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Some American Churchmen

By Frederic Cook Morehouse

Milwaukee: The Young Churchman, 1892.

Chapter I. Samuel Seabury, The First American Bishop

AT a strange thing is the verdict of history! The most unlikely man, in 1776, to make his impress felt, second to none other, upon the American Church for all time, was Dr. Samuel Seabury, an S. P. G. missionary at West Chester, New York. He it was, however, who, more than any other one man, gave to the American Church its beautiful service for the Holy Communion, patterned rather after the Scotch than after the English Liturgy.

Dr. Seabury was a native of North Groton, Connecticut, the son of an S. P. G. missionary, and was born in 1729. He early assisted his father as a lay reader, and in August, 1752, he braved the long, hard and expensive journey across the Atlantic and entered the University of Edinburgh for the study of medicine, intending to use the knowledge thus gained in connection with the work of the ministry. We may readily believe that it was during this residence in Scotland that he obtained his close knowledge of the persecuted Church in that land. He was ordained to the diaconate on the 21st of December, 1753, by the Bishop of Lincoln (Thomas), acting for the Bishop of London, who exercised, nominally, episcopal supervision over America. Two days later, Dr. Seabury was advanced to the priesthood by the Bishop of Carlisle (Osbaldeston), who also acted for the Bishop of London.

Returning to America, he was successively rector of Christ Church, New Brunswick, New Jersey; Grace Church, Jamaica, Long Island; and S. Peter's, West Chester, New York. The troubles of the Revolution found in Dr. Seabury an ardent supporter of the British Crown. With two friends he established a literary bureau for advocating the British claims. It is not strange that he fell under the ban, and was arrested by the Continental authorities. He escaped, however, joined the British in Long Island, and became a chaplain in the British array. Up to the time of his death, he received the regular half-pay of a retired chaplain from the British Crown.

So it was, that when the peace was finally established and the feeble American colonies became the United States of America. Dr. Seabury was most unpopular to the patriots who had achieved independence at such a cost. From New York southward, many Churchmen were in active sympathy with the Continental government. George Washington was a Churchman. So were all the signers of the Declaration of Independence from Maryland, Virginia and the Carolinas, most of those from Pennsylvania, and the preponderating number from the other States south of New England.

In Connecticut most of the Churchmen were Tories, and so, loyal to the British Crown. When, therefore, the war was over, and Churchmen began to draw together the scattered fragments of the Church, they felt themselves to be under the necessity of exercising very great care to escape censure from the civil authorities, in trying to perpetuate anything so very English as the English Church.

Accordingly, ten of the fourteen clergymen in Connecticut gathered informally and secretly at Woodbury, on the 21st of April, 1783, to consider what might be done. No record of their proceedings has come to us--even their names are unknown. That the episcopate must be established, they were agreed. How, only time could tell.

Accordingly, they elected Dr. Seabury to the office. Their first choice was the Rev. Jeremiah Learning, D. D., an aged clergyman, then in New York, who had lost his all by the misfortunes of war. Dr. Learning was too infirm to accept the arduous trust, and so Dr. Seabury was chosen.

There were, of course, no Bishops in America to whom the Bishop-elect could go for ordination. The long and hazardous voyage to England was therefore necessary. The plan decided upon was, that Dr. Seabury should first lay his credentials before the English Bishops and apply for consecration. Should that fail, he was then to proceed to Scotland and seek consecration from the Non-Juring Bishops.

The English Bishops at the close of the eighteenth century were not remarkable for their piety. Many of them had received their appointment as court favors, and their spiritual duties were well-nigh forgotten. Lowth, Bishop of London, had declared he never would lay hands upon any man who was "going to America to preach." English Churchmen, like English statesmen, were humiliated by the loss of their American colonies.

Thus Dr. Seabury found the prospects decidedly unfavorable. There were real difficulties in the way, and artificial difficulties were made. The English consecration service contains an oath of obedience to the Archbishop of Canterbury or of York. This, of course, an American Bishop could not take. Then the Bishops could not conceive of an eighteenth century Bishop whose jurisdiction would be wholly spiritual. The episcopate would fall into disrepute, they maintained. What surety would be given that proper support would be given a Bishop in Connecticut? What would be his relations to the State?

At length a bill was passed through Parliament dispensing with the oaths from persons consecrated Bishops for foreign countries. But even then innumerable difficulties were raised by the Bishops. Dr. Seabury's patience and his purse were well-nigh exhausted. He had lived at his own expense in London for more than a year, and he was a poor man. Finally he proceeded to Scotland, and visited the persecuted Church of the Non-Jurors.

A hundred years before, when William, Prince of Orange, came to the British Throne, and the Stuarts were banished, the Scottish Bishops refused to conform to the new regime, but remained loyal to King James. They were accordingly deprived from their sees, their places were given to Presbyterians, and the Presbyterian was constituted by law the established Church of Scotland. The deprived Bishops, hated equally by Scottish Presbyterians for their Churchmanship and by English Churchmen for their politics, met in secret for divine service, and perpetuated the episcopate by secret, but well authenticated, consecrations. They were only a few, and were persecuted bitterly, but they were ardent and true Churchmen, and perpetuated the old Scottish Liturgy, which was very similar to the first Prayer Book of King Edward VI. in England.

