Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Oliver Sherman Prescott

Oliver Sherman Prescott is one of the most interesting priests in the history of the Episcopal Church.  The Anglo-Catholic movement has had more than its share of characters, and surely Prescott stands in the front ranks of the colorful and controversial.  Jervis S. Zimmerman, an old friend of the Order of the Holy Cross, has written the first book-length study of Prescott, and it is a most welcome addition to the study of the Episcopal Church, of the Tractarian, Ritualist and Anglo-Catholic movements, and of Anglican religious orders.

An Embattled Priest. The Life of Oliver Sherman Prescott: 1824-1903. (Bloomington, IN: AuthorHouse, 2012.)  Available from Amazon.

Prescott was a few years older than Charles Grafton, and was in some ways his mentor.  Born into a well-to-do New Haven merchant family, he was educated at Trinity College, Hartford and Yale before attending General Seminary.  He was an early adopter of ritualist practices, and ritualism became his life signature.  From the beginning of his ministry he was constantly in trouble with bishops and others over these practices.  Prescott never stayed very long in any of the churches he was called to lead.  He seems to have been a prickly person, easily drawn into controversy, of an Anglo-Catholic type I remember from my youth but not so easily found now: rejoicing in being "advanced"; knowing what others did not, could not, or would not know; pushing situations to the edge seemingly just for the fun of it; playing word games in official correspondence with bishops and other church dignitaries; seeing the trouble they are in as some sort of proto-martyrdom for the cause. 

Be that as it may.  Prescott came under the pastoral oversight of Levi Silliman Ives, Bishop of  North Carolina, himself a rare specimen.  Sent to a small church in the western part of the state in 1847, Prescott there became involved with the first experiment in Anglican religious orders for men, the Society of the Holy Cross at Valle Crucis, NC.  That did not last long, but had an effect.  At Charles Grafton's urging Prescott joined the Society of St. John the Evangelist, which led him in 1875 to become Rector of St. Clement's, Philadelphia, certainly the most ritualist Episcopal parish in the U.S., where his most publicized trials occurred.  He resigned in 1881.

Prescott took final vows in SSJE in 1870 and was released in 1882.  He went west.  "West" in those days encompassed Wisconsin, and he was involved in the process that led to Grafton's election as Bishop of Fond du Lac.  But even with his old friend he could not avoid controversy, and they parted ways after Grafton's election as bishop.  Prescott's final years were in the care of another religious order for men, the Brothers of Nazareth.

Prescott's life is important because of his role in late Nineteenth Century ritualist controversy, and deserves attention, in that his adult activity stretches from before Newman's conversion almost to the end of the century.  He encompasses all the phases of the Oxford Movement, from Tractarian to Ritualist.  He was not a great thinker or writer, but rather a man of action, willing to take on in his own work the transformation of the Church.

Fr. Zimmerman's work is an outstanding example of delving into original sources.  He is a master of archival research, and has brought to light much that is new and informative about Prescott.  His account of the turmoil at St. Clement's and Prescott's part in the breakup of SSJE in 1882, is, together with Eldridge Pendleton's account, likely to be a definitive resource for that most important event.

One small correction might be made.  Several times reference is made to retreats led at St. Clement's, at the second of which OHC's Fr. Huntington and Fr. Dod made up their minds to form a religious community.  The leader of those retreats was Canon William John Knox- (not King-) Little (p. 71 and 83).

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