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 VIII. A General Survey

The year 1700; Services; use of the Prayer Book; social status of the Clergy; Clerical manners; effect of Puritanism upon the Ministerial office; conflict with the Vestries; effect of government support; the Church in New England; in the Middle Colonies.

We have now seen the stage set and the actors appear. With the single exception of Georgia the colonies are now all established. We have seen who their settlers are, whence they came, why they came, and how they bore themselves religiously in the early days. We have brought English Churchmen to the James, English Puritans to Massachusetts Bay, Dutch Presbyterians to the Hudson, English Romanists to the Potomac, Swedish Churchmen and English Quakers to the Delaware, and a congeries of English-speaking adventurers, under noble patronage, to the Carolinas. We have seen the diverse problems presented to the Church of England in the presence of peoples so unlike. In one place, its task was to retain its original establishment; in another, to gain a foothold in the midst of a hostile community; in another, to march with an equal step among its rivals in a free field. The end of the first century of its life in America will be a fitting place to pause and take a broad survey of its situation, to count its gains and losses, to observe its manner of life, to examine the people among whom it is to do its work in the years to follow, to test its spirit and its methods.

The great bulk of the Church in 1700 was in Virginia and Maryland. Forty of the less than threescore clergy scattered from Portsmouth to Charleston were in these two colonies. There were in them two or three comfortable churches, built of imported brick. In every settlement was a church of logs, with puncheon floors and clapboard roof. The population was purely agricultural and widely scattered. To these little log chapels the people came, on horseback and in canoes, from twenty, thirty, and forty miles away. [King's Handbook of Episcopal Churches, p. 13.] They often left their distant plantations on the Saturday and spent the night with their hospitable friends who lived nearer the place of worship. Never more than one service was held on the Sunday. The afternoon was needed for the congregation to return to their far-away homes. Prayer Books were scarce and costly. [Perry: History, vol. i. p. 475.] As late as the middle of the century only two editions had been printed in England beside the ponderous folios and quartos for the reading desks. Of the smaller Prayer Books very few found their way to the colonies, and were but ill adapted to the worshippers' use, at best. The arrangement of the services in them was so intricate as hardly to be intelligible. The Clerk, therefore, was depended upon for all the responses, except in the portions of the service which the people knew by heart. The surplice was very rarely used. Indeed, it is doubtful if there were then more than two or three in America.

