The Papers of Philander Chase
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The Papers of Philander Chase

A brief biography of Philander Chase

Philander Chase was born on December 14, 1775, in Cornish, New Hampshire to Dudley and Allace Corbett Chase. Dudley Chase, a deacon and farmer, had helped establish the small town only a few years earlier. Little is known of Philander Chase’s childhood, save a few tales he published in his Reminiscences.

In 1791, having been dissuaded by his father from his earlier aspirations of becoming a farmer, young Chase enrolled in Dartmouth College. There he happened upon a copy of The Book of Common Prayer which inspired him to leave behind his Congregational upbringing and seek ordination as an Episcopal priest.

When Chase graduated in 1795, the Episcopal Church in was still in its infancy in the United States, having split from the Church of England during the American Revolution. No longer were young men able to attend English seminaries, and since there were yet no American Episcopal seminaries (the first would not be founded until 1817), Chase traveled to Albany, New York, to study under the Reverend Thomas Ellison.

While in Albany, Chase married Mary Fay of Stockbridge, Vermont, and their first son, George, was born. In 1798, Chase was ordained a deacon and he spent the next year traveling throughout western New York organizing parishes. When admitted to the priesthood in 1799, Chase took charge of Christ Church in Poughkeepsie, New York.

In 1805, Chase accepted an invitation to help establish the first Episcopal parish in New Orleans, Louisiana. He hoped that the warmer climate would help alleviate his wife’s consumption (tuberculosis). Mary’s health did not improve, however, and the Chases desperately missed their children, whom they had left with relatives in Vermont. Thus, in 1811, Chase returned to the New England to take over the rectorship of Christ Church in Hartford, Connecticut, and to oversee his sons’ education.

Chase would not stay long in Hartford. He soon felt the pull westward to preach on the frontier as he had years earlier in western New York. In 1817, this urge, coupled with growing tensions between he and John Henry Hobart, bishop of New York, compelled Chase to follow the migration west. He settled in Worthington, Ohio, a small pioneer community established in 1803 by a group of fellow New Englanders. There, Chase purchased a tract of land for a farm and was appointed principal of Worthington Academy. It was also there, in 1818, his wife Mary succumbed to her illness.

Shortly after this devastating loss, Chase received the appointment of bishop of the newly-formed Diocese of Ohio. This appointment was met with much disapproval by several fellow bishops and Chase was not consecrated until February, 1819. That same year, Chase married Sophia May Ingraham.

Life in Worthington was not easy for Bishop Chase. He struggled to support his family, but his income from his farm and from Worthington Academy did not suffice, and his position as bishop paid him no salary. To better his financial situation, Chase accepted the presidency of Cincinnati College in 1821.

Chase would return to Worthington after about one year. He soon realized that the Diocese of Ohio was in dire need of help. Despite his hard work, and unending travel (he logged over 1200 miles on horseback between June, 1820, and June, 1821), Chase found it exceedingly difficult to find trained clergy. Since its split from the Church of England, the Episcopal Church paid little attention to its western expansion. Thus, with no expectation of help from the East, Chase formulated a plan: he would found a theological seminary in the West to train clergy for the West. Many other bishops strongly objected to Chase’s plan, especially his rival, Bishop Hobart. They believed that the General Theological Seminary in New York (founded in 1817) was sufficient to train western clergy. In response, Chase wrote,

The few clergy we have may keep us alive, under Providence, a little longer; but when they die or move away, we have no means to supply their places...We may think of the privileges at the east, of the means of education there; but this is all; they are out of our reach. Besides, if our young men were there, if we could find the money in our woods, or drag it from our streams, to send and maintain them at the eastern seminaries, who could insure us that they would not be enticed, by the superior offers held out to them, to settle there, and leave us in our wants?

In short, unless we can have some little means of educating our pious men here, and here being secure of their affections, station them in our woods and among our scattered people, to gather in and nourish our wandering lambs, we have no reason to hope in the continuance of the Church in the west.

It was clear that Chase could not raise the necessary funds for his theological seminary in America, so he ignored the opposition from the East and traveled to England to solicit donations. Accompanied only by a single letter of introduction (that of Henry Clay to the Lord Gambier), Chase set sail in October, 1823. That single letter, along with his determination, proved successful. By July, 1824, Chase had raised nearly $30,000 dollars for his seminary. Donors included the Lords Gambier, Bexley, and Kenyon, Lady Rosse, and Hannah More. In December, the Ohio legislature incorporated Chase’s theological seminary, which he would name Kenyon College, after one of its chief benefactors.

