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 II. The National Organization of the American Church

AT the end of the War of Independence, and with the recognition by England and European nations generally of the United States of America, the former Church of England in the colonies found itself face to face with difficulties that threatened its further existence. It had no organization. The nearest approach was through a geographical grouping whereby each of the new federated States should mark off a section of Churchmen also. While forecasting the later territorial dioceses the immediate outcome was a series of parishes and institutions with no coherency for administrative and legislative purposes. The co-ordination of all these widely scattered units was immediately necessary. The question was who should initiate action and what form should that action take. No individual and no particular group had any inherent right to act. There existed no one officer who in any sense presided over the clergy and laity for corporate action. At the moment when the United States began its career as a distinct nation the Church within that territory ceased to belong to the jurisdiction of the Bishop of London, and perforce was released from canonical and statutory obligations which belonged to the National English Church or arose out of its relation to the English State.

The automatic severing of ties of English relationship carried with it at once the loss of material support in the way of grants, endowments, and private benefactions. Such property as the Church held in 1783 when the Treaty of Paris was signed, of course passed into its possession without further legislation by the English Church or Government. No further aid could be asked for on the former grounds. While the coldness of attitude on the part of the English people in general continued there was not likely to be an exhibition of voluntary generosity. Such possessions as were held in the way of Church buildings, glebe lands, institutions and other property, were quite inadequate for any rapid and aggressive developments of growth. Moreover, the many centuries of the Church in England during which ancient ecclesiastical foundations and wealthy benefactors, rather than widespread individual freewill offerings, had largely supported the work of the Church, had established the tradition of inherited incomes rather than of dependence upon habitual voluntary contributions for every branch of religious work. At the present day it is a matter of the greatest difficulty for members of the Mother Church settling in the United States or Canada to grasp the practical fact that the endowments of the American Church are almost a negligible factor and that the individual must support the Church financially rather than look for material support from the Church. At the beginning of its independent career the pecuniary problems, while not among the essential difficulties, were of a disheartening and hampering nature beyond ready conception by those accustomed to regard their spiritual Mother as wealthy by inheritance rather than by daily giving and self-sacrifice.

The conduct of the services of the Church presented problems which were of a different nature, not so difficult to solve in themselves hut involving more of the personal bias and reaching out into many questions of theology and practice, and even requiring that note be taken of other portions of the Christian world than England. It was evident that the "State Prayers" from the English Book of Common Prayer must be displaced and prayers for those in authority appropriate to the Government of the Republic inserted. But other changes were suggested of a different nature which indicated that the revision and adjustment of the forms and manner of conducting the Church services would not be limited to political re-wording.

Most important of all, and in many ways intimately concerned with all these considerations, was the matter of securing a local and national episcopate. The lack of Bishops had been well nigh fatal to the existence of the Church during the colonial days. The need had been admitted, attempts made to supply the need, the difficulties in the way were not insuperable. Practically, only the conservatism of the Church at home in face of a problem never presented to the Anglican Church before, in conjunction with eras of inertia and Erastianism, and a failure of those in authority in Church and State to realize the theological aspect of the matter, were to blame for leaving the missionary extension of the Church abroad in this maimed condition. With the new situation created by the rise of the American Republic all the old difficulties remained and were emphasized, while fresh obstacles arose. Every one recognized that the episcopate must be obtained. It must be the Catholic episcopate, flawless in historical succession, yet from such a source as England could and would recognize. Again, it must be valid and regular, according to the canons and customs of the whole Church. Whence and how was this to be accomplished?

