James DeKoven Biography

The Reverend Dr. James DeKoven
by T.F. Gailor
The Sewanee Review, volume 1, number 3, May, 1893

James DeKoven was born in Middletown, Connecticut, Sept. 19th, 1831. From his earliest years his mind and heart were controlled by religious impulses. He combined from boyhood the imagination of the poet with the critical faculty of the lawyer. This coordination made him an appreciative and accurate scholar, and he was graduated with high honor from Columbia College, New York, in 1851. There seems to have been no hesitation in his choice of a vocation. He entered the General Theological Seminary immediately, and was graduated in 1854, being ordained Deacon by Bishop Williams, of Connecticut, the same year. In the Seminary he was conspicuous for his religious earnestness, and for his intense realization of the teaching office of the ministry. His "ragged school" in the old "long room" on Sunday afternoons was a wonder to his friends, and a great trial to himself, until he solved the problem of interesting the young outcasts by drawing on his imagination for exciting stories, which combined the thrill of adventure with the soundest Christian teaching. A wooden cross, inscribed with his name, is still handed down from class to class in the Seminary, as a mute memorial of his practical devotion.

Consistently with his burning zeal for missionary work, he is said to have offered himself, with two others, soon after his ordination, to the Bishop of New York to establish an associate mission in the slums of that city, but it was thought that the Church was not ready for such innovating movements, and so DeKoven, declining several flattering calls to Eastern parishes, went to Wisconsin as lecturer in the Nashotah Theological Seminary, and threw in his lot t with the growing West. There he was ordained to the priesthood by Bishop Kemper, in 1855. At Delafield, about five miles from Nashotah, he opened a parish school in connection with the little mission church of St. John Chrysostom, and with splendid determination, to the great detriment of his health, he maintained and developed this work, walking to and fro, through winter storms and summer heat, until he placed it on a sure foundation.

In 1859, the death of the Rev. Roswell Park, D. D., the founder and first president of Racine College, Dr. DeKoven's conspicuous ability was recognized by his election to the presidency, or wardenship of that institution, and there, with inflexible spirit and unsurpassed devotion, he continued to labor for his great ideal of a Christian university, until his death, just twenty years later (March 19, 1879). During that period his personality had I impressed itself upon the whole Church. As a profound theologian, a brilliant preacher, the unequalled parliamentarian and debater in the House of Deputies--above all as a man of loftiest spirituality and heroic unselfishness, he won universal love and admiration. His sudden death, in the very prime of life, was regarded as the greatest calamity to the Church, both by those who had known and loved him, and by those who, having misunderstood and wronged him, would have made reparation had he lived. From Boston to San Francisco the lament went up with genuine sorrow. Those who had differed with him were foremost in deploring his loss. No clergyman ever received from the secular world and outside the bounds of his own State, such tributes of love and admiration as were paid to him. The great Northwest was stricken with the consciousness of its bereavement, and governors and legislatures and public corporations and citizens of every creed and class hastened to do him honor. He died as he had lived, brave, loyal, consecrated to his Master's service. His last public act was a sacrifice of himself for a friend who needed his help--his last private care was for the instruction of a soul that was groping for the light of the gospel. It was a grand life--pure, manly, unselfish, noble in every instinct, gentle in its strength, great in its simplicity.

Dr. DeKoven was a theologian and a Christian educator, and in both aspects he appears unquestionably great. A theologian must, above all things, be clear and definite in his convictions. He must have a system of philosophy; he must be apt to teach. Theology exists, as the Church understands it, only as a means to an end, an aid to the human mind to comprehend the truths of the gospel, to coordinate, in a rational system, what the Church has received and teaches. The object of Christianity is to give light and life to the souls of men, and there can be no greater contradiction in terms than a system of Christian instruction, a theology which is based on indefinite, uncertain, and misty speculation. A theologian may be narrow-minded or broad-minded, scholarly or unscholarly, tolerant or intolerant--but, if he is to "make good proof of his ministry," he must be clear. In this respect Dr. DeKoven has perhaps had no equal in the American Church. It was this clearness of apprehension and felicity of definition that gave him his preeminence as a [342/343] debater. It was this that aroused such opposition to him in some quarters, and singled him out for attack, even on questions where he had said nothing more than others had said before him, because he always succeeded in making people know what he thought on every subject. Yet he was not a controversialist. His keen sensibility to injustice, his exquisite refinement of nature, made him shrink from public criticism. Only the most conscientious convictions of duty wrung from him the words of defiance in his first speech in the Convention of 1871, which filled the rest of his life with discussion. The only bitter satire on an opponent that he ever indulged in was a reluctant concession to the pleading of one of his friends.

