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Bible and Common Prayer Book Societies.


Assistant Bishop of the Protestant Episcopal Church in the State of New-York



No 160 Pearl-Street



Transcribed by Wayne Kempton
Archivist and Historiographer of the Episcopal Diocese of New York, 2008



BY a canon of our Church it is deemed proper that her Bishops should, from time to time, address Pastoral Letters to the people of their respective diocesses, on such subjects as may appear interesting and useful. The General Pastoral Letter from the House of Bishops, at every General Convention, seems, in some degree, to supersede the necessity of these particular addresses. There may be cases, however, in which addresses of this nature will be expedient and necessary.

The present address is occasioned by the request of some of the Clergy in the western part of the State. They propose forming a society, the principal object of which shall be the gratuitous distribution of the Bible and Book of Common Prayer. And they are solicitous that their pious [3/4] and benevolent design should be explained and enforced by the Bishop of the diocess, in a Pastoral Address.

I comply with this request the more readily, from a wish to call the attention of the Church people generally, to the importance of establishing Bible and Common Prayer Book Societies, and of aiding these institutions by their contributions.

The present age is distinguished by the unparalleled efforts which are made for the distribution of the Word of God. The Bible alone contains that knowledge which is able to make us wise unto salvation--it reveals that mercy which extends pardon to the guilty--it confers that grace which is the source of holiness and virtue--and it confirms all the deductions of reason, and all the desires of nature concerning the state beyond the grave, by ensuring to us, on the promise of God himself, through his Son, our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, the hope of everlasting bliss. The sacred volume thus provides for "the life which is to come." It secures, also, the individual and the general happiness of man in the life "which now is;" controlling by its divine influence those passions which are the foes of man's peace; adorning him with all those virtues which render his social relations beneficial and interesting, and a source of enjoyment to him; and, [4/5] both in its injunctions and its sanctions, furnishing the civil government with means of commanding obedience, which no human authority, and no temporal sanctions can supply. In the distribution of the Bible, then, the Christian is engaged in promoting the eternal salvation of his fellow men; and the patriot and philanthropist in advancing and securing the best interests of his country and the world. The members of the Protestant Episcopal Church, who constituted the Bible and Common Prayer Book Society, were deeply impressed with the duty, which seemed to call forth all the energies of the Christian world, of diffusing the knowledge of God's revealed Will, by the gratuitous distribution of the sacred volume which contains it. They were, however, naturally led, at the same time, to consider, that the Book of Common Prayer contains the purest exhibition of that evangelical truth which the Bible reveals, and the most correct and interesting provisions for that divine worship which the Bible enjoins. They therefore resolved to devote their exertions to the distribution of this invaluable summary of divine truth, and formulary of devotion, in conjunction with that sacred volume whose contents it faithfully exhibits, and whose spirit it has imbibed.

Accordingly, a Bible and Common Prayer Book Society was instituted in the city of New-York, in [5/6] the year 1809; and soon after a similar institution was established in the city of Albany. It is perceived, with pleasure, that efforts are making for forming a Bible and Common Prayer Book Society in the western part of the State; and the earnest wish is cherished that societies of the same nature may be instituted in other places.

It will be proper, therefore, to display the various considerations which justify and enforce the distribution of the Book of Common Prayer, as well as of the Bible, by the same societies.

The first consideration which enforces the propriety of this measure, is, that among Episcopalians there is a greater want of the Book of Common Prayer than of the Bible.

Few families, professedly belonging to the Church, are destitute of the Bible. A single Bible may answer for a family; but in order to enable all its members to unite in public worship, several Common Prayer Books must be provided. In every place where there is an Episcopal congregation, there may be some persons desirous of becoming acquainted with the principles and worship of our Church, and perhaps disposed to attach themselves to it, who are yet unwilling or unable to purchase a Prayer Book. Even where the head of a family of this description furnishes himself with a Prayer [6/7] Book, he may not have it in his power to purchase one for every member of his household.

