Keener, D.D., LL.D., Bishop John C.

1/1/1905

BISHOP JOHN C. KEENER
- 1905
 
Perhaps an acquaintance with Bishop Keener running from my childhood, and covering every relation he sustained to the church, and for some years of my mature life bringing into close, confidential, daily contact with him, justifies an opinion of his character and a few words of memorial. If more were called for, let it be the awe, admiration and affection with which I accepted him as the mirror of all that was excellent in man or minister.
It is too early to form a just interpretation of a life that was not always transparent, even to himself. Some men live too near to compass its dimensions, and some too distant to observe the smaller excellencies or defects. He was a great, though not a popular preacher. His most effective and unctuous sermons were preached to the little congregation at Ocean Springs, or the smaller churches of New Orleans; there his domestic and paternal nature lent a glow and tenderness to bright and vigorous thought which, on statelier occasions, were absent. If at times his preaching was nebulous or tedious, his usual brilliancy had earned this privilege. He discussed habitually only great themes, and in a really great way, and never thought it worthwhile to make a sermonette. His treatment of a text varied, sometimes concealing, sometimes exposing his analysis, and sometimes disclosing his objective point in his few last sentences. If not always original in thought, he never failed to be so in expression. He seemed indifferent to either the declamation or literary graces of the orator. He never affected purely ethical results, but addressed either the conscience or the reason with prodigious power. When afforded an occasion and an audience, as when before an Annual Conference, or a great Missionary meeting, if in normal health, all his resources of knowledge, passion, imagination and religious experience were drawn upon—not as a pyrotechnic display for the entertainment or praise of an audience, but as a battery of artillery in volcanic action during an exigency of battle. On such occasions his face, even on entering the pulpit, wore an awe-inspiring pallor, and his hands and voice as well showed the prayerful agony from which he had just emerged. Probably no man surpassed him in the unconscious eloquence of prayer, or in prayers exposed greater areas of experience or aspiration. It was for this reason his sermons dashed into hollow squares of philosophic difficulties, or dynamited quarries of theologic granite. He was never sensational among superficial people, he did not participate in general schemes of reform, nor potter with elections, official abuses or hygienic problems, but gave himself and all of himself to the preaching of “the Gospel concerning Christ.’’
He made but little impression upon the city of New Orleans except through the pulpits he filled. Only two years did I know him as my pastor. It suited him best to serve the District, it also suited the people. For this he was eminently qualified. He understood the discipline and stood squarely for its enforcement. He was a fair organizer of methods and sometimes of men. Though not a financier, he was a good collector of money, either privately or in the pulpit. He raised the money to purchase the Advocate Building, and to inaugurate the Mexican Mission, besides his own share of several of the city churches.
He had the forecast of a statesman and saw far into the results of legislation. He lifted his voice against Lay Representation as we have it, though he introduced it in a better form in the Louisiana Conference years before. He knew how to grasp a situation in a congregation, or the Annual and General Conferences, at a glance. In the former situation, his penetration and resolution saved the German churches in New Orleans from a fraudulent transfer and paralyzed the influence of some shrewd malcontents. In the latter situation an exposure of an unauthorized Commission from the M. E. Church, elevated him to the Episcopacy.
When the war had closed, quicker than most men he saw that sudden release from military law and familiarity with bloodshed, invoked a reign of lawlessness—and an abounding currency tempted men into excesses of commercialism. He charged his preachers “preach the Law.”
When the city churches were occupied by preachers of the M. E. Church who refused to restore them to their rightful pastors, it was only his decisive and prompt appeal to the President, which put them again in possession of the Southern Church. The man, the field and the occasion were well met when he was Presiding Elder of the New Orleans District, but he had princely coadjutors in Louis Parker and Joseph B. Walkers, who each stood for one in the development of Methodism there.
As a man he was made in a large mould, and Providence secured him commensurate strength. To his large natural endowments were added the advantages of a collegiate training, a continuous residence for many years in a large city, association with some of the foremost men and women from several contiguous States and an almost uninterrupted monopoly of an office that allowed an extensive and various reading. Jefferson Davis thought him one of the best-informed men of his acquaintance. He was strong in his feelings, ambitions and prejudices, in the last almost invincible. He was strong in his self-confidence, and seemingly it never occurred to him to suspect his capacity, his efficiency or his kindness, as being at fault. He was strong in his self-reliance, and to it may be traced the force, originality and versatility of his sermonic and literary efforts as well as some ill-featured qualities which detracted from his popularity, lie was strong in his self-control, his very features taking on, in trying situations, the inflexibility and pallor of marble and the mystery of a Metternich. He kept his own counsel inviolate before and after the event he sought, and yet it was not hard to determine what in a given event he would do, or had done. His decision of character exemplified the resources which Jno. Foster commended, but it did not altogether escape the excesses he deprecated. Some men he read at a glance, but others were as great a mystery to him as he was to them. He had little faith in or patience with those who opposed him, and was not especially tender in pursuing his own plans. He bravely threw himself in the path of some ecclesiastical adventures, sometimes with success—sometimes with failure—and sometimes obstructed policies better than his own. He lingered long enough to see edifices it was his glory to originate— and institutions his delight to support—“pass as a dream, when one awaketh.” His best monument is not found in brick or bronze—but in the men and women for whom his character is a lesson and his words a noble inspiration.
Source: Journal of the Louisiana Annual Conference of the Methodist Episcopal Church, South, 1905; Pages 58-59; by Charles E. Evans