Thomas Merton vs. Philander Chase

February 29, 2012
Tim Schenck

In today's match-up we get a 20th century monk/best-selling author with a lot of letters after his name versus a 19th century missionary bishop with what just might be the best name in Lent Madness (Enmegahbowh may beg to differ). Will the Kenyon College students and alums rally to put Philander Chase over the top? Or will the many who have read and been touched by Thomas Merton's "The Seven Storey Mountain" jump to his cause? Only you and the next 24 hours will tell.

In yesterday's battle, Mary Magdalene swept to a resounding victory over John Huss (66% to 34% with well over 1,700 votes cast), setting up a wild Round of the Saintly Sixteen match-up with Joan of Arc. Magdalene vs. Huss also set a record with over 100 comments! Keep up the good work, friends, and don't forget to check out the updated bracket and the calendar of upcoming battles.

Thomas Merton, O.C.S.O. (January 31, 1915 – December 10, 1968) was born in France to Owen Merton, a New Zealander, and Ruth Jenkins, an American. Both were artists. Later in 1915, with World War I raging, they moved to the United States of America where John Paul, his brother, was born in 1918.

Merton's mother died when he was six which led to a complicated childhood, moving between his father, his grandparents in New York, and boarding schools in France and England. His father died in 1931. Merton went to Clare College, Cambridge, in 1933 where he lived a dissolute life and it is likely that he fathered a child. His guardian, Tom Bennett, who had been a classmate of Owen’s in New Zealand, intervened and persuaded him to go back to New York.

In 1935 Merton entered Colombia University where he studied English literature. He also discovered an interest in Roman Catholicism and began to engage with issues of social justice.

He joined the Roman Catholic Church in 1938, the year that he graduated. He considered joining the Franciscans but, after a Holy Week retreat, in 1941, at Our Lady of Gethsemane, near Bardstown, Kentucky, he joined this monastery of the Order of Cistercians of the Strict Observance on December 10, 1941.

In the Second World War, his brother John Paul died in 1943 when his plane's engines failed over the English Channel.

As a monk, Thomas Merton became one of the most widely-read and deeply-respected authors on spirituality of the twentieth century. He wrote more than seventy books as well as lots of articles. He also maintained a prolific correspondence, with people around the world, on a great diversity of topics.

His autobiography, "The Seven Storey Mountain," published in 1948, was a publishing sensation. More than 600,000 copies sold in the first year alone.

Merton was responsible for the formation of new monks and novices at a time when the monastery was thriving. He had a passion for solitude and was finally given permission to live in a hermitage on the monastery grounds. He helped to highlight the spiritual dimension of Christianity and did so with a strong interest in other world religions.

He died from an electric shock from a faulty fan in Bangkok while attending a meeting of religious leaders.

Collect for Thomas Merton: Gracious God, you called your monk Thomas Merton to proclaim your justice out of silence, and moved him in his contemplative writings to perceive and value Christ at work in the faiths of others: Keep us, like him, steadfast in the knowledge and love of Jesus Christ; who with you and the Holy Spirit lives and reigns, one God for ever and ever. Amen.

-- Bosco Peters

To Philander Chase (1775-1852), the Book of Common Prayer was the second best book ever written. Chase picked up the BCP when studying at Dartmouth College, and upon reading it, decided to become an Episcopalian. For Episcopalians throughout what was then the frontier of the United States, it’s a good thing he did. Despite the lack of a seminary in the new United States, Chase was ordained a priest at age 23 (having studied under the private instruction of the Rev. Thomas Ellison), and over the next 18 years served churches in New York, Louisiana, and Connecticut (the latter two of which would later become the cathedral churches of their respective dioceses).

Then in 1817, in fine Abrahamic tradition, Philander Chase uprooted his family, including his consumptive wife, Mary, and moved west to the frontier, which at that time was Ohio. Chase’s Oaks of Mamre were in Worthington, Ohio, where he founded Kenyon College and Bexley Hall Seminary (and where Mary passed away from her illness). His move west happened partly out of pioneering zeal and partly because he did not see eye to eye with Bishop Hobart of New York. His conflict with Hobart (in whose diocese the new General Seminary had recently opened), not to mention his unwillingness to expose young frontiersmen to the vicissitudes of city life (from which they might not want to return) led Chase to found the seminary in Ohio, which opened in 1824

Prior to that, in 1818, Chase was elected the first Bishop of Ohio. However, his penchant for single-handedly controlling the institutions in his charge led to fallout in both the college and diocese, and he resigned both the presidency and episcopacy in 1831. The old pioneering zeal flared up again, and he moved to Michigan, founding many churches along the way. Then, in 1835, he was elected the first Bishop of Illinois, and he continued moving west. He also served as the Presiding Bishop from 1843 until his death in 1852.

