Project Canterbury

History of the American Episcopal Church 1600­1915

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 X. The Commissaries: Maryland

Dr. Bray; the Maryland establishment; attempt to reform manners; the Clergy vs. the people; hostile legislation; growth of other churches.

At the same time that the Venerable Society sent out its first missionaries, the Bishop of London commissioned Dr. Bray, the promoter of the Society, to represent him in Maryland. He was empowered to assume the reins of the Church in the colony, to exercise discipline, to reform manners, to settle disputes, to preserve order, to build up the Church. His salary was fixed at four hundred pounds a year,--a liberal sum for the times,--all of which, together with his own patrimony, he expended on his work.

Upon his arrival in Lord Baltimore's former Roman Catholic province, he found that the Church of England contained, at least nominally, about eighty per cent of the population. The other twenty per cent embraced the insignificant remnant of Romanists, together with Baptists, Quakers, Huguenots, and German Lutherans from the Palatinate. There was a larger proportion of people ecclesiastically unattached than in any other colony save South Carolina. The decadence of Romanism, the negations of Quakerism, and the long lack of organization in the Church, had all conspired to multiply this class. Still, the Church of England was the dominating religious influence. The Commissary at first mistook the temper of the people. Fresh from the Establishment at home, he undertook to introduce the same regime here. The disorders in doctrine and worship were evident. The way to cure them, as it seemed to him, was to secure by force of law the same uniformity in worship and discipline here which the State Church guaranteed in England. He found in Governor Nicholson a man who was of the same mind, ecclesiastically, with himself. He and the Governor persuaded the Provincial Assembly, apparently without difficulty, to pass an "Act of Uniformity," substantially the same as that which had obtained in England before the "Act of Toleration" made it tolerable. It provided not only that the Book of Common Prayer should be used in all the parishes of the Establishment, but also that it was "to be solemnly read by all and every minister or reader in every church or other place of public worship within this province." [Hawks: Contributions, vol. ii. p. 98. Perry: History, vol. i. p. 143.] A storm of opposition at once arose. The dissenters asked indignantly whether or not they were to be accounted as Englishmen; whether they were to be denied here in America that privilege of worshipping after their own fashion which had been allowed to their brethren in England for a generation. It was too late to protest against the Act in the colony, but their agents carried their grievances to the Crown, and, chiefly through the influence of the Quakers, succeeded in having the obnoxious clause vetoed in Privy Council.

But the attempt to pass it had been a grave mistake. It failed, to be sure, but it gave the dissenters cause to distrust the Church's spirit. She seemed to them to be moved by a temper of gratuitous intolerance. It was all the more offensive because it was impotent. From being only indifferent to her, they passed into bitter enemies. The time came when they could make their enmity felt. But the law, as it still stood, put the Churchmen in possession. [Perry: History, vol. i. p. 143.] Every minister presented by the governor, appointed, and inducted, received the "forty per poll," out of which he was to pay the clerk a fixed sum. Justices and magistrates were forbidden to perform the marriage ceremony, which was made the peculium of the Church of England clergy, at a fixed fee of "five shillings sterling and no more." The sheriff of the county was bound to collect the tobacco tax for the minister. The incumbent was made ex officio a member of the vestry. The members of the vestries were bound to attend meetings under penalty. The care and repair of churches was provided for by a special tax, not to exceed ten pounds of tobacco for any one year. The dissenters were to be allowed to conduct worship as they saw fit, provided their places of meeting were certified to and registered at the county court.

Having secured the legal status of the Church, the Commissary set about investigating the condition of the clergy and parishes. A Convocation, attended by fourteen of the clergy summoned, gave him the opportunity to address them with wisdom and earnestness upon their official conduct. A prolonged visitation which he undertook gave him the chance to see their manner of life. He found among them some devout and earnest men, but a still larger number who had fallen into the easy manners of the time and place, whose professional duties sat lightly upon them, and some whose lives were a scandal, and whose duties were utterly neglected. He began by proceeding against one or two flagrant offenders against morals and decency. He found the task of reform far more difficult than he had anticipated. He had but small real power over the clergy. The Church being "established," the Missionary Society in England assumed that it was able to look after itself, and declined to take any of the clergy upon its payrolls. That sharpest kind of discipline, cutting off the offender's salary, was therefore not available. Beside that, the clergy held their incumbency by the appointment of the Governor, and he was always jealous of any interference with his prerogatives. Moreover, the easygoing habits of the clergy suited the people very well. They were at heart somewhat afraid of the new type of minister which Dr. Bray held up as the model. [Hawks: Ecclesiastical Contributions, New York, 1839, vol. ii. p. 213.] Believing that he could better serve the interest of his province from London than by remaining in it, he went home, and never again returned. For a while he continued to hold his office, but soon resigned it, joining in the request of the clergy of the colony, that another Commissary might be sent out; but until his death in 1730 he never flagged in his zeal. He pressed upon the authorities, without ceasing, the necessity of a resident bishop. He kept the Church at home informed concerning Maryland, collected money for it, and secured recruits for its ministry.

