Episcopal Diocese of Ohio Logo
The General Convention of 1817: Wheels in Motion for the Diocese of Ohio
In his column for this edition of Church Life, Bishop Hollingsworth, with his usual and appreciated clarity of thought, presents an introduction and overview of the General Convention and its importance for how we “live and move and have our being” as Episcopalians in the Diocese of Ohio. In July the Bishop and Deputies from Ohio will be an integral part of that democratic process which seeks to discern God’s will for our church and the ministry of all the baptized. This is something for which we must give thanks and risk just a wee bit of pride.

As we head off to Austin, Texas for the 79th General Convention, and on the heels of our 2017 Bicentennial Celebration, let us review the early history of Ohio and the General Conventions which ushered us into being as a diocese.

There can be no doubt that the General Convention was concerned about the church expanding westward in the early days of our nation. An “Act of the General Convention for supporting missionaries to preach the Gospel on the frontiers of the United States” was passed in 1792. Pioneer clergy and their blessed spouses and families served as missionaries in the land beyond the original thirteen colonies tending to those Episcopal families who had migrated west and evangelizing those with a disposition toward our brand of Christianity. The Rev. Roger Searle and Sarah Pomeroy Searle were such enduring pioneer missionaries in our early years.

While the State of Ohio was organized in 1803, it would take an additional thirteen years for there to be some attempt at organizing Episcopalians within Ohio’s frontier. An early attempt in 1816 gave way to a “Provisional Convention” meeting in Windsor, Ohio on April 2, 1817. Representatives from five of the eight parishes in the Ohio Western Reserve were present. The representatives from Cleveland, Medina, and Columbia were absent “owing to the extreme badness of the roads." In his history of the Diocese, the Rev. Dr. George Franklin Smythe writes, “The most important work of the meeting was to invite other parishes in the state, that had adopted the constitution of the Protestant Episcopal Church, to meet with them at Columbus on the fifth of January 1818 in order to concert measures and further the organization of the Church in this state.”

A committee was dispatched to see to this effort; however, the General Convention of the Episcopal Church was set to meet seven weeks later, on May 20, 1817, at Trinity Church, New York. Ohio needed the blessing of this bicameral legislative committee to formally organize and elect a bishop. Several previously adopted canons stood in the way The General Convention of 1817: Wheels in Motion for the Diocese of Ohio by the Rev. Dr. Brian K. Wilbert The Rev. Roger Searle The Rt. Rev. William White 6 CHURCH LIFE SUMMER 2018 (specifically the number of clergy necessary to elect a bishop). Since the Rev. Searle was already a clerical deputy from the Diocese of Connecticut, the delegates meeting in Windsor asked, and then appointed him by resolution, to represent the fledgling church in Ohio before the deputies and bishops assembled in New York. He was given $60 to cover his expenses for that purpose.

Searle arrived in New York with a letter by the Colonel James Kilbourn (The Reverend Deacon) describing the “religious situation in Ohio” with the hope that “the concerns of the Church in this State and in the Western Country may occupy a part of the time and attention of your venerable body.” James Kilbourn had been in Ohio since 1803. He had led a colony of “church people” from Connecticut and Massachusetts and founded the village of Worthington and St. John’s Church. He was the clergy person with the most seniority in the state of Ohio. It was hoped that his experience and expression would aid in securing the blessings of the General Convention to elect a bishop for episcopal oversight in a newly formed diocese west of the Allegheny Mountains.

In addition to Searle, Dr. Horace Reed from the Episcopal Church in Zanesville attended the 1817 General Convention. On May 22 of that year he attempted to be seated in the House of Deputies representing the church in Ohio. However, it was decided, “since the Church in Ohio had not acceded to the Constitution of the Protestant Episcopal Church in the USA, Dr. Reed cannot be admitted a member of the house of deputies...”

Dr. Reed was subsequently allowed the privileges of an honorary seat. The next day a list of 19 organized parishes in the State of Ohio were entered into the House of Deputies General Convention Journal. The House of Bishops, in their Journal, noted on May 26 “that in the Western States, in the state of Ohio, nineteen congregations have been organized; and steps taken for constituting a Diocese.” They also note that a plea had been made for “Episcopal superintendence.” To this end, the General Convention of 1817 adopted a resolution which directed “all the western country, to be placed provisionally, under the care of the Bishop of Pennsylvania” who was at that time the Rt. Rev. William White.

The action of more importance to the fledgling Church in Ohio came in the enacting of the following Canon: “Resolved, that it be recommended to the Episcopal Congregations in the States referred to in the above communications, where Conventions are not already organized to organize Conventions, which may be received into union with this Convention, when expedient, may unite, according to the Canons, in the choice of a Bishop, having jurisdiction over those states; and that this Convention have received with much satisfaction information of the measures which have been already adopted in the state of Ohio, for the organization of the Church in that state.”

The Rev. Searle referenced the adoption of this canon in a letter to Philander Chase, dated May 29, 1817, mentioning that it also “provides for an election of a Bishop in any new Diocese by a less number of Presbyters or Clergymen than before contemplated by our church.”

Searle further reported, “The [General] convention has just closed a very laborious session. The great interests of our church in the west have been duly appreciated by the House of Bishops...with a view to the more correct knowledge of the present state of the church in the west, the Right Reverend, the House of Bishops, in an early part of the session deputed their secretary to request my absence from the Lower House, to personal audience in their Hall. Precious, indeed, were the moments spent in tendering to the bosoms of our truly venerable Prelates the rising interests of our infant parishes, Ohio.”

So the stage was set for Ohio to organize and elect a bishop which would happen in 1818–two hundred years ago. Philander Chase’s election as our first Bishop and his relationship with subsequent General Conventions of 1820, 1823, 1826, 1829, and 1832 is another story
Posted