Philander Chase brought the infant Episcopal Church to America’s frontier and founded one of the country’s finest liberal arts colleges in what was then wilderness.
Chase was descended from Aquila Chase, who arrived in Hampton, N.H., from England in 1640. He was born on Dec. 14, 1775, to parents who were among the first settlers of Cornish, N.H. Chase wanted to be a farmer like his father, but at 15 he broke his leg and severely cut his foot. His father persuaded him that studying at Dartmouth would assuage the pain of a long lameness.
At Dartmouth he happened upon a copy of The Book of Common Prayer, which inspired him to abandon his Congregational upbringing and become an Episcopalian minister. As a Dartmouth student, he persuaded the pioneers of Cornish to build Trinity Church, now on the National Register of Historic Places.
The Episcopal Church had split from the Church of England during the American Revolution. Young American men who wanted to be ministers couldn’t attend English seminaries, and at first there were no seminaries in America. So Chase, upon graduation, went to Albany, N.Y., to study under the Rev. Thomas Ellison. He was ordained in 1799 as one of the very few Episcopal clergymen in the United States. As a missionary he helped organize St. John’s Episcopal Church in Canandaigua, N.Y., and other parishes in western New York.
Chase and his new wife Mary Fay accepted an invitation in 1805 to found Christ Church Cathedral in New Orleans. Five years later he returned to New England to become the rector of Christ’s Church in Hartford. He clashed with the bishop of New York, though, and decided to head west. He and his family settled in Worthington, Ohio. His fatherless nephew Salmon P. Chase came to live with them, and would grow up to become a U.S. senator, governor of Ohio, Treasury secretary and chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court.
Philander Chase was named the first Episcopalian Bishop of Ohio, but he didn’t get paid for it. He also had no help, as there was almost no trained clergy on the frontier. So he decided to establish a theological seminary. His rivals in the east wouldn’t support him, so he went to England to raise money. He founded Kenyon College and Bexley Hall, named after his chief benefactors, Lord Kenyon and Lord Bexley. He moved the college to Gambier, where he had bought 8,000 acres. According to legend, he was scouting a location and reached the crest of Gambier Hill, where he exclaimed, “Well, this will do.”
Chase set about creating a self-sustaining institution with a farm, a gristmill and a printing press. But he fought with the trustees, faculty and clergy, and finally quit to live a quiet life on a farm in Ohio. Without his knowledge, a group of Illinois parishes formed a diocese and elected him bishop. He accepted the job and went about fundraising for another college in Illinois, called Jubilee. Philander Chase died, exhausted, in 1852, and Jubilee College failed several years later. It is now a state park.
The Episcopal Church honors Philander Chase with a feast day on Sept. 22.