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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 XVII. The Episcopate

Two theories of the Church; disadvantage of the Church's theory in the Colonies; Ordination and Discipline; early efforts for the Episcopate; the need of it patent; great opportunities lost; the "S. P. G.'s" plan; the Pennsylvania plan; reasons of the failure; current conception of the Episcopal office; Colonial opposition; early thought of separation; legal status of the Colonies; opposition not unreasonable; John Adams's opinion; not possible till after the Revolution; idea of an "Independent Episcopal Church"; Dr. White's plan; the popular judgment.

Strictly speaking, the Episcopal Church was not present in America as an organized body until after the Revolutionary War. Previous to that time, according to the generally accepted definition, there was here only the material out of which it was afterward to be constructed.

Two fundamentally different theories concerning the nature of the Church are now extant.

The first is the one which is generally entertained in the United States. To a large majority of persons it seems so palpably true and reasonable that its opposite appears grotesque. It is that a church, like a state, is built up from below. The materials from which it is constructed are separate individuals, who have given in their adhesion to Jesus Christ by an avowed act of faith. Having established their Christianity as individuals, each independently of the other, they draw together because they are like-minded, and band themselves into a society which becomes a Church. It is open to them to constitute this society in whatever fashion they see fit. The Holy Scriptures are conceived to be silent upon the whole question of organization, presumably with the intention of leaving men free to follow their own judgments here. The whole power of ecclesiastical government rests upon the consent of the governed. It is a question of votes. By a consensus of opinion and action such a society may make such regulations as it chooses; may be monarchical, republican, or absolute; may ordain such and such kinds of officers as it may determine; may call its officers by any name and may assign to them any duties it will; and may remove and depose them at pleasure. The individuals may construct such an ecclesiastical machine as they think will be most efficient, and then may reasonably expect that the Holy Spirit will lodge in it as its motive power. This is the popular notion and the one generally accepted by Protestantism.

The other theory is that the Church is organized from the summit downward; that the authority which pertains to it, and the grace which flows through it, are things which do not depend upon the votes of its units; that men do not establish their Christianity as isolated souls, but that the Church is concerned even in the original transaction by the individual. ["It [the Holy Spirit] was given corporately, so that they who received it realized at once a unity which preceded any individual action of their own."--Lux Mundi. New York: A. & J. B. Young & Co., 1890, p. 373.] They who hold to this theory conceive that the essential features of the Church's structure have been long since settled. Whether they might not be changed under the stress of an absolute necessity, is a question they do not seriously ask. They wait for such a demonstrable necessity to appear, and assert that it never yet has appeared. They declare that "it is evident to all men diligently reading the Holy Scriptures and ancient Authors, that from the Apostles' time there have been these Orders of Ministers in Christ's Church,--Bishops, Priests, and Deacons." [Prayer Book: Preface to Ordinal.] While they do not assert that this arrangement is the result of a categorical command of God, still they hold it to be of so potent obligation that it may not be changed except for weightier reasons than have ever yet appeared. This conception of the Church is of the essence of Episcopacy. Overwhelmed as it is by popular vote in the United States, it still is the belief held and acted upon by five-sixths of the Christian world.