These four problems--the organization of the Church, its working system, its liturgy, and the episcopate--were to a considerable degree interwoven with each other. Could matters be decisively dealt with until there were Bishops? But it was seen that the public services could not wait for that and yet ought not to be re-arranged without some sufficient general authorization. Could canonical enactments be passed in an incomplete Church, by the action of clergy and laity only? Should the latter elect men for the episcopate or secure the sending of Bishops from some other portion of the Church? In the latter event would not an element of foreign and perhaps unsympathetic feeling be liable to cause mischief later on? The Western Church had travelled far since the days of Celtic Boniface working among European Teutons, of Italian Augustine, of Lanfranc and Anselm and Greek Theodore occupying the archiepiscopal chair of Canterbury in Anglo-Saxon and Anglo-Norman times, and of an Englishman filling the See of Rome. Suggestions as to getting Bishops through the Swedish or Moravian episcopate could not be seriously entertained, although offering comparatively simple solutions of the problem, but with unfortunate and irretrievable consequences. Swedish and Moravian orders were likely to be considered incurably doubtful.

The various problems have been briefly stated, each by itself, but the history of the meeting and dealing with each forms one chapter of American Church life which will now be considered; all four were worked out step by step to a definite, if not in every case a final, settlement.

Arrangements for altering and adapting the Prayer Book services went forward tentatively, awaiting the completion of the legislative machinery. The matter of financial support of the clergy and other official work was temporarily provided for, the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel consenting, with sympathetic appreciation of the situation, to treat clergy formerly under official appointment from that society as still its stipendiaries.

The securing of the episcopate was the first effort on the part of one group of Churchmen in the State of Connecticut. TKe organizing of a General Convention to represent the Church in America as a whole was given the precedence in the southern portion of the States. The subsequent combining of results was beneficial in dealing with all aspects of the case. It would be difficult to say that either method of procedure was necessarily the wiser of the two.

Among the many crises which the American Church has faced probably none so actually imperilled the very fabric and life of the Church as the proposition seriously, if reluctantly, advanced by one who afterwards became Bishop of Pennsylvania, Dr. William White, namely, that in the exigencies of the Church, unable to secure an episcopate, a nominal "episcopate" or superintend-ency should be empowered, by election and consent of presbyters and laity, to exercise the functions of Bishops, until such time as the regular episcopal succession might be secured, and that questionable acts of this ad interim episcopacy might be validated by hypothetical ordinations and other similar measures. Had such a step been taken the ministry of the Church in the United States would have been on the same plane as the Methodist Episcopal ministry and the danger would have been overwhelming that what appeared to work well outwardly would be allowed to continue.

The initiative of the clergy in the State of Connecticut saved the Church once and for all from any such fundamental mistake. The determination was reached that the only course of action likely to meet with success was to proceed at once to the election of a Bishop and then to make the most strenuous efforts to secure his consecration. There was no delay. Within a few days of the arrival in New York of the articles agreed upon as a Treaty of Peace between England and the United States, on the Feast of the Annunciation, March 25, 1783,--an appropriate date for a new beginning--ten, out of the fourteen clergy that then comprised the total of priests in that State, met and elected the Reverend Samuel Seabury, Doctor of Divinity, as designated for the episcopal office. He was instructed to sail at once to England and take measures to obtain episcopal consecration as soon as possible. Dr. Seabury set out immediately on this mission to England. He and his friends had very little doubt of a speedy and cordial response to the request for consecration by English Bishops. That there were certain legal and canonical barriers was recognized. But that these could be surmounted was also assumed. The bitterest of disappointments and the rudest shock was in store for these devoted American Churchmen. For sixteen months.Seabury laboured in vain to secure consecration in England only to conclude that it was hopeless. He knocked at door after door of ecclesiastical, political, and missionary authorities, only to have door after door closed in his face, or to be told curtly to betake himself elsewhere. In order to avoid any suggestion of a prejudiced colouring of facts the very language of Seabury in a letter of report to those who had elected him is here quoted.

