Men for the Times: The Sermon Preached before the Convention of the Diocese of Connecticut in Trinity Church, New Haven, June 12, 1883, in Commemoration of the Election of Samuel Seabury as First Bishop of Connecticut, March 25, 1783.
By John Williams.
New Haven: Tuttle, Morehouse, and Taylor, 1883.
Men for the Times. I. Chron. xii. 32.
Men that had understanding of the times, to know what Israel ought to do.
I know no better words than these to give direction to our thoughts in the service of this day. It is a service of deepest thankfulness and of most sacred memories. It takes us back over the years of a century. It brings to our remembrance the story of the more than threescore previous years which led up to the event that we commemorate. It awakens hope and trust for a coming and unknown future. It binds those memories of the past and those hopes for the future into one living body of thanksgiving, which, for all who have gone before us, for ourselves, and for those who are to follow us, must find utterance in the words of the Psalmist: "Not unto us, O Lord, not unto us, but unto Thy Name give the praise, for Thy loving mercy and for Thy truth's sake."
Go back with me, brethren, in your thoughts, to the beginning of the century the close of which we commemorate. It is the Festival of the Annunciation in 1783; and we find ourselves in an inland village of what was, ere long, to become the Diocese of Connecticut, the village of Woodbury. It was not then the village of our time, the long street of which, with its venerable elms and well-kept homesteads, nestles beneath the craggy heights that overlook it, or spreads out in peaceful loveliness towards stream and valley. Things were on a smaller scale then, rougher and ruder than they now are. One house, at least, still stands that was standing then; and if we enter it we shall find ourselves in the "glebe-house" which is the abode of the missionary of the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel, and in the presence of ten of the fourteen clergy of Connecticut who were ministering in their cures at the close of the War of the Revolution. Neither history nor tradition has preserved to us all the names of these true-hearted men. We know, however, from written records, that Marshall, in whose house they met, Jarvis of Middletown, who was their secretary, and Fogg of Brooklyn, whose correspondence tells us what we should not otherwise have known, were among them. [It is more than probable, I think, that Mansfield of Derby, Hubbard of New Haven, Newton of Ripton, Scovill of Waterbury, Clark of New Milford, Andrews of Wallingford, and Tyler of Norwich were also present.] Beyond these we are left to conjecture.
We may imagine, though we can never fully enter into, the deep anxiety of the hour, with all its doubts and fears so far surpassing its hopes and encouragements. We remember how they felt themselves compelled to meet in the utmost secrecy, not, as has been sometimes unworthily intimated, because they feared their own people, but because they knew not what interference might befall them from the powers that were should their purpose be made known. We think of them as, on that Festival of the Incarnation, they knelt down in an isolation and desolation of which we can have no knowledge, to implore the guidance of the Heavenly Wisdom in their counsels and efforts for that Divine Institution which, because of the Incarnation, is the Body of the Lord Jesus Christ. We recognize what a venture of faith they were about to make in sending one forth to seek consecration to the Episcopate, that so he might discharge the office of the Bishop in the Church of God to a flock weak and despised, "scattered and peeled"; and what a greater venture of faith he would make who should go forth on that errand, so doubtful and uncertain. We picture to ourselves all the conditions of difficulty and discouragement by which they were surrounded. We remember that the story of succeeding years, familiar as household words to us, was hidden from them in the darkness that veiled an unknown future. We know that they could not even have dreamed of all that was to come out of that day's doings. We think of all these things and many others, which I will not attempt even to suggest, leaving it to your own thoughts to fill out details that are omitted, and the one conclusion to which all our thoughts and all our ponderings must bring us is, that those ten men of whom the great world knew nothing then, of whom it takes no thought now, were, nevertheless, "men that had understanding of the times, to know what Israel ought to do."
The two events round which all the memories, the associations, the details, of this and next year's commemorations group themselves, are the election of our first Bishop in 1783, and his consecration at Aberdeen in 1784. It seems to be my duty, today, to limit myself strictly to the first of these; to what led up to it and to the event itself; leaving it to whoever shall preach the sermon of next year to speak of what followed the election, of the consecration itself, and of its outcomes for this Church.
It seems a narrow field—that to which I find myself limited—but, unless I am greatly deceived, it presents to us topics which will deserve careful consideration.
