In his first charge after becoming a pastor, Henry Benjamin Whipple, who would become Bishop of Minnesota in the state's earliest years, got a note from a distressed woman who asked him to please come and visit her dying husband.
Whipple did. It was, he writes in his memoir Lights and Shadows of a Long Episcopate, one of the coldest nights of midwinter, and to get to that home took some time on horseback. The year was 1850. The place--Rome, New York.
"I am a great sinner," this very sick man told Whipple when he arrived. "Will you help me?"
The young pastor claims he did his pastoral best, and the dying man was much relieved, even begged him to return.
And so he did, just two days later. This time, however, the man had recovered somewhat from near death and went after him like a snake. "You are what they call Episcopal," he said. "You pray out of a book. You don't let other ministers preaching in your pulpit" and then proceeded to repeat, Whipple says, "every stale objection against the [Episcopal] Church."
When he'd visited two days earlier, he says he hadn't told the man he was Episcopalian or even that he was a preacher. "I tried to lead you to the Lamb of God, and I told you of His love in asking you to believe and be baptized."
No matter. Whipple was excused forthwith and sent on his way.
"Forty years ago Christians were not as ready to see the image of Christ in those from whom they differed as now," Whipple says right about there in his imminently readable memoir. I couldn't help smiling. The old Bishop is looking back at the way things were and telling himself that Christians are not nearly so divided as he remembered them to have been. Things are better now, or so he believes, because those who worship the risen Christ are more accepting of each other's differences.
A warm and delightful thought, quite stunning, I think. And Whipple is remembering all of this as he writes at the end of the 19th century, just about 120 years ago.
Henry Benjamin Whipple went on to become Bishop of Minnesota and to plead, famously, to President Abraham Lincoln himself, for the lives of the 300+ Dakota warriors sentenced to hang after the Dakota War. When he visited the President, Whipple unsparingly laid out the real scenario which led to the Dakota War. Lincoln later said he felt the urgency of Whipple's visit "down to his boots." Most Minnesota white folks hated him. His colleagues thought him a fanatic.
If, in his life, he was devoted to anything in addition to his faith in the saving work of Jesus Christ, he was bound and determined to build bridges between believers. I suppose it was in his DNA to be hopeful, to wish for better, and to take heart from moments when people of a shared faith could sing and pray together.
But the line haunts me: "Forty years ago Christians were not as ready to see the image of Christ in those from whom they differed as now," because I'm as old as he was when he wrote those words, and I just don't know that I could say the same thing.
For certain, in my own faith community, things have changed immensely. Denominationalism is fading, a tired and tattered remnant, perhaps of America's European and ethnic past. The Dutch theologian most read by CRC members in the last two decades may well be Henri Nouwen, the Roman Catholic priest. Nationally, the churches that lead in growth, the mega-churches, are often non-denominational; and the church in town where the action is--or so it seems--likes to think of itself as minimally affiliated with any one other than itself. We seem less fractured.
And yet, Christian believers face off against each other in an acrimonious debate that stymies legislative action in this country. It's difficult to imagine believers any more deeply split. I'm not sure either side is fully ready to "see the image of Christ" in those with whom they differ, politically, so sharply.
A century ago, Whipple thought things were improving. Maybe.
On his first trip up into the lakes region of the territory of Minnesota, he was accompanied by a Chippewa (Ojibwa) guide named Shaganash, who found himself, as one can only imagine, the target of a ton of preaching and asked, Whipple says, "many thoughtful questions," including this one: "Why are there so many religions among white men and only one Book?"
That too is a thoughtful question.