We have spent the last four months tracing the history of the diaconate through the first five centuries or so of church history. The diaconate served many purposes during this time. It was an order that changed and responded to the needs of the church. With the onset of the middle ages, the diaconate became largely a stepping stone to the priesthood. This pattern was broken in the nineteenth century. Since that time, the Episcopal Church has seen four different types of deacons — missionary deacons, deaconesses, perpetual deacons, and the deacons we have today. Throughout this period, the practice of ordination to the diaconate as part of the preparation for priesthood continued and remains the practice today. Our discussion will trace the history of deacons who were and still are ordained solely to the diaconate.
The first type of deacons, the missionary deacons, was unknown in the settled, Eastern parts of the United States. They ministered in frontier areas and among indigenous people where few, if any, clergy were assigned. The first deacon we have real documentation about is William West Skiles. In 1842, Bishop Levi S. Ives bought a large tract of land in a wild part of western North Carolina to begin missionary work in that area. Ives established a monastic community called the Society of the Holy Cross on the site in 1844. The first monk to be professed and to start to build the community was Skiles. In 1847, Skiles was ordained as a deacon and was the leader of the community.
Probably, the most famous of the missionary deacons is David Pendleton Oakerhater. He was a Cheyenne warrior from Oklahoma who was captured and sent east as a prisonor. He became known to Senator George Hunt Pendleton of Ohio. He was sent to upstate New York to be educated and was baptized there on October 6, 1878. Oakerhater was ordained a deacon in June of 1881 and spent the rest of his life in Oklahoma. He officially retired in 1917, but continued his ministry until his death in 1931. For twelve years, Oakerhater was the only Episcopal clergy person in the entire Oklahoma territory. As a result of his work, the entire Cheyenne nation became Christian. He preached, baptized the young and old, married and buried people, tended to the sick, and helped feed the hungry. Today, the church commemorates his feast day on September 1st.
At first, these missionary deacons were ordained on an ad-hoc basis. In 1871, the General Convention made canonical provision for the missionary deacons. From 1871 until 1904, men were ordained under this canon. Although the number of these missionary deacons was small, they served a vital need of the church for many decades. They represented the first use of the diaconate in a role other than training for the priesthood.
Next month, we will follow the story of next type of deacon — the deaconesses.