John Henry Hobart was one of the churchmen who revived the Protestant Episcopal Church following the first two decades of its autonomous life after the American War for Indepedence, a time in the Church’s life that has been described as one of “suspended animation”. In part this arose from a general irreligiosity in certain regions of the new nation, and in part from the distrust in the American democratic republican temperament for episcopacy and apostolic succession. Hobart was a vigorous defender of both, arguably besting in print a Presbyterian opponent. Hobart was able, candid in speech and fearless in controversy, a speaker and preacher of impassioned eloquence, zealously devoted to the Gospel and to such causes as higher education and missions to the Oneida Indians, a man of personal integrity and of warm affections at a time when most men were emotionally reserved, even within their families.
Born in Philadelphia on September 14, 1775, Hobart received his education at the Universities of Pennsylvania and Princeton, graduating from the latter in 1791. Bishop William White, his longtime friend and mentor, ordained him deacon in 1798 and presbyter in 1801. After serving parishes in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and Long Island, Hobart became assistant minister of Trinity Church, New York City, in 1800. He was consecrated Assistant Bishop of New York on May 29, 1811. Five years later he succeeded Bishop Benjamin Moore, both as diocesan bishop and as rector of Trinity Church.
Within his first four years as bishop, Hobart doubled the number of his clergy and quadrupled the number of missionaries in his diocese. By his death, he had planted a church in almost every major town in New York and had opened missionary work among the Oneida Indians. He knew the clergy in his diocese intimately, remembered their families, forgave their failings and encouraged their strengths. He met weekly with his candidates for ordination and watched over them closely. He founded Geneva College, renamed Hobart College in 1852. He was one of the founders of the General Theological Seminary in New York City, becoming Professor of Theology in 1821 and, as bishop, serving as the seminary’s governor. Hobart was indefatigable as a bishop. His diocese of New York covered nearly fifty thousand square miles, with most of the area west and north of Albany a virtual wilderness. Agreeing to oversee the parishes of Connecticut when discord between their high church and low church factions prevented the election of a bishop, he did so more thoroughly than any bishop had before. The diocese of New Jersey appealed to him when they were also without a bishop, and he provided oversight to them as well. All this he did while also serving as rector of Trinity Church.
A strong and unbending upholder of Church standards, Hobart established the Bible and Common Prayer Book Society of New York and was one of the first American churchmen to produce theological and devotional manuals for the laity. These “tracts”, as they were called, and the personal impression he made on the occasion of a visit to Oxford, were an influence on the development of the Tractarian Movements in England.
Suffering long from an illness that was likely a bleeding ulcer and that required his occasional retirement from his work for rest and recuperation, Hobart died at Auburn, New York, on September 12, 1830. His funeral was attended by the governor of New York and the mayor of New York City, and the funeral procession numbered some three thousand mourners. He was interred beneath the chancel of Trinity Church, Wall Street.
prepared from Lesser Feasts and Fasts (1980) and other sources
Revive your Church, Lord God of hosts, whenever it falls into complacency and sloth, by raising up devoted leaders like your servant John Henry Hobart whom we remember today; and grant that their faith and vigor of mind may awaken your people to your message and their mission; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
The propers for the commemoration of John Henry Hobart, Bishop of New York, are published on the Lectionary Page website.