On the 15th of July Dr. Seabury writes from London that he had arrived on the 7th, that he had failed to secure an interview with the Archbishop of York, but had been received by the Bishop of London cordially. "He heartily approved," the writer continues, "of the scheme, and wished success to it, and declared his readiness to concur with the two Archbishops in carrying it into execution: but I soon found that he was not disposed to take the lead in the matter. He mentioned the State Oaths in the Ordination offices as impediments, but supposed that the King's dispensation would be a sufficient warrant for the Archbishops to proceed upon. But upon conversing with His Grace of Canterbury, I found his opinion rather different from the Bishop of London. He received me politely, approved of the measure, saw the necessity of it and would do all he could to carry it into execution. But he must proceed openly and with candour. His Majesty's dispensation he feared would not be sufficient to justify the omission of oaths imposed by Act of Parliament. He would consult other Bishops; he would advise with those persons on whose judgment he thought he could depend. He was glad to hear the opinion of the Bishop of London, and wished to know the sentiments of the Archbishop of York. He foresaw great difficulties, but he hoped none of them were insurmountable."

A month later Seabury had visited the Archbishop of York and reports the outcome of the interview. "This journey," he writes, "I have accomplished, and I fear to very little purpose. His Grace is now carrying on a correspondence with the Archbishop of Canterbury on the subject; but I think, unless matters can be put on a different footing, the business will not succeed. Both the Archbishops are convinced of the necessity of supplying the States of America with Bishops, if it be intended to preserve the Episcopal Church there; and they even seem sensible of the justice of the present application, but they are exceedingly embarrassed by the following difficulties:--

"1. That it would be sending a bishop to Connecticut, which they have no right to do without the consent of the State.

"2. That the bishop would not be received in Connecticut.

"3. That there would be no adequate support for him.

"4. That the oaths in the ordination office cannot be got over, because the King's dispensation would not be sufficient to justify the omission of these oaths. At least there must be the concurrence of the King's council to the omission; and that the council would not give their concurrence without the permission of the State of Connecticut to the bishop's residing among them."

Dr. Seabury adds the reserved but illuminating remark: "All that I could say had no effect, and I had a fair opportunity of saying all that I wished to say".

The simplicity with which, a few years later, all these obstacles were disposed of, dwindling down in significance and made to vanish away, when the Mother Church realized that the episcopate had been obtained and could be obtained in spite of such specious objections, suggests that what was really lacking on the part of Crown, Archbishops, and Parliament, was the will to understand and visualize the situation from the standpoint of the Connecticut petitioners and the eager and persevering bishop-elect. It is often said, at the distance of nearly a century and a half, that there is much romance in the story of the obtaining the episcopate for America. At the time the romantic side did not appear. The grimness of the matter, when the very existence of the brave little remnant of the Church in the United States was threatened, remained impressed upon the expectant American Churchman, until the later growth had somewhat softened the earlier bitterness.

Seabury at last gave up all hope of securing episcopal consecration in England. His next step was to ask for counsel as to other available sources. Nothing but the best and soundest of counsel and an unfaltering determination to secure the gift of the Bishop's office by transmission from an unimpeachable source could have kept Seabury from giving up, or taking some short and easy cut towards an imperfect ending of the matter.

All other possibilities having been considered, only to be dismissed, such as Eastern or Latin Bishops, or the nominal but not real Danish episcopate, or the surviving Bishops of the Non-jurors in England, recourse to any of which sources would have brought in fresh and exceedingly grave complications, the sole practicable remaining resource was to apply to the Bishops of the Scottish Church.