Chase initially set up Kenyon on his farm in Worthington, but he soon determined that a new location was necessary for his seminary and college. With the help of Henry Curtis, a young Mount Vernon lawyer, Chase purchased eight thousand acres of land in Knox County, northeast of Worthington, which Chase named Gambier.

Work began immediately on Gambier Hill, and in 1828, Kenyon College moved from Worthington to its new location. Chase desired to create a self-sustaining community where his students would be isolated from the vices of urban life. To this end, Chase established a combination grist-sawmill (lumber from which built the College buildings), a farm (which he worked), a post office (of which he was postmaster), and a printing press (a gift from Lord and Lady Ackland). Moreover, his theological seminary soon developed into a much larger educational institution, which also included a traditional college, and a grammar school. Chase’s wife, Sophia, proved nearly as vital to the functioning of Kenyon College as the Bishop himself– she cooked for the students, nursed their illnesses, and did their laundry, as well as managed the affairs during the Bishop’s frequent trips to raise funds.

Problems arose as Chase struggled to keep Kenyon funded and running smoothly. In doing so he became an increasingly tyrannical leader. He argued that since he was bishop of Ohio and founder and president of Kenyon College, he had absolute authority over all aspects of the college and the seminary. This caused a bitter conflict between with the trustees, faculty, and the clergy. Some thought that Chase had misused monies donated to the theological seminary for the establishment and maintenance of the college. Others thought that the bishop of the diocese should not have charge of the college and the grammar school. Finally, in 1831, the Ohio Convention demanded he relinquish some control. Chase, both frustrated and exhausted, instead resigned the presidency of Kenyon College and the episcopacy of Ohio on September 9, 1831.

Chase left Gambier with his family and settled on a small farm twenty miles away (near Millersburg) which he aptly named the Valley of Peace. The next spring Chase moved his family to Gilead, Michigan, where he returned to the life of a simple farmer and itinerant minister.

Chase’s simple life did not last long. In 1835, without his knowledge, a group of Illinois parishes gathered to form the Diocese of Illinois, and elected Chase its first bishop. Chase, seemingly pleased to leave the simple life, eagerly accepted this position and again looked to the East for aid for his new diocese. As before, Chase received little help from the East, so he quickly formulated plans for a new theological seminary to be established near Peoria. To England again Chase would go to raise the necessary funds.

Upon his arrival, Chase was once again greeted warmly by his English friends. His efforts to raise money were less successful this second time around. Undaunted, Chase returned to American and began a fundraising tour of the southern United States. This proved successful enough to allow him to lay the cornerstone of Jubilee College in 1839. Chase continued his travel and fundraising and left his cousin, Samuel, in charge of the day-to-day operations of the new college. In 1840-1, the chapel at Jubilee was finished.

As with Kenyon, Chase wanted Jubilee to be a self-sufficient community. Chase’s sons, Henry, Philander, and Dudley, managed the college farm and a large flock of sheep. Chase also built a sawmill and a gristmill on Kickapoo Creek. Chase’s daughter, Mary, ran a small girls’ school. Along with the seminary, there was also a college and a grammar school.

While Chase’s position within the church improved (as senior bishop, he was appointed to presiding bishop in 1843), his new college struggled to stay open. In 1849, fire destroyed the Jubilee saw and grist mills, thus eliminating a significant source of income. Three years later, its most important source of income would also be lost.

By 1852, Chase, now seventy-seven, had lived a hard pioneer life and as a result, his health was failing. In September, Chase was pulled from his carriage by his horse. He lingered for a few days, but on September 20, Philander Chase died. Without Chase at the helm, Jubilee had no chance of survival. It struggled on for a few more years and finally closed its doors in 1862. Samuel Chase, after serving as chaplain during the Civil War, attempted once more to open Jubilee, but was forced to begin selling the lands in 1871.

Philander Chase spent his life hacking through the frontier wilderness missionizing and educating, as well as traveling throughout the country (and to England, twice) raising money to support his endeavors. Chase also faced the death of his wife, Mary, and of three of his children (two of whom did not see their first birthday), and he endured constant attacks of his enemies, and a life of dire financial straits, for both him, and his institutions. Nevertheless, Chase was able to overcome these hardships and achieve his goals of bringing religion and education to the west thus establishing himself as a seminal figure in the history of religion, education, and the American frontier.

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Last updated 15 January 2001