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 XII. The New England Converts

President Cutler; the question of Orders; the attraction of the Church; President and Professors of Yale enter the Church; Puritan opposition; accessions; Dean Berkeley.

In the early years of the last century there lived at Guilford, Conn., a certain Mr. Smithson, whose name has been kept from oblivion through a single kindly deed of his. He gave a Prayer Book to young Timothy Cutler, a graduate of Harvard, and a candidate for the Puritan ministry. In 1720 the Rev. Dr. Cutler was the honored president of Yale College, and had read his Prayer Book to good purpose. Remote from the Church, unskilled in her ways, holding high office in a society which was her hereditary enemy, he had learned to love the Prayer Book, and to think of the Church kindly. Many of the prayers he committed to memory, and used, consciously and unconsciously, in his conduct of public worship. Their spirit colored all his own effusions, until he came to be noted for his "gifts in prayer." [Beardsley: History of the Church in Connecticut, vol. i. p. 34.] He gathered about him a little group of men like-minded with himself, and for several years they quietly and patiently pursued a study of the nature and organization of the Church. Just a century before, this had been the burning question of the age. But at that time the combatants on either hand had not been in a temper to settle it on its merits. With Laud on the one side and the Puritans on the other, Star Chamber writs, broadswords, and pikes had been the weapons. The sparks struck in such collisions are brilliant but not illuminating. The Truth had shrunk away into the background, as she always does to avoid strife. But now the contest had long ago subsided. Episcopacy had won in Old England and Presbytery in the New. The parties to the strife deemed the matter settled because they were out of each other's hearing. President Cutler and his friends were Presbyterians, but students, calm-minded and lovers of truth.

A question pressed upon them which is one of the most imperious that can assail any man, and is, at the same time, one for the entertainment of which he usually receives little sympathy. To speak for God as His minister is the most awful prerogative that any man can assume. No sober-minded man will offer to do so without the clearest warrant. But from where shall he receive this warrant? No man can give it to him of his own authority. He cannot trust to his own inward "call," for he knows too well the untrustworthiness of human emotions. Whence shall he derive a commission which will justify him to himself in the assumption of so great an office? An honest search for the answer to this question has led into the ministry of this Church a large proportion of her priesthood. They ask themselves, "By what authority doest thou these things, and who gave thee this authority?" The unique honor of being the first of this class in the American Church belongs to President Cutler and the little group of Puritan ministers who gathered about him. The college library provided the means to solve their doubts. Scant as it was, it fortunately contained the works of Barrow, Tillotson, Burnet, Sherlock, Patrick, and Whitby, masters [Beardsley: History of the Church in Connecticut, vol. i. p. 35.] of definition and argument for the Episcopal theory of the Church. Slowly, and evidently with reluctance, the little band of students were forced to the conclusion that their ministerial commissions were defective, not because their acts under them were lacking in power,--a pirate or a guerilla chieftain may be potent without any commission,--but because they were lacking in authority, emanating as they did from an organization which had separated itself from the league of Christian States. "I hoped," says one of them, "that when I was ordained I had satisfied myself of the validity of Presbyterian ordination under the circumstances. But alas! I have ever since had growing suspicions that all is not right, and that I am an usurper in the House of God." Of course, this will seem but the vagary of a diseased sentiment, to all who think of the Church as organized by men and deriving its authority from the consent of its members. But he who has a deep sense of the very reality of priestly acts, especially if he have a timid conscience, will understand and sympathize with his perplexity. Gradually the convictions of the little company settled upon the Church of England. It attracted them, not as a strong political establishment,--its political entanglement was but a stumbling block to them; not by the sweet strains of its Liturgy,--that sound had never fallen upon their ears; not by its formulated dogmas,--these did not seriously differ from those which they held already; but solely by its power as an Apostolic Church to confer a valid commission upon men to preach the Divine Word and administer the awful Sacraments. This clear and simple conviction determined their action, and, through them and their spiritual successors, went far to fix in that mould in which it is still held, the American Church's way of thinking of the ministry.

Few of these men's confreres knew or suspected the direction in which they were moving. At the college commencement Sept. 13, 1722, President Cutler asked the trustees to meet him in the library at the close of the exercises. When all were assembled he read them a statement which acted upon them, and through them upon New England society, like an electric shock. The statement, signed by himself and six tutors and fellows of the college, stripped to simplicity, was, that the signers were doubtful of or convinced against the validity of Presbyterian ordination, and had determined to apply for Orders in the Church of England. The surprise and consternation were indescribable. It was as though in our day the president and faculty of Princeton should declare for the Pope, or the dean and professors of the General Seminary should avow themselves Quakers. Lamentation resounded on every hand. A day of fasting and prayer was called to avert the Divine wrath at the strange defection of these leaders in Israel. The converts had offered to make a public statement and defence of their position if it should be desired. It was desired, and a day for the great debate fixed during the session of the Connecticut Legislature. The Governor, Saltonstall, presided with courtesy and fairness, rebuking the railing spirit in which their opponents conducted their arguments. Of course nothing came of the debate but to fix each side more firmly in its own opinion. Cutler was "excused" from any further duties in the college. Three of his associates resigned their charges and cast in their lot with him, burning their bridges behind them. Several, more timid or less convinced, retained their connection with the Puritan establishment, but preserving all their lives a friendly attitude toward the Church. Three of them, Cutler, Brown, and Johnson, proceeded at once to England for ordination. Their name and fame had gone before them. They were received with a warm welcome. Cutler and Johnson were ordained, but Brown perished of smallpox. A second parish lately organized in Boston called Cutler to be its rector. Johnson went to Stratford, where there had been for many years a little group of Church of England families, became their pastor, and entered upon that long career of use and influence hardly surpassed by any name inn the Church's annals. He was invited by Benjamin Franklin to become the head of the newly organized College of Philadelphia, later known as the University of Pennsylvania. He declined, and accepted another invitation to the presidency of King's College, afterward Columbia University.