In England the ordinary street dress of the clergy was the cassock. [Personal Recollections of Gilbert Scott, p. 28.] In America this dress does not seem ever to have come into use. In public the minister officiated in the ordinary dress of a gentleman of corresponding standing. His social standing was very low indeed, independent of his personal character. Macaulay's highly colored picture of the English clergy of that time was fairly true of the Southern colonies. "A Levite," such was the phrase then in use, "might be had for his board and ten pounds a year; might not only perform his own professional function, be the most patient of butts and listeners, be always ready in fine weather for bowls and in foul for shovel board, but might also save the expense of a gardener or a groom. Sometimes the reverend man nailed up the apricots; sometimes he curried the coach horses. He was permitted to dine with the family, but was expected to content himself with the plainest fare. He might fill himself with the corned beef and carrots, but when the tarts and cheesecakes appeared he quitted the board and stood aloof till he was summoned to return thanks for the repast, from a great part of which he had been excluded. The attorney and the apothecary looked down with disdain upon the clergyman, and one of the lessons most earnestly inculcated on every girl of honorable family was to give no encouragement to a lover in Orders." Queen Elizabeth in her time, as head of the Church, had issued a special command that no clergyman should presume to espouse a servant girl without the consent of her master or mistress. His children were brought up like the children of the peasantry. His boys followed the plough, and his daughters went out to service. Parson Sampson not only taught George and Harry Esmond their letters, but acted as overseer of their mother's negroes. A large proportion of the Southern clergy were adventurers, broken men, valets who had secured ordination from some complaisant Bishop through the interest of their masters for whom they had done some questionable favor. A constant complaint was, also, that they were Scotchmen. Their letters of Orders were often suspicious, [The Episcopal Church was suppressed in Scotland; Scotch Orders doubted, and afterward declared null and void by England. Abbey: English Church and its Bishops in the Eighteenth Century, vol. ii. p. 179, et seq.] and their characters still more so. Commissaries Blair of Virginia and Bray of Maryland repeatedly reported to the Bishop of London that the meagre support of the clergy and the slight honor in which they were held prevented them from making honorable marriages and led them into disgraceful connections. A love letter still survives written by a Maryland clergyman to a planter's daughter, in which he argues at length that inasmuch as his suit was allowable on other grounds, the fact of his being in Orders ought not to be an insuperable barrier. [Lodge: History of English Colonies in America, p. 90.] They provoked contempt and allowed themselves to be treated like lackeys. Governor Nicholson led out one who was drunk in the church, and caned him soundly with his own hand; clapped the hat over the eyes of another; and sent billets-doux to his mistress by a third. [Ibid., p. 61.] He hectored and browbeat a whole Convocation and drove them to sign an adulatory testimonial to his own religious devoutness. Commissary Blair writes: "The governor rules us as if we were a company of galley slaves, by continual raving and thundering, cursing and swearing, base, abusive, Billingsgate language, to that degree that it is utterly incredible." [Perry: Historical Collections, vol. Virginia, pp. 125, 491.] One commissary was given the lie in his own house by the governor; [Ib. p. 491.] and the wife of another was pulled out of Lady Berkeley's pew by the wrist because her husband had offended its owner by "preaching a little too home against adultery." [Ib. p. 27.] There were always present in these colonies some clergy of exemplary life and high character, but neither their example nor their reproofs were able to redeem their brethren. Most of them were planters, and did priestly duty now and then to eke out their income. They hunted, played cards, drank punch and canary, turned marriages, christenings, and funerals alike into revels. One bawled out to his church warden at the Holy Communion, "Here, George, this bread is not fit for a dog." One fought a duel in his graveyard. Another, a powerful fellow, thrashed his vestrymen one by one, and the following Sunday preached before them from the text, "And I contended with them, and cursed them, and smote certain of them, and plucked off their hair." [Neh. 13:29.] Another dined every Sunday with his chief parishioner, and was sent home in the evening drunk, tied in his chaise. [Cf. Meade: Old Churches and Families of Virginia, pp. 18, 162, 231, 280, 275.]

In the Northern colonies both the character and the standing of the clergy were very much higher. In these colonies there had never been anything to attract unworthy men. The duty was hard and ill paid, and only men who had high motives undertook it. In the South the disreputable priest might gain fortune as a tobacco planter. In the North the conditions of life were harder. There also he was surrounded by a people whose religious life, at least in the early part of the century, was exacting. There was no establishment to sustain him. But, above all, the Puritan conception of the ministerial office had early made itself felt. While the priest in Virginia was content to be a lackey, the Puritan minister in Massachusetts was a petty potentate, the chiefest man in the community, the censor of morals, the stern disciplinarian. In the Church the office was generally looked upon as a profession. Outside it was regarded as a spiritual calling. In England the position and accomplishments of the "superior clergy" were sufficient to keep for the office generally a certain respect. But the mass of the clergy were then held in anything but honor. A debt which the Church owes to Puritanism on both sides of the water is the restored reputation of the ministry. The popular mind never distinguishes closely between things which look alike. To it a clergyman is a clergyman, whether Episcopal or Presbyterian hands have been laid upon him. The ministry with which people were most familiar in the colonies was irregular in its commission, but held in high honor by those among whom it was exercised. For this reason the ministry of the Church, beginning with New England in the seventeenth century, and extending all over the country in the eighteenth, came to share that place in public esteem which has ever since been cheerfully accorded to the sacred office.

In Maryland and Virginia the Church of England was established by law. It had privileges and immunities granted to no sect. Marriages could only be celebrated by its clergy. The glebes and perquisites were guaranteed to its use. Its services and clergy were supported by taxes to be laid and collected by process of law. Their brethren at the North envied their position, and looked to the time when they should be similarly blessed, but the event proved that what was deemed their strength was really their weakness.

