Assessing John Henry Hobart’s Evolving Vision

John Henry Hobart, third Bishop of New York

We the People

By R. William Franklin

In the 15 years after the War of 1812, the population in the region between Utica and Buffalo, New York, increased 150 percent. The Second Great Awakening’s revivalist preaching made tens of thousands of converts. Noting the work of Pentecostal fire, observers called the region “the Burned-Over District.”

New York’s third Episcopal bishop, John Henry Hobart, was also at work, traveling by horse, stagecoach, and canalboat to make his case for “evangelical truth and apostolic order.” Hobart had the energy of 10 men; horses dropped under his exertions. He died in September 1830, at only 54, in Auburn, along the same route he had taken while tending to two projects he considered most important to his role as bishop: the conversion of the Oneida people and the founding of a college, which now bears his name.

Hobart’s ideals and values established him as the most important leader of the 19th-century Episcopal Church. He was committed to an Anglicanism founded on the republican principles he traced in the American Revolution and the primitive Christian Church. He saw bishops as part of an apostolic succession, while also advocating a church governed not by a monarch but “the people,” with bishops elected by the clergy and laity.

Marking the 200th anniversary of Hobart College, we can see that its namesake struggled to realize some of his values. There were contradictions between his “We the People” credo and his aversion to the Church’s participation in secular politics, which steered him away from early crusades against slavery and toward complicity in the forced relocation of Native Americans.

A New Church for a New Nation

John Henry Hobart was born in Philadelphia in 1775, the son of a ship’s captain of New England Puritan stock, like many of the white settlers who would populate western New York. The Hobarts were members of Christ Church in Philadelphia, the largest Anglican church in the Colonies, whose rector, William White, became the first Bishop of Pennsylvania and then the presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church. White baptized, confirmed, and ordained Hobart, and was his primary teacher and mentor.

But for Bishop White, Anglicanism could have easily disappeared in America. Before the American Revolution, the Anglican churches in the Colonies were part of the Church of England, an established state church, which during the Revolution became the church of the enemy. By the end of the war, there were fewer than 10,000 Episcopalians in America. Anglicanism survived because William White laid out the intellectual and structural foundation of a new Protestant Episcopal Church. He was its George Washington and its St. Peter.

In his short pamphlet, “The Case of the Protestant Episcopal Church Considered,” published while the war with Britain still raged, White proposed a church based not upon the sovereignty of a monarch but upon the sovereignty of the people. His theory of church government allowed Anglicanism to survive in a republic, with the people having a crucial role in electing bishops as well as deputies to a General Convention, which would have ultimate authority over the church.

If White was the St. Peter of this new church, Hobart was its St. Paul. He faced a daunting task. The social and political upheaval of war with Britain — first the Revolution, then the War of 1812 — put the new Episcopal Church at a great disadvantage. It was clearly overshadowed by a multi-denominational evangelical movement, which had become America’s dominant form of Christianity.

Evangelicals emphasized the necessity of a conversion experience, a forceful and singular encounter with divine grace. Evangelical denominations also encouraged political engagement, especially in curtailing public amusements and the sale of alcoholic beverages, as well as  the abolition of chattel slavery.

Hobart’s primary response to evangelicalism was church planting. He quadrupled the number of Episcopal clergy in New York, and confirmed 15,000 new Episcopalians. For 19 extraordinary years, he advanced a vision of church that allowed more freedom to its members — freedom from an elaborate confessional creed and a strict code of behavior; freedom from the pressure to show evidence of a conversion experience; freedom to exercise reason and include scientific insights in religious and moral decisions. In his best-known work, An Apology for Apostolic Order and Its Advocates (1807), Hobart unveiled the motto of his High Church movement: “My banner is Evangelical Truth and Apostolic Order.”

Bishop Hobart’s monument, Trinity Wall Street | Silver gelatine print, 1896 | The American Architect and Building News

Missions to the West

With the construction of the Erie Canal, Hobart turned his attention to the western region of the state, both its Native American and transplanted New England populations. In October 1818, just four years after his consecration, he visited the Oneida tribes and invited their chiefs, with their people, to join the Episcopal Church. He commissioned a translation of the Book of Common Prayer into the Oneida language and consecrated St. Peter’s Church at the settlement called Oneida Castle. On that occasion he confirmed 89 Oneidas and licensed Eleazar Williams, an Oneida candidate for holy orders, as a lay reader and catechist to officiate in the native language.

