Continuation of Faithfulness: James Lloyd Breck, A Life of Mission Beyond Nashotah

James Lloyd Breck: A Life of Mission Beyond Nashotah

By Ms. Amy Cunningham, Archival Assistant, Frances Donaldson Library

 

Editor’s Note: The writer dedicates this article to the memory of the Rev. Terry Star who provided the inspiration for its writing when he shared that James Lloyd Breck was considered a hero among the Dakota people.  Mr. Star was kind enough to review the article before it was submitted for publication.

 

In 1850, after eight years serving as priest, educator and administrator at the Nashotah House Mission he founded, the Reverend James Lloyd Breck (1818-78) left for the Minnesota Territory.   Several reasons surrounded Dr. Breck’s resolve to seek a new mission field: southern Wisconsin was no longer the Frontier; from 1840-50 the population of Waukesha County grew from 2,256 to 19,258 inhabitants.[1] Plus, Wisconsin had 23 Episcopal clergy at this time; [2] the only Episcopal priest in Minnesota was a military chaplain at Fort Snelling, St. Paul.[3]  Further, the House had strayed from the quasi-monastic order he had originally envisioned. The last straw was the marriage of one of the other founders, the Rev. William Adams, to the daughter of the Rt. Rev. Jackson Kemper.   Although the Nashotah House community would retain, even to this present day, a way of life based on Benedictine principles, the strict discipline of daily life and the idea of a “brotherhood” of believers was no more.

 

In Minnesota, Dr. Breck initially established a mission base camp near Fort Snelling. From here, he travelled prodigiously to conduct religious services in the remote frontier and to scout out potential Indian mission sites.  He founded mission churches in Stillwater and St. Paul.  Additionally, the church he founded at St. Anthony Falls, the original name for Minneapolis, was the first place of public worship in this now-thriving

metropolis.[4]  In the first 6 months alone, by his own estimation, he traveled 4,639 miles by foot, boat and sleigh.[5]

Red-Chapel-03

In 1852 Dr. Breck moved 150 miles northwest to establish educational, agricultural and missionary centers among the Ojibwe (Chippewa) people. At Gull Lake, near present day Brainerd, MN, Breck founded St. Columba Church, a parish which still thrives to this day. The Ojibwe were very receptive to Breck’s message and many chose to be baptized and adopt the Christian lifestyle.  Dr. Breck diligently studied Ojibwe and was able to obtain a prayer book in this language allowing the converts to practice the faith in their native tongue.  The Ojibwe people called Breck “Makuh dayakuhnaya,” meaning “Black Robe” or “Man in the Cassock.” [6]

 

Dr. Breck’s success is best summed up in an 1854 letter he received from the Superintendent of Indian Affairs for the territory which states:

 

I am gratified to hear from all sources the unexampled success you are having in         the great cause of humanity. Your mission is now, and has been, doing more          than any mission I know of. [7]

 

The Rev. Theodore Holcombe, a fellow missionary who accompanied Dr. Breck from Nashotah House to Minnesota, remarked in his memoir of this period that while the other men were comfortable walking 20 miles a day, Breck would walk 40 miles a day if he could.  He describes Breck as amazingly effective at raising all the necessary funds for his enterprises himself by continual correspondence with supporters in the East.  Apparently, Breck never worried over money but had complete confidence in the monetary provision for his mission establishments. It also should be noted that Mr. Holcombe attributes the peace that occurred after Breck’s arrival between previously warring Indian tribes almost entirely to Breck’s efforts.[8]

 

In 1855 Dr. Breck married Jane Marie Mills, a teacher who worked with him at the Ojibwe missions.  Breck seems to have had a change of heart in his vision of the ideal missionary remaining unmarried, stating it was “necessary to marry where the domestic life was to be taught as well as the Christian.”  The following year, the missionary couple had a son, William Augustus Muhlenberg Breck, named after Breck’s mentor.  Later they had another son, Charlie, named after Breck’s brother.  In addition, the Brecks also informally adopted a half Ojibwe girl, Clara Mokomanik.*

 

Unfortunately, in 1857 the Brecks were forced to flee the upper missions due to fear for their safety.  Their home was attacked several times by Indians under the influence of fire-water (whiskey), and 40 settlers were killed by the Dakota (Sioux).  Dr. Breck’s take on these events are worth noting; he took the side of the Indians blaming the troubles on the “white man’s speculations and indiscriminate sale of fire-water.”[9]  It was illegal to sell whiskey to the Indians at this time, but the law was not being enforced.  Dr. Breck states in a letter, ”I am convinced that the fault is with the policy of our Government and the unprincipled character of the frontier whites.”[10]  He wrote to church and government officials explaining his views.

 

To this day, the oral tradition among the indigenous people of the Midwest remembers James Lloyd Breck as an advocate and hero for native people. His missionary legacy is still with us today at Nashotah House, through students like Terry Star, member of the Standing Rock Sioux (Dakota) Tribe in North Dakota, who recalls growing up hearing about Breck from his grandmother.

 

“My grandmother tells that Breck started the missions, and then was a very good advocate for Indian people, always urging the local farmers and ranchers and townsmen to be more Christian in their behaviors towards Indian people,” says Star.  “The ‘uprising’ was instigated by the ranchers and townsmen who refused to honor recently signed treaties in which the Indian ceded land rights in exchange for peace, healthcare, education, and food… none of which they received. In oral tradition, it is taught that Breck was a good Christian man, who fought for fair treatment, and encouraged the Indian people to use restraint. Breck and Whipple, and later, Whipple’s grandson, Bishop Hare, lobbied for fair treatment by the US Government.”

 

Over the next 10 years, the tireless Breck headquartered his mission work at Faribault, in southern Minnesota.  Here he founded Seabury Divinity School in 1858, modeled after Nashotah House.  In 1933 Seabury merged with Western Theological Seminary to become Seabury-Western in Chicago.  While he continued to visit the northern Ojibwe missions he also founded a primary school and high school academy in Faribault, Shattuck-St. Mary’s, still in existence today. By 1860 these schools were educating 250 students, including many Dakota children from the area.

 

Dr. Breck saw the fruits of his tireless labors for the Episcopal Church when the Diocese of Minnesota was created and received its first Bishop, the Rt. Rev. H.B. Whipple, and the first Diocesan Convention was held in 1859.  In addition, Bishop Whipple ordained J. Johnson Enmegawbowh, an Ojibwe, to the priesthood. Enmegawbowh, who now has a feast day in the calendar of the Episcopal Church, had been baptized by Breck and ordained to the diaconate by Bishop Kemper. He was the first Indian ordained in the Episcopal Church.[11]

 

Dr. Breck made a huge impression on a young student visitor during these years who later wrote about his experience.[12] (12) Although this young man’s name is lost to history he recounts a wonderful snapshot of Dr. Breck in Faribault.  He describes a tall figure with a face of combined determination and gentleness; and a person who commanded respect from everyone he came upon. Children followed him in the streets and clung to his cassock.  Dr. Breck never rested or sought a moment’s relaxation, but always sought out the sick and dying to comfort and the young to catechize. The church services he ran were even more remarkable; the seats were free, young children sat on the chancel steps, and the congregation was a mix of divinity students, native people and pioneers enthusiastically participating.

 

Little did Dr. Breck realize when he decided to move to the southwestern Minnesota city of Faribault, that he would place himself directly in the midst of the Dakota War of 1862. The killing of at least 500 settlers led to the largest mass execution in American history when 38 Dakota Indians were hung.   Originally, 303 Dakota Indians were found guilty and sentenced to death by hanging. Breck and Bishop Whipple shared the same view on the underlying causes of Indian unrest, and while in Washington, D.C. Bishop Whipple requested a meeting with President Abraham Lincoln where he pleaded the case for the Dakotas.[13]  Shortly thereafter, Lincoln commuted the death sentence for 265 of the convicted men.

 

Of the Uprising, Dr. Breck writes that “our missionaries have all escaped.”[14] Indeed, it is remarkable that Little Crow, Chief of the warring Dakotas, protected several people from harm at the Lower Indian Agency near New Ulm, Minnesota, including the Episcopal school teacher and missionary living there.[15] This is a testament to the good relations and respect that had been fostered between the frontier Episcopalians and the Dakota Indians.

 

After the uprising, most of the Dakota were forcibly removed from Minnesota and relocated to reservations further west.  This, along with the death of his beloved wife in 1861, forced Dr. Breck to re-evaluate his mission. Rather than withdrawing, he put his energy towards building the first Cathedral of the Episcopal Church in Faribault.[16]  He commenced a fund raising tour in the east, raising $5,000 to begin construction. In 1862 Bishop Whipple laid the cornerstone of the Cathedral of Our Merciful Savior as a memorial to Breck’s wife.  The Cathedral was consecrated in 1869 with Bishop Kemper being in attendance.  It would remain the sole Cathedral of Minnesota until 1941 when St. Marks, Minneapolis was built.

 

From here Dr. Breck would remarry and move to California where he died in 1876 at the age of 58.  At Nashotah House, we rightfully claim James Lloyd Breck as our founder, and knowing that many other places also claim Breck as their own, only adds to our appreciation of this great man.  Breck and Nashotah remained close throughout the Minnesota years. Nashotah occasionally sent an offering to Breck’s missions, and the more established of Breck’s missions would in turn take up offerings for Nashotah House. Breck referred to Nashotah House as his “first born” and returned on several occasions to visit. His son, Muhlenberg, received his divinity degree from Nashotah in 1880.

 

At Nashotah, Breck’s stature seemed to grow the longer he was gone and his missionary zeal continues to inspire the hearts of those who love Nashotah House. This was exemplified in this final bit of history regarding Nashotah and Dr. Breck; twenty years after Breck’s death, Nashotah House, through legal maneuverings and efforts by Mr. Holcombe and Breck’s son, was able to have Breck’s remains removed from his burial place in California and brought to the House, his “first born.”

 

In October 1897, the ceremony of re-internment was attended by 18 bishops, 110 clergy and 250 laity. The Alumni of Seabury Divinity School that were present, soon thereafter sent a letter to the President of Nashotah House concluding with these remarks:

 

They (Seabury Alumni) pray Almighty God that as both Nashotah and Seabury       are the fruit of the faith of one founder, builded (built) for one purpose, they may in one spirit and one hope go forward to larger usefulness in the Service of our Lord Jesus Christ.[17]

 

*After the Dakota War, Clara left Minnesota with Breck’s sister-in-law, Mary J. Mills Whipple, and her husband George Whipple, brother of Bishop Henry Whipple. They became missionaries in Hawaii.  Clara later married William Frederick Mossman and had nine children. Her descendants still live in Hawaii.[18]

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


[1] J. H. A. Lacher, “Nashotah House: Wisconsin’s Oldest School of Higher Learning,” The Wisconsin Magazine of History 16, no. 2, (1932): 154-55.

[2] Journal of the Proceedings of the Bishops, Clergy, and Laity of the Protestant Episcopal Church in the United States of America: 1850. ( Philadelphia: King & Baird Printers, 1851), 267.

[3] James Lloyd Breck, The Life of the Reverend James Lloyd Breck, D.D.: Chiefly from Letters Written by Himself, ed. Charles Breck, D.D. (New York: E. & J. B. Young & Co., 1883), 133.

[4] Breck, Life of Breck, 157.

[5] Breck, Life of Breck, 165.

[6] Breck, Life of Breck, 232.

[7] Theodore Isaac Holcombe, An Apostle of the Wilderness: James Lloyd Breck, D.D., His Missions and His Schools (New York: Thomas Whittaker, 1903), 106.

[8] Holcombe, Apostle, 148.

[9] Breck, Life of Breck, 330.

[10]Breck, Life of Breck, 343.

[11] Holcombe, Apostle, 95.

[12] Anon., “James Lloyd Breck at Faribault,” Nashotah Scholiast 3, no. 9 (1886): 147-50.

[13] Scott W. Berg, 38 Nooses: Lincoln, Little Crow, and the Beginning of the Frontier’s End (New York: Vintage Books, 2012), 133.

[14] Breck, Life of Breck, 400.

[15] Berg, 38 Nooses, 34.

[16] The Very Rev. Gary Kriss. “Cathedral Building in America: A Missionary Cathedral in Utah.” Anglicanhistory.org (2004): 11, (accessed March 16, 2014).

[17] Imri Murden Blackburn. “Nashotah House: A History of Seventy-five Years” (manuscript, Nashotah House, Nashotah, Wisc, 1966) James Lloyd Breck Returns (no pages available).

[18] “Clara Mokomanic Rohrer,” last modified 2009, http://www.ancestry.com.

 

 

 

 

 

Bibliography

 Anonymous. “James Lloyd Breck at Faribault,” Nashotah Scholiast  3, no. 9 (1866): 147-50.

Berg, Scott W. 38 Nooses: Lincoln, Little Crow, and the Beginning of the Frontier’s End. New York: Vintage Books, 2012.

Blackburn, Imri Murdern. “Nashotah House: A History of Seventy-Five Years.” Manuscript, Nashotah House, Nashotah, WI, 1966.

Breck, James Lloyd. The Life of the Reverend James Lloyd Breck, D.D.: Chiefly from Letters Written by Himself. Edited by Charles Breck, D.D. New York: E. & J. B. Young & Co., 1883.

“Clara Roher Mokomanik.” Genealogy, Family Trees & Family History Records at Ancestry.com, last modified 2009,  http://www.ancestry.com.

Holcombe, Theodore Isaac. An Apostle of the Wilderness: James Lloyd Breck, D.D., His Missions and His Schools. New York: Thomas Whittaker, 1903.

Journal of the Proceedings of the Bishops, Clergy, and Laity of the Protestant Episcopal Church in the United States of America (1850).  Philadelphia: King & Baird Printers, 1851.

Kriss, Gary. “Cathedral Building in America:A Missionary Cathedral in Utah,” Anglicanhistory.org, 11 (2004), http://anglicanhistory.org/essays/Kriss_Utah.pdf (accessed March 16, 2014).

Lacher, J.H.A. “Nashotah House: Wisconsin’s Oldest School of Higher Learning, The Wisconsin Magazine of History vol. XVI, No 2 (1932): 154-55.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

nashotahhouse

About nashotahhouse

Located in Nashotah, Wisconsin, Nashotah House Theological Seminary is the oldest institute of higher education in the state of Wisconsin. Founded in 1842 by a Missionary Bishop of the Episcopal Church, Nashotah House belongs to the Anglican tradition of worship, theology and spirituality. That is, Nashotah House traces her roots to the Church of England and locates herself within the worldwide Anglican Communion. Comprehending the fundamental disciplines of Holy Scripture, Theology, Church History, Spirituality and Pastoral Ministry, the curriculum at Nashotah House not only roots our students in the ancient wisdom of the Church, it prepares and empowers them to communicate the Gospel to the world today.