These remarks apply with peculiar force to congregations recently formed, and to new settlements. In such situations, there are numbers destitute of Prayer Books, and destitute also of the means of procuring them. A Missionary will labour under the greatest disadvantages in forming new congregations, and in augmenting and establishing those already formed, unless he is furnished with Prayer Books for distribution. The argument, therefore, for the gratuitous circulation of the Bible, founded on the fact, that numbers are destitute of this sacred volume who are unwilling or unable to procure a copy of it, applies with even greater force to the Book of Common Prayer.

The distribution of this book, and also of the Bible, as joint objects of the same society, appears proper, because the connexion is a natural and judicious one.

Both these volumes exhibit divine truth--the one as the fountain; the other as the pure stream issuing from it--the one as the divinely constituted standard; the other as the model, approaching the nearest to it of any that human talents have framed--the one as the original code which contains the various commands of the Most High, and [7/8] which alone, as the law and the testimony, speaks with supreme authority; the other, as the invaluable digest, in which the truths and precepts of the sacred volume are arranged in lucid order, set forth with the most perspicuous simplicity, embellished with all the graces of diction, and animated by the purest and most sublime fervours of devotion. It would be absurd, and indeed impious, to exalt the human compendium above the inspired original; but as Churchmen, we deem it unnatural and injudicious to separate what are thus closely allied. We wish to send them forth in their natural and interesting union, by the blessing of Heaven, to enlighten and to save the world.

The propriety of connecting the distribution of the Book of Common Prayer with the Bible, as the joint object of the same society, derives great force also from the consideration, that, in distributing the former, we circulate, in a conspicuous and interesting manner, large portions, and those the most important, of the sacred word.

We present the Bible at large; and with the Bible, in the Book of Common Prayer, an abstract of it, comprising, in the words of inspiration, a succinct but complete summary of the plan of redemption; of the character, the history, and the offices of its Divine Author; of its principles, its [8/9] duties, and its hopes. Many of these the Psalter displays in the affecting strains of penitence, supplication, and praise. They are all fully exhibited in the Epistles and Gospels contained in the Book of Common Prayer. These, while they lead us from the contemplation of the first advent of the Son of God, in great humility, contrasted with his second advent, in great glory, through the successive stages of his life, of his passion, his crucifixion, and his resurrection, to the final completion of his work, by his ascension, as our Intercessor and Ruler, to the right hand of the Most High, display also his divine power in the gifts and graces of the Holy Comforter, the incomprehensible glory of the eternal Trinity, and all the principles, duties, and privileges of that great salvation which Jesus Christ proclaimed.

Many important passages of scripture, establishing faith, or enforcing obedience, are scattered through the various offices in the Book of Common Prayer. The authority, the nature, and the privileges of the sacrament of Baptism are set forth in scripture language in the forms of administering that holy sacrament. And while the order for the Holy Communion proclaims the moral law in the words of God himself, delivered on the mount of Sinai, it addresses, from the hill of Zion, the [9/10] penitent transgressor of that law, in the soothing language of the Saviour--"God so loved the world as to give his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but should have everlasting life."

In distributing the Book of Common Prayer, then, we circulate the most interesting and valuable messages of Scripture, lucidly and appositely arranged, so as to present not a perverted or imperfect view of divine truth, but, in simplicity and force, the fundamental principles and privileges of the great charter of our salvation, and the character and benign offices of its divine Author. It is not hazarding too much to assert, that he who will read the portions of sacred writ contained in the Book of Common Prayer, and in the offices usually connected with it, will become acquainted with every part of Scripture, arranged in perspicuous and impressive order, which can be necessary to form his faith, to regulate his obedience, to inspire his hopes, and to guide his devotions. We distribute, then, the Holy Scriptures, in the manner best calculated to diffuse a knowledge of their sacred contents, when we distribute the Book of Common Prayer.

This will more fully appear from the further consideration, which renders this book a suitable companion [10/11] for the Bible--that the evangelical truths of Scripture are set forth in the Common Prayer Rook with clearness, with fidelity, with interest, and with force.

