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Henry Champlin Lay (1823–1885)

The Right Reverend Henry Champlin Lay was the third missionary bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Arkansas. The diocese was land the Church defined as also including Indian Territory (present-day Oklahoma) and what would later become the states of New Mexico and Arizona. Lay was also bishop of the Diocese of Arkansas when it was allied with the Episcopal Church in the Confederate States of America. He again served the original missionary territory when the national church reunited in 1865.

Henry Champlin Lay was born on December 6, 1823, in Richmond, Virginia. He was the son of John Olmsted Lay and Lucy May Lay. He was educated in Richmond and New York City. Lay graduated from the University of Virginia in Charlottesville with an MA in 1842 and from Virginia Theological Seminary in Alexandria in 1846. He was ordained as a deacon on July 10, 1846, by Bishop William Mead and was assigned to the Episcopal parish in Lynn Haven, Virginia, for six months.

Lay married Elizabeth Withers Atkinson on May 13, 1847. He was ordained to the priesthood on July 12, 1848, by Bishop Nicholas Hamner Cobbs in Huntsville, Alabama. He was called to serve at the Church of the Nativity in Huntsville while he was still a deacon, but the church building for the newly formed parish was not complete when Lay and his wife arrived on June 10, 1848. Lay held services in the county courthouse until the construction of the Church of the Nativity was complete. He served there until 1859.

Lay attended the 1859 Episcopal national convention as a deputy from Alabama and was elected as the missionary bishop of the Southwest, which included Arkansas, Indian Territory, and the territories of New Mexico and Arizona. He was consecrated on October 23, 1859, in Richmond, Virginia, by Bishop Mead, acting on behalf of Presiding Bishop Thomas Church Brownell. Lay first visited Arkansas in 1859, and in 1860 he moved his family to Arkansas, choosing Fort Smith (Sebastian County) as his headquarters in order to serve both his territorial responsibilities and Arkansas parishes.

When news of advancing Federal troops reached Fort Smith and Van Buren (Crawford County) in February 1862, Lay began the long journey to move his family back to Alabama. After his arrival in early April, Lay and eleven other prominent Huntsville citizens were arrested and held as hostages for two weeks in an attempt to make the people of Huntsville submit to Union demands. Lay reported that he had been in solitary confinement for most of his incarceration.

At the first convention of the Diocese of Arkansas within the jurisdiction of the Episcopal Church of the Confederate States of America in 1862, Lay was elected bishop by the Arkansas convention delegates. Along with Bishop Thomas Atkinson of North Carolina (who was Lay’s wife’s uncle), Lay was one of the first bishops of the Confederacy to advocate returning to the national Church at the close of the war. Atkinson and Lay were the only southern bishops attending the 1865 national convention, where the southern dioceses were welcomed back into the Church by presiding bishop John Henry Hopkins. Upon the reunion of the country and the Church, Lay resumed his position as missionary bishop of Arkansas, Indian Territory, New Mexico, and Arizona.

In 1869, Lay was elected the first bishop of the Diocese of Easton in Maryland. Lay had high regard for Christian education and education in general. He received a doctorate-level degree in law (LLD) from Cambridge University in 1867; a doctor of divinity (DD) from William and Mary College in Williamsburg, Virginia; and a doctorate in sacred theology (STD) from Hobart College in Geneva, New York. 

Lay died on September 17, 1885, and is buried in Easton, Maryland.

For additional information:
“History of the Diocese.” Episcopal Church in Arkansas. http://episcopalarkansas.org/old/our-diocese/about-us/ (accessed May 9, 2017).

McDonald, Margaret Simms. White Already to Harvest: The Episcopal Church in Arkansas, 1838–1971. Sewanee, TN: University Press of Sewanee, 1975.

Potter, Henry C. “A Shepherd Faithful and True: Being a Sermon Commemorative of the Right Rev. Henry Champlin Lay, D.D., LL.D., Delivered in Christ Church, Easton, MD, at the Special Diocesan Convention, November 18th, 1885.” Online at http://anglicanhistory.org/usa/hcpotter/lay1885.html (accessed May 9, 2017).

Mary Janet “Bean” Murray
Little Rock, Arkansas

Last Updated 5/9/2017

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