The Missionary Bishop
from an essay by Henry G. Smith in The Story of St. Mark’s Parish and Pro-Cathedral (1944)
The Right Reverend George Allen Beecher, D.D.
Completing his academic preparation in the Kearney schools and at the University of Nebraska, George Allen Beecher entered the Philadelphia Divinity School in 1888. Returning four years later he was ordained at Saint Luke’s Church in Kearney and almost immediately was assigned to the missionary post at Sidney. Sidney’s importance was not to be measured by it’s population alone, for it was the location of Fort Sidney and the center of a large territory ibeecher3ncluding parts of Nebraska, Wyoming and Colorado. It ranked with the other most colorful frontier posts that were the focal points of western development. As a missionary, young Beecher was responsible not only for the work of the Sidney parish, but for all of the church’s endeavors in an area of about five thousand square miles, roughly from Sidney north to Alliance and west and south to the state lines.
Over this wide open space, larger in size than the state of Connecticut, and mostly trackless prairie, he made monthly overland trips, varying from 200 to 250 miles, using a team and buggy for transport. The first leg of this trip was from Sidney to Camp Clark Bridge on the North Platte River, about 50 miles, with but one house en route. In true missionary fashion his compensation had been fixed at $50.00 a month, but he had to raise half of it himself – if he could.
There was no rectory, but this want was soon supplied when the young priest was invited to move into unoccupied quarters at the Fort, and he remained there till a few months after the garrison had been removed on orders from Washington. To this pioneer post the Rev. Mr. Beecher brought his bride, the former Florence Idella George, after their marriage at Racine, Wisconsin, about a year from the time of his ordination.
Blizzards and dust storms, bitter cold and excessive heat, the frequent fording of streams, were routine in his drive through his missionary post. Mrs. Beecher often accompanied him and assisted in his work. Their faithful team of western horses became known all over the area as “the little rabbits.” The Bishop’s diary, kept with painstaking care throughout his service, reveals a succession of experiences characteristic of the period and the region. Personal factors that combined to enable the cleric to carry on his work successfully in the undeveloped country were his adventurous spirit, his liking for exploration.
He was among the first to greet the nomads who crossed his well beaten paths and to assist and advise those who remained. Of powerful stature at nearly 6 feet, 3 inches tall, he was always a match for those who stood out in physical fitness. Newcomers, no matter how resourceful in adapting themselves to the ways of the new country, found young Beecher always a willing assistant and a sound adviser.
He pursued the policy of never letting anything interfere with a scheduled service, if that were humanly possible, and very few were the times when he had to disappoint any of his followers. To do this it frequently became necessary for him to find overnight rest in haystacks, in corrals and under the rafters in lofts, in wagon boxes and tents and on the open ground. Monotony was never present. Hardships on the unorganized plains, he found, were in many cases a matter of viewpoint, depending upon the individual’s appraisal of the conditions encountered. Services were held in public offices and sod houses, court rooms and hotel lobbies, wherever a few could gather. Sometimes there were interruptions, such as fires where all hands were needed, including the pastor himself, once or twice a tragedy that called people away.
The missionary and his bride learned to chart their course by the stars when night driving had to be done and darkness concealed the few landmarks along the way. Looking back over his career, and mindful of his elevation to the Episcopate, Bishop Beecher observed: “Whatever qualifications I may have possessed in the estimation of my brethren in the House of Bishops, they were in large measure the result of the exercise of the pastoral phases of my ministry which included diligent searching for the lost sheep and lambs in that larger fold to which our blessed Lord referred when He said, ‘other sheep I have which are not of this fold; them also I must bring’.”
Just before starting out on one of the long drives the missionary received a call to a well established parish on the Pacific Coast. He had been at Sidney about a year. Driving along in a dust storm, the memory of a blizzard to which they had recently been exposed still fresh in their minds, he discussed with Mrs. Beecher the opportunity the call afforded. A comfortable rectory, no outside work, better clothes, books, even carpets for their floors – all the lure of the sunny, rapidly developing western shore. Their answer was “no.” The ministry, Beecher reasoned, was one place where a person could prove his talents in the test of time. He has never regretted that he did not look upon the ministry as a career with stop-over privileges.
The decision meant that he was to remain permanently in Nebraska. In 1895 he accepted a call to the church of Our Savior at North Platte, where the vestry agreed that he could continue his visits to the Sidney area until a new missionary was found. He remained there till 1903, when he became rector of Saint Luke’s parish at Kearney, where in his nineteenth year he had begun his official work for the Church as Lay Reader.
At North Platte the rector became acquainted with Colonel William F. Cody and Johnny Baker, hunted with them and saw much of the Wild West show group they headed. So when an invitation came to him at Omaha in 1905 to accompany the show on its tour of France it offered and opportunity for reunion with old friends at a time when regular church activities had necessarily been curtailed during repairs on the Cathedral. He accepted with the approval of the vestry and was with the show until they retired to their winter quarters in Scotland.
In 1905, the Rev. Mr. Beecher was called to succeed the late Dean Fair at Trinity Cathedral in Omaha, and he remained there until he became Bishop of Western Nebraska in 1910. While Dean at Trinity Cathedral he assisted in the work of the Juvenile Court under Judge Lee Estelle, and was active in welfare work as representative of the Church. Because of his labors in this field, which brought him in close touch with Omaha affairs, Governor Sheldon offered him appointment as Omaha City Commissioner. Though always grateful for the confidence which inspired the offer, Bishop Beecher as a churchman never regretted his decision not to become a member of the government as a political officer.
The Rt. Rev. Daniel Sylvester Tuttle, Bishop of Missouri and Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church conducted Bishop Beecher’s consecration to the Episcopate at Trinity Cathedral on Saint Andrew’s Day, November 30 of 1910. Assisting in the consecration were the Rt. Rev. Alexander C. Garrett, the Rt. Rev. Anson R. Graves, the Rt. Rev. F. R. Millspaugh, the Rt. Rev. N. S. Thomas, the Rt. Rev. Arthur Williams and the Rt. Rev. T. N. Morrison.
The Bishop continued throughout his service to maintain close, personal contact with the people of his District. His work with the Indians became legendary among the survivors in numerous Indian groups in Nebraska, South Dakota and Wyoming. Among them he became known as “Ogallala Tonka,” meaning Big Sioux. Summer camps for boys were also a favorite project with the Bishop. These he held at various picturesque spots in Colorado, Wyoming and in the Pine Ridge region of Nebraska. At these camps boys from all over the state and neighboring country learned in actual practice the ways of self control and self reliance, and the values of discipline. In the hundreds who have enrolled are many sons of fathers who were themselves members of his early camps. Correspondence with his former campers made up a considerable part of the Bishop’s heavy mail.
In the pursuit of his varied duties, Bishop Beecher was a guest at the White House, preached in many of the best known churches of this country, was a house guest of the Archbishop of Canterbury and served on many welfare commissions, including the International Prison Congress in 1906, from whose deliberations were worked out many reforms in prison management.
Bishop and Mrs. Beecher had three children: Ruth Brian, Elizabeth McNeil, and Sanford Dent Beecher. Having retired from active ministry in 1943, the Bishop of the Plains died in 1951. He is buried, along with several members of his family, in the municipal cemetery in Kearny, Nebraska.