First, then, let me say something of what led up to the election of 1783. In doing so I must go back to the primordia of the Church in this Diocese.
It ought never to be forgotten that the first missionary—if I may so speak—of our Church in Connecticut was the Book of Common Prayer. Keith and Talbot had, indeed, preached at New London in 1702. Muirson had organized the few churchmen at Stratford into a parish in 1707. Different clergymen had, from time to time, through the watchful care of Caleb Heathcote—a name that we ought never to forget—ministered to that little band in their sore trials and vexations. One, Francis Phillips, had come to them and, after six months of neglect and carelessness, departed, leaving only confusion behind him. But long before anything like permanent ministration was begun at Stratford by George Pigot on Trinity Sunday in 1722, Samuel Johnson at Guilford had been diligently studying the Book of Common Prayer put into his hands by Smithson——another name never to be forgotten—and in those studies we find, it seems to me, the true beginnings of what was to become the Diocese of Connecticut. The old Faith enshrined in the historic creeds of the Prayer-Book; the law and life of worship embodied in its formularies, all leading up to and centering in the highest act of Christian worship, the Holy Eucharist; its ideal of the Christian life taught in its Catechism and carried out in all its offices from baptism to burial; on these foundations, no broader and no narrower, was our Church here built up. God grant that on these foundations it may stand till time shall end!
I protest against the narrow and unhistoric idea that Johnson and those who labored with and after him conformed to the Church of England only because of their convictions touching Holy Orders. No doubt those convictions were a factor, a most important factor, in the change they made. But there was a great deal more involved than that one question. Men who had gone from the dry bones of Ames's Medulla and Wollebius to the "fresh springs" of Hooker and Bull and Pearson, must have found how utterly unlike to the Catholic Faith which they there were taught, were the "distributions and definitions" of that "theoretical divinity" in which they had been trained. It was indeed, as one of them said, "emerging from the glimmer of twilight into the full sunshine of open day." Men who had unlearned their prejudices against "pre-composed forms of prayer" by the study of such books as King's Inventions of Men in the Worship of God and the fifth Book of Hooker's immortal work, and above all of the Book of Common Prayer itself, must have reached another and a loftier ideal of worship than any they had known before. Men who had passed from the narrow, cramped, and often conventional theories of Christian living to which they were accustomed, to the reading of Scott's Christian Life [I have often been told, by the late Dr. Jarvis, that Scott's Christian Life was a favorite book with our early clergy, especially with Johnson and Beach.] and the works of Hammond and Ken, had, surely, found something totally different from anything to which they were wonted. The question, as it presented itself to them, took on no narrow shape, ran in no single groove. It covered the Orders, the Faith, the Worship of the Church of God, and it took in with them the ideal of the Christian Life. It was no narrower than that; and they who assume that it was, contradict the conclusions of reason and the testimony of history. The pioneers of our Church were sometimes, in their own days, called by their opponents "covenant-breakers." If, however, they withdrew from covenants entered into by men with each other, it was only that they might attain the fulness of the New Covenant in the Blood of the Incarnate Son of God.
I cannot refrain from quoting here the words of the able author of the History of the Colonial Church. Looking back to the period of which I have been speaking, he says: "The feeling which prevails over every other, at this present moment, and which alone I wish to leave on record, is the feeling of deepest gratitude to those men of Connecticut, who, not from a mere hereditary attachment to the Church of England, or indolent acquiescence in her teachings, but from a deep abiding conviction of the truth that she is a faithful ‘Keeper and Witness of Holy Writ,' have shown to her ministers in every age and country, "the way in which they can best promote the glory of their Heavenly Master's name, and enlarge the borders of His Kingdom." [Anderson's History of the Colonial Church, iii. 444.]
While, however, the question of ordination was only one out of many things that drew our fathers and pioneers back to the Church from which their fathers had gone out, it must, from the very exigencies of the case, have come into great and constant prominence. It could not be otherwise. The relations of our missionaries to the Bishop of London—who had, by what may almost be called an accident, acquired jurisdiction over English congregations outside of England [It was obtained by Laud in 1634; see Anderson, i. 410.]—was little more than nominal. There could be no "well-governing of the Church." If Orders were sought, "the dangers of the sea, sickness, and the violence of enemies" must be incurred, and one in every five that went out sacrificed his life in the attempt to obtain his ministerial commission. Confirmation was an impossibility; and our clergy and people were taunted with the solemn mockery—for it was hardly less—of reading the direction to bring baptized children to the bishop when there was no bishop to whom they could be brought.
