On September 8, 1800, the Rev. John Henry Hobart, just twenty-four years old, accepted the call to become an assistant minister of Trinity Church. On January 12, 1801, the Rev. Cave Jones, thirty-two years old, accepted the call to become an assistant minister of Trinity Church. By 1811, one would be a bishop; the other, dismissed in disgrace.
The battle between Hobart and Jones was notorious in the church and on the streets, a confluence of doctrinal differences and personal animosity that ended in the New York State Supreme Court. The conflict would shape the church in New York for years to come.
Young Hobart was a go-getter from the start. A native of Philadelphia, he was ordained at twenty-two and promptly married the daughter of a prominent colonial clergyman. He had been in his sleepy parish for only a few months when he was called to Trinity Church. Jones graduated from Columbia University in May of 1794 with a Master of Arts. Following graduation, Jones served in St. George’s Parish in Accomack, Virginia. He joined Trinity several months after Hobart, and was therefore subordinate to Hobart, despite their age difference. Hobart and Jones joined the Rev. Abraham Beach, who had served Trinity since 1784, as assistant ministers. To the outside world, Hobart and Jones appeared to get along.
The Episcopal Church was on an upswing during those years. The post-Revolutionary years had been rough. The church had been part of the English state religion. Loyal clergy and laity fled to Canada in the Revolution’s aftermath, decimating American churches. And there was the issue of Anglican doctrine and American ethos. The church—which emphasized clerical control and apostolic succession—struggled to define itself in a culture bent on individual conscience and republican ideals. Bishops, in particular, reminded the new Americans of tyrant kings. Was the Anglican system of church hierarchy flat out “antithetical to American freedom?”
Slowly, the Episcopal Church recreated itself as an American organization, formally separating from the Church of England in 1789. The practical matters were settled, but the battle for the soul of the Episcopal Church was just getting started. Would the Episcopal Church follow a “high church” style of Anglicanism, or would it join the throng of “low church” American Protestant denominations?
Hobart was an early “high churchman,” though the term didn’t exist during his era. The church was paramount in his theology — he explained this guiding principle in his earliest pamphlet:
“We are saved from the guilt and dominion of sin by the divine merits and sacrifice of a crucified Redeemer and that the merits and grace of this Redeemer are applied to the soul of the receiver by devout and humble participation in the ordinances of the church, administered by a priesthood.”
To Hobart, the hierarchical order of the Anglican Church was instituted by God; break from that and “the dust and powder of individuality” would wreck havoc on society. And Hobart—a popular preacher who excelled at navigating the tight-knit political world of Episcopal clergy—had a cadre of well-placed allies who shared his views.
It’s not surprising, then, that Hobart could be intolerant of those who broke—or bent—the rules of the church and those who followed their own consciences rather than move in lockstep with church hierarchy. Hobart sought the ouster of clergy with whom he disagreed, on the grounds of their failure to adhere to high church doctrine. He sought censure of the Rev. Richard C. Moore, a close friend of Jones, for “use of extempore prayer” after lectures and for participating in Bible societies. He went after the Rev. Feltus, another friend of Jones, for preaching “in other places than in one of the Churches … and by not using the liturgy before his sermons and lectures.”
Jones, in contrast, was a low churchman, writing, “In matters which are not provided for by these standing rules and orders [of the church], I do not feel right to set myself up as judge,” and, “I can never believe that the censures of the Church are to steel the heart against the feelings of humanity.”
Hobart and Jones sought mediation from mutual friends at several points during the time they worked together, but their disagreements remained out of the public eye until 1811. In February of that year, the Rt. Rev. Benjamin Moore, rector of Trinity Parish and bishop of New York, suffered an “attack of paralysis” (likely a stroke) that left him unable to fulfill his duties. Abraham Beach was appointed assistant rector. At Moore’s urging, a special convention to elect an assistant bishop was planned for mid-May. It was clear that Hobart would be elected.
