Jackson Kemper was born in Pleasant Valley, New York, on December 24, 1789. He graduated from Columbia College in 1809 and was ordained deacon in 1811, and presbyter in 1814. Thereafter he served Bishop William White as assistant at Christ Church in Philadelphia. (In the late 18th and early 19th centuries, diocesan bishops in the Protestant Episcopal Church also continued their ministries as rectors of parishes.) At Kemper’s urging, Bishop White made his first and only episcopal visitation in western Pennsylvania.
In 1835, Kemper was ordained bishop in accordance with a canon that provided for missionary bishops to serve the frontier and in foreign countries. Kemper immediately set out on his travels through the vast territory committed to his episcopal charge. Assigned to Missouri and Indiana, Kemper also laid foundations in Iowa, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Nebraska, and Kansas; and made extensive missionary tours in the South and Southwest. His unofficial title was “Bishop of the Whole Northwest”.
Kemper established Kemper College in St Louis, Missouri, to help train clergymen for specialized tasks in the Church, including preparation for the sometimes harsh life of the frontier. The College failed in 1845 from inadequate funding. Nashotah House, which he found in 1842 with the help of James Lloyd Breck and his companions, was more successful, as was Racine College, founded in 1852. Both institutions reflected Kemper’s devotion to beauty in liturgy.
Kemper pleaded for more attention to the Native Indians and encouraged the translation of the Prayer Book into native languages. He described a service among Oneida Indians which was marked by “courtesy, reverence, worship – and obedience to that Great Spirit in whose hands are the issues of life.”
From 1859 until his death in 1870, Kemper served as the diocesan bishop of Wisconsin.
prepared from Lesser Feasts and Fasts (1980)
Lord God, in your providence Jackson Kemper was chosen first missionary bishop in this land, and by his arduous labor and travel congregations were established in scattered settlements of the West: Grant that the Church may always be faithful to its mission, and have the vision, courage, and perseverance to make known to all people the Good News of Jesus Christ; who with you and the Holy Spirit lives and reigns, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
A number of documents related to Bishop Kemper, including the sermon preached at his consecration and a biography, An Apostle of the Western Church, are published on the Project Canterbury website.