That there was no bishop in America was not due to our clergy or people here. [Possibly Virginia and Maryland are to be excepted.] The reason must be sought elsewhere. In the second year of its existence, the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel had entertained the idea of sending a Suffragan to America; and, even then, the bishops of Scotland "were regarded as the channel through which that assistance could most readily be obtained." [Anderson, iii. 36.] The project came to no result. If there is any truth in the tradition that, had it been carried out, Dean Swift would have been sent as Bishop of Virginia, we may be thankful that it failed.
It was renewed from time to time, from the reign of Queen Anne to that of George III., but always without result. Petition after petition, appeal after appeal was sent from America; the Episcopate of England was implored to secure the appointment of "one or more resident bishops in the colonies, for the exercise of offices purely episcopal—offices to which the members of the Church of England have an undoubted claim, and from which they cannot be precluded without manifest injustice and oppression." [Bishop Lowth, Sermon before the Venerable Society.] The colonial churchmen found, indeed, some zealous friends in the English Episcopate; and one's heart warms as one reads the names of Sharpe and Berkeley and Butler, of Gibson and Sherlock and Seeker. But I fear it might be truly said of the majority of the bishops of England in those days, "that they thought more of the Acts of Parliament than they did of the Acts of the Apostles."
From Parliament or the English Ministry nothing could be hoped, so long as Sir Robert Walpole or the Duke of Newcastle controlled the action of the State; the name of the first of whom is the synonyme of private profligacy and public faithlessness, while of the latter an English historian [Lord Macaulay. Nor was much, if any, more to be hoped for from Pitt, afterwards first Earl of Chatham.] has said that his selfish ambition "was so intense a passion, that it supplied the place of talents and inspired even fatuity with cunning." Not under such auspices was the Episcopate to be given to America.
To these causes of failure must, doubtless, be added the opposition of the dominant religious bodies in the colonies. But here it must, I think, in all fairness be said, that this opposition was largely due to the fear that, were bishops sent to America, they would, somehow and at some time, be "invested with a power of erecting courts to take cognizance of all affairs testamentary and matrimonial, and to enquire into and punish all offences of scandal"; [See Minutes of Convention of Delegates from the Synod of New York and Philadelphia and from the Associations of Connecticut, held annually from 1766 to 1775 inclusive (Hartford, 1843). It is now a rare pamphlet, but very valuable for its revelations touching men and measures.] in other words, that they would be, or would become, officers of the State as well as bishops in the Church. No such purpose, it is almost needless to say, was in the minds of those who sought the establishment of a colonial Episcopate. All they desired was a bishop or bishops invested with those powers—and no others—which were recognized in "Holy Scripture and the ancient Canons." But this was just what some would not, and many others could not, be brought to understand. The idea of the officer of State, invested with civil powers and functions, was the vision that disturbed more minds than we can readily imagine now. Says the elder Adams, writing in 1815: "Where is the man to be found who will believe... that the apprehension of Episcopacy contributed, fifty years ago, as much as any other cause, to arouse the attention, not only of the inquiring mind, but of the common people, and urge them to close thinking on the constitutional authority of Parliament over the colonies?" [All parties agreed that bishops could be sent out only under an act of Parliament; and there seems to have been no doubt that by such an act they would be divested of all civil powers and functions. But it was said, that such an act could be at any time repealed; and if it were repealed, then, under the common law of England, bishops in the colonies might hold their courts, and exercise such functions as were ordinarily exercised by them in the mother country. The danger may have been largely imaginary; but it was certainly within the limits of possibility, and must, in all candor, be fairly considered.]
