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Bishop James DeWolf Perry Papers

Biographical note

James DeWolf Perry was born on 3 October 1871 in Germantown, Pennsylvania, the second son and third child of five of the Rev. James DeWolf Perry II, rector of Calvary Church in that city. His distinguished family hailed originally from Rhode Island, where his ancestors had founded the town of Bristol; among his better known antecedents were his great-great-uncles the Commodores Oliver Hazard Perry, who gained fame on Lake Erie during the War of 1812, and Matthew Galbraith Perry, who opened Japan to U.S. trade in 1854, as well as a U.S. Senator from Rhode Island, 1821-1825, the Hon. James DeWolf.

Perry aimed for the ministry from his earliest years. Following his graduation from the Germantown Academy in 1887, he earned his A.B. from the University of Pennsylvania in 1891 and another from Harvard in 1892. He then took his bachelor's of divinity from the Episcopal Theological Seminary in Cambridge in 1895. In that year he was ordained a deacon by Bishop William Lawrence and in 1896 he was ordained a priest. From 1895 to 1897 he served as curate at Christ Church, Springfield, Massachusetts, whence he received a call to Christ Church, Fitchburg. In 1904 he removed to St. Paul's in New Haven, an important parish closely associated with Yale University. In that post he found notable opportunities for displaying his formidable administrative talents. In 1908 he married Miss Edith Dean Weir, a respected artist who was the daughter of the director of the Yale Art School. Mrs. Perry accompanied the Bishop on many of his travels and survived him by eight years. She died 1955. Together they had three children: James DeWolf Perry IV, clergyman, and John, medical doctor, and a daughter Beatrice who died in her childhood.

On 21 September 1910, Perry was elected Episcopal Bishop of Rhode Island, perhaps at 39 the youngest bishop in the U.S. until that time. He was consecrated on 6 January 1911 and held that post until his retirement in 1946. Although throughout his life he remained an indefatigable worker for international peace, he was not a pacifist. He participated in the military training efforts of 1916, as earlier he had been chaplain of the 6th Massachusetts Infantry from 1898 to 1904. During World War I, he served as chief of Red Cross chaplains in France, all denominations, from August 1918 to February 1919, at the assimilated rank of major, where he was known to the press as "the Bishop in Boots" and where he was later awarded the French Legion of Honor in 1934.

The early 1920s were occupied chiefly by diocesan concerns, but one of them in particular brought him into the national arena. The arrest in 1919 of Newport naval chaplain Samuel Neal Kent, on charges of immorality stemming from homosexual solicitation among the sailors, was attended by gross misconduct on the parts of the investigating officers. Following Kent's acquittal in Newport, Perry led a movement to extract an apology from Secretary of the Navy Josephus Daniels. On Navy orders, the Justice Department declared Kent a fugitive, despite Perry's guarantee of his availability, and tried him again in Federal Court in Providence, where he was once again acquitted. Indignation swelled, and Perry, with the aid of Bishop Rhinelander and many others, most notably John Rathom of the Providence Journal, sought official redress. When a Court of Inquiry selected by the Navy was convened in New York, the Bishop fought hard in correspondence, in court, and in the press against both Daniels and the Assistant Secretary of the Navy Franklin D. Roosevelt. His efforts won a Senate investigation into the Navy's methods of obtaining evidence, which firmly censured Roosevelt's practice of using a flying squad of "blue shirts,'' young sailors to whom he permitted far too many liberties in their procedures for gathering evidence. The Kent case and related naval prosecutions created an enormous scandal at the time.

Perry's lifelong commitment to the ideal of Christian unity brought him to the Universal Conference on Life and Work in Stockholm in 1925 and to the World Conference on Faith and Order in Lausanne, 1927, where he was chairman of the executive committee. He had also attended the Lambeth Conference in 1920 and had been serving on the Board of Missions and in the Departments of Religious Education and Christian Social Service in the Episcopal National Council since its formation in 1919. He had an interest in, but self-admittedly little knowledge of, the subject of church music. He served on the Commission on Church Music. He also served on the governing commission of the Chaplain Corps to the armed forces, acting as sponsor for the establishment of the Church Army in the United States.

On 26 March 1930, at the age of 58 Bishop Perry was chosen by the House of Bishops to be Presiding Bishop of the church. His election seems to have been something of a compromise, but one which was satisfactory to everyone. In the sometimes spirited disputes between the high and low church clergymen, and between the traditional and "modernist" parties within the church, Perry was perceived as a moderate who, by his calm intelligence and universal good will, seemed to transcend all of the party lines. Evidently, with the failure of any faction to elect their own spokesmen, Perry was chosen as the man most likely to heal the wounds caused by the disputes and controversies of the preceding decade. He was indeed, in most matters, unfailingly conciliatory and quite above destructive controversy, although at the same time he inclined personally towards the conservative and Anglo-Catholic persuasions in matters of vestments, ceremony, and doctrine. Apparently he believed quite humanely that wherever the essentials of the Christian creed were subscribed to, different churches and denominations might readily work in unqualified concert, without any of them having therefore to sacrifice their individual preferences in the forms of worship and other "matters of indifference." Accordingly, it must have given him great pleasure, in light of his strong will towards American unification with the historic episcopacy of the Church of England, to be recognized as the sixth-ranking prelate in the Anglican Communion at the Lambeth Conference of 1930. Whilst there, he was chosen to deliver the farewell sermon in Westminster Abbey, where he pled eloquently for church unity, and to lay the cornerstone of St. Andrew's Cathedral in Aberdeen, both in August 1930.

