Henry Benjamin Whipple: Bishop of the State of Minnesota & Straight-Tongued Defender of the Minnesota Indians

Feast of Sts Porphyrios and Baptos the Monk Martyrs and Saturday of Souls

Whipple_Square_3.jpegWHEN ONE thinks 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.

There was Philander Chase, a barrel-chested mountain of a man, who crisscrossed the country establishing churches from Louisiana to New York and then built the dioceses of Ohio and Illinois from the ground up. The tandem of William Meade and Richard Channing Moore confined their fieldwork to Virginia, where their combined efforts oversaw the establishment of more than 200 churches. Jackson Kemper was handed a vast territory encompassing what eventually become seven states and in which nary an Episcopal parish existed nor priest lived. In just over 20 years he built six whole dioceses, ordained more than 200 priests, and planted more than 130 churches. Daniel Tuttle canvassed Utah and Montana by stagecoach preaching in miners’ camps and saloons and became the first Christian missionary to establish a permanent presence in Morman-dominated Utah. When fire broke out in Helena in 1869 he co-captained the firefighting crew alongside a noted outlaw named “Bitter Root” Bill. There was also Alexander Garrett, a fierce, quick-tongued Irishman who built the diocese of Northern Texas. Often sleeping next to his horse under the stars, Garrett at times held liturgy in saloons, using the bar top for the Communion altar, and recruited clergy with the charge, “I need men who can ride like a cowboy, pray like a saint, preach like an apostle, and having food and raiment be therewith content.”

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. A tall, graceful man with angular features, intense eyes, and hair he wore long and swept back from his high forehead, Whipple demonstrated early a natural charisma; it was assumed that he was meant for a political career. As a young man he indeed started in that direction, making contacts and working among the New York Democratic establishment. He made a sudden shift, however, and entered the Episcopal ministry at age 27. He was made rector of Zion Church, a large, wealthy parish in Rome, New York. Whipple did well at Zion but in 1857 he left, along with his wife and six children, to head the planting of a new church in the impoverished south side of Chicago. “My preference is for missionary work such as the care of the sick and the poor and the leading of the stranger to the Church,” he wrote. “Here I feel that I should do more than in an old and settled parish.”

The church Whipple founded, The Church of the Holy Communion, was the first free church in Chicago (that is, it did not support itself by charging pew rents of parishioners) and he gained a reputation especially for his outreach to railway workers (he would swiftly appear at the report of engineering accidents, which were common, and aid in the care of the wounded) and other neglected groups of the inner city. (He drew threats for baptizing a dying prostitute on one occasion and on another for baptizing an actress. The latter act he justified to his bishop by noting “that if Holy Communion would not be withheld from a communicant for attending the theatre, then neither should it be denied an actress who asked for a home in the Church.”) His time in Chicago ended in 1859 with his election, much to his shock and dismay (“It came like a clap of thunder,” he wrote at the time), as bishop of the newly formed diocese of Minnesota, a post he would hold for the next 42 years.

The list of his accomplishments during his tenure is extensive. He grew the diocese from six churches to 54 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 great legacy, however, rests with his work among the Native American tribes of Minnesota. He regularly visited many of the Dakota and Sioux villages while traveling amongst his parishes and he became concerned and angered over their mistreatment by the American government. He often pulled teeth and performed basic medical procedures when visiting remote villages that had no access to a doctor. He learned Dakota to preach to them in their own language and helped translate the Book of Common Prayer into Dakota. He lobbied Washington relentlessly for reform of the Bureau of Indian Affairs and was never shy about leveraging his family’s political connections or using the press 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. In 1857 the Dakota had traded 24 million acres of their land to the government in exchange for an annuity and a designated reservation. But the government continued to shrink the borders of the reservation and Indian Affairs agents and traders siphoned money off the annuity to keep the Dakota in perpetual debt. The money was late in arriving in summer 1862, during a period of intense drought, and traders refused to allow the Dakota to buy food on credit.

Tensions escalated until August when the Dakota began attacking white settlements in retaliation. By the time federal troops arrived in September to put the uprising down, more than 800 settlers had been killed. Afterwards, 303 captured Dakota were to be hanged in punishment.

Horrified by the attacks – he labeled them “a massacre” – 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. So in October he traveled to Washington and met with Abraham Lincoln to try and stop the mass execution. He bluntly documented the litany of government abuses that led to the fighting. He argued that while justice demanded the leaders who had initiated the fighting be punished and hanged, the president should extend clemency to the majority of the other warriors. Hanging them all would only further incite animosity and certainly lead to greater violence. “We cannot hang men by the hundreds,” he wrote in a letter to Minnesota Senator Henry Rice, which was also delivered to Lincoln. “The leaders must be punished but we cannot afford by any wanton cruelty to purchase a long Indian war – nor by injustice in other matters to purchase the wrath of God.” Lincoln later told a friend that Whipple’s message “had shaken him to his boots.”

Lincoln decided to review each of the 303 cases individually. On December 6 he announced his decision: clemency would be granted to 265 Dakota. The remaining 38, which included those involved in the first attacks and those whom evidence condemned of rape, were to be hanged. And they were, on December 26. It remains the largest mass execution in U.S. history.

We do Whipple a disservice, though, and skew his legacy if we see him only as an advocate for social reform and justice. This is often exactly how he is presented by the few who do remember him today. Whipple was a bishop with a true missionary 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. There must be no daubing with untempored mortar, no crying peace where the Son of Peace has not created the heart anew, “for the name of Jesus is the only name given under heaven whereby we can be saved.” We must proclaim man's lost estate by nature; the impossibility of all creature merit; or salvation by works alone; the need of grace and pardon, the gift of Christ, the Eternal Son; the Redemption on the Cross; the way to come; the living faith which makes us just in Christ; the life to live; the source of strength; the Church our home – all these great doctrines of the Cross will always be upon our lips and fill our hearts. In preaching these we must be in earnest. There must be no dallying at the outposts of the heart, no trifling, no trying to make the Gospel better by our tinsel ornaments. 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. 

Whipple was also worthy of admiration in his attitude towards other Christians. He was possessed of a broad and ecumenical spirit in the best sense of those virtues. 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. “My position is this,” he wrote in 1863, “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….I love the Lord who redeemed us all and has work I hope enough to welcome any man who is willing to work loyally in His Church. This is enough.”

This same broadness of character was also manifested in Whipple’s dealings with Christians outside the Episcopal Church. Though inter-denominational cooperation was the mark more 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. He was known also to say frequently, “I love all who love my Master and Saviour; I love all whom He loves.”

When Whipple died in 1901 all commerce in Minnesota stopped 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.”

Cheers to the Straight-Tongued Bishop of Minnesota and Defender of Indians who Bent the Ear of a President!

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


Jay Mullinix studied English Literature at Wichita State and theology at Dallas Theological Seminary. He lives with his wife and three children in Wichita where they are parishioners at St. George Orthodox Cathedral. Raised among the Plymouth Brethren, he became an Episcopalian before finding his way home into Orthodoxy.


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