Under all the circumstances, then, it is no wonder that when the War of the Revolution ended, and the question came to the minds of thoughtful churchmen how the Church should strengthen "the things that remained that were ready to die," their first thought should have been for the Episcopate. The Faith of the Universal Church they had in the historic Creeds. Its Worship was preserved for them in the Book of Common Prayer, But how to provide for the perpetuation of the "Doctrine and Sacraments and the Discipline of Christ as the Lord had commanded and as this Church had received the same," that was the great practical pressing question with which they were brought face to face. Ordination, Confirmation, and the government of the Church must of need be secured. Nor can we greatly wonder if what no entreaties had been able to obtain while the colonies were a part of the British Empire, seemed now to many an almost hopeless undertaking. The surrender at Yorktown in 1781 was to many American churchmen the death-blow to their hopes for an American Episcopate. There were men enough to see the difficulties and discouragements, to talk and write and speculate about them; but where should those men be found who would grapple with them, and by grappling with them overcome them? I answer, they were found in those ten clergymen who met at Woodbury in 1783, "Men that had understanding of the times." And is it not always somewhat after this sort, when any great step is to be taken, and there are manifold difficulties in the way? Do not men dwell on the difficulties, and exaggerate the dangers, and suggest expedients and makeshifts, till some one, without fuss or noise, takes the step, and lo! the mountain has been levelled and the way lies open? Depend upon it, there is a wealth of wisdom in these simple lines:
"From an old English parsonage down by the sea, There came in the twilight a message to me; Its quaint Saxon legend deeply engraven, Hath, as it seems to me, teaching from heaven; And all through the hours the quiet words ring, Like a low inspiration: ‘Doe the nexte thynge.'"
And what the next thing was for this Church when these western colonies became a nation, we have already seen.
The need of some decided and vigorous action was made more obvious by the fact that one of those makeshifts, just alluded to, by which difficulties are evaded and not met, had been proposed in the emergency, and was not unlikely to be adopted. In the summer of 1782 a pamphlet had been published in Philadelphia, the author of which, impressed with "the impossibility and present undesirableness of attempting to obtain the Episcopate from England," proposed "the combining of the clergy and of representatives of the congregations in convenient districts with a representative body of the whole." This representative body was to issue "a declaration approving of Episcopacy, and professing a determination to possess the succession when it could be obtained"; but, meantime, permanent presidents were to be elected from among the clergy with powers of supervision and ordination. "An exigence of necessity" was pleaded in justification of this extraordinary proposition.
On what possible ground an "exigence of necessity" could be asserted or assumed when no attempt to obtain the Episcopate had been made, it is very difficult to see. How completely is the fallacy and unwisdom of the assumption exposed by the clear, straightforward words of the reply sent from Woodbury on that memorable twenty-fifth of March: "Could necessity warrant a deviation from the law of Christ and the immemorial usage of the Church, yet what necessity can we plead? Can we plead necessity with any propriety till we have been rejected? We conceive the present to be a more favorable opportunity for the introduction of bishops than this country has before seen. However dangerous bishops might have been thought to the civil rights of these States, this danger has now vanished, for such superiors will have no civil authority. They will be purely ecclesiastics... equally under the control of civil law with other clergymen; no danger, then, can now be feared from bishops but such as may be feared from presbyters." And then they further say, how wisely! "Should we consent to a temporary departure from Episcopacy, there would be very little propriety in asking for it afterwards, and as little reason ever to expect it in America."
The men who wrote those words grasped the real exigency as they who spoke loudest about exigencies and impossibilities did not. They foresaw, moreover, with the intuition of true wisdom, the danger of resorting to the temporary expedient that had been proposed. For, in truth, all history proves that such expedients and makeshifts always exhibit a tendency to become permanent, and very soon challenge for themselves a character, as legitimate and ultimate, which is not claimed for them when they are adopted. Then that thing, whatever it may be, to which they profess to lead men up, drops out of sight, and they themselves fill the field of vision. Had the plan of the Philadelphia pamphlet been adopted, such I fully believe, such the clergy of Woodbury believed, must inevitably have been the result. That it was not adopted, that the dangers inherent in it were avoided, was largely owing to the action of the day which we commemorate.
In what simplicity and godly sincerity of heart they took the step that lay right before them, met the difficulty from which others shrank, did "the next thing," and, therefore, wrought for a marvellous future! Says a thoughtful writer: [Aubrey de Vere, Sketches in Greece and Turkey.] "Men of ambitious imaginations retire into their study and devise some magnum opus which, like the world itself, is to be created out of nothing, and to hang self-balanced on its own centre; after much puffing, however, the world which they produce is apt to turn out but a well-sized bubble. Men of another order labor but to provide for some practical need; and their work, humble, perhaps occasional, in its design, is found to contain the elements that make human toils indestructible."