The General Convention of 1871 was a notable convention. Time had been given since the close of the civil war for anxious ones to discover the gradual influence of the "Oxford movement" in this country. Many members of the Convention were alarmed for the safety of the Church, and a committee of eminent divines, which had been appointed in 1868, introduced a canon on Ritual, a canon which, it was thought, might regulate or repress various dangerous ceremonies and practices (including the choral service) which were becoming common in certain quarters. The canon was not satisfactory to the Lower House, and provoked fierce discussion. It was in this debate that Dr. DeKoven came prominently before the country. To him, as he declared over and over again, the danger that threatened the Church was not an increase of reverence and earnestness on the part of some of her clergy, but that the Church might be induced to risk her influence, and waste her time in trying men for heresy, when the practical missionary work on every side was clamoring for attention...

The General Convention met again in 1874, in St. John's Chapel, New York City. It was confidently expected that the proposed canon on Ritual would be easily passed, and that Dr. DeKoven and the cause which he espoused, would be overwhelmed in the tide of feeling that was rolling up against him. Dr. DeKoven's speech in that convention was perhaps the greatest speech that was ever made in a General Convention. Its exquisite humor and satire, its scholarly precision and wealth of argument have rarely been equalled in any forensic debate. It is hardly too much to say that there was not a deputy on the floor who was not moved to admiration for the man, however little he may have liked his opinions. The canon was passed in an amended form, but has been utterly inoperative, probably because it was proved to be not only vague, but unconstitutional. At the diocesan convention of 1875, Dr. DeKoven was elected Bishop of Illinois, but inflamed partisan prejudice, to the dismay and anguish of his friends, dominated a majority of the standing committees, and the election was not confirmed….

But the Warden of Racine was never greater than at this time. His calm dignity, his patient loyalty to the Church, his Christlike gentleness and humility compelled the reverence of all men. What his proud and sensitive nature suffered in the public ignominy of that rejection, God only knows. But no bitter word, no harsh accusation ever escaped him. He endured as seeing Him who is invisible, and was hid in the secret of the Presence from the provoking of all men and from the strife of tongues. Those who were nearest to him saw no evidence of the mortification which he must have felt. One who had the privilege of his friendship at this time recalls only a single remark that indicated his disappointment. It was in one of his characteristic talks to a student, who was tempted to despair of any success in his work, and the Doctor said: "Mere success is a poor thing. Duty is everything. It is singular, but true, you know, that of all the clergy of the Church, I am the only one who can never hope under any circumstances to become a bishop." He lived only four years after that election. Who shall say that his life was not shortened by the terrible ordeal?
It would be interesting, even amusing, if it were not so grievous, to note what a vast change has come over the popular mind. There are bishops in various quarters, whose elections have been confirmed almost without question, compared with whom Dr. DeKoven would appear to-day as a moderate conservative. Yet, it may be, that some such sacrifice was needed, and, if so, that no man's soul was richer in its faith and loyalty to endure the martyrdom.

Dr. DeKoven's theology was based upon the Incarnation as the one central truth of the gospel. The purpose of Christ's coming into the world was to give life, not merely nor chiefly to teach doctrines. Therefore Christianity is not a system of opinion, but a transmission of life. And as all life is organic, so the Christian life is embodied in an Institution, a Family, a Kingdom, a Church. The ministry and sacraments were real things to him. Baptism, as the catechism says, was the means whereby we are made members of Christ. To his mind the statement that Christ came into the world to found a new kingdom and yet that all men are actual members of this kingdom, whether they will or no, without any definite way of admission to it, is not only a contradiction of the Church's teaching, but a contradiction in terms. The Holy Communion, also, in this view, is either a means of receiving the Living Christ, in a bona fide and real way (and the spiritual is the real), or else it is no receiving of Christ in any true and appreciable way at all. His own opinion on the subject was similar to that held by Pusey and Keble and Liddon, in England, but it would be difficult to find in any English writer, such clear distinctions as he has drawn. His own words are:--

The controversies of the times compel us to go further than this simple assertion of the presence of Christ, God and man in one person, in the Holy Eucharist; to declare that while we assert our belief in the presence we refuse to define the mode or manner of the presence.

We refuse to explain away the mystery by saying that the holy elements are mere figures or images or symbols of Christ's absent body and blood. In short, we accept no device or explanation of human reason, and where Christ and the Church have refused to define, we refuse to define also.

