James DeKoven was born in Middletown, Connecticut in 1831, ordained by Jackson Kemper (the first missionary bishop in the United States) in 1855, and appointed professor of ecclesiastical history at Nashotah House. In addition, he administered a preparatory school and assisted at the Church of St John Chrysostom in Delafield, Wisconsin.
From the time of its foundation, Nashotah House was associated with many of the principles of the Oxford Movement, above all in its emphasis on the sacramental life of the Church and the expression of devotion to the Eucharist – including such practices as bowing to the Holy Table, at the Name of Jesus, and before receiving communion. In 1859, DeKoven became Warden of the Church college at Racine, Wisconsin, where he emphasized the life of worship. He died there in 1879.
DeKoven came to national attention at the General Conventions of 1871 and 1874, when the controversy over “ritualism” was at its height. In 1871, he asserted that the use of candles on the altar, incense, and genuflections were lawful, because they symbolized “the real, spiritual presence of Christ” which the Protestant Episcopal Church upheld, along with the Orthodox and the Lutherans. He cited a recent decision of an ecclesiastical court in the Church of England which affirmed as the teaching of the Church that “the spiritual presence of the Body and Blood of our Lord in the Holy Communion is objective and real”.
Because of his advocacy of the “ritualist” cause, consents were not given to his election as Bishop of Wisconsin in 1874, and of Illinois in 1875.
To the General Convention of 1874, DeKoven expressed the religious conviction that underlay his churchmanship: “You may take away from us, if you will, every eternal ceremony; you may take away altars, and super-altars, lights and incense and vestments…and we will submit to you. But, gentlemen…to adore Christ’s Person in his Sacrament – that is the inalienable privilege of every Christian and Catholic heart. How we do it, the way we do it, the ceremonies with which we do it, are utterly, utterly, indifferent. The think itself is what we plead for.”
adapted from Lesser Feasts and Fasts (1980)
Almighty and everlasting God, the source and perfection of all virtues, you inspired your servant James DeKoven to do what is right and to preach what is true: Grant that all ministers and stewards of your mysteries may impart to your faithful people, by word and example, the knowledge of your grace; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
Project Canterbury has published online a number of James DeKoven’s writings.