On May 1, 1811, Cave Jones published A Solemn Appeal to the Church, a 104-page pamphlet attacking Hobart’s “tyranny and intolerance, utterly incompatible with the state of things in this country.” (In those days, cheap pamphlets and broadsheets were the only way to disseminate one’s opinion. Think of them as the blogs of old New York. Pamphlets were available in bookshops around the city and advertised in newspapers.) Jones details the cases of his friends Moore and Feltus, among others. Jones hoped that the pamphlet would reveal Hobart as an autocratic, selfish cleric, unfit to serve as bishop.
But for all of Jones’ noble republicanism, some of the pamphlet reads like a hysterical seventh-grade slam book. He details slights going back almost a decade and accuses Hobart of leading a conspiracy to turn seminarians against him.
Jones offers as an example of Hobart’s terrible behavior a petty argument over the preaching schedule that occurred during the funeral procession of an unlucky Mr.
Walton. It began “just as we were taking our stations before the corpse” and “last[ed] without intermission from the door of Mr. Walton in the upper end of Pearl Street, till we arrived at the door of Trinity Church.” Both men admitted this argument happened, though they disagreed on its significance. Neither seemed concerned about the impropriety of arguing in the presence of a corpse.
Despite the pamphlet, Hobart was elected assistant bishop on May 15, 1811, and on August 17, he published a pamphlet of response titled Letter to the Vestry of Trinity Church. Hobart refuted Jones’ accusations and offered letters from fellow priests attesting that he had never spoken disparagingly of Jones and testifying that Jones had often spoken ill of Hobart. “Was it ambition, was it self-exaltation,” Hobart wrote, parodying Jones’ words, “Was it violence, was it a spirit of overbearing persecution which I almost daily heard others express themselves of Mr. Jones as a man of contracted selfish, self-important, envious temper?”
Hobart explained his persecution of certain clergy in doctrinal terms: “Pointed opposition to irregularity … [is the] only security which the Church possesses for the preservation of her principles, her order, and her laws.”
In September the Vestry decided to seek removal of Jones from his role in Trinity Parish. On November 5, a clerical court headed by Bishop Moore agreed to Jones’ ouster and ordered that the Vestry pay Jones the balance of his salary and an additional one thousand pounds.
Both Hobart and Jones had factions of supporters, though Hobart’s were undoubtedly more powerful and played a role in the court’s ruling. Seething, Jones recruited Bishop Provoost— who had resigned from the episcopate some years before—to declare the court invalid on the grounds that he was still technically the bishop of New York. The ploy failed. Later that month, Jones sued Trinity in the Supreme Court of Judicature of the People of the State of New York to recover “his salary and compensation.”
Both parties agreed to enter civil arbitration. It took nearly two years for arbiters to rule on Jones’ case. During that time, Jones supporters busily convened public meetings on the case and wrote dramatically titled pamphlets like Dr. Hobart’s System of Intolerance and Prelatical Usurpation Exposed. In total, eighteen pamphlets on the conflict were published.
In October 1813, the court upheld the legality of Jones’ dismissal but ruled that Trinity’s vestry pay Jones 7500 pounds, a significantly higher sum than the clerical court had awarded. Jones was required to release his claims on Trinity, which he did.
Concurrently, Jones and his supporters developed a new strategy to gain power in the church: have all Episcopalians in New York vote in the next Trinity Vestry election and oust the pro- Hobart Vestry. The legal name of Trinity at the time was The Rector and Inhabitants of the said city of New York, in communion with the Protestant Episcopal Church—seemingly including all Episcopalians in the city. In 1813, at Trinity’s behest, the state legislature passed a bill that changed the church’s legal name to The Rector, Churchwardens, and Vestrymen of Trinity Church in the City of New York, which stopped Jones—and effectively ended the claims of the wider Episcopal community to Trinity’s land grants.
Jones went on to a long and successful career as a military chaplain. He was active in early prison ministry and supported the founding of Liberia. Hobart served as bishop of New York from Moore’s death in 1816 until his own death in 1830. He was active in the founding of General Theological Seminary and continued to strengthen the high church movement in the church. Though Jones and Hobart could never see eye to eye on some things, they seem to have made peace. In 1816, they jointly endorsed a proposal for an American system of scientific nomenclature.
Leah Reddy is Multimedia Producer for Trinity Wall Street.