Bishop Whipple Takes Heart


In his first charge after becoming a pastor, Henry Benjamin Whipple, who would become Bishop of Minnesota in the state's earliest years, got a note from a distressed woman who asked him to please come and visit her dying husband.

Whipple did. It was, he writes in his memoir Lights and Shadows of a Long Episcopate, one of the coldest nights of midwinter, and to get to that home took some time on horseback. The year was 1850. The place--Rome, New York.

"I am a great sinner," this very sick man told Whipple when he arrived. "Will you help me?"

The young pastor claims he did his pastoral best, and the dying man was much relieved, even begged him to return. 

And so he did, just two days later. This time, however, the man had recovered somewhat from near death and went after him like a snake. "You are what they call Episcopal," he said. "You pray out of a book. You don't let other ministers preach in your pulpit" and then proceeded to repeat, Whipple says, "every stale objection against the [Episcopal] Church."

When he'd visited two days earlier, he says he hadn't told the man he was Episcopalian or even that he was a preacher. "I tried to lead you to the Lamb of God, and I told you of His love in asking you to believe and be baptized."

No matter. Whipple was excused forthwith and sent on his way.

"Forty years ago Christians were not as ready to see the image of Christ in those from whom they differed as now," Whipple says right about there in his imminently readable memoir. I couldn't help smiling. The old Bishop is looking back at the way things were and telling himself that Christians are not nearly so divided as he remembered them to have been. Things are better now, or so he believes, because those who worship the risen Christ are more accepting of each other's differences.

A warm and delightful thought, quite stunning, I think. And Whipple is remembering all of this as he writes at the end of the 19th century, just about 120 years ago.

Henry Benjamin Whipple went on to become Bishop of Minnesota and to plead, famously, to President Abraham Lincoln himself, for the lives of the 300+ Dakota warriors sentenced to hang after the Dakota War. When he visited the President, Whipple unsparingly laid out the real scenario which led to the Dakota War. Lincoln later said he felt the urgency of Whipple's visit "down to his boots." Most Minnesota white folks hated him. His colleagues thought him a fanatic. 

If, in his life, he was devoted to anything in addition to his faith in the saving work of Jesus Christ, he was bound and determined to build bridges between believers. I suppose it was in his DNA to be hopeful, to wish for better, and to take heart from moments when people of a shared faith could sing and pray together.

But the line haunts me: "Forty years ago Christians were not as ready to see the image of Christ in those from whom they differed as now," because I'm as old as he was when he wrote those words, and I just don't know that I could say the same thing.

For certain, in my own faith community, things have changed immensely. Denominationalism is fading, a tired and tattered remnant, perhaps of America's European and ethnic past. The Dutch theologian most read by CRC members in the last two decades may well be Henri Nouwen, the Roman Catholic priest. Nationally, the churches that lead in growth, the mega-churches, are often non-denominational; and the church in town where the action is--or so it seems--likes to think of itself as minimally affiliated with any one other than itself. We seem less fractured.

And yet, Christian believers face off against each other in an acrimonious debate that stymies legislative action in this country. It's difficult to imagine believers any more deeply split. I'm not sure either side is fully ready to "see the image of Christ" in those with whom they differ, politically, so sharply.

A century ago, Whipple thought things were improving.  Maybe. 

Maybe not.

On his first trip up into the lakes region of the territory of Minnesota, he was accompanied by a Chippewa (Ojibwa) guide named Shaganash, who found himself, as one can only imagine, the target of a ton of preaching and asked, Whipple says, "many thoughtful questions," including this one:  "Why are there so many religions among white men and only one Book?"

That too is a thoughtful question.

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Great post James! Thanks! Indeed we do not have a very good answer to that question that was asked so long ago.


Thanks, Ron--and blessings on a new school year!

Great post, James! But you left me hanging with the Lincoln encounter: were those 300+ souls spared? 

As to your main point, sadly I am disturbed along with you about the state of Christian unity nowadays--especially unity of the deep sort you and Whipple describe, in which we can see Christ in our disagreeing siblings. A major factor is the non-denominational denominations, which seem to splinter and balkanize the church more than ever. So many, whether mega or mini, seem to become a law unto themselves, and the megachurches that jump on the permanent multisite bandwagon have effectively formed mini-denominations and thus they exacerbate the problem of vulgar, proprietary denominationalism.


Lincoln mandated that only 39 of the 300+ were guilty and sentenced to hang for their parts in what happened.  Thirty-eight were hung in Mankato, MN, on December 26, 1862, the largest mass hanging in American history.  

