Project Canterbury

The American Episcopal Church Interpreted for English Churchmen

By Arthur Whipple Jenks
Professor of Ecclesiastical History in the General Theological Seminary

London: SPCK, 1919.
New York: Macmillan, 1919.

Chapter I. The Religious Background

THE life of the American Church stands out against a background peculiar to the history of a nation which in its early rise and continued history has had relations with all the great peoples of the European world. Spanish, French and Dutch, as well as English, influences and agencies were concerned with the discovery, settlement and colonizing of the territory now known as the United States of America. Long before the Jamestown colony was established or the Puritans had landed on the North Atlantic coast, the Spanish-Latin Church had entered side by side with commercial and explorative enterprises to undertake the christianizing of the native inhabitants of North America; the French Missions under the Jesuits had traversed the great highways of lakes and river valleys; and the religious Orders of the Franciscans and the Dominicans as well as of the Society of Jesus had organized Missions in the territory, now the state, of Florida, on the South Atlantic coast. From the territory of Mexico the Spanish Church entered land now known as New Mexico, and founded centres of missionary activity on the Pacific coast. From "New France," the present Eastern or "Lower" Canada, other tides of missionary effort followed the line of military and business "Posts" towards the south. The object of these efforts was the conversion to Christianity of the North American tribes of aborigines that have come to be known commonly in the western continent as "Red Indians" or simply Indians, by no means to be confused, because of the blunder of the early discoverers, with the people of Asian India.

These early entrances of the Christian Church into North America were under the auspices of the Latin Church, that is, the papacy. The period coincides with the phase of the papacy in the sixteenth century when many of the corruptions and abuses of the Latin Church were in process of being remedied by the so-called Counter-Reformation. The type of missionary enterprise represented in these efforts counted the admittance to Church privileges as the greatest blessing that could come into the life 6f the world and the individual. This aspect was set forth with burning zeal and true religious fervour and simple directness, if at the same time also with much fanatical pressure. Nevertheless the traces of this factor in the christianizing of North America must be reckoned with in order to understand certain phases of the later work of the English section of the Western Church.

The permanent settlements of English-speaking people on the Atlantic seaboard were made in the early seventeenth century--the period when, as the outcome of the deplorable side of the Reformation movement, schism and intolerance and bitter controversy flourished with increasing vigour in England and on the continent of Europe. One has only to review the history of the bitter quarrels between Puritan and Churchman, Independent and Presbyterian, Arminian and Calvinist, Lutheran and Anabaptist, to realize that with the transplanting of representatives of each and all of these warring religious bodies to a new land, with some of the counterbalancing forces and checks removed, all differences and controversies and personalities would be tremendously magnified in small communities and sparsely-settled territory. It is not surprising that persecution and rancour were rife and the power to touch and attract and win the native peoples was correspondingly diminished. The very motive of which the Pilgrim Fathers professed that it had driven them out of England and into exile, first in Holland and then in New England--to secure "freedom to worship God"--appeared to be entirely set at naught by them in their new home. The Quakers and Baptists were as fiercely persecuted by the Puritans as they and their fathers had been persecuted in Old England.

We must add to the significance of the picture by recalling the fact that, while Separatists were a minority in England, all these bodies were approximately equal in numbers and prestige in the colonies. At the same time the representatives of the National Church of England in the colonies were usually, in each section or in the colonies as a whole, numerically no stronger than the individual bodies in separation from the Church of England, and were frequently outnumbered and overshadowed by them.

Moreover, all the hostility and prejudice towards the Church of England at home were retained and cherished in the colonies. The relation of the English Church to the English State, the "Establishment," the dislike for episcopacy and prelacy in any form, the antipathy towards the Prayer Book, the rejection of corporate and objective ideals in worship, were all emphasized and embittered under circumstances where each form of religion had in the final analysis to stand or fall on its own intrinsic merits. On the other hand, the Church of England was not likely to forget the mischievous factors introduced into the Beformation movement for throwing off papal aggression, by the insidious efforts of foreign Protestantism under the guise of Calvinism and Zwinglianism. Both of these had been meddlesome and intrusive, making housekeeping bard for the Church authorities at home, and they forced upon the Church in the New World an equally deplorable situation. The new beginnings were not on a new basis.

