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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 be listing here 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 (+chesterfield, IL)
  • 1901 — Died at Chicago, IL 1901

NB [19NOV 2022] Here are some land holding of Rev Karcher in the Grand Forks vicinity and their dates of purchase:

KARCHER ANNA CHRISTINA    05   152 N  055 W  032     160   272002  PA  7306 10/20/1884
KARCHER JOHN KEBLE        05   151 N  055 W  005      80   272002  PA  6763 10/20/1884
KARCHER JOHN KEBLE        05   151 N  055 W  005   40.36   272002  PA  6763 10/20/1884
KARCHER JOHN KEBLE        05   151 N  055 W  005   40.33   272002  PA  6763 10/20/1884

12DEC2022: The comment below comes from a current Lutheran clergyperson, though I can't say how he found this blog entry nor why he felt the need to add a comment. Ancestry.com and findagrave.com do, indeed, offer considerable information that helps us document Rev. Karcher's  movements. The latter adds this, which we had already known: "Civil War Union Army Chaplain. He was commissioned as Chaplain, Field and Staff, 114th Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry on September 1, 1862.

"In March 1863 he was placed under arrest for being absent without leave, having returned to the regiment's encampment at Camp Pitcher, Virginia eight days after his official leave had expired. He was court-martialed, and plead guilty to the charge. He was sentenced to be dismissed from the service with loss of all pay and allowances, but he was allowed to resign his commission instead, which he did on April 3, 1863." [source: https://www.findagrave.com/memorial/127056235/john-keble-karcher]


  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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