The Scottish Bishops, it will be remembered, were the lineal successors of those members of the Scottish episcopate who had refused to take the oath of allegiance to William of Orange as King de jure, the course followed also by th,e Non-jurors of England, There was this difference, however. The English Non-jurors organized and continued for a time a corporate Church life side by side with the main body of the Church in England which was recognized by the State, its Bishops having taken the State Oaths. In Scotland, on the other hand, the entire episcopate came under the ban of the State and consequently the Scottish Episcopal Church as a whole was outlawed, Presbysterianism being set up or "established" as the State religion. The Scottish non-juring Bishops were, then, not even in nominal schism from the Church, or any portion of it. Their legal disabilities arose only from the side and action of the State. Under great difficulties and through many vicissitudes the episcopal succession had been preserved intact and without flaw. The cavil occasionally still heard that their line of derivation of episcopal Orders was through the so-called "tulchan" or make-believe bishops of the late sixteenth century in Scotland is historically utterly untenable. The persecution and discrediting by the Scottish Government had this advantage at least that no obligations to the State complicated their consideration of Seabury's application to them for consecration. One distinct gain of being brought into relations with this episcopate lay in the fact that their freedom to order ecclesiastical and theological matters apart from any parliamentary interference or ratification had enabled the Scottish Church to revert to the liturgical characteristics of the Prayer Book of 1549, and to restore the explicit Invocation of the Holy Ghost in the Prayer of Consecration in the Sacrament of the Altar.

To this body of Bishops Dr. Seabury applied for consecration. The Scottish Church was familiar to him. While a student of medicine in Edinburgh in his early life, Seabury had sought out and worshipped with Scottish Episcopalians, then compelled to hold their services in private meeting-places. The result of his application to the Scottish Bishops disclosed the comforting result that many of the specious objections advanced by English authorities had no weight with Bishops who had no bonds with the civil authorities, and were themselves few in number and without wealth or prestige. In the interval, while Seabury was still continuing his efforts with the English Church, steps had been taken in Connecticut to ensure the permission that a Bishop would be allowed to exercise his functions within that State.

Once negotiations between the Scottish Bishops and the bishop-elect were fairly under way, matters were rapidly and easily arranged. The episcopate in Scotland at this time numbered four, and was organized with a Primus whose duty was to take the initiative in matters concerning the Scottish Church. The Primus m 1784 was the Bishop of Aberdeen, who accordingly made arrangements for setting apart and empowering the candidate for the episcopal office. On November 14, 178i, in the private Chapel of the Coadjutor Bishop of Aberdeen, Samuel Seabury was consecrated Bishop by the Primus of Scotland, Rt. Rev. Robert Kilgour, Rt. Rev. John Skinner, and the Bishop of Ross and Moray, Rt. Rev. Arthur Petrie, the fourth member of the episcopate, Rt. Rev. Charles Rose, Bishop of Dumblane, having previously signified his consent. No pains were spared to record with accuracy all the details bearing upon this action of the Scottish Bishops, and to transmit to Bishop Seabury and to the Church in Connecticut such documents as were needed to make the procedure an act of record.

The eventual outcome, then, of this first distinct move on the part of the young American Church to complete its Catholic organization was to obtain its first Bishop from a source and in a manner which was summed up in a phrase long current among Bishop Seabury's friends and fellow-churchmen--"the free, valid and purely ecclesiastical episcopate ".

Bishop Seabury soon after his consecration returned to the United States and entered upon the work of a Bishop in the State of Connecticut. The organization of the diocese for legislative and administrative purposes was at once accomplished, and ordinations and visitations began.

One far-reaching outcome of this rapprochement between the Scottish and American Churches through Seabury must be emphasized. A document entitled a "Concordat, or Bond of Union, between the Catholic Remainder of the ancient Church of Scotland, and the now rising Church in the State of Connecticut," signed by Dr. Seabury and his Consecrators, included an agreement that the former should use his influence in the American Church to secure the adoption of the Order of the Communion Office used in Scotland which was asserted to be "conformable to the primitive Doctrine and Practice". The most significant feature in the Scottish Liturgy was the Prayer of Consecration, which provided an explicit Invocation of the Holy Ghost and a direct Oblation of the Elements. With these and other liturgical details Bishop Seabury was in fullest accord. Hence, among other early acts in the diocese of Connecticut was the setting forth and recommenda^ tion to the congregations of the diocese of a Communion Office incorporating these features. This Office was in use for several years in Connecticut, until the adoption of the American Prayer Book in 1789, and profoundly influenced the preparation of that Prayer Book.

