With those minor considerations, I like this collect. Thank you!
    READINGS: Psalm is very good (it could end two verses sooner, but I guess the earth’s bountiful yield represents the church’s growth in this usage. Use as is.) The Exodus reading is so-so. “The Wilderness” has some traction in the commemoration; the water doesn’t resonate strongly unless you take it as an admonition to trust in God and make do with what you get. That’s not greatly inspirtional. (On the other hand, I always enjoy hearing about Moses’ vestry getting on his back.) Too bad we don’t have a commemoration for Lewis and Clark — this would be a good OT lesson for them.
    The 1 Corinthians selection is EXCELLENT! It raises a question, however, about how we focus on missionary work and church planting: we focus on the individual leader, as if nobody else were part of the story – no lay people, no clergy, no lay leaders, no people in the pews, no receptivity to God on anyone’s part, just an outstanding builder of churches, single-handed, alone in the limelight. Something is wrong with this framing. I don’t say that to take away from Bishop Kemper – I wouldn’t want that to happen — but we should somehow express the thought that an apostle is not much of an apostle unless someone receives the message, and the effort is for the sake of those who hear the word, believe, and whose lives and communities are changed by their response in faith!
    The gospel selection is perfect.
    PROPER PREFACE: We almost can’t go wrong with a Proper Preface, but in this case I don’t see that for “Pentecost” as the ideal one. All Saints, and Apostles/Ordinations each has something appropriate. I append the three for consideration. All Saints acknowledges the commemoration is not just about a “one man show.” Apostles and Ordinations focuses on Jesus as the Father’s “apostle,” and the church’s apostles (bishops) serving as a “crystallizing” presence for the whole People of God. The prescribed Pentecost preface isn’t wrong, but is more a background assumption in the Kemper story.
    Preface of Pentecost
    Through Jesus Christ our Lord. In fulfillment of his true promise, the Holy Spirit came down [on this day] from heaven, lighting upon the disciples, to teach them and to lead them into all truth; uniting peoples of many tongues in the confession of one faith, and giving to your Church the power to serve you as a royal priesthood, and to preach the Gospel to all nations.
    All Saints
    For in the multitude of your saints you have surrounded us with a great cloud of witnesses, that we might rejoice in their fellowship, and run with endurance the race that is set before us; and, together with them, receive the crown of glory that never fades away.
    Apostles and Ordinations
    Through the great shepherd of your flock, Jesus Christ our Lord; who after his resurrection sent forth his apostles to preach the Gospel and to teach all nations; and promised to be with them always, even to the end of the ages.

  4. This commemoration is already included in the Calendar. The Hebrew Scripture reading is new.

  5. New Hebrew Reading: What is the connection of this reading to Bishop Kemper? Have I missed it?

    Bio: He needs a statement regarding his death in 1870 and burial place.

  6. Last line, fourth paragraph: add “, as a supporter of the Oxford Movement” after “worship”. (Alternatively, ‘as a leader of the “High Church” movement’.)

    Line 1, fifth paragraph: substitute “native Americans” for “Indians”.

    Line 2, fifth paragraph: substitute “liturgies” (or “worship materials”) for “services”.

    Line 3, fifth paragraph: substitute “the Oneida” for “Oneida Indians”.

    Line 1, sixth paragraph: add “on May 24, 1870, at Nashotah” after “death”.

  7. The third paragraph of the bio is a mess.

    The comparison between well-to-do eastern homes and midwestern weather doesn’t make sense. I’m not sure the weather was the primary difficulty that Kemper or any other missionaries faced, and the raising up of local people for ministry has always been one of the first things effective missionaries think about, regardless of the culture they left behind. I think the mention of both well-to-do homes and the weather just distracts us from the point.

    I find the mention of so many different colleges and institutions, some of which survived and some of which didn’t, and some of which others who have their own commemorations were also involved in, confusing. The bio should stress what Kemper did that lasted, and there seems to be plenty of that which can fill the space freed by elimination of stuff that’s beside the point.

    Mention of Kemper’s ‘devotion to beauty in ritual and worship’ is also distracting for some. The thrust of the bio is his missionary work, and even those of us who don’t find high church practices beautiful can applaud that.

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