The first Episcopal Church in what is now West Virginia was built about 1740 at Bunker Hill in Berkeley County in the Eastern Panhandle. Other early churches in the state were naturally located in population centers that sprung up along the Ohio and Kanawha Rivers, major transportation routes through what was then still basically a wilderness. Inroads to more remote areas of the state were slow incoming and this isolation caused a social and economic riff between the mountaineers and the inhabitants of the eastern portion of "The Old Dominion."
Sectional differences came to a head when Virginia seceded from the Union in 1861. In response to this action, the Wheeling-based Restored Government of Virginia (loyal to the Union) was formed in mid-1861 and was the governing body for western Virginia until 20 June 1863 when the state of West Virginia was admitted to the Union. With a sparse, widely separated population, the new state was regarded as a missionary area consisting of small groups of Episcopalians with little money to pay rectors, to erect church buildings or rectories, or to support a bishop. It took fourteen years to establish a new diocese out of the old Diocese of Virginia, but in 1877 the broader Episcopal Church Council, together with the parishioners of the state under the leadership of Francis M. Whittle, Bishop of Virginia, agreed to create the Diocese of West Virginia.
The diocese lost little time in electing a bishop, but the man chosen declined to serve. A second Council elected the Rt. Rev. George W. Peterkin to serve as first Bishop of the Diocese. He was not the first choice, but he was obviously God’s choice. Peterkin was by necessity a missionary bishop: in the first seven months, he crisscrossed the diocese, making 111 visitations. and confirming 211 persons! The State of West Virginia in those days had slightly over 442,000 in population and of these only 1162 Episcopal communicants in 26 parishes and missions. During his tenure as bishop, the church grew to 45 clergy, 96 churches, 6,810 communicants, and over 11,000 baptized members. He established a home for disabled clergy, and a private boarding house for Episcopal male students attending West Virginia University in Morgantown. Still the Bishop of West Virginia, Peterkin “died with his boots on” in September 1916.
His successor, the Rt. Rev. William L. Gravatt, had been Bishop Coadjutor for 17 years! During this period, Gravatt also served as a missionary bishop, but shortly after he became the Diocesan, the United States entered World War I, changing his focus. The war was a big manpower drain, followed by railroad strikes and coal wars. Financial woes plagued Gravatt and the diocese throughout the 1920s. Matters became much worse at the end of the decade with the advent of the Great Depression. Missions and churches had to be closed due to population shifts. Whole towns disappeared. Although the Gravatt episcopacy covered many years of deeply troubled times, a bright spot included the founding of the Episcopal Youth Movement. Gravatt retired in January 1939, leaving the diocese with 13,204 baptized members and 40 clergy.
The third bishop, the Rt. Rev. Robert E. L. Strider, was the first native-born West Virginian elected to the office of Bishop. Strider had served as coadjutor for the diocese for almost 15 years when he was elected Dean of the Virginia Seminary, and there was much apprehension across the diocese about his potential departure. After much prayer and thought, Bishop Strider decided in favor of remaining in West Virginia, and succeeded Bishop Gravatt in 1939.
Bishop Strider was ready with new plans for the reorganization of the diocese at his first Council meeting in December of 1939. His new policies included expanding the number of Convocations (presently called Deaneries), creating an Executive Board to direct the day-to-day operations of the diocese, and bringing the Women’s Auxiliary more into leadership roles. Most of these innovations corresponded with those of the broader Episcopal Church.
Evangelization in the diocese during these years centered on revitalization of the Layman’s League and working within the National Church’s ten-year Forward Movement program. World War II affected the diocese in several ways. Coal, steel, and chemical production had to increase to meet war needs, but young men frequently volunteered for, or were conscripted into, the armed forces. Several Episcopal clergy in the diocese volunteered for the chaplaincy. Bishop Strider moved quickly on raising funds for the “mother” church, the Church of England, specifically for overseas missions.
The immediate postwar years found the diocese engaged in helping returning soldiers and sailors take advantage of their new GI Bill of Rights, find their life partners, attend college, or find good jobs. Although financial woes were chronic, the Peterkin Conference Center was acquired in rural Hampshire County. The preacher at the first conference at the Peterkin Center in 1945 was the Rev. Wilburn Campbell, at that time the Executive Secretary of the Presiding Bishop’s Committee on Layman’s Work. TheRev. Mr. Campbell made a very strong impression on the conferees.
