Richard Bland Mitchell (1887–1961)
The Right Reverend Richard Bland Mitchell was the eighth bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Arkansas. During his episcopate from 1938 through 1956, his leadership and administrative talent greatly improved the health of the weakened diocese he inherited. He was instrumental in creating a training and conference center on Petit Jean Mountain, named Camp Mitchell in his honor. His stance in agreement with the U.S. Supreme Court’s desegregation decision in Brown v. Board of Education set the stage for further Episcopal civil rights work in Arkansas.
Richard Bland Mitchell (known as Bland) was born in Rolla, Missouri, on July 26, 1887, to Ewing Young Mitchell and Corinne Medley Mitchell. Mitchell attended the Rolla public schools and then the Sewanee Grammar School in Sewanee, Tennessee, from 1901 to 1904. He received a Bachelor of Arts degree from the University of the South in Sewanee in 1908 and a Bachelor of Divinity degree from the same institution in 1912. In 1931, the University of the South awarded him a Doctor of Divinity degree.
The Rt. Rev. Theodore DuBose Bratton, bishop of Mississippi, ordained Mitchell as a deacon on June 12, 1912, at St. Luke’s Chapel in Sewanee. Bratton ordained him to the priesthood on June 24, 1913, at the Church of the Incarnation in West Point, Mississippi. Mitchell served a number of parishes in Mississippi before leaving to work for the administration of the national Episcopal Church in 1915, where he stayed until 1928. He had a variety of positions, including overseeing missions in Asia and Hawaii, serving as secretary to the national council, and directing a highly successful national fundraising campaign. In 1929, Mitchell returned to parochial work at St. Mary’s in the Highlands in Birmingham, Alabama, where he remained until 1938.
On October 5, 1938, Mitchell was consecrated as the eighth bishop of the Diocese of Arkansas in Trinity Cathedral in Little Rock (Pulaski County) by his brother, the Rt. Rev. Walter Mitchell, bishop of Arizona, assisted by Bishop Bratton and six other bishops.
Upon consecration, Mitchell inherited a diocese in disarray from the ravages of the Great Depression and weakened by political squabbling and lack of diocesan leadership in the 1930s. Mitchell met the challenge with straight talk to both the clergy and the laity. Although he found dedicated clergy and lay readers keeping parishes going, when he presided over his first diocesan convention at Christ Church in Little Rock in April 1939, he minced no words explaining how recent financial support for the church in the diocese was much lower than others in the country. He implemented a campaign to invigorate giving and to either repair or sell unused church property. He established a team to work with him to make “a diocese in fact, not just in name.” Mitchell’s leadership greatly increased the financial stability of the diocese and, ultimately, the number of members, missions, and parishes. The diocese had almost 8,200 members at the end of his term.
Mitchell found the existing practice of having a suffragan bishop serve black Episcopalians to be a flawed experiment, and upon the retirement of the suffragan, the Rt. Rev. Edward T. Demby, Mitchell said he would be the bishop of all Arkansas Episcopalians or none at all. He orchestrated the amending of the diocesan constitution to remove the provisions for a suffragan bishop and a separate convocation for African-American members.
Mitchell promoted the creation of a camp and conference center for the diocese. He was instrumental in seeing that land was purchased on Petit Jean Mountain outside of Morrilton (Conway County) and enthusiastically solicited donations to create and furnish the camp. The facility opened in 1949, and at the direction of the diocesan executive council, it was named Camp Mitchell in the bishop’s honor.
Mitchell was the bishop of Arkansas in 1954 when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in favor of public school desegregation. He took a strong stance in agreement with the decision.
Mitchell continued to be involved in serving the national church throughout his episcopate by participating on boards and committees such as the National Council and the committee on constitution and canons. For example, he served as chancellor of the University of the South and chairman of its board of trustees from 1950 to 1956.
Mitchell was married to Vivien McQuiston of Aberdeen, Mississippi. They had two children. Upon his retirement on October 5, 1956, Mitchell and his wife returned to Sewanee. He died on March 7, 1961, and is buried in the University of the South Cemetery.
For additional information:
Beary, Michael J. Black Bishop: Edward T. Demby and the Struggle for Racial Equality in the Episcopal Church. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2001.
McDonald, Margaret Simms. White Already to Harvest: The Episcopal Church in Arkansas, 1838–1971. Sewanee, TN: University Press, 1975.
Mary Janet “Bean” Murray
Little Rock, Arkansas
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