It was fortunate for all who were to come after them that those men of whom I speak were no dreamers or doctrinaires, and rode no "half-saddled hobbies" of their own construction. They did not undertake to formulate a creed adapted to the wants of the American mind and the demands of the eighteenth century; they had that which was for every mind and all time, in the One "Faith once delivered to the Saints." They did not attempt to compose a Liturgy or Forms for Sacred Rites and Services; these they also had, capable (doubtless) of adaptation and change "according to the diversity of countries, times, and men's manners," but still complete for all purposes of worship or ministration, being, indeed, the growth of all the Christian ages. They did not set themselves to create a new Church, or even to reason out just what might possibly be dispensed with here or omitted there because of "the present distress"; all they had to do, in that little secluded room where they were assembled, was to provide what was lacking in that organization which they had received; even as in that secluded "upper room" in Jerusalem where the eleven were assembled with the disciples, the vacant place in the Apostolate was filled up in anticipation of the mighty Pentecostal gift. And because they were humble enough, and therefore wise enough, to do just what they did, they "builded better than they knew"; builded on that only foundation that can be laid, even Jesus Christ; builded, also, as "wise master-builders," not with the "wood, hay, stubble" of man's gathering, but with the "gold, silver, precious stones" of the "New Jerusalem that cometh down from heaven."
There is another thought that ought not be passed by. Says an old Father, speaking of the Episcopate: "Nomen oneris non honoris"; "It is the name of a burden rather than of an honor." So here, the question was not, To whom shall we give the honor? but, Who can best take up and bear the burden? And what a burden it was! The wearisome quest for consecration, sure to be protracted and doubtful as to its result; the insufficient provision—if indeed any provision at all was made—for the maintenance of the bishop-elect during the period of his anxious waiting; Bishop Seabury wrote under date of Jan. 5, 1785: "Two years' absence from my family, and expenses of residence here, have more than expended all I had."] the return, if unsuccessful, with the certainty of being told that another might have succeeded where he had failed; if successful, with the alternative certainty of coming to a weak and despised Church, poor in this world's goods and "everywhere spoken against"; the life-long struggle with its tremendous uncertainties; surely, he who should undertake the burden of these things and many more besides, would need not only the "robur et aes triplex circa pectus" of the heathen poet, but the faith that "could remove mountains" also. Who was to be the man?
"All eyes were turned to the venerable Jeremiah Leaming, who had defended the Church with his pen, and suffered for her in mind, body, and estate," and he was the first choice of the clergy at Woodbury. It was felt, however, that his acceptance was doubtful, and the difficulties which might prevent it were fully recognized. The original draught of the letter to the Archbishop of Canterbury places the election and the recognition of the difficulties attending it beyond all doubt, by a passage, which, when Leaming declined the undertaking, was, of course, omitted. These are the words: "His age and infirmities, we confess, were objections on his part we felt the force of. His yielding to our desires, to encounter the fatigues and dangers of such a voyage, which (free from all motives for personal ambition, for which in our situation there is very little temptation) nothing but a zeal almost primitive would lead him to do, much the more endears him to us. He is indeed a tried servant of the Church, and bears about him in a degree the marks of a Confessor." [That Leaming was the first choice of the clergy at Woodbury has been questioned. But three things put it beyond doubt: (1) The original letter quoted in the text; (2) Bishop Jarvis's sermon, preached before a Special Convention, May 5, 1796, called to elect a successor to Bishop Seabury, in which the fact is distinctly asserted; (3) Bishop Seabury's letter to Dr. Morice, Secretary of the Venerable Society, under date Feb. 27, 1785, which, when read in the light thrown on it by the original letter and the sermon, can admit of only one interpretation.]
Leaming was not there to speak for himself; and the contingency of his declining to accept the burden was too pressing not to be provided against. Wherefore another was designated, one whose name is forever shrined in the deep love and reverence of this Diocese, and held in grateful remembrance in this Church, the Rev. Dr. Samuel Seabury. Who doubts that in this two-fold designation earnest prayer was made to Him "Who knoweth the hearts of all men"? Who doubts that though no lots were cast, it was left to the ordering of Providence to "show whether of those two the Lord had chosen"? That ordering, as we all know, laid the burden upon Seabury. The brave step was taken, the venture of faith was made. God provided the man to assume the weighty charge; and for that and all that came of it, we offer him today "high laud and hearty thanks."