I speak now of those truths which are considered fundamental--the corruption and guilt of man--the divinity, the atonement, and the intercession of Jesus Christ--and salvation through a lively faith in him, and through the sanctifying power of the Holy Ghost. To quote all the passages which set forth these doctrines would be to transcribe the Liturgy. They constitute the spirit that gives life to every page, that glows in every expression of this inimitable volume; they are set forth, not in a form addressed merely to the understanding, but in that fervent language of devotion which reaches and sways the heart. Its opponents yield to it the praise of evangelical correctness. They think they bring the most decisive evidence of the want of evangelical fidelity in the preaching of the Ministers of the Church, when they assert that it contradicts the Articles and Liturgy; that the pulpit is at variance with the desk. It is a singular glory of our Liturgy, that it is the only formulary which all Protestants acknowledge as a correct exhibition of evangelical doctrine. What greater service, then, can we render to a benighted and [11/12] ruined world, than to circulate, in conjunction with the Bible, this admirable summary of its renovating truths! What more proper companion for the sacred volume, in the divine labour of evangelising the world, than that book which truly sets forth, in the simple and affecting language of devotion, Jesus Christ, and him crucified--Jesus Christ, in all his offices, as the only Saviour of sinners! And what book can be better calculated to cooperate with the original record of God's will, in restoring and diffusing the glorious truths of the REFORMATION, than one, which, to use the language of a learned Divine, is "almost universally esteemed by the devout and pious of every denomination, and which is the greatest effort of the Reformation next to the translation of the scriptures into the English language--a work which all who are acquainted with it deem superior to every thing of the kind produced either by ancient or modern times--and several of the prayers and services in which were in use from the first ages of Christianity, and many of the best of them before the name of Pope or Popery was known in the earth." [* This is the language of Dr. Adam Clark, a dissenting Clergyman in England, in his Preface to his Commentary on the Bible, p. 22 & 23.]

Whether, therefore, we consider the great and increasing demand for the Book of Common Prayer, and its intimate connection with the Bible; or the character of this book, as an appropriate and perspicuous selection of all the portions of scripture which set forth the scheme of salvation, as a digest of the truths contained in the sacred oracles; as an ancient, impressive, affecting, and faithful summary of evangelical doctrine, valued and commended by all Protestants; we must perceive the expediency and propriety of making it a companion to the Bible in the diffusion of religious truth.

Against a measure justified and enforced by so many irresistible considerations, the objection cannot be admitted, that it would prevent Episcopalians from associating with other denominations of Christians in Bible societies.

But what are the objects of Bible societies? The general object, the diffusion of religious truth--the particular object, the distribution of the Bible. In Bible and Common Prayer Book societies, Episcopalians make provision for the distribution of the Bible, and thus discharge this part of their duty; and by providing also for the distribution of the Prayer Book, they fulfil the general duty of diffusing religious truth more effectually [13/14] than by the circulation of the Bible alone. What particular reason, then, can be urged for their relinquishing the most effectual mode of diffusing religious truth, in order to unite in Bible societies with other denominations of Christians? Is this measure necessary to enable these denominations to accomplish their pious and benevolent designs? By no means. Numbers, individual wealth, and a liberality worthy of praise and of imitation, render our aid unnecessary. Is the union of Episcopalians in Bible societies with other denominations desirable and proper, because the only differences between them and us are on subordinate and non-essential points? Let me entreat your candour, my brethren, while I point out the fallacy and danger which lurk under this specious profession of liberality.

There are differences among Christians. And differences there will be, until it shall please the great Head of the Church to lead all his people to "glorify him with one heart and one mouth." That all the differences among Christians are on points subordinate and non-essential, is an unfounded assertion. It is not demanded by Christian charity, for this very reason, because it is unfounded. Christian charity can never demand the sacrifice of truth. It can never be inconsistent with Christian [14/15] charity to obey inspired injunctions; and to "hold fast the form of sound words," to "contend earnestly for the faith once delivered to the saints," to keep the ''unity of the spirit," and to abide in the "fellowship of the Apostles," by submitting to that ministry which, in pursuance of the power committed to them by their divine Master, they constituted in the Church. What that form of sound words, that faith, that fellowship are, Christian communities must determine for themselves. But this determination being made, each member of that community is bound, as well by the principles of social order, as by the sacred claims of truth, not merely to act in conformity to this determination, but to justify and advocate it, until he is convinced, after full and honest inquiry, that it is erroneous.

