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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 IX. The "Venerable Society"

Dr. Bray; his report upon the Church in the Colonies; the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts; instructions to Missionaries; Keith and Talbot; conciliating Dissenters; building churches; work of the Missionaries.

The Church is now lodged in the colonies, not as an organization, but in the shape of isolated congregations, widely separated, a minority in the population, linked to each other only through the Bishop of London, who had a shadowy power of superintendency over them all.

In the period which lies between the year 1700 and the War of Independence, the history groups itself about a half-dozen topics. These we will notice in their order. The first is the work of the "Society for Propagating the Gospel in Foreign Parts."

In the closing years of the seventeenth century, the Rev. Dr. Bray was the successful rector of a parish in Warwickshire. He comes in sight as the first of the "working clergy." His spirit is distinctly modern. His methods strangely anticipated those of today. He was a "parish priest." He made himself familiar with the needs of his flock, and was fertile in devising plans for their benefit. Presently, he attracted the notice of his superiors, and was promoted. In his new office, he was oppressed with what he saw of the ignorance and general lack of equipment of the parish clergy. They could not feed their flocks, for they themselves were starving for lack of knowledge. Those among them who were best furnished with books had upon their shelves only the "Pearl of Eloquence, some German system, a few stitched sermons, with an old Geneva Bible and Concordance." Bray became their benefactor. He was one of those enthusiasts whose spirit is contagious. He interested his Bishop and other men and women of wealth and liberality, in the formation of a "Society for the Promotion of Christian Knowledge." Its first purpose was to found parish libraries for the benefit of the clergy and then of the people. By his efforts that society which now commands the pens of university examiners and tutors, and even of prime ministers, was set upon a strong foundation. In addition to its work at home it took up the added task to provide libraries for the churches in the colonies. Before Bray's death he saw more than forty such furnished to America alone.

In 1695, he was asked by Compton, Bishop of London, to visit and report upon the condition of the Church in the American Colonies. Compton's succession to the See of London was the best thing that had yet happened for the colonial churches. His sense of official responsibility for them was great. His predecessors had looked after their affairs a little, when it was convenient, but had not regarded themselves as legally responsible. Indeed, their shadowy jurisdiction was only the result of the accident that the then Bishop of London had been a member of the original "Virginia Company." At Compton's instance, the Bishop of London was formally put in charge of the colonies by an order in council. [Abbey: The English Church and its Bishops in the Eighteenth Century, vol. i. p. 82.] Regarding them then as a part of his diocese, he sent Dr. Bray to investigate their situation. After an extended visit of five years, he returned and published his "Memorial upon the State of Religion in America." He reports [Abbey: i. p. 84.] that in South Carolina the Church was thriving, but at least three more clergy were needed. In North Carolina there were two Church settlements, a hundred miles apart, and no clergyman in either of them. In Maryland the endowment was, as yet, very insufficient, but the people had built churches for themselves. The Pennsylvanians had one Church of England Minister, well esteemed, and wished for more. The Jerseys had as yet none, but he thought there would be reception for six. New York had one; there was room for at least two more. In Long Island there were nine churches (parishes), but no ministers. In Rhode Island the Quaker neglect for outward teaching had caused great irreligion. There was a church there, and room for at least two ministers. New England was under Independents.

But Dr. Bray was not content with merely making his report. He had left his heart in America. He laid the case of the Church there before everybody whom he could reach. He printed pamphlets, wrote letters, conferred with the Bishops, appealed to Parliament, and engaged the warm interest of the Queen. Through his tireless exertion there was organized in 1701 the first Missionary Society of the Protestant world. Its title was "The Society for Propagating the Gospel in Foreign Parts." Its charter ran:

"William the Third, King of Great Britain and Ireland, Defender of the Faith, Greeting:

"Whereas we are informed that in many of our plantations and colonies beyond the sea, belonging to our Kingdom of England, the provision for ministers is very mean, whereby there is a great lack of the administration of the Word and Sacraments, causing atheism to abound for the want of learned and orthodox ministers, and Romish priests and Jesuits are encouraged to proselyte, ... we therefore empower these, our right trusty subjects;"--then follow a hundred of the noblest names in England, with the Archbishop of Canterbury at the head, constituting the society. Its popularity was great from the outset. One member gave a thousand pounds for the work, another nine hundred for teaching the negroes. One gave to it his estate in the Barbadoes to found a college, and another a present of books and maps. Archbishop Tenison left it one thousand pounds towards founding two American bishoprics. The proprietors of Vermont set apart townships for its use. Evelyn enters in his diary that he had promised twenty pounds a year to it. [Caswall: American Church, p. 130.] The society's actions were marked by good sense, good spirit, and broadminded charity. Its first act was to circulate an "Address" to all bishops and archdeacons, ["A collection of Papers printed by order of the S. P. G., London: printed by Joseph Downing in Bartholomew Close, near West Smithfield, 1712."] asking them to choose out fit persons for missionaries to the colonies and the Indians. The qualifications to be carefully noted in the persons recommended were: their age, whether married or single, temper, prudence, learning, zeal, and loyalty to Church and Crown. The officials are solemnly adjured not to recommend any but fit men, and especially not to use the Society for the purpose of finding places for men whom they themselves wish to be rid of. "Standing Instructions" to missions were issued to the applicants for appointment, that they shall not lodge at any public house in London, but at some bookseller's or such private house; shall attend constantly the Standing Committee of the Society; that before embarking they shall wait upon his Grace the Archbishop of Canterbury for his instructions; that when embarked they shall demean themselves so as to become remarkable examples of piety and virtue to the ship's company; that whether they be passengers or chaplains they shall endeavor to prevail with the captain to have morning and evening prayers, daily, with catechising on the Lord's Day; that during the passage they shall instruct, exhort, admonish, reprove, with seriousness and prudence, so as may gain them reputation and authority; that when they arrive in the country where they are sent they shall be frequent in private prayers, conversant with the Holy Scriptures, Prayer Book, Articles, and Homilies; be circumspect; not board or lodge in public houses; game not at all; converse not with lewd and profane persons, save to admonish them; be frugal; keep out of debt; not meddle with politics; keep away from quarrels; say the service every day, when practicable, and always with seriousness and decency; avoid high-flown sermons; preach against such vices as they may see to prevail; impress the nature and need of Sacraments; distribute the Society's tracts; visit their people,--in a word, bear themselves like Christians and gentlemen.

