Review by John D. Alexander
The name of Oliver Sherman Prescott has long been familiar to students of the Ritualist Movement in 19th-century American Anglo-Catholicism. Until now, however, Prescott has appeared only as a supporting character in studies of other figures and events, such as those surrounding the short-lived Order of the Holy Cross established by Bishop Levi S. Ives in North Carolina in 1847, the Society of St. John the Evangelist (SSJE) founded at Cowley in Oxford by Richard Meux Benson in 1866, and the controversies at St. Clement’s Church, Philadelphia, where Prescott was rector from 1876 to 1881. Prescott plays a key role in the biography of his younger contemporary, Charles Chapman Grafton, Bishop of Fond du Lac from 1888 to 1912, with whom he shared a lifelong but sometimes troubled friendship. It is high time that we had a published biography of Prescott; Canon Zimmerman’s meticulously researched study fulfills this need admirably.
An Embattled Priest: The Life of Father Oliver Sherman Prescott 1824-1903
By Jervis S. Zimmerman. AuthorHouse. Pp. 152. $27.99, $16.95 (paper), $3.99 (ebook)
Zimmerman paints a compelling portrait of a hard-working but combative parish priest, quick to take offense, and often at the storm center of controversy. Prescott was subjected to four successive heresy trials in Massachusetts between 1850 and 1852. Again, he was put on trial in Pennsylvania for his ritual practices at St. Clement’s in 1880. At the same time, his relations with Fr. Benson, superior of the SSJE, deteriorated; Benson secured Prescott’s resignation from St. Clement’s in 1880 and released him from his life vows in 1882. Prescott served a variety of parishes in his 53 years of ordained ministry, but often stayed no more than two or three years in one place. His longest tenure was as rector of the African-American parish of St. Luke in New Haven, where he served seven years until his retirement in 1900.
Always professing his loyalty to the Episcopal Church, in times of controversy Prescott also insisted on his rights according to the canons. At least twice he resigned as rector because of what he saw as vestry violations of his canonical prerogatives. When bishops tried to suppress his ritual practices, he argued that such practices were nowhere forbidden by the church’s formularies and that his duty was to defend his parish’s rights against infringement by low-church bishops, who tended to argue that what was not explicitly authorized was forbidden. In other words, Prescott consistently resisted rule by the personal whim of those in positions of ecclesiastical authority. Tellingly, his fundamental disagreement with Benson arose from the latter’s refusal to provide a written constitution for the SSJE despite earlier promises to do so.
Zimmerman’s book fills in missing pieces in the story of Prescott’s relations with Charles Chapman Grafton. Despite a friendship of more than 35 years, in 1888 Prescott — then canonically resident in the Diocese of Fond du Lac — opposed Grafton’s election there as bishop. In his autobiography, Grafton mentions this opposition to his election by a priest who had been a lifelong friend as a cause of considerable pain, but it was never clear why Prescott adopted this stance. Zimmerman shows that Prescott believed Grafton was betraying his earlier commitment to start an American men’s religious order to continue and expand their previous work together as members of the SSJE. At the time, Prescott saw Grafton’s consecration as marking a final parting of ways between them, although in later years they seem to have renewed their friendship.
Although generally well written, Zimmerman’s book would have benefited from more stringent editing to eliminate certain stylistic infelicities. For example, he refers to Prescott’s ordination to the deaconate where diaconate would be the preferred spelling. But that is a minor complaint. To read Prescott’s life is to experience the history of 19th-century American Anglo-Catholicism from the vantage point of a dedicated if somewhat volatile parish priest in the thick of the controversies of his time. Zimmerman has performed a great service in making Prescott’s story available to us.
The Rev. John D. Alexander is rector of S. Stephen’s Church, Providence.