Project Canterbury

History of the American Episcopal Church 1600-1915

By the Reverend S. D. McConnell, D.D., D.C.L., LL. D.

Milwaukee: Morehouse Publishing Co., 1934.
London: A. R. Mowbray & Co., 1934.

Part First. The English Church in the Colonies

Chapter I. The Stage

The Indians; ownership of the soil; occasion of the immigration; the Spanish Peace; the Act of Uniformity; the effect to destroy the national quality of the Church.


For many years I had it in my mind to attempt a History of American Christianity. It has been frequently noticed that the Christianity of America possesses characteristics of its own. It is not only different in many regards from that which subsisted in Europe at the time of the settlement of the colonies; but it is different from that which subsists in any other portion of Christendom now. Christianity here wears a garment of American weaving and American adornment. The religious history of the country is quite as striking as its political; it has had as many and as marked epochs; the influences which have shaped it have to be sought for in more numerous and more diverse sources; and those influences are more actively at work now than are those which produce political changes.

With this fact in view I thought to trace the stream of religious life in the United States to its many and various sources, to estimate the relative size and importance of the affluents which have colored it, and maybe to forecast its future course.

I found the project to be so difficult that I abandoned it. Contemporary history is the least valuable of all kinds. The relative importance of events and persons cannot be fairly estimated till time has tested them and shown which is great and which is small. The coherence of the facts in the religious history of our land cannot yet be seen. The facts themselves are abundant to embarrassment; but they cannot yet be strung upon any single thread which I have been able to discover. In the political history of the country the unifying fact is the gradual coalescence of a number of independent and rival political organizations into one great whole, bound together by their common interest in a constitutionally regulated liberty.

But alas! the ecclesiastical history of the United States has lagged a whole century behind its political. Free and independent churches are coincident in date with free and independent colonies. In the State the movement toward unity set in a hundred years ago; in the Church it is only beginning to show itself. The Church has been content for most of this time with Mexican anarchy. It had been excused or justified by precisely the same arguments which were used in the colonies against the adoption of the federal Constitution: "Liberty is best secured by allowing each to work in its own way; the danger of attack from without is so remote and unlikely that it need not be considered; the original charters of each are inalienable; the weak ones will be swallowed up by the strong; mutual jealousies and ancient grudges are too strong and deep-rooted to be overcome; no principle of federation can be proposed which can ever be adopted; the different colonies can best dwell together as brethren by not coming into too close relations."

While this condition of things remains there cannot be written a history of the American Church. That will not be possible until there shall be an American Church. That time will surely come,--when, no man may say.

I have undertaken therefore the more modest task to set out the history of the Protestant Episcopal Church in the United States. Its life is continuous from the beginning. It was first on the ground. It is of interest to all Churchmen, and, for reasons which I hope to make evident, ought to be to all Americans. I shall speak of it habitually as "the Church"--not as arrogating for it an exclusive right to that title, but because its legal name is uncouth and clumsy. I shall try to tell the story of what it has accomplished, and to speak candidly of its excellences and its faults. A history should above all things else be true. Glozing of faults and apologizing for wrong deeds is not the part of an honest friend or of an honest man. The Church can afford to have the truth told even about herself. He who finds it in his way to do this may not be accused of uncovering his mother's nakedness.

But in the telling of the story large space will be occupied in examining the religious character and habits of those among and upon whom the Church has wrought. She has done great things for them, whereof they are not ashamed to say they are glad, but they have also done much for her. The Episcopal Church has been far more profoundly modified by her environment here than her members realize. Some of her most cherished possessions have come to her from without. In many cases she has never known, or has long since forgotten, the name of the giver, but still holds and values the gift. It will be our task to notice the reciprocal influence of this Church upon the communities where she has lived, and of those peoples upon her. We will see that she has thriven among Puritans and Quakers, Baptists and Presbyterians, Dutch, Germans, and Irish; has taught them all something, and learned something from them all.



We will take for the starting point the year 1600. We will notice in their order the Stage, the Actors, and the Drama.

The stage upon which the action begins is the Atlantic seaboard, from the Kennebec on the north to the Savannah on the south, and extending backward roughly to the Mississippi. To the north and northwest the French are in possession. Seventy years before this time Cartier had sailed up the St. Lawrence, and anchored his shallop off the Heights of Abraham. Champlain and his little band of hardy adventurers are "seeking the skins of beasts and the souls of men" on the banks of the great lakes. That picturesque movement of French exploration and Jesuit missionary zeal had already set in which carried Marquette to the Illinois, Hennepin to the Falls of St. Anthony, and Lá Salle to the Brazos. Unfortunate Acadie was in its infancy. Le Caron, the Franciscan monk, and the Jesuits Jogues, Breboeuf, and Gamier were getting ready for that career which was to end in martyrdom among the Hurons and Iroquois.

