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Eli Hawley Canfield papers

Biographical note

The son of a tanner and part-time farmer, Eli Canfield was born in Arlington, Vermont in 1817. Though raised in that small rural community much like any other child, Canfield as a youth exhibited a strong and unusual interest in his own education. By attending a series of schools over a period of years and by supporting himself first as a farm laborer and later as a school teacher and principal, the young man provided himself with the rudiments of an education. Then, under the tutelage of the Rev. Herman Dyer, the religious educated and writer, Canfield's interest in religion greatly intensified.

In 1841, the 24-year-old Canfield entered the Episcopal Theological Seminary in Alexandria, Virginia. The location of the seminary, incidentally, proved important. During the three years he spent there preparing for the ministry, his views regarding the South came to reflect the friendships he established with his fellow seminarians. He never lost this sympathy although it proved to be a source of conflict within his own family. Canfield's mother, it seems, was an early and an outspoken Abolitionists at a time when such views were not thought of sympathetically, even in New England. As an adult, Canfield generally shared his mother's views on slavery, but he only reluctantly supported the Union in the Civil War.

After his ordination, the Reverend Canfield served as pastor of a parish in Ohio for five years. His stay in Ohio was followed by brief pastorates in Pennsylvania and New York City. Finally, in 1853, he became the first rector of Christ's Church in Brooklyn, New York. He remained there for 15 years, until 1868, when he retired to Arlington. He died there on his family farm in 1898.

As co-editor of the Protestant Churchman (later the Christian Times) and by serving on the boards of many benevolent and religious societies, Canfield assumed an active role in the ecclesiastical politics of his day. He was for many years a prominent figure within the Episcopal Church, and especially within its low or evangelical wing. While his personal reserve may have prevented him from assuming an even greater role in the religious history of his day than he did, his views as expressed in his sermons are nonetheless representative of the social and religious thought of his day.