There was a grave danger that this portion of the American Church thus fully officered, organized, and working, in advance of the main body of Churchmen, might remain apart from them as a separate Church. For while Connecticut had been acting to secure a Bishop before proceeding further, other and very influential portions of the United States, including the bulk of the Church membership and clergy, had been working by more deliberate stages of consolidation and the framing of some form of constitution towards the point of securing the episcopate. It is well-nigh impossible at this interval of time to realize how the colonial period of the English Church in the New World, when it was quite dissociated' from the episcopate and in close contact with other religious bodies which never had had Bishops and were getting on very well without them, was operating to root out the idea that the episcopal polity was a necessity and that Bishops of the historic succession were a guarantee of the supernatural life. The very points for which the Church in the days of Queen Elizabeth and the Stuarts had fought, and in fighting had learned to understand through such theologians as Hooker and Bancroft, had practically to be gone all over again in the southern section of the new American nation.

In some States civil enactments forbade the settlement of Bishops. In other centres the Church people themselves were unwilling to make efforts to obtain Bishops. It is safe to say now that the procedure of Connecticut would have been unworkable in Pennsylvania, Maryland and Virginia, or would have pro-ponged the delay indefinitely, While, orj the other hand, the mode of procedure followed in these and other States of the same group, of organization first into a corporate whole before applying to any other part of the Church for the episcopal succession, led inevitably towards that end, since otherwise the new body would have been only one more Presbyterian or Congregational group and would have had no sufficient justification for a separate existence.

In 1783, Maryland Churchmen met to organize, and to put forth an important pronouncement--a Declaration of the Church's Bights and Liberties. This Declaration contained, in addition to statements on religious liberty, several principles vital to the position claimed by the body represented. The denomination is entitled--"The Protestant Episcopal Church of Maryland (heretofore denominated the Church of England as by law established)". This sets forth the principle of continuity and indicates historic antiquity as against a recent origin. The title by which the Church became legally known seems to have come into use accidentally rather than by deliberate design. In some quarters it was spoken of still as the Church of England; in others, to distinguish it for ill-instructed minds from the Romanists, "the Protestant Church". Still another appellation in the earlier days of the last century was "the Reformed Catholic Church". Common usage, which always tends to brevity, early distinguished it by polity from the historic Dissenters as "the Episcopal Church". While no later than 1818 and by no less a person than the first Bishop of Pennsylvania, Dr. White, it is referred to as "the American Church".

The Declaration also claimed the right to preserve itself "an entire Church, and to have the free enjoyment and free exercise of those purely Spiritual Powers which are essential to the Being of every Church or Congregation of the faithful, and which, being derived only from Christ and His Apostles, are to be maintained independent of every foreign or other jurisdiction". Every word of this statement deserves to be weighed. On the matter of polity its assertions are definite and explicit. It declares that "ever since the Reformation it has been the received doctrine of the Church whereof we are members, ' That there be these three Orders of Ministers in Christ's Church, Bishops, Priests, and Deacons,' and that an Episcopal Ordination and Commission are necessary to the valid Administration of the Sacraments, and the due Exercise of the Ministerial functions in the said Church". The document further claims the right to continue the form of organization with the said three Orders of the Ministry, and "that no persons, in the Character of Ministers, except such as are in the Communion of the said Church, and duly called to the Ministry by regular Episcopal Ordinations, can or ought to be admitted into or enjoy any of the 'Churches, Chapels, glebes or other Property,' formerly belonging to the Church of England in this State". Interesting, too, is the assertion that the ecclesiastical change is only from that of "a Daughter to a Sister Church" of the Church of England.