In the soil from which certain noxious weeds had been uprooted the seeds were sown of other and probably more mischievous errors. The members of the English Church in the colonies would not be likely to forget nor forgive'the attempts of Presbyterianism to gain the ear of James I and to compromise the National Church under the Stuarts. They could not fail to be horrified by the trial and execution of Archbishop Laud and of King Charles I, and by the laws enacted against Church usages and worship in the period of Cromwell and the protectorate. Churchmen and Dissenters were unlikely to be friends and co-workers in the new land. The leanings towards the papacy on the part of the later Stuarts, which called forth drastic parliamentary legislation against the Roman Church, must certainly have affected the relations between Romanists and Anglicans in the colonies. All these antipathies and hostilities became so ingrained in the religion of the new continent that when the times changed the impress produced by these conditions had seemingly become indelible. One must keep clearly before the mind the historical fact that the attitudes mutually assumed between Protestants and Churchmen, Protestants and Romanists, Churchmen and Romanists, at the present time, are, in the mind of the individual, traditional and inherited rather than the result of any continuous thinking out of the issues involved.

Again, it is important to remember that the period of the eighteenth century, when the Church of England in the colonies had a providential opportunity to prove its intrinsic power fully to meet the spiritual needs of settlers in a new environment, was in the Mother Church the age when an Erastianism which would subordinate the Church to the State, and the coldness and apathy consequent on such a view, characterized and coloured the life and activities of the English Church at home and were reflected in the Church life overseas. This same crisis which exhibited the deterioration of the general Church life in England was accompanied by the rise and rapid growth of the Wesleyan Methodists. As that religious body swept over England and affected men with its warmth and zeal, so it immediately found its way across the ocean and, by the very simplicity of its aims and methods, independent of State favour and insular traditions, did at once what the Church ought to have done on its first planting in America and what it has since in a measure learned to do. Methodism adapted its machinery and methods in variable things to the conditions of the new environment. It speedily outgrew the English Church and was able to compete successfully with the latter, mainly because, while the Church's machinery was defective through the lack of the episcopate and worked half-heartedly in reflection of the conditions of English religious life, the Wesleyans were filled with the enthusiasm of their new and popular methods. "Where the Church of England was rigidly wedded to the parochial machinery, which could only be partially and imperfectly applied in the new land, Methodism was itinerant. An immediate result in the sparsely-settled districts of the colonies was that, while the Church reached and shepherded fairly well its own people in the larger centres of population, the Methodists reached out and touched smaller towns and villages as well. The Prayer Book, which, with all its sufficiency for deep and true worship and for the development of the highest types of spiritual life, nevertheless pre-sup-poses a certain elementary and intelligent assent to the doctrine of the Church, was employed in the diversified congregations under Church auspices exclusively, while the Methodists and others could get into direct touch with the many or the few by the unconventional type of service used. The latter proceeded to a considerable extent upon the supposition that their work was missionary, the former thought more of looking after Church of England adherents in the colonies and less of the extension of the Church and its privileges to all within reach. Again, the Church of England did undoubtedly take its stand upon prerogative, prestige, and long history. The new and dissenting bodies admitted all those possessions but claimed that they did not count particularly when dissociated from the English State. In brief, the Church, which has within its possession the power and capacity to adapt itself and its treasures of grace and truth so as to meet the legitimate demands of innumerable combinations of environment, was inelastic when face to face with exceptional opportunities for meeting and dealing with an exceptional situation.