But in the colony the inevitable conflict between the clergy and the people began to develop itself. The resuscitation of Church life brought it out. While the clergy were apathetic, especially while they refrained from magnifying their office, it lay latent. But the toning up of the priestly standard, and above all the emphasis put upon the legal establishment, brought out to view the inherent conflict of interest. The history of the Church here, as in Virginia, is simply the story of the long controversy between the clergy, and the people represented by the legislature. Sometimes the Governor took one side and sometimes the other, and sometimes the contest was triangular. In this situation healthy Church life was impossible. Discipline could not be maintained. The confusion of rights and powers was hopeless. "Thus the proprietor selected a clergyman in England; the Bishop of London gave him a license; the Governor inducted him; if he did wrong the Commissary tried him (if there happened to be a Commissary); and, when convicted, no power punished him; for, after induction, even the proprietor could not remove him, and the Bishop of London could neither give nor take away the meanest living in the province." [Hawks: Ecclesiastical Contributions, vol. ii. p. 190.] Nor were the laws any more able to protect good clergy in their rights than to punish bad ones for their faults. When a new Commissary, Mr. Henderson, landed in 1730, he barely escaped being mobbed. [Ib.: vol. ii. p. 204.] A chivalric layman struck him in the face, and the blow was meekly borne; he struck him a second time, and received such a drubbing from the reverend man's hands as taught him never to do the like again. [Hawks: vol. ii. p. 205.] Another clergyman took to task a layman who had slandered the cloth generally, and for doing so was challenged to fight a duel. When he declined he was set upon by the layman and beaten within an inch of his life. [Ib. p. 206.] The breach between clergy and people grew wider yearly. The Romanists and Presbyterians looked on with unconcealed glee. The Church's extremity was their opportunity, which they did not fail to embrace. The Churchmen saw that the only hope of salvation for the distracted Church lay in securing a resident bishop who could assume the reins, and bring order out of the confusion. They represented the case so strongly to the authorities of the mother Church, that for the first time, after a century of effort, consent was secured. Gibson, Bishop of London, asked the clergy to select a fit man, send him to England, and he would consecrate him his suffragan for Maryland. [Ib. p. 196.] Whether the Bishop had secured the royal warrant for his proposed action is somewhat doubtful. But in any case it was not put to the test. For when the Maryland clergy chose Colebatch, one of their number, in obedience to his mandate, the Colonial Legislature issued a writ ne exeat and forbade him to leave the province.

The local legislature could not disestablish the Church, but, by a series of sinister acts, they made the Establishment worse than useless. Little by little the Church ceased to lean upon it, but unfortunately was not able to disentangle itself so as to stand upon a purely religious footing. Here again, as everywhere, they who took the sword perished by the sword. "Had affairs," says Dr. Hawks, "been permitted to proceed to their natural termination without that interruption caused by the American Revolution, the time would have come when the singular spectacle would have been seen of the extinction of a church established by law, while no man could have found in the legislation of the country a statute depriving it of its character as an establishment. The law that gave it preference would have still stood unrepealed among the early acts of the province; while the history of its downfall might be traced in the side blows of an indirect legislation." [Hawks: vol. ii, p. 247.] Under the circumstances Romanism took a fresh start; the Presbyterians flocked in from Pennsylvania and Delaware, and from Ulster direct; and the Church of England gradually but surely lost ground and lost character. At the close of the period before us, while devout and godly men like Bray, Henderson, Boucher, and many others had given themselves to her service, still the Church had fallen far behind in the march of population; had many unworthy men serving at her altars; had gained the enduring hostility of dissenters; lost the love of her own children, and waited for the political catastrophe out of whose ruins she was to emerge to a new and better life.

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