Philander Chase was a pioneer for the Episcopal faith in the frontier of the nascent United States. His conviction and zeal, while it often got him into trouble with his colleagues, helped spread the Gospel to the edge of the country, where it took hold and flourished.

Collect for Philander Chase: Almighty God, whose Son Jesus Christ is the pioneer and perfecter of our faith: We give you heartfelt thanks for the pioneering spirit of your servant Philander Chase, and for his zeal in opening new frontiers for the ministry of your Church. Grant us grace to minister in Christ’s name in every place, led by bold witnesses to the Gospel of the Prince of Peace, Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

-- Adam Thomas


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154 comments on “Thomas Merton vs. Philander Chase”

  1. Philander Chase reminds us of the need to step out of the chancel, out of the sanctuary, and to go with Christ into the world. He was not perfect, nor are we, but we can be faithful.

  2. A lot depends on the words/tone of the biographers . . . maybe it was thought that moving west to cleaner air would help Chase's wife's illness. I'm wary of "saints" in the Religious Life -- pretty much "oxymoronic."

  3. I feel like I should read the comments before voting next time! Digging the passion everyone has for who they voted for.

  4. Both of these gentle souls had difficulty getting on with others, and both had a hunger for God. Merton never desired Sainthood, but did most of the Saints ever say, "I want to be a Saint?" I love the idea of this wiley hermit being dubbed a Saint.

  5. In previewing this match-up, I had questioned if Merton was a saint... I noticed he was a double ** in the saints calendar and some internet research shows he is not on the list for consideration in his own faith. I certainly respect his work and find his writing inspirational, but I'm voting for Chase.

  6. One of the most important aspects of Philander Chase was his commitment to developing seminaries and clergy training in what was then the Northwest Territories. Otherwise, priests and deacons had to be "imported" from the East Coast and they were often people with little understanding of the frontier life and its people. Chase did a crucial service in growing the Episcopal Church in America. Yes, he was certainly a prickly sort of person, but boy, he got a lot done! We studied him in our discussion group at St. Martin's and I'm glad to have learned about him. He gets my vote today...

  7. Early in my professional journey, I worked with liturgical designer, Bill Schickel who had designed the renovation at the Abbey of Gethsemani about a dozen years before I arrived. High on a storage shelf in our design studio was a cardboard box, hand-labeled in black marking pen “THOMAS MERTON’S BLUE JEANS”- an inspiring relic.

    The sorry wake of broken relationships along Chase’s frontiersman trail is painful to contemplate. But I’m going with actions speak louder than words. With roots in Michigan, Ohio and Chicago, I’m voting homey today with Philander Chase.

    Good thing I’ve got an AMBIDEXTEROUS Lenten Madness mug filled with soothing tea to guide me through this challenging hagiography.

  8. "...But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you..." is one of my favorites! My vote, therefore, has to be for Merton.

  9. Still haven't voted. Merton remains my favorite though. I think for about 10 years Merton was all my mother read. Being Catholic, she was mainly concerned with sin, and not committing it, so here was a different approach to God. Just for the torment (and challenge) he offered my mother, I think I'll have to vote for the monk.

  10. As a Briton I have to confess to never having heard of Philander Chase before today (sorry), whereas Thomas Merton's writings were extraordinarily influential in my own journey to faith and, eventually, ordination. So out of gratitude and deep admiration my vote goes to Merton.

  11. Philander Chase said things he shouldn't have said that needed to be heard. He did things he shouldn't have done, because he thought they were the right things to do. He messed up. Big time. He did the honorable thing and quit. And then he kept going! He went to the place that God would show him, he preached the Gospel, he planted the seeds, and he remained faithful, despite everything. I deeply admire Mr. Merton, but Philander Chase and I might just be cut from the same cloth. At least, I hope and pray that is so.

    1. Lauren, I can definitely see you and Philander Chase being cut from the same cloth! I voted for him as well. Let is also be said that Chase helped establish the first Episcopal parish in New Orleans, hoping that the warmer climate would help his wife's TB. They had left their children with relatives in Vermont but missed them so much that they moved back to New England. To me, his wife's health does seem to have been a concern and not disregarded.