As the relations between the English State and its American colonial settlements became more and more strained the English Church became increasingly identified in the minds of many with the king and his Government. Since lands were granted and held under royal patent, including in many instances the royal appointment of chaplains and the royal gift of lands to the Church, and since the clergy must continue to recognize the civil status of dependence upon England until such status should be officially recognized as altered, and since the services of the Prayer Book required the continuous recognition in the public prayers of the king and his council, it was easy for those who did not like the Church to turn popular distrust and odium against it. We may gain an insight into the difficulty of the Church at this period by recalling the different development of a somewhat similar situation in other English colonies, such as Canada. The Canadian colony became an organized, practically self-governing Dominion, before the Canadian Church became itself detached from the Mother Church for administrative and legislative purposes, while ties of origin and association remained unaltered. Had the American colonies passed through successsive stages of consolidation and adaptation to local conditions and so on to the status of affiliation and practical self-government, there would have been no reason why the Church of England in the colonies might not have passed over likewise into the autonomous state without any bitterness of feeling. The difference in history in the two cases accounts for the strong prejudice against the Mother Church at the end of the colonial days. This prejudice died slowly after the independence of the United States was recognized. Even yet faint traces occasionally appear, fostered and kept alive partly by defective histories used in American schools, partly by the erroneous identification of the polity and liturgy of the Church in general with the English Establishment, and partly by the misleading description of the Church in the United States, to distinguish it from the Latin Church, as the English Church or Anglican Communion, a misnomer still encountered.

Looking deep down into hampering conditions for matters that do not on the surface present their full significance, we find that it was probably the lack of an episcopate present and working in the colonies that most held back and limited the growth, both extensive and intensive, of the Church in the American settlements, both in the early and later stages of their history. The characteristic blessings and privileges which the Church of Christ possesses to bestow are derived from its treasures of truth and grace, and are its Sacramental System and its authoritative teaching of the fulness of revealed truth. These are essentially related to the powers and functions of the official Ministry and, for dissemination as widely as possible, require the multiplication of priests to keep pace with growth in numbers and in territorial extension. The ordinations to the priesthood must come through Bishops, and the healthful working of the episcopal polity requires Bishops close at hand. The need for the extension of the episcopate outside the home Church, as requisite for the well-being of the Church in distant lands, was very slowly recognized in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries in the National Church. In fact, the relatively small number of Bishops in the English Church has throughout its history distinguished that portion of the Western Church from the other sections of Christian Europe. The tremendous contrast between the Church in England, compact territorially and highly organized for the working of its methods, and the Church population thinly spread out, with | intercommunication over long distances extremely difficult, and with only a partial organization possible, can only be visualized at all, even to-day, by those who have actually lived and worked under or within sight of both aspects. The mere superintendence of the Bishop of London, who included in his jurisdiction the Church across the Atlantic, could not be sufficient even for the proper discharge of administrative functions. He had never in person visited that part of his jurisdiction.

But that aspect was of minor importance in comparison with the related situation, that no ordinations could be held except in England. Those offering themselves for work in the colonies from England would go out with no sufficient grasp of the difficulties and needs. Those ( from the colonies who found and felt a vocation to the work of the priesthood must cross the ocean in order to comply with the requirements as to qualification and to receive ordination. Even then years might pass before they would return, if successful in receiving Holy Orders. Many never returned at all. The [ consequences directly involved were infrequency in > administration of the sacraments, the isolation of many groups of communicants from the sacraments almost 1 wholly, the lack of trained and capable exponents of the full revealed truth as set forth in the Creeds and formularies, and the gradual loss of explicit understanding in the minds of the majority of the growing population of the essential differences between the Church and the Dissenters.

Of less importance was the difficulty of securing a maintenance financially for the clergy without depending upon gifts and endowments from the home Church. Nevertheless, slowness in recognising that the Church must be self-supporting and the consequent falling back upon those possessed of private incomes--a limited number--to do the work of the Ministry, and the provision for the cure of souls in some communities only and with unavoidable inefficiency through private and domestic chaplains attached to manors and commercial companies, did impede the normal development of the Church and the increase of the Ministry. It is reckoned that between the early settlements in America of Church folk and the recognition of the United States as an independent nation some two thousand clergy worked under Church auspices, while at the end of the colonial period only two hundred regularly and episcopally ordained clergy were resident in a territory that extended along the Atlantic seaboard from Maine to Georgia, a distance of fifteen hundred miles.

