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Speaking to the Soul: Jackson Kemper

Speaking to the Soul: Jackson Kemper

by Maria Evans


Readings for the feast day of Jackson Kemper, First Missionary Bishop in the United States


Exodus 15:22-25

Psalm 67

1 Corinthians 3:8-11

Matthew 28:16-20


Our readings today match up well with the life of Jackson Kemper, America’s first missionary bishop.  In Exodus, we find Moses three days into the wilderness with no water.  When Jackson Kemper was named Missionary Bishop of the Northwest (an area encompassing Missouri, Kansas, Nebraska, Minnesota, Wisconsin, and part of Indiana), there was a high likelihood he traveled three days or more into the wilderness on any given trip.   At the time he first began this task in 1835, he was faced with 450,000 square miles, one missionary in Indiana (but no church), one church in Missouri (but no clergy), one missionary in Wisconsin, and beyond that…nothing.  Zero.  Zip.  Nada.


Jackson Kemper’s life would make a great miniseries.  He did what any missionary bishop would do under the circumstances–packed up his Bible and his Prayer Book, saddled his horse, and set out to “make disciples of all nations” as our Matthew reading exhorts.  For Jackson Kemper, that meant ministering to Native American as well as whites,, encouraging the translation of the Bible into native languages such as Oneida, and ministering to their physical needs.  It meant being away from his family for months at a time.  It’s estimated he traveled more miles than the Apostle Paul.  For the first 11 years of his ministry, he didn’t have a permanent residence.  His only “advantage” as it were, was he had a horse.  He was a living image of today’s epistle, one of God’s servants, working together with others, being God’s field, God’s building.


When it was all said and done, Jackson Kemper organized six dioceses, consecrated over 100 churches, ordained more than 200 deacons and priests, and confirmed more than 10,000 souls–uphill, both ways, in the snow.  He recognized that the average Episcopal clergy person hailed from a well-to-do Eastern upbringing, and probably wouldn’t last ten minutes on the frontier, so he organized schools of ministry to train those already living there–Nashotah House being his most famous school.  At the end of his life, some of his last words were reported to be, “I hope I have been faithful, I hope I had kept the faith.”
Jackson Kemper was rediscovered, in a way, in 2015, when he became a contender in Lent Madness.  In his re-discovery, he brings with his life and ministry a challenge to today’s church–If Jackson Kemper, working mostly solo, with nearly no resources, could grow the church on America’s frontier, how might we grow the church today with the resources we have?  If you could pack up your Bible and your Prayer Book today, where might his missionary spirit guide you in the 21st century?



Maria Evans, a surgical pathologist from Kirksville, MO, is a grateful member of Trinity Episcopal Church and a postulant to the priesthood in the Episcopal Diocese of Missouri. You can also share her journey on her blog, Chapologist.


Image: from the Diocese of Missouri


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Jill Littlefield

Thanks Maria and Father John Julian…what a life of ministry and service he lead!

Maria Evans

Thanks for your comments, everyone, and yes, John-Julian, that is another great fact about Kemper. We tend to think in “if you build it, they will come,” mode, and Jackson Kemper is a reminder that first, you have to show up–and show up he did!

John-Julian Swanson

But far and away the most significant aspect of Kemper’s life and ministry is that there had never been a “missionary bishop” before. He had no precedents to follow or fall back on. In the past and elsewhere, priest-missionaries were sent out to develop parishes and when enough of those had gotten together, a diocese and a bishop happened. But Kemper (and the Church of his day) radically changed that: “Start with a bishop,” they said, “and all else shall be added unto you!” ….. and it was!
I should also add that Kemper has the singular distinction of being the first Episcopal bishop to ordain a Native American: Enmegahbowh!

Nancy Barnard Starr

Jackson Kemper’s portrait is at All Saints cathedral, Diocese of Milwaukee. Site of my priesting. We lived in that region for 7 years, and I sense Kemper’s spirit lingers there, too.


Great story!

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