To these Non-Jurors Dr. Seabury presented his credentials. With a true spirituality born of hardship and trial, and with a firm belief in the Catholicity of the Church, with an episcopal succession unbroken, through James Sharp, consecrated Archbishop of Saint Andrew's in 1661 by the Bishops of London, Worcester and Llandaff, three of these exiled princes of the Catholic Church--Robert Kilgour, Arthur Pe-trie and John Skinner--conferred the episcopate upon the infant American Church, by the consecration of Dr. Samuel Seabury, on the 14th of November, 1784. Truly, as the Psalmist sings, the same stone which the builders refused, had become the head stone in the corner!

After his consecration, Bishop Seabury at once returned to his flock in Connecticut. He became rector of the parish at New London, from which he received his support. The clergy accepted him loyally as their Bishop.

His jurisdiction really included the whole of New England, and he visited all parts of those States. An amusing story is told by Bishop Chase in his "Reminiscences," as having been told by Bishop Jarvis:

The Congregationalists of New England were exceedingly indignant that a Bishop should have invaded their stronghold. At Bishop Seabury's first visitation of Boston, Mather Byles, the Congregationalist minister, determined that he would get from the Bishop some recognition of his (Byles') Congregational orders as being equal to the episcopal orders of the Bishop. Bishop Seabury and Dr. Parker, rector of Trinity Church, were accordingly invited by Mr. Byles to tea. The two walked together to the house of their host. As they entered the yard, and walked toward the house, Mr. Byles advanced toward them, making profound obeisances at every step. As the guests reached his doorstep, he looked the Bishop full in the face, and, raising his voice, said with the utmost formality:

"Rt. Rev. Father in God, Samuel, Bishop of all New England, I, Mather Byles, as the representative of all the clergy of the Congregational churches in Massachusetts Bay, and other places, bid thee a hearty welcome to Boston, and give thee, and hope to receive from thee, the right hand of fellowship."

Mr. Byles held out his hand, expecting the Bishop to grasp it. Not so was the great Seabury to be caught. Without a moment's hesitation he replied:

"Not so, Mr. Byles, with your leave; I can't do this; but as you are a left-handed brother, I give you my left hand."

In the meantime the Church was being organized in the other States, though as yet there was no Bishop. Accordingly, in the summer following Bishop Seabury's consecration, a letter was sent by the Connecticut clergy to Churchmen in the other States, inviting them to attend a conference at Middletown to formulate a union. The Philadelphia clergy replied that a General Convention had already been formed and would hold its first meeting in that city in the September following, and invited the Church in Connecticut to send representatives to that convention.


Bishop Seabury plead poverty and a press of duties as his excuse for not accepting this invitation. There were, however, some doubts as to how he would be received, should he go; and this fact may have influenced him in staying away. Instead, he addressed to Dr. White, the leading spirit, a letter of sympathy with the work of the convention, but urging him to protect more carefully the office of the episcopate. In 1786 a second session of the General Convention was held, and a spirit very unfriendly to Bishop Seabury was manifested. Dr. Provoost, afterward Bishop of New York, moved:

"That this convention will resolve to do no act that shall imply the validity of ordinations made by Dr. Seabury." [Perry's Journals of General Convention, vol. 1, page 37.]

Happily, this motion failed, only New York, New Jersey and South Carolina voting for it. Later, in 1789, the validity of Dr. Seabury's orders was unanimously affirmed. Bishops were consecrated in England for Pennsylvania and New York, and later for Virginia.

Negotiations for the union of the Church in Connecticut with that of the other States continued to be interchanged. So successful did they prove, that Bishop Seabury attended an adjourned session of the General Convention of 1789, held in October, and, with Bishop White, constituted the first House of Bishops. In 1792, the four Bishops then in America, Dr. Seabury, of the Scottish succession, and Bishops White (Pennsylvania), Provoost (New York), and Madison (Virginia), of the English succession, united in the consecration of the Rev. T. J. Claggett, D. D., as Bishop of Maryland. Thus were the two episcopates united.

The influence of Bishop Seabuvy upon our present Book of Common Prayer was most beneficial. The daily offices were for the most part adapted from the English Prayer Book by Southern Churchmen, but through the influence of Bishop Seabury, the more beautiful Communion Office of the Scottish Church was made the framework for the American book. He also strongly urged the continuance of the Athanasiau Creed in the Prayer Book, but the South would not listen to him. New York, Pennsylvania and South Carolina voted "No" unanimously, New Jersey and Delaware were divided, Maryland and Virginia were not represented. It was through Bishop Seabury's influence that the House of Bishops was organized as a separate house.

Bishop Seabury's Churchmanship was ahead of his age. He believed firmly in the Church as a divine organism. His orders, he firmly believed, were of divine origin, and the Apostolic succession was to him a certain fact. His influence upon the Church was very great, aided, no doubt, by his unquestioned purity of character. He died February 25th, 1796, and was buried in the cemetery at New London. In 1849 his remains were taken into the chancel of S. James' Church, New London, and an altar tomb, surmounted by a mitre, was erected over them. Bishop Seabury's mitre is still preserved in the library of Trinity College, Hartford.

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