Christian charity is violated, not by contending for what each individual deems the truth, but by conducting the contest under the influence of an improper spirit. In this alone consists that bigotry with which the advocate of controverted opinions (and there are scarcely any opinions which are not controverted) is generally branded, however mild and catholic his spirit, and decorous and liberal his manner.

To apply these remarks to the case of Episcopalians. [15/16] They are distinguished from other denominations of Christians, among other things, by three orders in the ministry, Bishops, Priests, and Deacons, which, they declare, have been since the Apostles times; and by a Liturgy, or form of prayer, which, they think, as a form, is sanctioned by apostolic and primitive usage; and, as to its materials, is in great part of primitive origin, and of unequalled excellence. Is it possible that Christian charity can require the Episcopalian to relinquish these characteristics of his Church; to undervalue them; or even to refrain in a proper spirit and manner from vindicating and enforcing them? Is it not due to these principles; is it not a dictate of prudence, to decline associations which may insensibly weaken his attachment to these principles, and in which he may be compelled either to act inconsistently with them, or to engage in unpleasant collisions with those who think differently from himself? It is certainly correct, as a general remark, that Christian truth and Christian harmony are best preserved when Christians of different religious communions endeavour to advance the interests of religion in their own way.

I am aware that the British and Foreign Bible Society, whose stupendous efforts have astonished and called forth the homage of the world, [16/17] is established on a comprehensive plan, and includes in its bosom all denominations of Christians. But there may be particular reasons which render such a measure expedient in that country; and it would be easy to point out many circumstances which exempt the Episcopal interest there from inconveniences and dangers to which it would be here subject by this comprehensive plan. Yet so impressed were the members of the British and Foreign Bible Society with the danger to which they would be exposed, either of committing their principles, or of violating Christian harmony, that they have taken the precaution of excluding entirely all religious exercises from their meetings. And it is a remarkable fact, that in the parent society, and in the numerous auxiliary societies, there is no preaching or praying on any occasion. This precaution was, doubtless, designed to prevent the danger of those collisions which might arise from the variety of religious opinions and modes of worship.

But preaching and praying enter into the plans, it is believed, of all the Bible societies in this country. They seem to be constituted not solely for the purpose of distributing Bibles, but with the view of uniting the various religious [17/18] denominations. [* A plan has originated in the New-Jersey Bible Society for forming a "General Association of the Bible Societies in the United States." And one of the objects, as stated in the circular letter, is "particularly that of promoting union and harmony not only between Christians throughout the United States, but also between the different denominations of religious professors, who all agree in the great essentials of our holy religion." And the meeting of delegates is to be held in Philadelphia about the time of the meeting of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church.] In all associations of bodies of men professing different principles, the most numerous will silently, gradually, but effectually, bear sway, and perhaps eventually absorb the smaller divisions. Considering how numerous, respectable, and powerful the Presbyterian denomination is in this country; and considering too the general division as between those who receive Episcopacy and those who are opposed to it, between those who adopt a Liturgy, and those who reject one; it is not difficult to determine with whom, in any association, would be the strength and the advantage of numbers. In all these associations the minority will glide insensibly into the larger mass, unless they are constantly on their guard; and then their safety can be secured only by a tenaciousness which may incur the stigma of bigotry, and interrupt unity and harmony. A profession of liberality pervades all such associations, which would render it unfashionable, unpleasant, and unkind for [18/19] the Episcopalian to doubt the equal excellence of Presbytery and Episcopacy, of extempore worship and a Liturgy.

When Episcopalians are brought into this state of liberal indifference, if they are not prepared to renounce their principles, they are at least deterred from laying peculiar stress upon them, and from advocating and enforcing them. The power of habit is wonderful, and the progress is not difficult or uncommon from indifference to neglect, and even to dislike.

Are we then prepared to put in jeopardy our apostolic ministry and primitive and evangelical worship--if not to put them in jeopardy, to run the risk of having our sense of their importance, and our attachment to them weakened? Or, at least, are we prepared to enter into associations where, in return for the liberal professions of non-episcopalians, that they have no very great objections to Episcopacy and to a Liturgy, we must either appear deficient in liberality, by our silence, or our opposition; or place on equal ground with our own a form of Church order which we do not believe is Apostolic or primitive, and a mode of worship diametrically repugnant to that which we have inherited from the purest ages of the Church? It would surely be unwise to run even the risk of [19/20] putting the laws of courtesy and Christian kindness in competition with fidelity to our principles.

