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James Lloyd Breck, Educator and Apostle of the Wilderness

Breck pushed the Episcopal church and its educational facilities westward.

JAMES LLOYD BRECK was the fourth of fifteen children. He became the best-known of them all. Born near Philadelphia, he attended school and helped on his parents’ farm until he was thirteen. Then he used $1,000 bequeathed him by an uncle to attend Dr. Muhlenberg’s school in Flushing, Pennsylvania. An aunt then paid for him to attend the University of Pennsylvania. He decided to become a minister and at eighteen entered General Theological Seminary in New York. While he was there, Bishop Jackson Kemper gathered some young men among the students in the style of a medieval monastery to evangelize the United States frontier.

At that time, the Episcopal Church was pretty much stuck along America’s east coast. Breck helped push it to the Pacific. Church authorities dispatched him to Wisconsin where he assisted in founding Nashotah House, a monastic community, seminary, and center for theological work. His duties consisted of making rounds to a number of mission stations. Called the “Apostle of the Wilderness,” even while still a deacon he traveled hundreds of miles afoot or on horseback to make this circuit. 

On this day, 9 October 1842, he was ordained a priest in the Episcopal Church at Duck Creek, Wisconsin. He had to walk two hundred and fifty miles to the ceremony where he took his vows before a congregation chiefly of Oneida Indians. 

Breck’s leadership of Nashotah was prayerful and faithful, but so strict that students rebelled. Resigning, he demonstrated his integrity, paying off the institution’s debt with the last of his own funds. One of his pupils wrote, “He was great in what he stood for—faith, courage, foresight, convictions, self-reliance, devotion to duty, and a sublime trust in God. His greatest successes were achieved at an age when most men are trying to decide what they will attempt.” 

In 1850 Breck moved to Minnesota almost penniless. The mission expense of his first year there totaled $30,000, but God provided the funds. Breck next trained Indian priests to serve among the Chippewas. In 1855 he married and three years later founded Seabury Divinity School in Minnesota to train priests for the western frontier. Still not finished, in 1867 the school planter ventured to California with his family and three dozen associates to found yet another seminary. Through providential circumstances, Breck was able to acquire ready-made buildings and soon had a boarding school in operation. In 1876, while engaged in this work, he suddenly grew faint after preaching an evening sermon. It proved to be a fatal illness, and he died a week later.

Dan Graves


Christian History #66, How the West Was Really Won tells of efforts such as Breck's to spread the gospel and educate the frontier.

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