William West Skiles, a native of North Carolina, was the first man in the Anglican Communion since the Reformation to persevere in the dedicated life of poverty, chastity, and obedience under vows.
Born October 12, 1807 in Perquimons County, Skiles distinguished himself in his early adult life for his honesty, industry and strong sense of duty. At the age of thirty-seven he joined the small community of theological students and their rector at the missionary station established the previous year at the behest of the Rt Revd Levi Silliman Ives, Bishop of North Carolina, in the remote valley in the Blue Ridge Mountains of western North Carolina known as Valle Crucis, so named by Bishop Ives because of the St Andrew’s cross-like junction of three streams in the valley, whose joined waters flowed downstream into the Watauga River. Skiles’ sound practical judgment, good character, and skill and experience as an overseer of lumber mills soon placed him in a supervisory role of the day to day workings of the mission station at Valle Crucis. Over the years he served as head farmer, storekeeper, postmaster and general treasurer, and years later he directed the construction of a new chapel for the community. Because of his age and experience, he was consulted on practical points by the younger men and theological students of the mission station, one of whom in later years described Skiles to a biographer as “our Nestor”.
Shortly after his arrival at Valle Crucis he expressed a desire to serve the Lord more fully by being ordained to the sacred ministry, and for the next two years he divided his time between his work on the mission station and his studies. On August 1, 1847, Skiles was ordained by Bishop Ives to the diaconate under a canon of 1844, which allowed for the ordination of men to the diaconate without having received a classical (rather than a “plain English”) education. Retaining stewardship of the temporal affairs of the mission station at Valle Crucis, Skiles also entered upon his duties as a deacon, occasionally reading the daily office in the chapel and carrying out mission work at the outlying stations in the Watauga Valley, reading prayers, catechizing and occasionally preaching. He undertook some medical training through reading books and receiving instruction from one of the students at the station who himself had previous medical training. With the departure of this fellow missionary after his ordination, Skiles was frequently called upon to provide medical care to the people of the surrounding valley and mountains.
In 1847 the work of the missionary station became more focused. The store and the boys’ school were closed, leaving the theological school and the missions work at Valle Crucis and at the outlying missions stations. At his visitation to Valle Crucis that year, Bishop Ives established the Order of the Holy Cross, the first Anglican monastic order since the Reformation. The Revd Mr Glennie French, head of the missionary work at Valle Crucis, was appointed Superior, and many of the divinity students there, along with Skiles, assumed the obligations of the Order. Despite trials and privations, the missionary work at Valle Crucis proceeded with encouraging results, a number of baptisms and confirmations being recorded every year. The Revd Mr William Prout, for a long time the only priest in the area, reported,
“Much improvement has been effected in the religious condition of the people in this section within the year. The Church is felt to be permanently fixed here, and is consequently exerting a steady influence on the population. The hopes of the members, and friends of this Mission, are beginning to be realized, and we are cheered, while we wish only to work in quietness, and faith. We derive new confidence of final success in our work by widening continually the entire adaptation of the arrangements of the Church, to the wants, and capacities of a plain, uneducated people.”
Over the next few years concern arose in the Diocese of North Carolina regarding Bishop Ives, whether he had embraced “Romish” doctrines regarding the invocation of saints, transubstantiation, auricular confession, and absolution. In 1851, after investigation by a committee of inquiry requested by the bishop and appointed by diocesan convention, Bishop Ives reassured his diocese in a signed statement that he had renounced belief in any doctrine not consistent with the teachings of the Protestant Episcopal Church, doctrines (like the invocation of saints and auricular confession) into whose adoption he stated to have been “insensibly led”. With regard to the Order of the Holy Cross, he declared that “No such order is now in existence.”
(In September, 1852, Bishop Ives requested a six-months’ leave of absence and an advance on his salary to enable him to travel with his wife “for the benefit of [his] impaired health”. Bishop Ives sailed for Europe with his wife in October, and on December 22 he addressed a letter to the diocesan convention of the Protestant Episcopal Church in North Carolina, resigning his office of bishop and declaring his intention to make his submission to the Bishop of Rome.)
In Watauga County, the attendance at the mission stations continued to be encouraging, though Skiles was left alone at Valle Crucis. He continued to devote himself to the welfare of his scattered flock, despite many difficulties, including the sale of the heavily-encumbered property of the mission to the grandson of a clergyman, who worked the former mission ground as a farm, and who was kind to the Skiles, allowing the deacon the use of the former office and library as his home, feeding the deacon from his own table, and providing for a horse and several cows. Henry, Skiles’ horse, was his faithful companion on errands of duty and charity, day and night, over many rugged paths. The cows Skiles reserved for the benefit of poor families, loaning them out to those who need the milk and, so as not to tax the supplies of the families, sending along meal with the cows as feed. Skiles continued faithfully in his missionary and pastoral duties, reading divine service, preaching, catechizing, and preparing candidates for baptism and confirmation. He kept both day schools and Sunday schools for the benefit of the children of the region and served many households in Watauga County not only as pastor, but also as physician and occasionally as nurse. He also served a largely illiterate populace as scrivener and legal adviser, and few days passed when he was not brought a family letter, a business letter or a legal paper to read. His opinion in farming and stock matters was sought often. He frequently acted as an arbitrator in disputes between neighbors, his opinion being generally accepted as wise and just, and it was always a pleasure to him when he could act as a peacemaker.
