One Who Will Be Sent
Electing Vermont’s First Episcopal Bishop
By Eric Davis
The Transition Committee is pleased to present this 2nd installment of One Who Will Be Sent, a special Mountain series dedicated to the history of and our reflections on the Bishop transition process.
How did John Henry Hopkins come to be elected the first Bishop of Vermont?
Small groups of Episcopalians gathered in Vermont even before the state joined the Union in 1791. The first convention of The Episcopal Church in Vermont, held in Arlington in 1790, included two clergy and 18 lay delegates, representing eight congregations.
For two decades after that first convention, there was no formal episcopal oversight of the parishes in Vermont, or, with the exception of Connecticut, any other New England state. The Episcopal Church in Connecticut is the oldest organized diocese in the Church, with the Rt. Rev. Samuel Seabury consecrated as bishop in 1784.
In the early nineteenth century, representatives of the conventions of Massachusetts (which at that time included Maine, part of Massachusetts until 1820), New Hampshire, Rhode Island, and Vermont corresponded to see whether there would be interest in, and sufficient financial resources to support, the creation of a diocese comprising all four states. In May 1810, representatives of the four states met in Boston to draft a constitution for the new Eastern Diocese. The constitution provided that each state would continue to hold a convention on local issues, while delegates from the four states, meeting in diocesan convention, would discuss common matters and elect a bishop.
The clergy and lay delegates at this meeting also tentatively elected the Rev. Alexander Viets Griswold of Bristol, R.I. to be their first bishop. Once the four state conventions, and the 1811 General Convention, had consented to Griswold’s election, he was consecrated in New York, in May 1811.
Two reasons explain the growth of The Episcopal Church in Vermont in the early nineteenth century. First was the growth of the state’s population, especially after the end of the War of 1812 removed the threat of British encroachment on the northern border. Second was the Vermont Legislature’s 1807 repeal of the “standing order,” compulsory taxation to support the established Congregational Church.
As the number of Episcopal parishes in Vermont expanded, separating from the Eastern Diocese and organizing an independent Diocese of Vermont began to be considered. One of the principal advocates of this position was the Rev. Benjamin Bosworth Smith, a protégé of Bishop Griswold, who was called to Middlebury in 1823 as the first rector of St. Stephen’s Church. Soon after arriving in Middlebury, Smith established a newsletter, the Episcopal Register, to make the case for an independent Vermont diocese.
The 1810 constitution of the Eastern Diocese provided that a state could withdraw from the diocese with the consent of the House of Bishops. Realizing that obtaining such consent from a body most of whose members did not live in New England could be time-consuming, representatives of Massachusetts and Vermont successfully advocated for an amendment to the diocesan constitution permitting a state to withdraw with the consent of the diocesan convention and the bishop diocesan. This amendment was approved at the 1828 diocesan convention.
In 1831, Massachusetts requested to withdraw from the Eastern Diocese and become independent. When this request was reported to the Vermont convention, meeting in Arlington on August 31, the clergy and lay delegates decided that Vermont too should apply to become a separate diocese.
Over the next eight months, the necessary consents were received. When the next Vermont convention was held, in Middlebury on May 30, 1832, one of the first orders of business was a resolution “that the Protestant Episcopal Church in the State of Vermont is hereby declared to be, and is, an independent and distinct Episcopal jurisdiction under the name and style of the Diocese of Vermont.” This resolution was approved unanimously.
Episcopal elections at that time did not involve nominating committees of clergy and lay members who prepared slates of candidates for election at the convention. Rather, the clergy at the convention met among themselves, and after prayer and reflection, nominated, and immediately voted on, candidates for the episcopate. The lay delegates were then asked to ratify the clergy’s choice of bishop.
Two names were placed in nomination at the meeting of clergy on May 31, 1832: The Rev. John Henry Hopkins and the Rev. John S. Stone.
Two names were placed in nomination at the meeting of clergy on May 31, 1832: The Rev. John Henry Hopkins, Assistant Rector of Trinity Church in Boston, and the Rev. John S. Stone, Rector of St. Paul’s Church in Boston. Thirteen clergy were qualified to vote. When they returned to the nave of St. Stephen’s Church, where the convention was held, they reported that their vote was seven for Hopkins and six for Stone. The lay delegates then voted by 31 to 9 to approve the election of Hopkins.
Whether Hopkins would accept the election was uncertain. He had moved from Pittsburgh to Boston in part because he hoped to become a professor in a new Episcopal seminary planned for Massachusetts. At about the same time Hopkins received word that he had been elected Bishop of Vermont, he learned that the seminary had not obtained the necessary financial support. He consented to his election, was consecrated in New York on October 31, 1832, and moved to Burlington the next month.
Many “what ifs” in this history make one sense that the Holy Spirit was guiding Vermont Episcopalians in 1831-32. Would Vermont have been ready to separate from the Eastern Diocese if Massachusetts had not gone first? What if the clergy had voted seven for Stone and six for Hopkins? What if the seminary in Massachusetts had gone forward and Hopkins had not consented to his election as bishop? The story of our diocese, and of Rock Point, would not have been the same had any of these questions been answered differently.
Eric Davis is a parishioner at St Stephen’s, Middlebury, professor emeritus of political science at Middlebury College, and a member of the Bishop Discernment and Nominating Committee.
Note: This article is based primarily on A Documentary History of the Protestant Episcopal Church in the Diocese of Vermont, 1790-1832, available in the Middlebury College Library Special Collections, and To Have A Bishop of Our Own, a 2007 pamphlet by Elizabeth Allison, diocesan archivist and historiographer.