John Henry Hobart was one of the churchmen who revived Anglicanism in the United States after the American War for Independence. After its formation in 1789, the Protestant Episcopal Church lay in a state that has been described as “suspended animation” for nearly two decades. 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 vigorously defended both, declaring that amidst “the agitations of error and enthusiasm” and “the conflicts of heresy and schism”, the Church must maintain at all hazards “her faith, her ministry, her order, her worship, in all her great distinctive principles” (from the sermon preached at the consecration of Bishop Henry Onderdonk of Pennsylvania). Candid in speech and fearless in controversy, a speaker and preacher of impassioned eloquence, Hobart was zealously devoted to the Gospel and to such causes as higher education and missions to the Oneida Indians. He was 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 in 1775, Hobart completed his university education at Pennsylvania and Princeton in 1791 and was ordained to the diaconate in 1798 and to the presbyterate in 1801 by his longtime friend and mentor, William White, the bishop of Pennsylvania. 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 the Protestant Episcopal Church in New York in 1811. Five years later he succeeded Bishop Benjamin Moore, both as diocesan bishop and as rector of Trinity Church.
Hobart was indefatigable as a bishop. Within the first four years of his episcopate, 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. His diocese covered nearly fifty thousand square miles, with most of the area west and north of Albany a virtual wilderness. He agreed to oversee the parishes of Connecticut when discord between their high church and low church factions prevented the election of a bishop and 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. 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, he served as the seminary’s governor. 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 Movement in England.
Suffering long from an illness that required occasional retirement from his work for rest and recuperation, likely a bleeding ulcer or a chronic enteric infection, 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.
One of his extant sermons reveals what he believed and preached about the illuminating power of the Gospel:
Blessed light of the Gospel, sent in mercy from the eternal Father of lights; we behold in thy revelations, (divine truth shining forth resplendent and glorious,)–the infinite and eternal Jehovah, arrayed in attributes the most illustrious and attractive, commanding, from the throne of righteous dominion, our enlightened homage and obedience; we behold a divine Saviour making a full propitiation for man’s guilt, restoring the offender to the favour of his God, and preparing for the heir of sin and death the bliss of an immortal existence…
My brethren, the light of the glorious Gospel relieves us from these doubts and fears that would alloy all our virtuous joys. Let us often reflect with gratitude on the inestimable gift; on the exalted privilege of being called to the knowledge of God, of Jesus Christ whom he has sent, whom to know is life eternal. Let us not obstruct, by the pride or presumption of human reason, or by impenitence and sin, the illuminating efficacy of the light of the Gospel on our hearts. Humble, submissive, penitent, and obedient, let us seek, by fervent prayer, that divine illumination and grace by which our faith will daily become more strong and triumphant, and our obedience daily more sincere and holy, until our faith shall terminate in the vision of the transcendent brightness of the divine glory, and our obedience in the rewards of perfect and eternal bliss.
( from Sermon 1, “The Illuminating Power of the Gospel“, Parochial Sermons in The Posthumous Works of the Late Right Reverend John Henry Hobart, D.D., Bishop of the Protestant Episcopal Church in the State of New-York, 1832.)
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.