Project Canterbury

Some American Churchmen

By Frederic Cook Morehouse

Milwaukee: The Young Churchman, 1892.

Chapter II. William White, The First Bishop of Pennsylvania

NO two men were ever more unlike than Samuel Seabury, the subject of the previous sketch, and William White, first Bishop of Pennsylvania.

The latter was born in Philadelphia, April 4th, 1748. He was educated at the College of Philadelphia, now the University of Pennsylvania; was ordained deacon by the Bishop of Norwich in 1770, and priest by the Bishop of London in 1772. He was thus a young man, and young also in orders, when the War of the Revolution broke out. He was at first assistant minister, and then rector, of Christ Church, Philadelphia.

Of the patriots who resisted the British claims, no one was more ardent than the young Philadelphia clergyman. When the Continental Congress was in session at Philadelphia, he was made chaplain, in 1787, and he held that position until 1801.

When the war was over, the future of the Church was a grave question. Notwithstanding that a great number of the leading patriots were Churchmen, the Church was looked upon as "English," and was accordingly unpopular with the masses.

In the same year in which the Connecticut clergy met in synod and, trusting in Him who had promised that the gates of hell should never prevail against the Church, had elected Dr. Seabury to the episcopate, Dr. White, in Philadelphia, published his celebrated pamphlet, "The Case of the Episcopal Churches Considered," wherein he looked upon the attempt to obtain the episcopate, as hopeless.

It is an interesting study to compare these two American types. Dr. Seabury acted upon a firm belief in the necessity of the episcopate, trusting that God would make clear the way by which it might be obtained. Dr. White applied to the same subject his calm, cold, statesmanlike logic, which declared the scheme impossible. But Faith triumphed over Logic, as in God's Kingdom it is sure to do, and the American Church received the episcopate in God's good time.

This pamphlet of Dr. White's, first assumed the impossibility of obtaining the episcopate from England. Next, it recommended that the clergy and lay delegates from each parish in definite districts, form diocesan organizations, record their attachment to episcopacy and their determination to secure it when it might be possible, and then proceed to carry on the Church by presbyterial organization. It was a project only for an emergency which seems to have disheartened the great White. He himself, in after years, defended it only on the ground of an apparent necessity. But while Churchmen in Philadelphia and the South were considering its expediency, Dr. Seabury was crossing the great ocean in search of episcopal consecration. [This pamphlet is reprinted in full, in the third volume of Bishop Perry's "Journals of General Convention."]

Dr. White's plan was never acted upon, and with a return of hopefulness, was entirely abandoned.

In 1784 there was a meeting held in New Brunswick, New Jersey, of the managers of the "Society for the Relief of the Widows and Orphans of Clergymen," supported jointly by Churchmen in New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania. The discussions took a wide range, and covered the whole state of the Church. Laymen as well as clergymen were present. As a result of the conference, a call was issued for delegates from all the States, to meet in October of the same year, at New York.

On the 6th of October, the convention met. Dr. White was the leading spirit, and delegates were present from Pennsylvania, New York, New Jersey, Delaware, Maryland, Virginia and Connecticut. The Connecticut delegation were only present provisionally, awaiting the result of Dr. Seabury's trip to England. A general plan for the future was outlined, by which a General Convention should be formed, consisting of clergy and laity, Bishops, when consecrated, to be members ex-officio. The doctrines of the Church of England were to be maintained, as also the Liturgy, so far as consistent with the American Republic. The whole plan, substantially embodied in the present constitution and canons of the American Church, was submitted by the conference to the Church in the several States for approval. The plan had originally been drawn up by Dr. White, at an informal gathering at his house in Philadelphia. The conference also issued a call for a constitutional convention, to be held in Philadelphia in the succeeding autumn.

The plan was generally favorably received. New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Delaware, Maryland, Virginia and South Carolina sent delegates. Massachusetts sent a letter. Connecticut declined to participate, although Bishop Seabury had already been consecrated. The convention met on the 27th of September. On the second day, Dr. White was unanimously elected president, and the Rev. David Griffith, of Virginia, secretary. The work of this, the first General Convention, was not wholly satisfactory. The convention was composed of clergy and laity, with no Bishops. New England was not represented at all. The Prayer Book was revised very much and very unsatisfactorily. An address to the English Bishops was prepared, and the roll of States called for the presentation of names of Bishops-elect.

Dr. Provoost was named by New York, Dr. White by Pennsylvania, and the Rev. David Griffith by Virginia. The English Bishops were not cordial. Strange reports had spread abroad as to the Philadelphia convention. It had, indeed, taken Istrange liberties with the Church's creeds, and its Prayer Book, known to history as the "Proposed Book," never was widely received.

The convention re-assembled in June, 1786, and prepared a reply to the English Bishops. They also adopted a constitution, meeting again in October of the same year at Wilmington, Delaware, when they received further communication from England. After the convention, Drs. White and Provoost set sail for the mother country, to obtain consecration.

It was on the 4th day of February, 1787, in Lambeth Chapel, when that memorable service was held by which the English episcopal succession was given to America. The Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr. Moore, was assisted by the Archbishop of York and the Bishops of Bath and Wells, Peterborough, London, and Rochester; and William White and Samuel Provoost became Bishops in the Church of God.

There were now three Bishops in the American Church, but Bishop Seabury's position was not yet acknowledged outside of Connecticut. There was, indeed, little friendly communication between the Tory Churchmen of New England and the Whig Churchmen of Pennsylvania and the South. But Bishop White at once set to work to reconcile the factions. In 1790, Dr. James Madison was consecrated in England as Bishop of Virginia. Thus there were three Bishops of English succession in the United States, and Bishop Seabury, of Scottish consecration. In 1792, the four Bishops united in the consecration of the Rev. T. J. Claggett, D. D. as Bishop of Maryland. Thus the Church was united, and the twofold succession given to all the future Bishops of the Church.

For nearly fifty years, Bishop White lived, the Presiding Bishop, and in many ways the leading Bishop in the American Church. His leading and most valuable literary work was his "Memoirs of the Church," which made record of the early history of the Church in the United States. Bishop White took part in the consecration of no less than twenty-seven Bishops, the last of whom was the missionary Kemper.

Bishop White was strong as a diplomat and as a statesman. Tt is to him that we owe the constitution of the Church, and, in large part, the reconciliation of the Church in New England with that in the other States. In spirituality and devotion, he was inferior to Seabury. His Churchmanship was not of the same uncompromising caste. Bishop Hobart, who was latterly his contemporary in New York, made a greater impress upon the real work of the Church. Bishop White did not have the missionary zeal that might have vastly strengthened the Church in the Western part of his great diocese. But his diplomatic power and statesmanlike ability were of vast use to the Church in its infancy, and no name is better known to Churchmen in America to-day, than that of William White.

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