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History of the Diocese

19th Century

In 1838, two years after Arkansas became a state, the Episcopal Church sent the Rev. Leonidas Polk to be the first missionary bishop of Arkansas. Polk organized the first Arkansas congregation of the Episcopal Church at the Little Rock home of Chester Ashley, the state’s third U.S. senator. The new congregation was named Christ Church after historic Christ Church in Alexandria, Va., which several members had attended prior to their move to Arkansas. The building for Christ Church was erected in 1841–42, and the Rev. William Christopher Yeager later became the first rector.

That same year, a congregation was founded in Fayetteville, Ark.

In 1841, James Hervey Otey was appointed the provisional bishop of Arkansas, and then George Washington Freeman was appointed as Arkansas’s second missionary bishop in 1844. By 1858, the fledgling missionary diocese had grown from one congregation to seven, with 400 members.

The third missionary bishop of Arkansas, the Rt. Rev. Henry Champlin Lay, held episcopal oversight during the Civil War. When Arkansas seceded from the Union, the Episcopal church in the state joined the Episcopal Church in the Confederate States of America, but after the war, Arkansas reverted to its missionary status.

The Rt. Rev. Henry Niles Pierce, fourth missionary bishop and the first diocesan bishop, served from 1870 until his death in 1899. When Pierce began his episcopacy in the aftermath of the Civil War, Arkansas had five congregations and 605 members; at the time of his death, there were 27 congregations and 3,000 members.

Bishop Pierce oversaw the building of Trinity Cathedral in Little Rock. He single-handedly procured the money necessary to build the cathedral through preaching tours on the East Coast, private gifts, and a mortgage on his home. The cathedral was begun in 1884 and completed in 1892.

20th Century

The tenure of the Rt. Rev. William Montgomery Brown, Pierce’s successor, was devastating for the diocese. In addition to over-expansion and underfunding, Brown instituted the controversial “Arkansas Plan,” which resulted in the division of the diocese into white and black churches.

Bishop James Rideout Winchester succeeded Brown and began the process of repairing the damage. World War I and the Depression of the 1930s left him with scant means of paying priests and keeping congregations open. Even so, he left the diocese stable at over 4,000 members. Winchester’s success was aided by the Rt. Rev. Edwin Warren Saphore and the Rt. Rev. Edward Thomas Demby, the first African-American bishop in the American Episcopal Church (there was one earlier in Haiti), who was appointed as suffragan bishop for work among black communicants.

In 1938, the Rev. R. Bland Mitchell was elected bishop. He worked tirelessly to reverse declining membership and finances. When he retired in 1956, the Church had 8,200 members, a conference center on Petit Jean Mountain (which would later be named Camp Mitchell), and a renewed spirit for establishing new congregations.

His successor, the Rt. Rev. Robert R. Brown, established St. Martin’s chapel and student center at the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville and addressed the civil rights issues emerging in the 1960s, continuing the diocese support for educational desegregation.

The 10th bishop, the Rt. Rev. Christoph Keller, saw the ordination of Arkansas’s first female priest, the Rev. Peggy Bosmeyer, in 1977. Bishop Keller led the diocese through the changes concerning the revision of the Book of Common Prayer, lay ministry, and the role of women in the Church.

In 1981, the Rev. Herbert Alcorn Donovan Jr. came to Arkansas as its 11th bishop. Donovan left the diocese in 1993 to become vicar at Trinity Church on Wall Street in New York City.

21st Century

The Rt. Rev. Larry E. Maze, who came from the diocese of Mississippi, became the 12th bishop of Arkansas in 1994.

On Nov. 11, 2006, the Rev. Larry R. Benfield was elected the diocese’s 13th bishop. Benfield is the second bishop to be elected from within the state.

For additional information:

Beary, Michael J. Black Bishop: Edward T. Demby and the Struggle for Racial Equality in the Episcopal Church. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2001.

Brown, William Montgomery. Five Years of Missionary Work in Arkansas. Little Rock: Episcopal Diocese of Arkansas, 1906.

McDonald, Margaret Simms. White Already to Harvest: The Episcopal Church in Arkansas, 1838–1971. Sewanee, TN: University Press of Sewanee, 1975.

Witsell, William Potsell. A History of Christ Episcopal Church, Little Rock, Arkansas, 1839–1947. Little Rock: Christ Church Vestry, 1950.

Worthen, Mary Fletcher. A History of Trinity: The Episcopal Diocese of Arkansas, Little Rock, 1884–1995. Little Rock: August House, 1996.

Michael K. McNeely
Historiographer of the Episcopal Diocese of Arkansas
Little Rock, Arkansas