During Hobart’s missions to the Oneidas in 1818, he visited Geneva, which he believed would be a strategic location for influencing the whole of western New York. The village was home to an academy, founded in 1798, which Hobart ventured to expand into a college — one that, with Episcopalians on its board, would be friendly toward the church.

Geneva College, renamed Hobart College in the 1850s, was seen as part of the church’s mission to the West. But unlike the other Episcopal college in the state, Columbia College in Manhattan, Geneva was not to be under the control of the Episcopal Church. The new college was not to exclude any student on account of religious tenets, and Episcopal students were not to enjoy any privileges. Hobart’s intent was not to expose undergraduates to any intense Episcopal indoctrination, but rather to shield young people from the narrowing influence of evangelicalism. Ultimately, Hobart’s vision for the college was to educate future leaders of the West — farmers, merchants, manufacturers, mechanics, lawyers, physicians, and politicians.

Contradictions and Evolutions

Despite the relatively progressive vision he had for Geneva College, Hobart’s High Church movement eschewed secular politics. His ecclesial approach was modeled on the tiny communities of the Church’s first four centuries. The Church, he believed, should be truly catholic, universal in its aims and missions. But it should avoid the Church of England’s mistake of engaging too deeply in worldly issues. While debates over slavery split the Presbyterians, the Methodists, and the Baptists into separate denominations, Hobart avoided public discussion of the subject entirely.

To avoid potential divisions over race, he privately prepared for holy orders Peter Williams, a Black lay reader, rather than encouraging his study at General Theological Seminary. In 1814, Hobart helped secure a grant from Trinity Church to found St. Philip’s, in lower Manhattan, the first Black Episcopal church in the state. Five years later, he consecrated St. Philip’s, though he wouldn’t permit the parish’s clergy or members to attend diocesan conventions. In 1826, Hobart ordained Williams as New York’s first Black priest, and allowed him to join the American Anti-Slavery Society. After a mob ransacked St. Philip’s in 1834, however, Hobart’s successor forced Williams to resign from the society.

Although Hobart made strenuous efforts to include Indigenous tribes in the Church, he cooperated in their relocation from New York to Wisconsin. The Church of the Holy Apostles in Oneida, Wisconsin, where they ultimately settled, was dedicated in Hobart’s memory. A 2019 history of the Wisconsin Oneidas and the Episcopal Church, however, notes that Eleazar Williams, the deacon Hobart had assigned to the church, played a key role in advancing this destructive move, “ignoring the Oneidas’ best interests and collaborating with land speculators and the government for his own self-aggrandizement.”

Though flawed and unevenly applied, the Hobartian commitment to all people can be seen in the trajectory of the church and of the college he founded. By the mid-1830s, Geneva College had matriculated its first Native student, Abraham La Fort, and its first Black student, Isaiah De Grasse. In 1844, Peter Wilson, a member of the Cayuga Nation, became the first Native American to graduate from Geneva Medical College, and in 1849 Elizabeth Blackwell became the first woman in America to receive a medical degree. The founding of William Smith opened Hobart College’s faculty, facilities, and administration to women (though the classes were separated by sex).

Considering this trajectory, it is fitting that Presiding Bishop Michael B. Curry is a 1975 graduate of Hobart College. Listen closely and you can hear a fuller embodiment of John Henry Hobart’s vision of “We the People” in Bishop Curry’s vision, which envisions “individuals, small gathered communities, and congregations whose way of life is the way of Jesus and his way of love, no longer centered on empire and establishment, no longer fixated on preserving institutions, no longer shoring up white supremacy or anything else that hurts or harms any child of God.”

The Rt. Rev. R. William Franklin is the 11th Bishop of Western New York (resigned), assisting bishop in the Diocese of Long Island, and a faculty member of Episcopal Divinity School at Union Theological Seminary. He thanks Judy Stark and Denise Fillion for their input on this article. A version of this article appeared in the bicentennial edition of Hobart College’s The Pulteney Street Survey.


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