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Bishop Straight Tongue

When we think today of the Episcopal Church and its contributions to the shared life and history of American Christians, one thinks most readily, perhaps, of the unrivalled linguistic beauty of the traditional Book of Common Prayer or its built-heritage of many of the most aesthetically beautiful churches in the United States. Those contributions are easy enough to see and acknowledge. One does not likely think of great evangelists and missionaries. Yet there was a time, in the 19th century, when the Episcopal Church veritably teemed with them.

Most venerable among them all, perhaps, was Henry Benjamin Whipple – first Episcopal bishop of Minnesota, evangelist and defender of the Minnesota Indians, and the man who bent the ear of America’s greatest president to stop a mass execution.

Whipple was born in 1822 in Adams, New York to a well-to-do family whose heritage included 16 officers in the Revolutionary army. His great uncle William Whipple had signed the Declaration of Independence, and another great uncle, Daniel Webster, was a senator and served on the cabinets of three presidents. Whipple demonstrated early a natural charisma; it was assumed that he was meant for a political career. Instead he entered the Episcopal ministry at 27. He was rector of Zion Church in Rome, New York, before leaving to plant a new church in the impoverished south side of Chicago.

The Church of the Holy Communion was the first free church in Chicago (meaning it did not charge pew rents). Whipple gained a reputation for his outreach to railway workers and other neglected groups of the inner city. His time in Chicago ended in 1859 with his election as bishop of the newly formed diocese of Minnesota, a post he held for the next 42 years.

As bishop, he grew the diocese from six churches and a handful of missions to 54 parishes, and made yearly circuits of the state by wagon and horseback, often in midwinter. He preached in cabins, town halls, schools, saloons, and outdoors. In the early years of his service, when funds were especially scarce, he supported mission parishes and priests from his own means. He established schools for rural children and incorporated a seminary to train priests for service in the West.

Whipple’s greatest legacy, however, lies with his work among the Native American tribes of Minnesota. Through regular visitation of Dakota and Sioux villages during his episcopal travels, he became concerned and angered over their mistreatment by the American government.

WHe learned Dakota to preach to them in their own language, and often provided basic medical and dental care when visiting remote villages. He lobbied Washington relentlessly for reform of the Bureau of Indian Affairs, and was never shy about leveraging his family’s political connections to this effect. For his advocacy on their behalf and his honesty in dealing with them, the Dakota nicknamed Whipple “Straight Tongue.”

His most remarkable intervention occurred in 1862, when he interceded for 303 Dakota warriors sentenced to hang for their involvement in a bitter conflict that came to be known as the Dakota War. A series of particularly bad governmental dealings had left the Dakota deeply indebted and without access to food, and tensions escalated until the Dakota began attacking white settlements. Federal troops put down the uprising, but not before over 800 settlers had been killed. Afterward, 303 captured Dakota were to be hanged in punishment.

Horrified by the attacks, Whipple organized a hospital near the fighting and arranged housing for fleeing families. But he also understood that the false faith and dishonesty of the government agents had sparked the violence. He traveled to Washington and met with Abraham Lincoln to try and stop the mass execution. He documented the government abuses that led to the fighting, and argued that while justice demanded the leaders who had initiated the fighting be punished, the president should extend clemency to the majority of the other warriors. Hanging them all would only further lead to greater violence. Lincoln later told a friend that Whipple’s message “had shaken him to his boots.”

Lincoln decided to review all 303 cases individually, and granted clemency to 265 Dakota. The remaining 38, including those involved in the first attacks and those whom evidence condemned of rape, were hanged on December 26, 1862. It remains the largest mass execution in U.S. history.

We do Whipple a disservice and skew his legacy, though, if we see him only as an advocate for social reform and justice. Whipple was no proto-Social Justice Warrior; he was a bishop with a true evangelistic spirit. His labor for the Indians of Minnesota was not an end in itself for him, but arose from a commitment to the Gospel and a desire to see that Gospel embraced by the Dakota and other tribes. In a sermon delivered to the clergy of Minnesota one sees his heart:

You know how sad the record of our border is. The work for these [Indians] is made more difficult by the shameless wickedness of our own white race and by the robbery and wrongs of our Christian nation, whose broken faith calls for the vengeance of Almighty God…[But] it is God’s work. They are men for whom Christ died. There is no precedence at the Cross. They are dying men, and though the whole world oppose us we must preach to them the everlasting gospel…

We have only one message for dying, sinful men. It is salvation alone by Jesus Christ. We must preach Christ: Christ crucified, Christ risen, Christ ascended, Christ the Mediator, and Christ the Judge…We must speak as dying men to dying men, and tell other weary men of Christ, who has been to us a Refuge and a Saviour. (The Work of a Missionary Church: A Charge Delivered to the Clergy of the Diocese of Minnesota, June 11, 1862)

Whipple also deserves admiration for his broad ecumenical spirit. During the second half of the 19th century, the Episcopal Church was wracked by infighting among various church “parties,” as evangelicals, high churchmen, and Anglo-Catholics sought control of the church. It was common practice for bishops to prohibit parishes calling a rector whose church party the bishop disagreed with. Whipple was himself an Anglo-Catholic but he was not interested in hardening party lines, writing, “I will welcome to my diocese any man who comes simply to preach Jesus Christ, and is loyal to His Church. A party man who lives to impugn the motives of brethren — whatever his school, high or low, I cannot countenance.”

This same broadness of character was also manifested in Whipple’s dealings with Christians outside the Episcopal Church. Though inter-denominational cooperation was more the mark of evangelicals and typically avoided by Anglo-Catholics, Whipple worked freely and frequently with other Christians. He commended the Baptists William Carey and David Livingstone as fellow workers and worked closely with Moravians in both Chicago and Minnesota. “[One] cannot build for God by tearing down any Christian work,” he wrote.

When Whipple died in 1901 all commerce in Minnesota ceased on the day of his funeral out of respect for what he had meant to the state. As one fellow cleric said of him, “He was not merely the bishop of the Episcopal Church in Minnesota; he was bishop of the State of Minnesota.”

An edited version of a lecture presented at the Hall of Men in Wichita, KS on Aug. 24, 2017.


Jay Mullinix lives with his wife and three children in Wichita, Kansas, where they attend St. George Orthodox Cathedral. He works in the insurance industry as a property claims adjuster.



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