Rt. Rev. Thomas Church Brownell, 7th Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church

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Thomas Church Brownell

Birthplace: Westport, Bristol, Massachusetts
Death: January 13, 1865 (85)
Hartford, Hartford, Connecticut, United States
Place of Burial: Hartford, Hartford, Connecticut, United States
Immediate Family:

Son of Sylvester Brownell and Mercy Brownell
Husband of Charlotte Brownell
Father of Harriet Putnam Brownell
Brother of Ruth Church; Sylvester Brownell; Pardon Brownell; Richmond Brownell; Col. Jonathan Brownell and 2 others

Occupation: Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church in the United States; Founder of Trinity College, Hartford
Managed by: Private User
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About Rt. Rev. Thomas Church Brownell, 7th Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church

Thomas Church Brownell was the founder of Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut and the Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church of the United States. Brownell was born in Westport, Massachusetts on October 19, 1779.

Teaching Career

Brownell began his college education at the College of Rhode Island (Brown University) in Providence, but he transferred and graduated from Union College in Schenectady, New York in 1804.

Brownell had impressed his instructors at Union enough that he was offered the position of tutor of Greek and Latin, which he accepted in 1805. In 1806, he was promoted to Professor of Logic and Belles-Lettres. Brownell took time off to spend a year in England and Ireland, where he studied chemistry and kindred sciences. He returned in Union in 1809 to teach chemistry and remained there until 1817.

Bishop of Connecticut

After teaching for several years, Brownell turned his attention towards a career in the priesthood. In 1813, he was baptized and confirmed as an Episcopalian minister. In 1816, he was ordained to the diaconate and priesthood by Bishop John Henry Hobart in New York. On October 27, 1819, he was was consecrated 3rd Bishop of Connecticut in New Haven, filling a position that had been vacant for six years.

Congregationalism was disestablished as the state-supported religion in 1818 with the passage of the new Connecticut constitution, meaning the time was ripe for Episcopalianism to grow. Brownell's efforts in strengthening the church and its ministry in the state led to unprecedented growth.

While Bishop of Connecticut, Brownell also made several missionary trips through Kentucky, Mississippi, Louisiana, and Alabama. He also continued to spread his message about the importance of education throughout other parts of the United States, including getting his parish to help fund the establishment of the Brownell-Talbot School, originally a boarding school for girls, in Omaha, Nebraska.

Trinity College

In addition to his service to the church, Brownell also was an academic leader. One of his first actions as Bishop of Connecticut was to begin work on creating a new institution of higher learning in the state. Episcopalians in Connecticut had long wanted their own college, but the institutionalization of Congregationalism in Connecticut prior to 1818 made it difficult for the church to obtain a charter from the state. Furthermore, Yale University in New Haven already received the support of most families in the state.

In 1823, Brownell led the founding of Trinity College in Hartford, then known as Washington College. Brownell chartered the college in the Senate Chamber of the Old State House in Hartford, where a commemorative plaque now exists (courtesy of the college) in honor of the meeting. The charter Washington College received from the state in 1823 included an order that the college could not impose religious standards on students, faculty members, or other members of the college.

As evidenced by his past in academic, Brownell loved the academic life. He served as president of Washington for nearly a decade, pouring much of his time and efforts into the institution. The diocese, however, wanted him to spend more time on ministerial matters. In 1831, the convention of the diocese requested that he resign from his presidency, which he did. Although he was named in the honorary office of chancellor, Brownell focused on his responsibilities as Connecticut’s Bishop.

Washington College became Trinity College in 1845 and moved to its current location at Gallows Hill in 1878; prior to that, it existed on the current site of the State Capitol.

Presiding Bishop

His accomplishments in Connecticut -- as well as the depth of his writings on diocesan charges, liturgical material, and scriptural commentaries -- led to his selection as the 7th Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church of the United States in 1852, succeeding Philander Chase. He was formally installed in the position, which he held until his death, on September 20, 1852.

As Presiding Bishop, Brownell became a prolific writer. In addition to many sermons and tracts that were published, more than ten books were written by Brownell, the most important being Commentary on the Book of Common Prayer in 1843.

Under Brownell's leadership, the Episcopalian clergy across the United States increased five-fold, and the number of Episcopalian churches increased 18-fold by the time of his death.

Family Life

On August 16, 1811, Brownell married Charlotte Dickinson at Westport. Together, they had seven children:

  • Sarah Brownell, b. September 13, 1813, d. September 11, 1869
  • Thomas Brownell, b. September 09, 1815, d. May 05, 1841
  • H. Tudor Brownell, b. August 04, 1815, d. August 02, 1887
  • Frances Brownell, b. January 15, 1822, d. September 04, 1890
  • Louise Brownell, b. June 15, 1824, d. October 05, 1883
  • Harriet P. Brownell, b. September 25, 1826, d. date unknown
  • Elizabeth Brownell, b. September 25, 1826, d. September 26, 1828


Brownell is buried at Cedar Hill Cemetery in Hartford. He is remembered today at Trinity with a bronze statue of his likeness. Since 1986, the college has offered the Thomas Church Brownell Prize in Teaching Excellence.

Multiple institutions have been named after Brownell. St. Thomas's Episcopal Church in New Haven, Connecticut was named in part to honor the bishop. Brownell-Talbot School in Omaha is also named for him.

Brownell's writings are preserved by Project Canterbury, an Anglican archival project.


  • While living in Hartford, Brownell became friendly with both the Jarvis and Colt families. In 1825, Brownell presided over the marriage of Rev. William Jarvis and Elizabeth Miller Hart. In 1856, he married their daughter, Elizabeth Hart Jarvis, to the famed gun-maker Samuel Colt. The Brownell and Colt plots are adjacent in Cedar Hill Cemetery.
  • Brownell and his family lived at 114 Asylum Street in Hartford, then and now an upscale neighborhood.
  • Brownell's funeral was held at Christ Church in Hartford, just a short walk down Main Street from the Old State House where he chartered Washington College.

Additional Resources


  • Batterson, Hermon Griswold. A Sketch-book of the American Episcopate.
  • Brownell, Thomas Church. Autobiography of Thomas Church Brownell, Third Bishop of Connecticut. Hartford, Connecticut: Church Missions Publishing Co., 1940.
  • Burgess, George. "Funeral Address for Thomas Church Brownell, 1865.
  • The Hale Genealogy, Connecticut State Library Vital Records Division. Accessed July 2011.
  • Perry, William Stevens. The Episcopate in America.
  • "Thomas Church Brownell." Cedar Hill Cemetery Foundation. August 2010. Accessed July 4, 2011.
  • "Thomas Church Brownell." General Convention of the Episcopal Church. 2006. Accessed July 4, 2011.

This biographical sketch was written in July 2011 by Ashley Odell. Please do not redistribute without attribution.

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Rt. Rev. Thomas Church Brownell, 7th Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church's Timeline

October 19, 1779
Westport, Bristol, Massachusetts
Age 33
New York, United States
September 25, 1826
Age 46
Westport, Bristol, Massachusetts, USA
January 13, 1865
Age 85
Hartford, Hartford, Connecticut, United States
- 1804
Schenectady, New York, United States
Hartford, Hartford, Connecticut, United States