In May 1949, Strider made the surprise announcement of his intention to retire in six years and called for the election of a bishop coadjutor. A special council was called for December 1949 and from a field of eight, the Rt. Rev. Wilburn C. Campbell was elected on the third ballot.
Bishop Campbell was a powerful, dominating figure, and much respected in the diocese. During his episcopacy, he became known for his work in promoting racial equality. The Peterkin Conference Center was fully integrated in 1951 having been previously been a “whites only” institution. As a missionary bishop, he was instrumental in founding or reviving the congregations in thirteen parishes. In 1972 Campbell called for the election of a bishop coadjutor and announced his impending retirement at the end of 1975. The following year the Rt. Rev. Robert P. Atkinson was chosen.
While not born in the state, Bishop Atkinson had grown up in Martinsburg, WV. He came to know Bishop Strider while in college and developed a correspondence with him that eventually brought him to Holy Orders. After attending Virginia Theological Seminary, he served various parishes in West Virginia until called to Calvary Church, Memphis, where, following the death of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King in in 1968, he guided that parish into important new work in attempts to ease racial tensions.
By 1976 the diocese had grown to 90 parishes with 13,336 communicants and 19,037 baptized persons and the number of priests had grown to 100. In the summers, Peterkin Conference Center was full to overflowing with campers of all ages and was supported by The Friends of Peterkin, an informal lay group assisting by donating time and money. The Episcopal Advance Fund was active with grants and loans. The West Virginia School of Religion promoted increased lay activity including the Order of Jerusalem who functioned as lay eucharist visitors, lay readers, and occasional preachers.
Breaking a tradition that had been in effect since the founding of the Diocese of West Virginia, Atkinson called for the election of a bishop suffragan in 1985. Bishop Atkinson’s assistant, the Rt. Rev. William F. Carr, was elected, thereby setting in motion an unintended consequence. When Bishop Atkinson retired in 1989 there was no coadjutor to succeed him, necessitating an election for a new bishop. The special convention called for that purpose was badly divided. The result of several ballots produced a deadlock between Bishop Carr and a rector in the diocese. The convention compromised by electing a third candidate, the Rev. John Smith of Vermont.
The Rt. Rev. John H. Smith, the sixth Bishop Diocesan, was active in promoting what is called Cluster Ministries, having written Cluster Ministry: A Faithful Response in 1996. While his episcopacy began with high hopes, it cooled significantly before his rather sudden retirement in 1999. During the interim following, the retired Bishop of Southern Virginia, the Rt. Rev. Charles Vaché, was the episcopal presence in the state. During this period the number of parishes decreased from 78 to 62.
A special convention was held in2000 to elect a new diocesan bishop, and The Rt. Rev. William Michie (“Mike”) Klusmeyer was chosen. The diocese can be proud of many accomplishments achieved during the twenty-year episcopacy of Bishop Klusmeyer. Under his guidance, four struggling parishes in Charleston have successfully merged into one strong congregation, St.Christopher’s. Financial worries have much improved. The election of the Rev.V. Gene Robinson as bishop diocesan of New Hampshire, the first openly gay bishop, opened a great divide within the diocese, but Bishop Klusmeyer, who reportedly knows the laity of the diocese better than most recent bishops, held the opposing factions together and now permits same-sex blessings and marriages.
A major accomplishment during this time has been the reconnection to the broader Episcopal Church. The diocese has gone from paying only one-half of the National Church Asking, to paying our apportionment in full. And although the State of West Virginia has been in a population decline for over seventy years (2 million in 1950 down to 1.8 million in 2010), the rate of decline of the diocese has been half that of the state.
With the retirement of The Revs. Donald Vinson and Faith Perrizo, Bishop Klusmeyer sought a new direction for the Diocese with the hiring of an Assistant Bishop, The Rt. Rev. Mark van Koevering, former Diocesan of Mozambique (East Africa). But, after a very short tenure, December, 2015 to March, 2018, Bishop van Koevering was elected Bishop of Lexington (KY), and took up his duties there as again a Diocesan.
Thus, the diocese has moved into the 21st century to the point that during the current pandemic most churches have been able to conduct services electronically, although hampered by the lack of broadband availability. Some of the old problems remain however: bad roads, especially in the southern part of the state; difficult terrain, especially in the winter; absentee landlords and owners of major businesses and industries; and a significant number of very poor people. Bishop Peterkin would have been familiar with these conditions. It is safe to say that most of these problems—or opportunities for improvement—will also confront the Eighth Bishop.