The Rt Revd Dr Thomas Atkinson, Bishop of North Carolina after the resignation of Bishop Ives, took special interest in Skiles and his work. The bishop generally invited the deacon to accompany him on a circuit of visitations, sometimes going as far afield as Asheville. Over the course of a year, Skiles held services in as many as sixteen places, many of them widely distant from one another, such that he would have had to travel more than 1000 miles during the year. On any call for pastoral care, Skiles would saddle Henry and ride over the mountains, sometimes as far as twenty miles, often in stormy weather, to pray with a sick person or to nurse them in illness.
By 1858, the Sunday attendance at the Lower Watauga station had become too great for any single room in the settlement, and plans were made for the construction of a house for the church on a high bank above the Watauga River, some six miles from Valle Crucis and about one mile from Skiles’ home at the house of a parishioner, one Mr Evans. Skiles drew up plans for a simple, church-like building with the help of prepared architectural plans and the advice of more experienced friends. The people of the Lower Watauga gave what they were able (most families in the region were poor), and many of the men donated lumber and labor for the church’s construction, but the gathering of funds and materials was no easy task. Skiles himself gave more than one-third of the $700 cost of the church. As soon as the church was fairly enclosed in the summer of 1860, services were held there. On August 22, 1862, Dr Atkinson consecrated the Church of St John the Baptist. Skiles never saw the church again after the consecratory liturgy.
Accompanied by Dr Atkinson, Skiles left the Lower Watauga to take up residence at the home of Colonel Palmer, who was leaving home to take up command of a regiment in the Confederate Army and wished that his wife and nieces should have “a respectable man” in the house to look to in case of a danger of violence from roving marauders. After a prolonged and painful illness, during which he was nursed by Mrs Palmer, Skiles died on December 8, 1862. Wintry weather made it impossible to send to a nearby town for a coffin, and he was buried in a rough box of boards constructed on the spot by a neighbor. Mrs Palmer herself dressed Skiles in his surplice, unwilling that any hireling should do him this last service. He was buried in the garden near the house.
On December 16, a friend, the Revd Mr Wetmore, had Skiles’ body disinterred, and the remains were removed to the Church of St John the Baptist, where a service was held on December 18, some forty people in attendance, and his body was reinterred in the churchyard there.
In 1882, the Church of St John the Baptist was removed in pieces and reconstructed on a spot higher up the Watauga, for the convenience of the parish. Skiles’ remains were translated to the new churchyard and were decently and reverently committed to their final resting place.
In his episcopal address to the diocesan convention of 1863, Dr Atkinson said,
“[The Revd Mr Skiles] was one whom all loved and honoured for his humility, his self-denial, his diligence, his affectionate temper towards his fellow-men, his unwearied zeal in the service of his Master. He was permitted to live until he saw the Church [of St John the Baptist] consecrated, and some of the living fruits of his self-denying labours gathered in. From that day he never saw it again…He was a true Missionary, humble, patient, laborious, and affectionate, not despising the day of small things, and still less despising any human soul, however rude, sin-stained, and ignorant that soul might be. Long will the dwellers in the valleys and forests of that wild mountain region miss their faithful Pastor, who was at the same time their Physician, their counseller, and their familiar friend.”
prepared from William West Skiles: A Sketch of
Missionary Life at Valle Crucis in Western North Carolina, 1842-1862,
edited by Susan Fenimore Cooper (1890),
published online by Project Canterbury
O God, whose blessed Son became poor that we through his poverty might be rich: Deliver us from an inordinate love of this world, that we, inspired by the devotion of your servant William West Skiles, may serve you with singleness of heart, and attain to the riches of the age to come; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.
The Rt Revd Joseph Blount Cheshire came to Valle Crucis in 1895 to reestablish the Episcopal ministry, directing the construction of several buildings still in use. Shortly thereafter, the Rt Revd Junius Horner, the new Bishop of the Missionary District of Asheville, begun a renaissance of Valle Crucis, and the present Church of the Holy Cross was built in 1925. The Church of St John the Baptist, a splendid example of the 19th century “Carpenter Gothic” style, stands three miles distant from Holy Cross and is still used by the parish for special services.
It seems right and proper for Anglicans in North Carolina at least to venerate the memory of the Revd Deacon Skiles. The Episcopal Diocese of Western North Carolina passed a resolution in 2007 to memorialize the General Convention of The Episcopal Church to add to the Calendar a commemoration of William West Skiles on December 8. I propose a commemoration on December 18, the date of his translation to the churchyard of the Church of St John the Baptist, since December 8 is kept by some Anglicans (and this sanctoral calendar) as the feast day of the Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary.