Section navigation

Charles P. McIlvaine

Charles Pettit McIlvaine was an Episcopal bishop, author, educator and twice Chaplain of the United States Senate. He was born in 1799 in Burlington, New Jersey. His father Joseph (later U.S. Senator from New Jersey) was of Scottish origin.

McIlvaine was educated at Burlington Academy and entered the College of New Jersey (later Princeton University), where he graduated in 1816, after being converted during a revival which took place while he was studying. The following year he entered the theological seminary attached to the First Presbyterian Church of Princeton, having felt called to minister in the Episcopal church, the church of his childhood, and was ordained a deacon in 1820 in Philadelphia. Soon after, he became rector of Christ Church in Georgetown, Washington, D.C. In 1822 he was appointed chaplain to the U.S. Senate, and in October of that year he married Emily Coxe.

From 1825 to 1827, McIlvaine served as chaplain and professor of ethics at the United States Military Academy at West Point, where his students included Robert E. Lee and Jefferson Davis. During his time there, he was instrumental in a revival among the cadets. In all his appointments in the Episcopal church, McIlvaine sought to counter the prevailing ‘high-church’ attitudes in the denomination and to shift the emphasis from ceremony and ritual to Scripture and personal salvation. His question to his ordinands was, ‘Have you fled to Christ and committed your soul to him as all your refuge and righteousness?’

In 1827 he accepted a call to St. Ann’s Church in Brooklyn, New York. In 1831 he was named Professor of the Evidences of Revealed Religion at the University of the City of New York. The following year he accepted a call from the Diocese of Ohio to become Bishop and soon began to reorganize Kenyon College in Gambier, Ohio, and its associated seminary, travelling to England to raise money for the seminary.

As Bishop of Ohio, McIlvaine proved a dynamic leader, preaching often, establishing parishes, supervising Kenyon College, writing theological papers and co-operating in gospel endeavours with Presbyterians and Methodists. He drew the line in co-operation, however, at the type of revivalism represented by Charles Finney. In this form of Protestantism he saw ‘the spirit of reckless innovation, contemptuous insubordination, formal fanaticism and fanatical informality’.

Already a prominent churchman and educator, McIlvaine also served his country as a diplomat. Shortly after the outbreak of the Civil War, President Lincoln asked him to go to England to argue against British recognition of the Confederacy. He often had coffee at Buckingham Palace, lunched with faculty members at Oxford, conversed with cabinet members, and influenced debate in the House of Commons.

McIlvaine died in Florence, Italy in March, 1873. His body, carried through England on its journey home to Ohio, was honoured for four days in Westminster Abbey. Apart from the ‘honorary’ American citizen, Sir Winston Churchill, McIlvaine was the only American to this day to lie-in-state at Westminster. His pall-bearers included the Earl of Shaftesbury, Benjamin Moxon (of the American Legation) and the Earl of Harrowby.

McIlvaine’s book Preaching Christ: The Heart of Gospel Ministry, is published by the Trust.