The only word which the Church has used to express, without defining the fact of the presence, is the word "SACRAMENTAL," and so I hold that Christ's human nature is in sacramental union with the consecrated elements. This presence is called "REAL," to show that it is no mere figurative or symbolical presence. It is called "SPIRITUAL," to show that it is no visible, carnal, material or local presence; for that which is seen is not real; that which is material is dissoluble; that which is local is but partial." This presence is also called spiritual, because it is the especial work of God's Holy Spirit to make Christ's human nature present, for the third Person of the adorable Trinity has come, "not to supply Christ's absence, but to accomplish his presence."

Thus whenever and wherever I have asserted that Christ is present "in the elements" "under the form or species of bread and wine," I mean thereby that he is there present sacramentally and spiritually, and there really and truly.

Whether this doctrine as he stated it was the true, historic, Eucharistic doctrine of the English Church, was not the immediate question at issue. What Dr. DeKoven fought for and suffered for was liberty of opinion on this subject. He himself ardently believed that the best theologians of the Church had held this doctrine, and that it alone could satisfy the language of the Prayer Book; but it should be known and understood, to his immortal honor, that he never denounced those who held the lamest and poorest view of this sacrament, as unworthy of toleration by the Church. Dr. DeKoven believed so deeply in the reasonableness of truth, when it had fair play, that he could afford to be broad. Whether they differ with him or not, men must admire his splendid "assurance of faith." His words in his speech on the Ritual Canon, are grand words which can never die:--
Now let me say, about the doctrine of the Eucharist, there is precisely this, that we have not arrived at a full and clear determination about it. Better a thousand times, my brethren, that rash and incautious expressions should be used, better that things should be said that the great heart of this Church may possibly condemn, than that we should hastily formulate this doctrine. Let me illustrate:

Within the past three years I have read a charge from a bishop of this Church, honored, venerated, one of the noblest and best of our most aged bishops, advocating something which he called in terms Zwinglianism. I have read also a pamphlet of a clerical deputy from Virginia, advocating the same thing. I do not mean to say that it was Zwinglianism. It did not seem to be as bad as Zwinglianism, but, nevertheless, it was a clear and definite expression of what anybody would say was a very low Church view of this subject, and I have never heard a single word said against it. I have never read an article in any newspaper against it. I have never heard that it was going to make a crisis in the Church. I never heard that the man who held it was not to be elevated to the Episcopate. I have seen that it had free scope and fair play, and, for my part, I would give it free scope and fair play too. Let this Church on this doctrine preserve its equanimity. Let it study. Let it read. Let it pray. Let it think. Let men who have the grace and gift of understanding pour forth their contributions; and if there are things that ought not to be said, we may be sure that free thought, free play, free consideration, and full consideration, never harmed the Church in any way; for, mark you, it is a philosophical truth, which no man can read ecclesiastical history without understanding, that no doctrine, though it be formulated never so often, becomes the doctrine of any Church until that doctrine receives the moral unanimity of its members; and if any one here should be tempted either by Rubric or by Article to attempt to take away from the doctrine of this Church on the Eucharist, it would only be endeavoring to do something which in time to come this Church will rise as one man, clerical and lay, and sweep away.

…He was no ritualist in the technical sense. He abhorred anything that was unmanly or merely aesthetic or merely formal. The chapel service at Racine was the heartiest and least ostentatious in the world. Colored vestments and acolytes, and bells and bowings and crossings and genuflections in the public service were unknown there. In the present day the Racine service would be considered very plain; but the old boys recall it as full of all reality of Christian manliness blessed with the blessings of Christian worship. As in his theological views Dr. DeKoven was always outspoken and clear, with an answer for every question that came up, so in his rules on the subject of ritual he displayed a common sense and loyalty, which, if observed, would prevent much contention and remove many prejudices. His own words are:

While I hold that every rubric of the Prayer Book must be obeyed, I do not believe the Prayer Book to be a book of full ritual directions.

I do not believe that by adding to the Prayer Book some vague notion of usage, the law of the Church on the subject of ritual is to be found.

I do not think that the Church has a distinct and clear law of ritual.

I hope the day may come when we can approach the question of what that law must be, in a spirit of charity; and when we do, I hope we shall find room both for lofty ceremonial, and for simple services.

Meanwhile individual action, and sometimes irregular action, has preceded, as it always does, corporate action.