There is no force, therefore, in the objection to associating the Common Prayer Book with the Bible as joint objects of gratuitous distribution, that Episcopalians are thus prevented from uniting with other denominations in Bible societies. On the contrary, fidelity to our principles, and an earnest desire to preserve Christian harmony, seem to justify us in the separate management of our religious concerns. The important points of difference among Christians should never, indeed, interrupt the harmony of social and domestic intercourse, nor check the exercise of Christian affection and benevolence. We should be always ready to do homage to the talents and the piety of individuals of other denominations, and to the zeal with which their efforts are consecrated to their Master's glory, and to the diffusion of his sacred truth. We wish to emulate them in this holy work--we wish to rise to efforts of equal power and effect--we wish to be co-workers with them in the extensive field of Gospel benevolence. We only desire to be permitted, without the imputation of bigotry, to proceed according to our own principles and views; perfectly persuaded, that differing, as it is our misfortune to do, with [20/21] other denominations on many points of doctrine, Church order, and public worship, this separation of our efforts is the best mode of preserving our principles, and indeed of securing Christian harmony and charity.

I hope you will excuse me, my brethren, for presenting remarks, which, it may be thought, have the appearance of being illiberal and contracted, but which, I am conscious, are offered in the spirit of the utmost liberality and charity; and which, appearing to me correct and important, are demanded by fidelity to those interests which I have solemnly promised to guard, and by justice to those institutions for distributing the Bible and Common Prayer Book, which it is the particular object of this address to recommend and advise.

I presume that there can be no individual among you who, when he is satisfied that there are numbers destitute of the Bible and of Common Prayer Books, and unable or unwilling to purchase them, would hesitate an instant as to the duty of contributing the means for their supply. It is an undoubted fact, that numbers are destitute of Bibles, and many more of Prayer Books. Every individual of a family ought to be furnished with a Prayer Book. You will readily conclude, therefore, that there are many heads of families, particularly in [21/22] the country congregations, who cannot sustain this expense. One of the most effectual methods of raising up congregations, and of increasing them, is the distribution of Prayer Books. Ask the parochial Clergy and the Missionaries how much good has been done in this way; and how much more good they could do, were the supply of Prayer Books greater. Let me then entreat you, my brethren, to furnish them with these means of doing good, by contributing to the Bible and Common Prayer Book societies already established. Let me recommend the institution of new societies in districts where the number of Clergy and congregations in a vicinity render this practicable; and where this cannot be done, in individual parishes and congregations. Let the annual contributions be of various sums, so as to invite the aid of even the more poor and humble members of the congregation. Prayer Books can thus be purchased by the quantity at a cheaper rate; and each congregation would thus be furnished with more Prayer Books than if the purchases were made individually.

It is incorrect to argue, that Prayer Books may be given to many who are able to purchase them. If they will not purchase them, yet if they will use them when bestowed, should not Christian [22/23] benevolence prompt us to make the gift? But the fact is, that many families, particularly in the new settlements, are not able to furnish themselves with Prayer Books to the extent of their wants. And it must be supposed that the cases of this description will multiply with the population of the country, and with the increase of our Church. And, indeed, to this increase there can be no mean more efficacious than the distribution of Prayer Books. Where is the Churchman who can be indifferent to the extension of his Church; who can refuse to contribute to the diffusion of that pure system of doctrine and worship contained in the Book of Common Prayer? Where is the Christian who has found in the Bible the words of truth and consolation, who is not animated with the desire to open to all men this divine fountain of life? What is the crime of withholding relief from the perishing body! What must be the crime of withholding salvation from the perishing soul!

My brethren, let not this crime rest on your consciences. Enjoying, as you do, in the institutions of your Church, a system of divine truth, pure and evangelical, and means of grace Apostolic and primitive, let not others, less favoured, excel you in efforts of liberality and zeal. You are equal to them in individual wealth; let them not [23/24] go before you in the career of pious beneficence. There must be an account given of your privileges; and remember, of those to whom much is given, much will be required.

New-York, April 3d, 1815.

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