In Virginia the right of presentation lay in the royal governor, as representing the Bishop of London, but the power of induction to the benefice was with the vestry. Being once inducted, however, the vestry's power over the incumbent was exhausted. They could not remove him from his benefice, and they could not starve him out, for his income was assured by law. From this arose that contest between the clergy and the vestries, which finally tore the Church to pieces. The vestries in many instances refused to induct whom the governor had nominated. There was no power able to issue a mandamus. The result was that clergymen were hired by them from year to year, and made to dance attendance upon their pleasure. The position was an ignoble one, and had attractions only for unworthy men. Presently, as the vestries came more and more under the American idea, and the clergy more and more emphatic in their loyalty to the English Church and Crown, the breach widened. By the middle of the century we will find it to be incurable. Sound Church notions of the relation of priest and people were completely thrown back and obscured by the political situation. When the clergy were only standing out for the inherent rights of their Order, they were placed in a position where they seemed to be the champions of a foreign political power. The union of English Church and State here, as always, worked to the Church's ruin. The true Church idea was almost entirely lost to sight by both sides. The same law, for example, which "established" the Church in South Carolina, provided for a board of laymen who could try and remove any minister against whom complaint should be made by a majority of the vestry, together with nine aggrieved parishioners. [Perry: History, vol. i. p. 376.] The laity of the middle colonies were of much the same mind, but without the legal power to make it effective; but the difference between the two orders was, in kind, the same as in the South. A meeting of the clergy of New York and Pennsylvania formally resolved thenceforward to do without vestries altogether, but the vestries held their own, and have ever since been an effective part of the Church's machinery.

In New York and Massachusetts the Church had also a legal recognition at this date, which seemed to place it at an advantage. In so far as the colonies were under the English law, after the revocation of the original charters, the Episcopal Church was that one which the law knew here. The Church, in a certain sense, went with the flag. But the question of how far English law was modified or suspended by the new charters and by colonial legislation, was a mooted one. [Smith: History of New York. London, 1757, pp. 220­228.] Its manner of settlement, so far as the Church was concerned, inclined to either hand in proportion as the population was friendly to her or otherwise. Where it was unfriendly, every claim of prerogative by her produced irritation and opposition. In New England this was frequently the case. For many years the Church had not been allowed at all. When it came in with the new governor on the Rose frigate, it at once attached to itself all the obloquy which the new regime created. Its royal backing saved it alive, but guaranteed for it the ill-will of the community. Nevertheless, by 1700 the "King's Chapel" had been built in Boston, its minister settled, and a considerable congregation gathered. But it was an exotic in a foreign climate, a garrison surrounded by a hostile people.

To the eastward of Massachusetts there was but a single congregation. Gorges's ever faithful settlement on the Kennebec had, through all the years, held steadfastly to their Church and Prayer Book. For this they had been beset and harried by the Massachusetts Puritans; had been kept out of the New England League, and left single handed to defend themselves against the common savage enemy; their commerce had been destroyed, their minister stripped of property and almost life, and now, an old man, incapable of duty and in poverty, he waited to die.

To the westward there were a few Church families at the mouth of the Housatonic, and practically no more till New York was reached. In that town, with a population of about five thousand, Trinity Church had been built and endowed with a farm in the outskirts, had a minister and a claim to support by taxation. Accessions by immigration and by additions from the Dutch Presbyterians were numerous. The people were, upon the whole, not ill-disposed toward the Church. The whole province was, as we have seen, divided into parishes, and provision made for the support of the minister; but outside the capital there were no clergy, and, with the exception of a little group in the eastern part of Long Island, no Church people.

In Pennsylvania, Christ Church had been built at Philadelphia, and under its faithful rector, Evan Evans, was rapidly gaining ground, both in the city from the Quakers, and from the Welsh in the outlying settlements.

In a word, at the opening of the eighteenth century, the Church may be said to have been planted in all the colonies. In some places, as we will see, it brought forth much fruit. In others it was choked, and required replanting.

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