The Anglican Church first came to the United States of America in Jamestown, Virginia, in 1607 and got a foothold in the very heart of Puritan New England with the establishment of St. James’ Parish, Great Barrington, the first Anglican parish in what is now the Diocese of Western Massachusetts.
In 1701 the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts, later commonly known as the “S.P.G” was founded. Between 1701 and the outbreak of the American Revolution, the S.P.G. sent to America and provided support for no fewer than 353 Anglican priests. Included among then were Solomon Palmer, the first priest to hold services and administer sacraments according to the Prayer Book in Great Barrington; Thomas Davies, the priest who organized what is now St. James’ Parish in 1762; and Gideon Bostwick, St. James’ first Rector.
The strength of the Church of England in Connecticut and the fact that Berkshire County, Massachusetts enjoyed an easier access to the sea down the Housatonic Valley rather than across the Berkshire Barrier to Boston, help to explain why the first two Anglican parishes in Western Massachusetts were Great Barrington (1762) and Lanesborough (1767) – both of them on the Housatonic River, and why their early priests came to them from the Diocese of Connecticut rather than from the Diocese of Massachusetts until after the beginning of the nineteenth century.
After Great Britain acknowledged the independence of the United States in 1783, the Anglican parishes in each of the thirteen American states organized themselves into dioceses, and when a means of support could be found, elected bishops. Connecticut was the first diocese to have a Bishop. On March 25, 1783 ten priests met at St. Paul’s Parish, Woodbury to choose Samuel Seabury. Tradition has it that one of the ten was Gideon Bostwick, the first Rector of Great Barrington, which for convenience of travel was part of the Diocese of Connecticut until 1804.
The Diocese of Massachusetts came into being on September 8, 1784, when its first convention was held at Boston. The first Bishop of Massachusetts, who was elected on May 24, 1796 and consecrated in 1797 was Edward Bass (1797-1803); followed by Samuel Parker (1804); Alexander Viets Griwsold (1811-43); Manton Eastburn (1843-72); Benjamin Henry Paddock (1873-91); Phillips Brooks (1891-93); and then William Lawrence (1893-1927).
The rapid growth of the Episcopal Church in the Diocese of Massachusetts during the latter part of the nineteenth century was becoming too large for efficient administration under a single Bishop. On June 14, 1901, after ten years of a division being under discussion, the Convention assembled and Bishop William Lawrence presented an address to the Convention, giving history of the successive attempts to divide the Diocese and the difficulties such a division involved. He stated that he believed “the time had come when the spiritual interest of the Church in Massachusetts demanded a division at the earliest date consistent with justice to the Churches in the west.”
The dividing line was drawn and a committee was appointed to raise the sum of $100,000 within the limits of the eastern Diocese and give it to the new Diocese in lieu of all claims upon the funds of the Diocese of Massachusetts. The western part of the state did not want the Diocese divided. The final decision left the west with fifty clergymen and between 45 and 50 parishes and missions. The gift of $100,000, though generous, was not sufficient.
Appropriate committees for the organization and governing of the new diocese, officially recognized as The Diocese of Western Massachusetts, were appointed at the organizing convention of November 10, 1901. A special meeting at Christ Church on January 22, 1902, elected as Bishop the Rev. Alexander Hamilton Vinton D.D., Rector of All Saints Church in Worcester (1902-11). Although Bishop Vinton’s primary problem was financial, he also addressed how to consolidate parishes and missions with no previous center. Springfield, easily accessible from every part of western Massachusetts, was selected as the see city.
Diocese of Western Massachusetts – the Bishops
Alexander Hamilton Vinton (1902-11) – First Bishop of the Diocese – By the time of his death in 1911, Bishop Vinton had eliminated many of the problems of the new diocese and had realized much of its potential. Parishes and missions had increased to fifty-six, and the number of communicants had increased by fifty percent.
Thomas F. Davies (1911-36) – Second Bishop – Expanded Missionary work and guided people through World War I and the depression of the 1920s. 12 missions founded, 10 mission churches built, 12 churches consecrated, Christ Church, Springfield became the Diocesan Cathedral.
William Appleton Lawrence (1937-57) – Third Bishop – Created the first Diocesan Council in 1938, recommended lay employees be included under social security, Camp Bement was established in 1946. In his retirement Bishop Lawrence developed what is now known as the Clergy Deployment Office.
Robert McConnell Hatch (1957-70) – Fourth Bishop – The war in Vietnam and civil rights movement were two of the main controversial movements that concerned Bishop Hatch. The exodus to suburbia in the 1950s prompted the founding of new missions in Wilbraham, Northborough, East Longmeadow, South Hadley and Fairview – the latter to serve Westover Air Force Base. Other churches were closed in Winchendon and Van Deusenville, as well as St. Simon’s in Springfield.
Alexander Doig Stewart (1970-1984) – Fifth Bishop – A revised Prayer book was approved for use, women were appointed as layreaders, General Convention voted in favor of women’s ordination to the priesthood, and Western Massachusetts became a Companion Diocese to the Diocese of Mt. Kilimanjaro in Tanzania.
Andrew Frederick Wissemann (1984-92) – Sixth Bishop – Continued relationship with Tanzania, appointment of the first full time Diocesan Coordinator for Education, start of new program, “Living Into Our Baptism” as a tool to revitalize churches.
Robert Scott Denig (1993-1995) – Seventh Bishop – Wanted youth to participate in ministry, churches to be “safe”, and to increase the Diocese’s Hispanic ministry. Succumbed to cancer in 1995.
Gordon Paul Scruton (1996-2012) – Eighth Bishop – Committed to the ministry of reconciliation. Addressed needs of moving the Diocese on from maintenance mode to missionary engagement.
Douglas John Fisher (2012-) – Ninth Bishop – Committed to congregational development, inclusiveness, racial and economic justice, creation care and sensible gun legislation.
For more in depth history, read “From the Blackstone to the Housatonic” – A History of the Episcopal Diocese of Western Massachusetts – The First Hundred Years, available at Diocesan House in Springfield.