I myself in adopting any ornament or ceremony have been governed by five distinct practical ideas:

(1.) That it should not contradict any doctrine of the Church.
(2.) That it should have common sense in its favor.
(3.) That it should not provoke vehement controversy among those for whose benefit it was intended.
(4.) That it should not be unreal, but for the good of souls.
(5.) That it should not be against the command of the bishop.

As an educator, Dr. DeKoven has had no superior in this or any other land. The great qualities of a leader and guide to young men--dignity, tact, firmness, sympathy, genuineness of nature--these he possessed in a marked degree. He needed no artificial safeguards to maintain his claims to respect. His personal appearance was noble and commanding. His face, whether bright with humor, or stern with disapproval, or melting with sympathy, was always attractive to look on, with a peculiar refinement of spiritual power. Students who never hesitated to cover him with ribbons on the base-ball ground or to tease him with ridicule of his favorite players, would rather have faced a battery than appear before him for discipline. In his constant visits to their rooms at odd times, he was always one of them, giving and taking jests, happy over their games, sometimes even mildly tolerant of their mischief, but the slightest violation of propriety or morals would be rebuked by a change of countenance indescribable, but most effective. He knew all the students by name and their antecedents, and he tried to make each one feel that "the Doctor" and he had some confidences shared by no one else. As a rule, the students worshipped him. If there was any fault found by any of them it was that his horror of certain kinds of evil was so keen that he could not force himself to be lenient to offenders of that class. In one other respect, he was sometimes misunderstood. He was with some men more than with others. They were not always necessarily the best or most congenial. They were those who, in his opinion, needed most help, and if any man ever thought that he was neglected it was because he himself erected the barrier that kept that great heart away from him. Sincere, true, tender, genuine through and through, that the Doctor always was, and the contact with such a life was an everlasting blessing to those who discovered it in time. Some, perhaps, who read these lines will recall with various emotions the old days--the early chapel service, and the walks with the Doctor afterwards, the thrilling sermons, the Easter morning breakfasts, the Sunday night receptions, the gathering on the lawn at commencement, the choir suppers, the recitations in Butler, the Seniors' tea, the hundred other associations with the old place where he was the spirit and the head; but however the memory comes to them now, with whatever regrets or misgivings or grateful joy, it cannot but bring the picture of a grand, pure, unselfish personality which never once in all the storms that beat upon it faltered for an instant in its love or duty for the individual students committed to its care.
On what we may call its professional side, Dr. DeKoven's theory of education was based on his belief in the Incarnation and all that that implies. To him it was simply inconceivable that any education could be complete or adequate which did not provide for spiritual and moral, as well as for mental and physical, training. And if Christianity is true, then such training must be distinctively Christian; and if Christian, then it must be according to that characteristic presentation of Christianity furnished by the Church. As a churchman, with traditions of Cambridge and Oxford before him, he believed in the breadth and refinement and richness of the Church's culture; and as an American, he believed that the great northwestern country, with its diversified population and its variety of nationalities, needed, above all things, an institution for the education of its young men, where the one-sidedness and extravagance of both intellectual and material development might be toned down and softened and deepened by Christian nurture. It was a grand ideal, lofty enough to engage and absorb the talents and energy of any man; and to this Dr. DeKoven gave his life….

Dr. DeKoven's splendid ambition for Racine College appears now to have failed; it was only moderately successful in his lifetime. It is true, that during his administration of twenty years, the college property was quadrupled in extent and value. Many of its graduates had taken high places in the world. The Bishops of the Church in the Northwest had begun to realize the power and importance of the institution, and had accepted elections to the Board of Trustees, in order to make it the Church University of the Northwest. When Dr. DeKoven died, he left to it all the private property which remained to him after a lifetime of free-handed generosity, and the college was without debt, and seemingly without an obstacle to its ultimate success. Yet the enterprise failed. The college has now for several years been closed, and a small grammar school, managed with patient heroism by one of the old boys, is all that occupies that beautiful and spacious domain and the buildings he loved so well….

Whatever be the cause or causes of this interruption of the work of Racine College, which we have reason to think is only temporary, the goodness and greatness of that saint of God shall not, cannot die. Not what he suffered, not what he accomplished, but what he was, shall last; and quite an army of men, whose love and admiration does not diminish but rather increases with the passing years, shall go down to their graves better and truer for their contact with so great a soul, and shall teach their children and their children's children the lesson of the life of James DeKoven, that true and much-tried and triumphant apostle, the servant of Jesus Christ.

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