He stands out in the life of the American church as one of the first ten great American churchmen." That is how the Rev. Paul Matthews described George Washington Doane, one hundred years to the day after he was consecrated as Bishop of New Jersey. Matthews ranked him with Samuel Seabury, America's first ordained Episcopal bishop and William White, whose efforts helped forge an independent existence for the Episcopal Church after the Revolutionary War.
George earned his reputation as an educator, mission organizer and hymn writer. Born at Trenton, New Jersey in 1799, he studied hard as a boy and showed both conviction and courage. While preparing for college, he was beaten for refusing to memorize a catechism which was not the official catechism of his church. He stood firm. Other students joined him. They won the privilege to study from the text they preferred.
After he graduated from Union College, New York in 1818, George thought of going into law; but six months of study for it changed his mind. He determined to enter the ministry instead. His rise was steady because he did good work. By 1821 he was ordained a deacon, by 1823 a priest. He served in New York City, where he helped found St. Luke's Church, and taught and edited his denomination's magazine, the Episcopal Watchman. Between 1828 and 1832 he served in Boston and then, at the relatively young age of thirty-three, received a totally unexpected offer.
On October 3, 1832 a local convention held in New Jersey asked him to become their bishop. George had just a few days in which to reply. He accepted on the 19th. On this day, October 31, 1832, he was consecrated to his new duties by the Right Rev. Dr. White, the presiding Bishop, assisted by the Right Rev. Dr. Onderdonk, of New York, and the Right Rev. Dr. Ives, of North Carolina.
George worked hard as bishop. Statistics show that the church grew steadily and strongly under him. He began with eighteen clergymen in 1832 and needed 99 when he died twenty-seven years later. "No shepherd ever counted his sheep more carefully day by day, no merchant was ever more solicitous to be adding something constantly to his stock in trade, than Bishop Doane was to have each year's report of his diocese, his parish, his schools, an improvement, if possible, upon all preceding years," said the Rev. Milo Mahan, preaching a sermon in his memory in 1859.
He became ill with a fever believed to be typhoid. He recovered from delirium weak and longing for rest. One of the last things he said was, "I die in the Faith of the Son of God, and in the Confidence of his one Catholic and Apostolic Church. I have no merits--no man has--but my trust is in the Mercy of Jesus."
It is not for his scholarship, his hard work to build up the diocese of New Jersey or for his efforts to plant the church in New Jersey that he is best remembered by most Christians, but for his hymns, especially the one which begins:
Softly now the light of day
Fades upon my sight away;
Free from care, from labor free,
Lord, I would commune with Thee.
- Duffield, Samuel Willoughby. English Hymns, their authors and history. New York: Funk and Wagnalls, 1894.
- "George Washington Doane." http://www.cyberhymnal.org
- "George Washington Doane." Encyclopedia Britannica. 1911
- Mahan, Milo. "The Great Hearted Shepherd." [Sermon preached in 1859] Project Canterbury.
- Mathews, Paul. "A Bright and Shining Light." [Sermon preached October 31, 1932] Project Canterbury.
- Ninde, Edward S. The Story of the American Hymn. New York, Abingdon, 1921. source of the portrait
- Wells, Amos R. A Treasure of Hymns; Brief biographies of 120 leading hymn- writers and Their best hymns. Boston: W. A. Wilde company, 1945.
Last updated June, 2007.