Jay Cooke considered himself a “low church” Episcopalian. He was indulgent of those who maintained the orthodox practices but he “held no sympathy for the ritualists.” One of the leading bankers of his day, Cooke involved himself in nearly everything from the endowment of churches and charities to the building of railroads and the sale of securities.
Early in his life, in his first job as a clerk in Philadelphia, Mr Cooke attended the Methodist Protestant Church where the Rev. Thomas H. Stockton was the pastor. They remained friends until Mr Stockton’s death. Mt Stockton had a strong influence on the young Jay Cooke. Mr. Cooke spent thousands of dollars to distribute Mr. Stockton’s sermons and tracts.
After Jay Cooke married, he found the long walk to Mr. Stockton’s church was too long for Mrs. Cooke, who was also a Methodist. They joined nearby St Paul’s Episcopal church in Philadelphia. The Rev. Richard Newton was the rector and, like Mr. Stockton, he became a lifelong friend of the Cookes. One of the things he did to show his thanks to Mr. Newton was to have a home built which he gave to Mr. Newton as a gift.
Mr Cooke was dedicated to his faith and supporting the Christian journey of others. On Sunday evenings, after spending the day in church, Mr. Cooke, taught a bible class from 7:30 to 9 pm in his home if he was in Philadelphia. He also led bible studies on Gibraltar when he was in residence there.
Early in the 1860’s Mr. Cooke was instrumental in building a newer St. Paul’s church in Philadelphia which would be even closer to his home. Many of the Episcopal churches he helped build throughout his life were also named St. Paul’s. Although the neighbors joined him worshiping in the new St Paul’s in Philadelphia, they did not help sustain it knowing he was providing adequate funds. His contributions after the Civil War until 1873, averaged from $6,000 to $10,000 annually. (This would be similar to the effect of someone giving $125 – 215 Million dollars today!) The first rector of the new St. Paul’s in Philadelphia was the Rev. Robert J. Parvin.
Very early In his life Jay Cooke read a little book on Christian giving and resolved to take Jacob’s pledge: “Of all that thou givest me I will surely give the tenth unto thee.” (Gen. 28:22b). When he became a successful businessman he directed his clerk to open an account called O. P. J. (Old Patriarch Jacob) and to credit to the account with one-tenth of all the commissions that came into the office. Some of the largest financial transactions of the country were entrusted to the firm which was well known. When people inquired of him how he could afford to make such large contributions, he would say: “It doesn’t cost me anything; it is the Lord’s money I give.” [The Expositor, October 1918 – Published in Cleveland]
His business not only tithed their profits for religious and charitable work, but he tithed his own income as well. He gave vast sums of money to rebuild churches in the South after the Civil War. He became known as a great philanthropist.
Cooke made a practice of tithing, donating 10 percent of his income to charities before taking home a profit. This did not stop him from amassing a great fortune and purchasing two large homes: one located on Gibraltar Island in Lake Erie.
He believed ministry was a holy calling, and reproved those who had entered it for leaving it to seek the greater rewards of other pursuits. “My own views have always been,” said he on one occasion, “that a clergyman, although he live upon bread and water, and although he be cast out and have troubles of all kinds, has no right to desert his calling or be absorbed in any species of money-making.”
On August 14, 1869, Mr. Cooke wrote to the Rev. Dr. Dyer of New York about the proposed revision of the Episcopal Prayer Book. He wished it to be “an American book in plain American words and sense, full of the simplicity of the blessed Gospel, in which Jesus alone shall be recognized and supreme in every page, and in which the universal church of all true believers with simple gospel story, shall be cordially and unmistakably acknowledged. … We want a Book of Prayer because we are convinced that great good and comfort are thereby insured. We will use it as a means of grace and edification and of order and dignity in the great congregation, but not slavishly binding even there, and not to intrude like a stalking robed priest into our social and prayer meetings.”
“The whole Prayer Book, my dear Bishop,” he wrote to Bishop Henry W. Lee in 1871, “should be taken hold of by conscientious evangelical hands and remodeled to suit the Protestant feelings of America, and everything that looks like priestcraft, apostolic succession dogmas, regeneration dogmas, exclusive dogmas, uncharitable, un-Christian, inhospitable dogmas, all should be stricken out.”
He was ahead of his time in his recommendations for the prayerbook revision. Mr. Cooke believed that the Lord’s Table should be thrown open to all believers which happened about 100 years after his letter was written.
He made gifts to many churches but to some he attached a condition, requiring open communion. This drew a lot of criticism in the local paper. To a request for aid for a Baptist church in Olympia in Washington Territory, Mr. Cooke had his secretary respond as follows:
"Mr. Cooke's antipathy to the ritual of religion was pronounced. He was no respecter of ceremony in any of life's performances, and he vigorously opposed it in the church. When appeals reached him from High Churchmen he frequently had his secretary write, saying that his favors were reserved for those who taught the Word of God in his own direct and simple way. Upon one letter he made the following memorandum for a reply: "Mr. C. has no sympathy for High Church. Would not aid such influences." Upon the arrival of a High Churchman at Gibraltar in 1866, Mr. Cooke wrote in the Records: "How can a Christian man be a High Churchman? To my mind it always shows a weak spot somewhere, 'bad bringing up,' and I always pity them; but I suppose we must not judge them, but have loving charity for the men, if we have none for the principles."
Even churches of his own communion fell under his ban in 1872. He said, “Our church has fastened upon its members by its canons a most hateful provision binding its ministers not to acknowledge common courtesies and hospitalities by the occupation of our pulpits occasionally by brethren of other denominations. I therefore refuse until this wicked law is rescinded to aid in building other Episcopal churches. … I can conceive of no greater wickedness than the exclusion by law of any good Christian brother from our pulpits, or his exclusion on account of a mere form of baptism from your communion table.”
These years were marked by much contention in the Episcopal church. When the Reformed Episcopal church was organized in 1873 it was expected that he would identify himself with that wing. Their leaders were disappointed, and he remained in the Episcopal church, his attachment and devotion to the canons deepening as his life advanced.