  12. Bexley, Bexley, Bexley!!! Philander Chase is the way to go!!!
    Bias: I am an alum of Bexley Hall Seminary!

  13. Philander for me. I started east & moved west & all around. There are a number of pioneers in my family. I am glad he started churches wherever he went.

  14. The Seven Story Mountain was pivotal in my return to the church after a many decades absence. Merton pushed for interfaith dialogue before it had become popular and actually lived it out in his writings and life. His well-documented struggle with the fame his writings brought him and the Abbey are a compelling alternative voice in this age of 10-second notoriety. There is no question in my mind that his writings have been the source of spiritual nourishment for thousands of people, no matter their denominational or religious background, and no doubt have also been the impetus for drawing thousands if not tens of thousands, to Christ. Got to go with Merton.

  15. As a loyal daughter of Kenyon College, I must cast my vote for the Reverend Chase. "The first of Kenyon's goodly race, was that great man Philander Chase!"

  16. It seems a lot harder to be a pioneering clergyman and bishop than a contemplative hermit. I voted for the Esky-piskie.

  17. Interesting comments. I didn't know much about Philander before reading this. He seemed like a guy that got a lot done but pissed a lot of people off. Someone you could respect for doing the work but you were really glad you didn't work for him!

  18. My vote goes to Merton today as his reminders not to get too mixed up in what he calls the "violence" of an over-busy life have been helping me keep perspective on my schedule of late.

  19. He did good by doing bad=Philander
    Bad happened to him and he was good = Tom
    Do I vote with my Episcopal lineage or my ecumenical tendencies?

  20. I thought I'd vote Episcopal, but by the time I finished reading about ol' Phil moving his ill wife a great distance (presumably without an air conditioned vehicle, far from her friends & family to ultimately die in a strange place) -- well, Tom won this round.

  21. Never heard of either of these men, so I did a little extra digging for more information. What I learned really emphasized to me that "saints" sometimes are not "saintly" at all. That God calls us just as we are, and equips us for the work He wants us to do.

    While Philander Chase moving his consumptive wife to the frontier sounds harsh, the idea of fresh air and open spaces was an acceptable and desirable treatment at the time, and there is nothing in what little I read to indicate that he made the move without any regard to his wife's well-being, so I'll give him a pass on that. Thomas Merton's infatuation with Buddhism, while remaining resolutely committed to the doctrines of Christianity has piqued my interest and put him on the list of authors I want to read. But in the end, my vote goes to Chase, the missionary. Both men were seriously flawed, but Merton's life was, in my opinion, devoted to self-improvement through selective isolation. And while he acknowledged that he fathered a child, did he actually acknowledge the child?

    Voting for Philander Chase, the stiff-necked missionary. If for no other reason, my default mode rarely favors hermits, as neither Christ nor the Apostles modeled a hermit's lifestyle. Apologies for the long post.

  22. It's shallow I know, but I am voting on the basis of which one of thee gentlemen I would most likely want to have coffee with. On that basis it is a clear choice for Merton.

  23. Mystic, poet, activist, monk, literary and social critic, teacher, ecumenist...the list goes on. One of the most prolific letter writer-ers in the 20th Century, Merton ought to win because of his genuineness, his humor, and his memorable love for other people. From the heart-wrenching poem written in commemoration of his brother who died at war, to his mystical experiences of communion with others (the Louisville encounter) Merton is as saintly as it gets in my opinion.
    Some here have talked about his early years when Merton, like Augustine, was a womanizer. But throughout his life, he cherished and knew many, many women whom he admired, wrote to, and corresponded with regularly. He was deeply moved by Dorothy Day, Flannery O'Connor, and many, many more women, not to mention his loving relationship with "M."

    "The one end that includes all the others is the love of God." -t merton

  24. I'm love to have coffee with the would be incredible to get to know my great-great-great grandfather, without whom I would not be here...let alone blessed in the community of my church.

    Thank you Bishop Chase!

  25. As a member of a Dartmouth family, this was an easy pick. Merton gets a bit too far out there for me. Did Chase have his shortcomings, yes, but he founded a college and seminary. He prepared future generations.

  26. Don't let a somewhat negative biographer keep you from voting for the brave, pioneering bishop who was more beloved and admired than his bio indicates! Does Thomas Merton have his own song? Philander Chase does - go to and sing enthusiastically!

  27. I had to vote for Merton. I have been inspired and strengthened by contemplation and silence. Philander Chase, despite his great name, seemed to have trouble getting along with people and caused drama/trauma. I'm with Merton.