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Heresy, Apostacy, Blasphemy 1.0

Possibly the most interesting character I’ve encountered in the study of Episcopalians in Dakota Territory (and, of course, the churches they built) is John Keble Karcher. Born in Pennsylvania about 1835, his idiosyncratic life defies easy explanation.

Karcher was born in southeastern Pennsylvania, an area heavy with the Reformation. A name like Karcher (or Kaercher or Kärcher, other spellings I’ve found) suggests that his family were Lutheran or some other species in the German Reformed tradition. As a young man he attended Franklin & Marshall College in Lancaster, intent possibly on a career in the law, until the clerical life suggested itself. Scant records hint at ordination in the Lutheran denomination, but that didn’t last very long.

At Philadelphia he had shifted allegiance and become a Unitarian minister and, like any recent convert, was soon zealously organizing a second Philadelphia congregation of “Liberal” Christians. Having some skill as a public speaker, he went to Montreal (of all places) to raise money for this new endeavor, but it came to naught. Always on the move, Karcher and family relocated to Nantucket Island and took charge of the Unitarians there. This also didn’t last very long.

Without entangling you in a complicated timeline of geographic and denominational change, Karcher’s spiritual odyssey took him from eastern Pennsylvania to Quebec, Rhode Island, western Pennsylvania, Illinois, Indiana, Minnesota, Dakota Territory and finally back home to Philly. At the same time, he shifted his religious affiliation from Lutheran to Unitarian to Episcopal to Roman Catholic to Episcopal to Roman Catholic and back for a third time to the Episcopal church, where he remained until his death about 1915 (I think; my notes aren’t here in front of me). In Dakota Territory alone, he arrived and left as an Episcopal priest, but spent a few of those months back in the arms of Rome. Jason and the Argonauts had nothing on Karcher. I’d give anything for a long conversation with Mrs Karcher and the kids.

The bottom line here is that Dakota was a way station for many journeys of the mind and the flesh. John Keble Karcher may have been an extreme example, but his story is not isolated.

I’m surprised he didn’t make a pit stop in Iowa.

NB [27SEP2020]: As a foot note, I’ll being a listing here of Karcher’s parish connections, which are several and not always well dated:

  • 1870-1871 — Emmanuel, Allegheny City, PA
  • 1872 — St Paul’s, Wellsboro, PA
  • 1875 — Pittston, PA
  • 1876 — Atlantic City, NJ
  • 1877 — Portage, WI
  • 1878-1879-(1880) — Rochester, MN
  • 1880 — St James, Pittston, PA
  • 1881 — Appleton, MN
  • 1882 — Evansville, IN
  • 1883 — Grand Forks, DT
  • 1884-1885 — Larimore, DT
  • 1888-1889 -1890-1891-1892 — Grand Forks, DT/ND
  • 1893 — Philadelphia, PA (npa)
  • 1896 — Greenbush, NY
  • 1896 — MS (sep)
  • 1898 — Carlinville, IL

4 Comments

  1. Anonymous says:

    I think there may have been a pit stop in Mississippi.

  2. robstroud says:

    That loser also spent some time as a chaplain in the Civil War. He was court-martialed and discharged for neglecting his duties.

    • Karcher spent a lively period in both Minnesota and Dakota Territory, during which he shifted denominations twice. Bishop Whipple was sympathetic to Karcher’s peripatetic career, perhaps because Episcopal clergy were in short supply in these parts. How did you stumble upon my reference to him here?

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