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Anglicans Online last updated 19 November 2017
for Anglicans Online
Even in a century when now-forgotten missionary bishops of note and lasting influence sprang up throughout the Anglican world like crocuses on a Connecticut lawn, Henry Benjamin Whipple (1822-1901) stands out for his lasting importance and relative obscurity today. Whipple served parishes in New York, Florida and Chicago before accepting election as first Bishop of Minnesota in 1859. He built the first cathedral in the Episcopal Church USA, worked tirelessly for church extension during the 41 years of his episcopate, and distinguished himself in his careful determination to secure fair treatment for the rights of Native Americans on the American frontier. Whipple's legacy of influence on Dakota and Ojibwe life continues to be controversial. Yet his ordination of the first Native American Episcopal priest—John Johnson Enmegabowh (1807-1902)—and his large body of letters to elected officials in protest against poor treatment of Indians are clear indications of his close involvement with and concern for the lives of the first inhabitants of his diocese. Many of the institutions he founded continue to flourish, among them Shattuck-St. Mary's School and, in a later incarnation, Seabury-Western Divinity School. Yet Whipple's 1899 autobiography, Lights and Shadows of a Long Episcopate, remains today the primary source for readers interested in his life and work. The only sizable later biography is Philip Osgood's brief Straight Tongue (1958).
In Andrew S. Brake's promisingly-titled Man in the Middle, readers encounter Whipple primarily in the context of his efforts at reforming the American government's Indian policy. The first three chapters provide a biographical sketch, a helpful and interesting survey of Whipple's theology and ecclesiology, and a look at his experiences in connection with the Civil War. The next three chapters—'The Dakota Crisis in Minnesota and Henry Whipple's Role in the Defense and Judgment of the Indians', 'Cultural Genocide or Survival: Henry Whipple's Work to Defend Minnesota Indian Livelihood' and 'Legacy of Reform'—survey the bishop's work in much the same vein as a 1901 lecture by General John Sanborn, with the difference today being that Brake defends Whipple against charges of cultural imperialism and genocide levelled since the 1970s by Sue Elizabeth Holbert, Martin Zanger and George Tinker. Brake counters their criticisms by acknowledging that Whipple was an assimilationist, but he asserts that Native American converts to Anglicanism in frontier Minnesota had the intellectual capacity and skill at cultural navigation 'to know when they wanted to convert and what exactly they were doing'. In the broader context of social reform, Brake finds Whipple to be an overlooked voice on the intellectual interpretation of the Civil War, 'the responsibility of the wealthy toward the poor, [on] major church issues such as unification and ecclesiology, and the responsibility of the church toward society.' In these connections, Brake breaks interesting new ground, but he does not situate Whipple's social ideas within the context of his liminal place between Tractarianism and old High Churchmanship—a border straddled notably in the United States by contemporaries like James Lloyd Breck, Jackson Kemper, George Washington Doane and Arthur Cleveland Coxe.
The closing paragraph's prose is characteristic of the book as a whole, and it illuminates the lens through which Brake has read and interpreted Whipple:
While Man in the Middle is remarkable for its serious examination of Whipple's life and importance in nineteenth-century Anglican and American history, and for the author's deep mining of archival material, the book suffers from a general unfamiliarity with church terminology and some of the wider context in which to situate Anglican missionary contacts with indigenous peoples in North America. There is no reference to the magisterial scholarship of Owanah Anderson on Episcopal Church work among American Indians, or to missionary work by the CMS and SPG in what is now Canada, much of which was also conducted among the Ojibwe and Dakota tribes covered in this volume. On the level of biography, we never read that Whipple was invited to become Bishop of Honolulu at a time when critical choices were made with regard to that diocese's indigenous Hawai'ians and their relation to Anglo-American churches, governments and cultures. Brake refers to individuals and to Whipple himself as "an Episcopal," and to the "Archbishop of Cantebury, Rev. Dr. Longley." (In references to clergymen, Brake always uses "Rev. Gear," where "the Reverend Ezekiel Gear" or just "Gear" would be more appropriate, etc.) Run-on sentences, subject-verb disagreement and irregular capitalisation seriously mar the book's readability, and it would be wonderful to see a second edition prepared with attention to standards of normal scholarly prose. It is safe in any case to say that much more can and should be written on Whipple's fascinating life.