Interesting theory on mega-churches.  Personally, I've never really understood the dramatic attraction they have for so many believers, but they continue to grow and multiply and dislodge the kind of broader community that denominations once created, for better or for worse.  Thanks for your very perceptive thoughts.

Coming from a background where my siblings and children are members of churches from eight different denominations, ranging from protestant reformed to baptist and pentecostal (but no anglicans nor rom cath), I have often asked myself what is God's purpose with regard to so many denominations or churches who all want to serve and worship the same Lord and Saviour.   I'm not sure I have a very good answer, except maybe this, that personalities and personal quirks sometimes cause problems in one church situation, and another church situation can allow a method of worship and service that is more tempered to an individual at that time.  Various disputable theologies and practices also play a role; we see changes sometimes in one denomination, but they happen too quickly or too slowly for some, or no change is desired.  Sometimes history of experiences, or separation of family relationships, combined with  a different worship environment, make old scriptural passages and applications take on a new life and vigour. 

Underlying all of this, however, is the common purpose and unity that can exist between Christians in different churches and denominations.   While differences are real, so is the unity also real.   Sometimes there is greater unity between christians in different denominations or churches, than there is within one particular church.   This might be because the focus changes to what unites, rather than to what separates, especially when churches want to work together.   

This realization has also ocurred to me, that some churches have great theology, but members don't practice it, while other churches have sloppy or incomplete theology on paper, but members practice a great theology in daily life. 

The different churches also allow some people to discover the essentials of the walk of faith, since they must separate their walk of faith from mere tradition, into a conscious discovery of God's will for their/our lives on a day to day basis with people who do not take their particular traditions for granted.  This will bring them back to scripture and God's will on a deeper basis than they have ever perhaps done before. 



Thanks for the very helpful thoughts.  I've never known quite what to do with the story of Babel because while God's dispersing people into different groups can be seen as punishment for human pride and aspiration, what happened there also created individual differences, both in human beings and in groups of human beings.  Those differences are wonderful.  Here in Sioux County, Iowa, the county with the highest percentage of Dutch-Americans in the entire country, we're blessed by our brand new Hispanic neighbors.  Good night, we eat a ton better these days--at least our foods are spicier.  Differences in worship style and substance are not an abomination; now two of us are exactly alike, right?  

And that's good.

The comment made by the Chippewa man is wonderful, not because it condemns Christians but because it illustrates how difficult it must have been for Native people to understand what on earth was going on when white Presbyterians fought with white Episcopalians and white Roman Catholics, etc., etc., especially snce they saw all white missionaries as emissaries from a culture that threatened their own way of life.

As your example of the tower of babel illustrates, God uses divisions and separations for his own good purposes.   Maybe this is also true within the church, not that we should be looking for divisions and contentions since scripture clearly indicates against that, but...

Last weekend, I heard an aboriginal Dene talk about his faith experiences.   He had been a Rom Cath, somewhat nominal apparently, who embraced alcohol and eventually ended up in jail.   But at one point he was given a bible by a Rom Cath priest, and began to read it.  Then he became a Christian, receiving his "prayer" in the Pentecostal church.  He has been a Christian for about 30 years (is now about 60yrs old), has left alcohol behind, and had a sister who became a Christian after 18 years of evangelism by him.  He talks/preaches in churches of various denominations, and often feels rejected by his aboriginal relatives and friends, but perseveres.   He knows his bible very, very well, having memorized some epistles completely. 

I guess my point in this example, is that even though he is no longer a Rom Catholic because he wants to follow scripture and not follow a hierarchy nor a human tradition, he still acknowledges that God worked through that priest in order to bring scripture to him.   That is where we ought also to have the humility to admit that God works thru means and ways that are sometimes beyond our categorizations, even though we ought to do the best we can to understand good theology and good practice in our walk of faith.   I believe that sometimes the struggles themselves are exactly the means that God uses for his good purposes. 

The tower of Babel was a sign of pride, but also of disobedience, since people were commanded to fill and replenish the earth, not hole up in some small corner to preserve their comfort...   so God made them move and disperse by other means.   It reminds me of the phrase, "every knee shall bow" to Christ;  we will either acknowledge him in this life willingly, or we will be forced to acknowledge God in the next life, unwillingly.  


"God works thru means and ways that are sometimes beyond our categorizations, even though we ought to do the best we can to understand good theology and good practice in our walk of faith."

Nicely said and unmistakably true.  Sometimes he takes our best works, filthy rags, and creates a divine quilt anyway, thank goodness.