On the south and southwest the Spaniards held the soil. Forts and churches were on the St. John's and the Gulf, and a bishop with his priests on the Rio Grande.

But from Maine to Georgia no white man dwelt. It was a virgin field upon which to work out the problems in religion, politics, and social life, which were perplexing England. The country was not without inhabitants. It was held by the only race of savages who have ever been able to make a stand against the advancing army of civilization. These withstood it, fought it off, broke themselves against it, dammed it back in one locality, only to find it flowing in behind them in another, until they perished in their tracks, or became encysted within set limits among the new people. How many Indians there were three centuries ago, it is not possible now to know. The consensus of scientific guesswork sets the number at about one million, within the present territory of the United States. They were divided roughly into three great groups or clusters.

(1) The Algonkins, who have left their crabbed polysyllables in the names of New England lakes and rivers. (2) A subdivision of the same great family, of a more euphonious speech and a fiercer savagery, whose seat was between the Hudson and the Susquehanna, and stretching westward indefinitely to and beyond the Mississippi. (3) The Appalachians, dwelling south of the Ohio and east of the Mississippi. In their manners they ranged from absolute savagery in the north to semi-barbarism in the south. [Parkman: Discovery of the Great West, p. 275.] The conversion of these people to Christianity was the first, or, at any rate, the first-named motive for the coming of all the colonies. We shall have to notice again and again the efforts made to carry out this purpose. We will find it to be a record of failures. We will discover also a strange uniformity of feature in the successive failures. In every case the intelligence, apparent self-restraint, dignity, and gravity of the Indian led the missionaries to forecast great successes. The first essay always seemed to justify great hopes. The Indian listened, argued, seemed to be concerned, gave his children to be taught, and led the missionary to report the probable conversion of his whole tribe. But always, just when the project seemed most hopeful, an indiscriminate massacre of missionaries and converts together swept the enterprise out of existence. The experience of all was the same. [Ibid., p. 26.] Jesuit, Churchman, Puritan, Moravian, and Presbyterian missions all had the same issue. Their light was put out in blood on the Mohawk, the James, the Connecticut, and the Wabash. The "great massacre" is the last chapter in the history of the Indian mission in early days. They were irreclaimable as panthers. With intellectual endowment far beyond that of any other savage race, they were marked by the two qualities of treachery and cruelty to an indescribable degree. To love his enemy and to speak the truth seems to have been to the Indian congenitally impossible. In any case, this was true until they became reduced to helplessness two centuries and a half later, by being surrounded and disarmed. This fierce and hateful people roamed over the land in which a Christian church and nation was to grow. They had no ownership in it, in the way we understand the term. The tribes lived far apart. Each had for its own hunting grounds the territory from which it was not barred by its rivals. Each looked with jealousy upon all interlopers, but each was prompt to act as an interloper when occasion Offered. Every good hunting ground was claimed by many tribes. It was rare indeed that any tribe had an uncontested title to a tract of land, and where such a title did exist it rested, not on an actual occupancy and cultivation, but on the recent butchery of weaker rivals. [Roosevelt: Winning of the West, vol. i. p. 88.] It is within the truth to say that the only title of any value either in law or morals which Indians have ever possessed is that given them by the people whom they fought for centuries, to the Reservations where the remnant of them now live.

From whence will come settlers hardy enough to occupy this richly furnished, but savage and perilous stage? To answer this we must cross the ocean and see the colonists in their old homes.

Within ten years of 1600 two events occurred in England which set in motion the emigration to America. They were: (1) The treaty of peace with Spain. [The Peace was concluded Aug. 18, 1604.] (2) The revived enforcement of the Acts of "Uniformity" and " Supremacy." The way they operated was as follows:--

For three generations England had been at war by sea and by land. The need of the belligerent times had created a class of men whose trade was warfare. "Sea dogs," like Frobisher, Drake, Hawkins, and Hudson with their hardy crews, holding letters of marque from the Protestant Princes of Europe, or commissions from the Crown, had learned sailing and fighting as a craft. Soldiers of fortune like Raleigh, Smith, and Standish had carried their swords to market in every Protestant State in Europe. Each captain with his ship and crew, each swash-buckler with his band of musketeers at his heels, made his own bargain, or hired out his ship and guns to serve in any quarrel which his somewhat tough conscience would allow him to espouse. They were soldiers by profession and training, one might almost say by birth. They had swept around the British Isles chasing the Armada, and had fought against the Spaniard in the Low Countries, and against the Turk on the plains of Hungary. Now, the unwonted experience of a peace with their hereditary foe left them without employment. With their crews and their companies they were thrown upon the world to earn a livelihood. There was no place for them in England. The England of 1600 was not the mighty empire of industry and commerce that it is today. London was a town smaller in size and with less than half the wealth of Denver or Hartford. Bristol and Plymouth, the places next in importance, were such as Norwich, Conn., or Norfolk, Va., are today. There was but little commerce; manufactures were of the rudest, and agriculture the most primitive. Wolves were still dangerous within a day's ride on horseback of London. Swamps and fens held the places where cities now stand. Wild cattle were still found in the north. The farmer lived in a wattled and clay-covered house. The country was too small and too poor to absorb and provide for the multitude of soldiers and sailors out of occupation through the unwonted peace. The sea-dog therefore became an explorer, and the soldier of fortune was ready to guard the peaceful colonist.