As the outcome of this Maryland and other similar assemblies in several States, the first General Convention met in the autumn of 1785 in Philadelphia. A characteristic of this representative assembly which is significant of the situation is that laymen were strongly preponderant and this fact operated largely to secure permanency in the organization of lay delegates. In fact an issue was raised in advance on this point, the New England States deplining, partly on this ground, to send any representatives at all. So strong a Church centre as Philadelphia was represented by only five clergy as against thirteen laymen. Other quasi-dioceses represented were New York, New Jersey, Delaware, Maryland, Virginia, and South Carolina. The total membership consisted of sixteen clergy and twenty-six laymen. The main efforts of this Convention were directed to making the necessary changes in the Prayer Book required to adapt it to the new political circumstances and to take steps to secure additional bishops from England. Dr. Seabury's consecration was questioned by some on the points of validity and jurisdiction. Hence it was decided to approach the English Church again for enlarging the American episcopate. A long correspondence ensued between the English Archbishops and the clergy appointed by the American Convention. Certain objections raised by the English Bishops concerning defects in the Book of Common Prayer, according to the proposed revision, having been removed, and the conditions laid down by the English Bishops prior to consecration of Bishops for America having been fulfilled by the action of two Conventions, three of the dioceses proceeded to the election of clergy to be their Bishops and to send them to England to receive consecration.

On the part of the English Church the concessions made included the passage through Parliament of an enabling Act whereby the Archbishops and Bishops of the Church of England might consecrate for the United States persons qualified and recommended for the episcopate, the State oaths of allegiance to the English Sovereign being dispensed with. It is safe to infer that these details were more easily dealt with by Church and Parliament because of the fact that Seabury had succeeded in Scotland after having been refused in England.

The first consecration by English Bishops of Bishops for the United States was carried through, after these preliminaries, without delay. Two Bishops-elect sailed at once for England, Dr. White, the candidate from Pennsylvania, and Dr. Provoost from New York. These two were consecrated on Sunday, February 4, 1787, in Lambeth Palace. As if to surround the occasion with every dignity both Archbishops, as well as the Bishop of Bath and Wells and the Bishop of Peterborough, were the consecrators.

With the arrival of Bishops White and Provoost in New York on Easter Day, April 7, the American Church was equipped with three members of the episcopate, the canonical minimum required for setting apart Bishops. The only difficulty lay in the aloofness still existing, and maintained by all the parties concerned, between Bishop S'eabury and the new Bishops of the English line. Happily the issue thus threatening the strength and integrity of the Church in America was settled by the General Convention of 1789, which recognized the existence in the United States of "a complete Order of Bishops, derived as well under the English as the Scots line of Episcopacy". Soon after, the Rev. James Madison was consecrated to be Bishop of Virginia by the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Bishops of London and Rochester. The final act necessary to witness to the complete autonomy of the American Church occurred when a joint consecration was held by Bishops Seabury, White, Provoost and Madison, a Bishop (Dr. Claggett) being set apart by the four for the Diocese of Maryland, in 1792.

The history of the early days of the "Sister-Church" is of more thrilling import if the attempt is made to study it against the background already sketched in the former chapter. The ease with which the body of Church people might have drifted into Presbyterianism or have solved apparently most of its difficulties by adopting the title and office of bishop without the power and authority transmitted under the conditions and through the channels which belong to the methods and doctrine of the whole Church "from the Apostles' days," was the temptation that beset the years of fruitless efforts. Then, too, the popular feeling against Bishops, which was widespread in the new nation, meant that the very small number of adherents to the Church were handicapped and in cases on record the object of boycotting and general suspicion. Until within twenty years of the present day, it was not uncommon to hear it said by people hostile to the Church that "Episcopalians" would be on the side of replacing the democratic government by a King, if that change should ever be proposed. Never has Churchmanship in America been a "popular" religion. On the contrary the Chnrch has been charged with being sectional and aristocratic, a Church of the classes rather than of the masses, but it has through all its independent history felt the effects of its early days when the very fact that it was obliged to sue as a suppliant for such an essential as the episcopate, held back its progress and falsely identified it with a relationship to the State which in the Mother Church was only accidental, not essential. History makes the truth clear, but unfortunately the rank and file of the people take likes and dislikes quite without regard to history.

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