During the War of Independence the Church clergy, as well as the laity, were placed by force of the situation in a difficult position from which a rescue was only possible according to the outcome of the war. Should the colonies succeed in establishing independence of England and in gaining full recognition thereof, the Church in the new nation would almost automatically become detached from the parent Church, while at the same time its status as a section of the Church catholic would not be altered. Should the colonies fail and some other status than independence result, the Church of England in that part of England's domains might remain independent or become autonomous or have its relation to the National Church in England otherwise determined. Within certain limits the clergy, whose primary obligations were spiritual, considered that they must officially hold to a conservative attitude, not necessarily neutral. In the main that was their course of action. In certain cases the prayer for the English Sovereign was continued on the ground that he was still de facto the chief civil authority. In other cases the State prayers were omitted on the ground that the recognition of the King was in dispute and that no constructive disloyalty lay in holding in abeyance the use of such language as might not ring true upon the lips of the worshippers. Accordingly the Church got the credit on the one hand of disloyalty to the King, and on the other hand of not sympathizing with the objects for which the colonies were contesting. Hardly any misconception of the position taken by the clergy and laity adhering to the Church in the colonies towards the Revolution has persisted so long as this charge of "Toryism". A careful historical examination of the facts and of public utterances discredits the charge, except as regards a few individuals of prominence. A majority of the signers of the Declaration of Independence were, in fact, Churchmen, though in many cases not ardent or intelligent in their churchmanship. This point of alleged antagonism on the part of Churchmen in general and the clergy in particular must be kept in mind, as a part of the background of later developments.

No other religious body at the time of the struggle for independence occupied a similar political position. Roman Catholics, Baptists, Congregationalists, Quakers, and Presbyterians, had been for one reason or another under the ban or disfavour of the English State. Lutherans historically held in their origin an alliance with the civil powers, but that alliance could not be perpetuated in their American branch. Methodists had cut entirely loose from their early position of being not in deliberate and complete separation from the Church. Episcopacy in the minds of most of them was associated with prelacy and prelacy with State domination. State domination was just what they desired to avoid. The fallacy is obvious but ignorance and prejudice combined to foster it. The objection to Bishops again did not lie on the side of administrative functions of superintendency, for the Moravians were organized under officers entitled "bishops" claiming an apostolic succession and lineage. The Methodists, too, soon adopted the episcopal organization. The real feeling against the Anglican Church as episcopal lay in the teaching of the Church on the necessity of episcopal ordination for the guarantee of valid sacraments, the safe-guarding of revealed truth, and the corporate episcopate as the voice of Church authority. None of these points is characteristic of the quasi-episcopacy of bodies in separation frorn the Catholic Church.

Against the background which has been rapidly sketched stands the history of the American Church, known in law as "The Protestant Episcopal Church in the United States of America". What must be kept constantly and vividly before the mind in the interpretation of its progress and development during the last century and a half is that the disadvantages and antagonisms which hindered the Church in the colonial days have never entirely ceased to work against her. The defect in organization due to the absence of resident Bishops has never yet been fully overcome. Since episcopacy was not a feature of the Church in its early days on the American side of the Atlantic, when its independent life began, it was difficult for the popular mind to conceive that episcopacy was essential. The use of the term "episcopal" does still connote for the many in the United States the idea of some unwarrantable claim, and stands as suggesting aloofness, monopoly, the weakness of conservatism, and even novelty. On the other hand, the numerous bodies growing up around the Church, which on many different points dissent from Catholic truth, have made fatally easy the filtering in among imperfectly-grounded Churchmen of the negations of Protestantism. The loose, popular and un-theological as well as unhistorical classification of all religions, which in any sense accept Christ, as either Protestant or Catholic, and the specious assumption that the latter term must include the papacy, form a handicap to the work of the Church on American soil which can be but faintly realized by those who are familiar with the Church in England, where antiquity, numbers, prestige, and vigorous vitality have, except during a few periods of temporary decline, caused her to dominate the religious situation.

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