The same wise and prudent forecast which provided against one possible contingency provided also against another, and in its provision exhibited a truer comprehension of what the Church of Christ, as a spiritual Kingdom, really was than any statesman and many prelates in England seem to have then attained. Says one who was present at Woodbury, writing to a friend who became the second Bishop of Massachusetts: "We clergy have even gone so far as to instruct Dr. Seabury, if none of the regular bishops of the Church of England will ordain him, to go down to Scotland and receive ordination from a non-juring bishop." [Letter of the Rev. Daniel Fogg to the Rev. Samuel Parker; Connecticut Church Documents, ii. 213.] I am in no wise concerned to deny that the thought of applying to the Scottish bishops may have been an entirely original thought in the mind of more than one person in England in the years 1783 and 1784. But there can be no doubt—for the fact is proved, not by unwritten reminiscences after a lapse of years, but by contemporary documents—that this purpose was in the minds of our clergy long before it could have been conceived in England; before, indeed, it was known there that Seabury would seek consecration at the hands of the English prelacy.
The line and limits which I have prescribed to myself in this discourse forbid me to speak as I fain would speak of my great predecessor. That privilege will belong to the preacher of next year. But I may say, and say it with all reverence, that if ever in our eventful history the guiding hand of God appears, it seems to me to manifest itself in the election of our first bishop. Doubtless brave men lived before Agamemnon, but Agamemnon was not the less brave for that. Doubtless there were strong men and true men here before Seabury—had there not been, there would have been no place for him—but there was none stronger and none truer than himself. He was misrepresented by some and misunderstood by others in his lifetime. He has been misunderstood and misrepresented since. But all that is over. Thanks to his careful biographer and to his own unstudied revelations of himself, men know him better now. The voice of detraction is silent, and there are none to contradict us when we say of him: "His body is buried in peace, but his name liveth forevermore."
My brethren, we shall have lingered to little purpose among these memories of the past, unless we take away with us something for the present hour with its duties and responsibilities. Two thoughts seem to me to rise prominently to view from the survey we have been making; two voices speak to us from those past years.
First we learn the lesson—it has already been spoken of—that only by the true-hearted and faithful discharge of the lowly duty, can we rise up to, or make real, the lofty aim. Said pious George Herbert:
"Pitch thy behaviour low, thy projects high, So shalt thou humble and magnanimous be."
The roots and foundations of all great things, in nature or in the buildings that man rears, lie underground and out of sight. Thoughtless gazers may think little of them; but no towering oak, no stately temple, can stand without them. Above all, in the Church of God, he who works on any other rule than this will lose his labor, it may be will lose himself, and find written at last over his most cherished plans the woeful words: "All is vanity."
Another thought presents itself, another voice is heard full of the inspiration of faith and hope, telling us of the abiding presence of the Lord with His Church, carrying us back to those two unfailing promises: "I will pray the Father and He shall give you another Comforter that He may abide with you forever"; "Lo, I am with you alway, even unto the end of the world!" In very truth, in that day of doubt and dismay this Church was "as a cottage in a vineyard, as a lodge in a garden of cucumbers, as a besieged city." To-day we look upon her as "she hath sent out her boughs unto the sea and her branches unto the river," and we bless God for the greatness of "His goodness" and the greatness of "His beauty."
Do we rejoice, dear brethren, in all this with trembling? Do we seem to hear, from the not distant horizon, the muttering of storms which are gathering around us and may burst upon us? Do we see tokens not only of assault from without, but of betrayal from within? Then let us take courage from our past; let us do what those who went before us did; let us, like them, "keep that which is committed to our trust"; and if "evil men and seducers wax worse and worse, deceiving and being deceived," let us, as they did, "continue in the things which we have learned, knowing of whom we have learned them."
And finally, let us give these thoughts—the lesson of the one and the inspiration, not without warning, of the other—shape and utterance in the prayer, more full of meaning to us than it could have been to the people of the elder covenant:
"The Lord our God be with us as He was with our fathers; let Him not leave us nor forsake us; that He may incline our hearts unto Him, to walk in all his ways, and to keep His commandments, and His statutes, and His judgments which He commanded our fathers."