In his new book, Lincoln's Bishop: A President, a Priest, and the Fate of 303 Dakota Sioux Warriors (HarperOne, June), former New York Times religion correspondent Gustav Niebuhr tells the compelling tale of Henry Benjamin Whipple, the first Episcopal bishop of Minnesota, who spoke out loudly against injustice toward Native Americans and made a difference in his time. PW spoke with Niebuhr from his home in Syracuse, N.Y., where he is now associate professor of newspaper and online journalism and founding director of the Carnegie Religion and Media Program at Syracuse University.
What prompted you to write this book now?
It was about a year after my previous book, Beyond Tolerance: Searching for Interfaith Understanding in America (Viking, 2008), came out. I had been invited to speak at a community college in Watertown, N.Y., and my host, a newspaper editor, told me about a number of local historical figures whom he admired, including Henry Benjamin Whipple. The name didn't ring a bell, but my host explained that Whipple was an Episcopal priest who became Minnesota's first Episcopal bishop and who went to see Lincoln in an attempt to stop the mass execution of Sioux Indians. Whipple struck me as a compelling figure, I was ready for a new project, and I've always been very interested in American history. So I spent a good deal of time with Whipple's papers at the Minnesota Historical Society and spent three years writing this book.
Why do you think Whipple was able to get Lincoln's attention?
He wouldn't take "No" for an answer. Whipple believed the federal government was to blame for the Dakota War—it had neither protected the Native Americans from lawless white men, nor did it compensate the tribes adequately for the sale of their lands. Whipple became bishop in 1859, and the next year he wrote to President Buchanan regarding this problem, but Buchanan ignored him and never replied. By March of 1862, a number of forces work to Whipple's advantage: Lincoln is in mourning because of the death of his son; Lincoln has recently appointed Whipple's cousin, Henry Halleck, as general-in-chief of the Union forces; and Samuel Chase, the Secretary of the Treasury, has an uncle who is an Episcopal bishop in the west. When Whipple talks to Lincoln, he says quite forcefully that if you don't reform this Indian office that's mistreating Indians, you'll have a breach of the peace.
What sets Henry Whipple apart from other clergy of his time?
Two things. One, he believes tremendously in the Union but doesn’t say God is on the side of the Union. Two, he's unafraid; he's someone who can take a lot of abuse, and he's a remarkably stubborn figure. Whipple also comes out of an era in which religious people believe that they have a moral obligation to change society, and such belief is evident in broader movements like the temperance movement and the suffrage movement. [The view was] government is the problem, but government can change, and it's our obligation to foster such change. Whipple, though, was formed pre-denominationally. His mother was very much a guiding influence; she had a kind of liberationist perspective and was always on the side of the poor and the weak. He also lived for a time with his uncle, George Whipple, who was an abolitionist.
What lessons would you like readers to take from your book?
In times when you feel that great injustice is going on, you can take a stand. There is a position of moral leadership that the church can take, and its leaders can step forth make a difference.
What's next for you?
I'm still mulling over several topics. I've been approached about possibly doing a Q&A-style book about religion in America, but I haven't decided yet what kind of project I might take on next.