Reinventing Mission: The Diocese of Virginia, 1865-1970

By Bond, Edward L.; Gundersen, Joan R. | The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography, April 1, 2007 | Go to article overview

Reinventing Mission: The Diocese of Virginia, 1865-1970


Bond, Edward L., Gundersen, Joan R., The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography


Through the first two and a half centuries of its existence, the Episcopal Church in Virginia had been a missionary enterprise. After the Civil War, that missionary identity helped it adapt to rapidly changing conditions, thus keeping what could have been a rigidly conservative institution flexible as the diocese mixed the old and the new in a successful formula for growth. At times its expansion was seven times greater than that of the Episcopal Church overall.1 The growth meant that the diocese was always short of financial resources and always with a reach seemingly beyond its means. Key to this was the conviction that missionary work could be done at home as well as abroad. The church served a vast territory: what was the Diocese of Virginia in 1865 would be home to four Episcopal dioceses a half century later. Between 1865 and 1970, growth occurred despite many challenges. During an era that began with the stillvisible ravages of a civil war and ended with a social revolution, the diocese dealt with a potential schism, urbanization, changing racial and gender understandings, severe economic depression, and two world wars and several smaller conflicts. The diocese constantly reinvented its programs as conditions changed.

One of the first things that Bishop John Johns needed to do after the Civil War was to get some help. The diocese covered what was now two states: Virginia and West Virginia. Parishes needed a yearly visit from a bishop to provide the rite of confirmation. With more than two decades of experience as bishop, Johns knew that it would be impossible for him to do it alone. He had shared the visitation load with Bishop William Meade before the war, and both men had spent more than half of each year on the road, visiting two and three parishes a day. It was a grueling routine for the seventy-oneyear-old Johns. Thus in 1867 the diocese elected Virginia-born Francis M. Whittle to be assistant bishop. A graduate of the Episcopal High School and Virginia Theological Seminary in Alexandria, Whittle had been ordained in 1847. At the time of his election, he was serving a parish in Kentucky. Bishop Johns had been a strong supporter of the Confederacy and the Confederate Episcopal Church.2 Bishop Whittle, although sympathetic to the Confederacy, had spent the war years in a state that had not seceded. Whittle had served as a deputy to the 1862 General Convention of the Episcopal Church where he opposed efforts to punish those, like Johns, who had seceded. Once consecrated in 1868, Whittle immediately began relieving Bishop Johns of some of the travel duties. In 1876 when Bishop Johns died, Whittle assumed leadership of the diocese, and despite being incapacitated by illness for much of his last decade, he remained firmly in control until his death in 1902.3

In Whittle, Bishop Johns had found another evangelical passionately committed to the low church cause in its struggle against such ritualist practices as replacing communion tables with altars, adding altar flowers and crosses, and incorporating processions and choirs wearing vestments. The low church group felt increasingly threatened and went on the offensive by renewing the battle over the role of sacraments in salvation, especially the wording of the baptismal service. In 1872 at the Virginia council (which was the name given after the Civil War to the annual diocesan meeting, formerly called the Virginia convention), Bishop Johns expressed hope for a compromise. He told the Virginia council that though many had predicted the 1871 General Convention would "be the last assemblage of the Protestant Episcopal Church in the United States," rather than succumb to the "inevitable" division, the church had found a way to accommodate those upset by the wording of the baptismal service. Rather than legislate against ritualistic practices, the convention agreed that each bishop could interpret the instructions (rubrics) in the Book of Common Prayer as seemed appropriate. …

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