One controversy into which the Bishop was unwillingly drawn grew out of the Pope's encyclical. Pius XI had issued an invitation to all the Protestant denominations to re-enter the Roman fold, where all would be forgiven. On 10 January 1932, preaching in St. John the Divine in New York City, Perry replied to it in very gracious and kindly terms, but the substance of his sermon was to refuse the papal invitation. Speaking for his whole communion, he argued that the Episcopal Church could recognize only Christ as infallible head of the Catholic church, and that the Pope's claim to that role would be an insurmountable obstacle to any real union. In the course of his remarks, he quoted from recognized Protestant translations of the Fathers several passages to the effect that the Bishop of Rome was but a man as other men. Predictably, the Catholic press responded, usually courteously, sometimes scurrilously and mockingly, and Perry was many times accused by correspondents who were using the Roman Catholic translations of the same patristic writers, of having deliberately distorted his quotations in order to subvert truth and sow error. Wisely and characteristically, Perry never replied to them, but the presence in his papers of many press clippings of their complaints testified to his concern.

Bishop Perry was particularly occupied with the missionary interests of the church, especially with their financial plight during the Depression. He had reorganized the National Council to the effect of considerable savings, but he found himself very much exercised by the dwindling capital of the mission effort, which forced the abandonment of many mission stations. For much of his career he took care to foster and encourage the efforts of church organization among blacks and the new immigrant minorities, and native peoples. In 1931 he made a journey to South Dakota to convene the Niobara Meeting among the Indians. The plight of the dispossessed Assyrians seems also to have been a constant concern to him. Following the widely circulated report of the Laymen's Foreign Mission Inquiry, which severely censured the missionary efforts of many churches, Bishop and Mrs. Perry made a personal journey to the orient in order to investigate the allegations among the mission stations of his own church. They traveled for five months throughout the Hawaiian Islands, the Philippines, China, and Japan, and upon their return Perry pronounced a firm condemnation of the inaccuracies of the Inquiry's report, at least in respect of the Episcopal missions. While in Japan, the Bishop met the Emperor Hirohito in Tokyo and seems to have been won by his reception by the Japanese church; for several years afterwards he defended publicly the innocent good intentions and irenism of Japan against "malicious rumors," despite the obvious aggressions of the Japanese in Manchuria and China at the time.

The Bishop made several other journeys of importance. He visited England again in 1936 and in 1942, the second time for the consecration as Archbishop of Canterbury of his friend William Temple. He attended further sessions of the Universal Conference on Life and Work in Oxford and the World Conference on Faith and order in Edinburgh, both in 1937, and in May 1938 he sat with the World Council of Churches in Utrecht. In his capacity as overseer of the American Episcopal churches on the continent, he returned from a European tour in February 1939 with the opinion that, given the religious loyalty of the mass of Europeans generally, a new war was most unlikely to occur. Meanwhile, he had political interests as well; his position in December 1937 on a committee to draft a new statement of principles for the Republican Party seems, however, to have been an uncharacteristically active role in politics.

Perry took an important part in the deliberations and judgments of all of the triennial General Conventions of the church during his tenure. In addition, he was personally affected by them as well. At the convention of 1931, having served already for a little over a year, he was re-elected to a six year term as Presiding Bishop. At the Conventions of 1934 and 1937 he organized and effected much important business, especially concerning birth control, the marriage and divorce canons, and the status and role of the Presiding Bishop, and indeed in recognition of that fact he was to be seen on the cover of Time magazine's issue of 15 October 1934; but at the latter Convention he seems to have requested that he not be renominated for the principal position. He was drafted into nomination, however, and acquiesced, but then, probably because of widespread doubts about Perry's health, Bishop Tucker was elected to succeed him. Perry's health did indeed seem to decline thereafter; in October 1946, only ten months after the celebration of the thirty-fifth anniversary of his consecration, Bishop Perry retired. On 20 March 1947, while he and Mrs. Perry were vacationing in Summerville, South Carolina, the Bishop suffered a heart attack and died at the age of 75. As in his lifetime he had received a large number of awards and honorary doctorate degrees, so in 1956 a memorial cross was dedicated to his memory in the Washington Cathedral in Washington, D.C.