The great gain to the American Church by this movement was not that she had added half a dozen able men to her meagre ministry. It was that a new and abiding source of supply had been opened. These were but the advanced guard of a host of men of similar type who have entered the Church since their tine from the sane motives. It was the sporadic outbreak in America of the movement which had set in still earlier in England. "At this time there was a strong tendency in the Presbyterian type of Puritanism to conform in England. ... A little reasonableness on the part of the English bishops would have swept the entire Presbyterian party of England into the Established Church." [Briggs American Presbyterianism, p. 146.] Their influence was at once felt in New England, beginning in Connecticut. Within a generation the Church under the leadership of a native born ministry had penetrated every town, bad effected a lodgement in every Puritan stronghold, had drawn into her membership large numbers of that sober-minded, self-contained, tenacious people who constitute her membership in New England Puritan to-day. The opposition of the Puritan authorities was pronounced and bitter. It showed itself in a series of petty and vexatious acts of persecution, some of which amounted to grievous wrongs. But the innate kindliness and cautious fair-mindedness of the Connecticut people constantly interposed to break the blows of Puritan zeal. [Perry: History, i. 290, et seq.] Laws were made which worked in favor of the "Established Order" and against the Church, and remained in force for a hundred and fifty years. [It was not until 1878 that the parishes in Connecticut were at liberty to organize according to the Church's theory; up to that time they were all chartered as Congregational "Societies" under a general act.] Occasionally they wrought great hardship, but, upon the whole, the Church in New England had less to complain of in the eighteenth century than dissenters had in New York and the Southern colonies. The idea of invoking force of any sort to the aid of doctrine or order was gradually but surely retiring into that evil place from which it had emerged to curse the Church of God.

The drift toward the Church in New England received a very substantial impulse by the visit to America of one of England's great and holy men. In 1729 Dean Berkeley commenced his three years' sojourn at Newport in the interest of his brilliant but fruitless scheme of a great American University. His plan was to establish somewhere a foundation which should be to the colonies what Oxford and Cambridge were to Britain. It is his great honor to have been the first of eminent Englishmen to discern the future greatness of the western world. He prayed and strove that it might be built up upon the twin foundations of religion and learning. He was himself a notable example of both. By dint of his wonderful power of persuading men, and the sweet graciousness of his person, he had extorted from the English minister, Walpole, a grant of twenty thousand pounds for his American University. But to secure the grant was one thing, to secure the money quite another. Walpole intimated to him that it would not likely be paid unless he should show his earnestness in the matter by going himself to America. In pursuance of this advice, he took up his abode at Newport. His reputation as a philosopher, a scholar, and a saint, had preceded him. Learned men in America made pilgrimages to meet him, and came away unconsciously biased in favor of a Church which could produce and retain such a man. The fact that the representatives of royalty in the colonies were always Churchmen had had its effect in attracting many to her. Now the fact that a prince in the kingdom of letters was one of her sons brought her into reputation in a different quarter. His visitors went to see a philosopher and found also a Churchman. The effect of his sojourn was marked in many ways. His friend the painter Smibert followed his fortunes, and from Smibert the Americans Copley and West caught their inspiration. [Arnold: History of Rhode Island, ii. p. 99.] When he returned to England, despairing of his project, he left his library of one thousand volumes to Yale College and gave his Rhode Island farm to found a postgraduate scholarship in the same university. These gifts were golden benefactions to the struggling learning of the time. From his foundation at Yale, a stream of great men have gone forth, all more or less influenced by his spirit, and with a kindly feeling towards the Church of their benefactor. By his gift the immortal writings of Hooker and Chillingworth found a place in the college library and moulded the lives of many of the seekers after the Church. [S Beardsley: Life of Samuel Johnson, p. 75.] His advice and counsel fixed in the structure of Pennsylvania University and Columbia College, that principle of union in religion and learning which these institutions so long retained. [Beardsley: Life of Samuel Johnson, p. 75.] As a Christian, a Churchman, and a man, he greatly promoted the success which marked the Church in the Northern colonies through the first half of the eighteenth century.

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