For salary they were to have fifty pounds a year, and ten pounds for outfit.

Among the many missionaries sent out by the Society, there were, of course, some who took to colonial work as a refuge from poverty or scandal, [Anderson: English Church iii the Colonies, vol. iii. p. 149.] but, as a rule, they made an impression at once by their high character and high Churchmanship. On this latter rock some of them split, but the general effect was to distinctly raise both the zeal and the tone of the Church in America. [Abbey: English Church and Bishops, vol. i. p. 91.]

Their first missionaries were Keith, the whilom Philadelphia Quaker, and his friend Patrick Gordon. These came out in the ship Centurion, and on the voyage the ship's chaplain, John Talbot, determined to join them. Within a few weeks of their landing Gordon died at Jamaica, Long Island. Keith and Talbot, under the Society's instructions, made a tour of observation extending from Boston to Charleston. Though they were very pronounced Churchmen, more so than most of the clergy at that time on this side of the water, they followed loyally the Society's desire that they should adopt a conciliating tone with dissenters everywhere. They were to preach in their meeting houses whenever opportunity might offer, not to offend their prejudices unnecessarily, and where possible, win them back to the Church. There is every evidence of a widely spread inclination on the part of dissenters in America in the first half of the eighteenth century to return to the Church of England if the way could be made easy for them. It showed itself, as we will see later on (in connection with the story of the Episcopate), among Quakers, Lutherans, and Dutch, especially. The managers of the S. P. G. were men "having understanding of the times what things Israel ought to do." There is good reason to believe that if the Church had been here on the ground with a complete organization, the wise and conciliatory efforts of the Society's missionaries would have succeeded in healing at least some of those breaches in Zion, which have grown wider as the years have gone by.

Talbot writes from Philadelphia, September 1, 1703: "We have gathered together several hundreds for the Church of England, and, what is more, to build churches for her. There are four or five now going forward in this province and the next. That at Burlington is almost finished. Churches are going up amain where there were none before. They are going to build three at Carolina, and three more in these lower counties about New Castle, beside those at Chester and Amboy." The advent of the Society's missionaries gave an impulse to the Church's growth all along the line. But she lengthened her cords faster than she was able to strengthen her stakes. A considerable number of the newly built churches were never occupied at all, or at best for a short while, by the people for whom they had been erected. Clergy could not be had in sufficient numbers to man them. The missionaries went upon their way to the southward, and the enthusiasm lagged. The new churches became "stables for the Quakers' horses when they came to meeting or market." [Anderson: iii. p. 238,] A circumference of enthusiasm followed Keith and Talbot where they journeyed, but for the most part subsided when they had passed on. In Philadelphia and its vicinity hundreds of Quakers were baptized by them, and in the southern counties they were welcomed in the Independents' meeting houses, where they preached, and commended the Church to all who heard them. After a visit of two years Keith returned to England, and Talbot settled down as permanent incumbent at Burlington, N. J., where he spent a long and honored life. [It has been positively asserted that Talbot, when an old man, upon a visit to England, was consecrated to the Episcopate by the English nonjuring Bishops. Anderson, Hawks, Wilberforce, and Caswall all say so, apparently all following the same original authority, whatever that may be. The Rev. Dr. Hills, in his "History of the Church in Burlington," discusses the subject exhaustively, and maintains the same assertion. In vol. i. of Bishop Perry's "History of the American Episcopal Church" is a Monograph by Rev. Dr. John Fulton in which he reexamines the whole case, and arrives at the conclusion, which seems without doubt to be the truth, that Talbot never received such consecration; and that the tradition itself arose from confounding his name with that of another man.] From this time until the War of Independence the history of the Church in America is to be looked for in the records of the Venerable Society. More and more missionaries were sent out by it, and it undertook, in part at least, the support of the native ministry which gradually grew up. The letters of these missionaries to the secretary, written from the seaboard cities, the backwoods settlements, the inland villages, the Indian encampments, and preserved in the Society's archives, constitute a vivid picture of the Church's life for seventy years. [Bishop Perry has, with infinite pains, collected and published in fine folio volumes the Society's documents relating to the Colonial Church, under the title of "Historical Collections."]

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