The revival of the "Act of Uniformity" at the same juncture made England an uncomfortable place for nearly one-half of her population. The Act provided that every congregation of Christian people, in its public worship, must use the Book of Common Prayer according to its rubrics. The Prayer Book was distasteful to a large proportion of the people, for various reasons. A few opposed it on principle as being Romish. To their minds the Reformation in England had stopped midway to completion. They thought they saw in the authorities, civil and ecclesiastic, a disposition to bring in again the evils of papal times. They had for their ideal the church in Geneva and Frankfort as fashioned by Calvin and Farel. The Prayer Book imposed upon them by law--a law enforced by fire, stocks, jail, and banishment--seemed to them to be in its very words and structure a league with death and a covenant with hell. Their objection was not only an abstract one against the attempt to enforce uniformity in worship, but also against the Prayer Book which was imposed. They believed its doctrine to be dangerous to souls. This class was not large, but was active, learned, and filled with a sullen determination. But there was a far larger class who were led by prejudice and by customary usage to the same stand. The Act seemed to them to be, as indeed it was, a taking away of the hereditary right of Englishmen. [Anderson : History of the English Church in the Colonies, vol. i. p. 99.] Uniformity of worship had never been known in England. A variety of uses, as York, Sarum, Bangor, and Hereford, had prevailed unquestioned up to within less than half a century of this time. In the early part of Elizabeth's reign there had been little change in the manner of public worship, of the sort which would strike the eye of the common worshipper. But for nearly a generation great confusion had existed. In some parishes the service was not distinguishable from the Roman mass, and in others from a Presbyterian meeting. In one parish the Holy Table was set up against the east wall altarwise, and in another set out "like an oyster board" in the aisle. In one parish a celibate priest officiated in cope and chasuble, while in the next a married priest held forth in his coat, while his wife wore the embroidered vestments for a petticoat. This state of things became intolerable to the authorities of the Church. They essayed to cure it by violence, and failed. But they did more than fail. By the attempt they destroyed the Church of England as a National Church. For a thousand years before that time the Church and the Nation had been one. From that time forward the Church of England ceased to be the Church of the English-speaking people. The confusion which was attempted to be cured by the Act of Uniformity was a grave evil. No man could then see to what greater evils it might grow. The attempt to secure order by force commended itself to wise and good men. It is not necessary to accuse the Church's officers of conscious tyranny. They used what seemed to them the simplest and most efficacious method at hand. Tine has shown their fearful blunder. They meant to act as statesmen; they acted as doctrinaires. The confusion of the time was but the restless exuberance of the incoming spiritual life to a half-dead Church. In time its excesses would have righted themselves. The attempt to secure uniformity in worship has only been successful, even within the Church, at those times when its life has been at the lowest. Every outburst of religious vigor has either strained the uniformity or broken a fragment from the Church. The Puritan, the Presbyterian, the Quaker, and the Methodist have each in their turn been lost to the Church which is their home, by making the house too strait for them. After two hundred and eighty years the assembled Bishops of tie whole Pan-Anglican Communion have recorded their judgment that uniformity in discipline and worship is not only not to be compelled, but not to be expected. They declare with a unanimous voice, that with consensus upon the Creed, the Scriptures, the Sacraments administered in our Lord's own words, and the historical Episcopate, the people are to be left to the guidance of the Spirit which Christ has promised to His Church. The lesson has taken long to learn, and the teaching has been most costly. It cost the Church of England first the good-will, and then the presence, of those who carried away from her enough of devotion and vigor to found a new Nation and alien Churches.

Here, then, in 1600, were all the elements waiting from which to create a new world. A fertile continent waiting to be settled; a righteous and virile people, ill at ease at home, for colonists; adventurous captains with their ships and crews ready to transport them; professional soldiers ready at hand to garrison the new colonies, and fight against their savage foes. The flood of immigration approached America like the coming in of the tide. Its first waves touched only the nearest shore, and receded. Many unrecorded bands of adventurers visited, and quickly left the coast, from Newfoundland to Georgia. The story of each is romantic, but not to the purpose here. [Bancroft History of the U. S., vol. i. passim.]

Project Canterbury