Its acceptance by the members of the English Church in colonial times, put them at an incalculable disadvantage as compared with their fellow colonists. The Church was here, as Richard complained that he had been sent into the world, "scarce half made up." An Episcopal Church without a Bishop is as a body without a head. The scattered parishes were as the beads of a rosary in which the string is cut, leaving the cross, which should be pendent, to fall helpless upon the ground. At the first settlement of the country the then Bishop of London had chanced to be a stockholder and a member of council in the "Virginia Company." This fact gave him a vague, advisory oversight of its affairs. His successors for nearly a century followed his example until it became a prescriptive right of that see. Bishop Compton in 1703 had it confirmed to him and his successors by an "Order in Council." [Abbey: English Church and its Bishops, vol. i. p. 82.] But the supervision which the Bishop of London could give to churches farther away than the heart of Australia now is, was worth but little. No order could be guaranteed. Discipline could not be maintained. Confirmation was a physical impossibility. But it was in regard to ordination that the evil of the situation made itself most keenly felt. Other churches were here with their complete equipment. When a sufficient number of Presbyterians found themselves living together in a remote settlement, they chose a man for pastor, and at the most he need not leave the colony to find a Presbytery in session who could lay hands on him. If they were Baptists or Independents they chose a man, and either invited two or three neighboring ministers to join with them, or, in default of that, ordained him themselves. When a Quaker meeting grew too large it swarmed like a hive of bees, and the younger swarm set up for itself. The Roman Catholics and the Churchmen were helpless. For a hundred and seventy-five years the Church in America was a Japhet in search of a father. The chapter now before us is the story of the long, wearisome, pitiful, despairing effort to obtain that office without which the Church could not live.

As early as 1638 Archbishop Laud had a plan [Hawkins: Historical Notices, London, 1845, p. 376.] to send out a bishop to New England who might keep as tight a hand over the Puritans there as he was doing over their brethren at home. But the triumph of Parliament, the overthrow of the king, and the loss of his own head prevented his carrying it into effect.

During the Commonwealth, of course, nothing could be expected in the colonies from a Church that was at its last gasp at home.

After the Restoration the Lord Chancellor Clarendon [Hawkins : Historical Notices, p. 376.] undertook a similar project in Virginia, but a change of ministry and the indifference of the dissolute king brought it to naught.

Tenison and Seeker, Archbishops of Canterbury, and Compton, Bishop of London, labored often and vainly to secure the same end.

From this side of the water the cry for a bishop was never silent. We have already noticed the scheme proposed by Chaplain Miller at the time of the English capture of New York. So far as any difficulty from this side was concerned, his plan was entirely feasible. It was to set aside "the king's farm" in New York, for the support of a suffragan of the Bishop of London, who should have jurisdiction in all America.

So soon as the first hardships of settlement were past and the Church really began to grow, the need became imperative.

When Keith and Talbot, the first missionaries of the S. P. G., had completed the tour of investigation which their instructions made their duty, they reported that the primary need was bishops. Talbot writes to the Society, in 1702, [MSS. Letters, vol. xi. p. 335.] "I don't doubt that some good man with one hundred pounds a year would do the Church more service than with a coach and six a hundred years hence." Two years later he wrote to his friend Keith, "Mr. John Lillingston designs, it seems, to go to England next year. He seems to be the fittest person that America affords for the office of a suffragan. Several of the clergy, both of this province and of Maryland, have said they would pay their tenths to him as the vice-gerent of my Lord of London, whereby the Bishop of America might have as honorable provision as some in Europe."

In a letter to the secretary of the S. P. G., he speaks with great plainness, urging sharply that when the Apostles heard that Samaria had received the Word of God, they sent Peter and John that they might receive the Holy Ghost, not standing upon any question of salary; that when they heard the Word was preached at Antioch they sent there Paul and Barnabas; that when Paul did only dream that a man wanted him in Macedonia, he went all so fast;--"but here we have been calling these so many years, and you will not hear, or will not answer, which is the same thing." He does not undertake to prophesy, but there is such a thing as the kingdom "being taken away from them who will not use it, and given to them who will!"

A convocation of fourteen clergymen at Burlington, N. J., in 1705, signed a petition to the Archbishop, representing that many Lutheran and Independent Ministers were ready to conform if a Bishop were here to ordain them. [MSS. Letters, vol. xi. p. 335.]

In 1709 the officers of the S. P. G. presented a memorial to Queen Anne begging that a colonial bishopric might be endowed out of the proceeds of the lands ceded by the Council of Utrecht, [S Abbey: English Church and Bishops, vol. i. p. 87. Beardsley: Life of Johnson, p. 15.] but the death of the queen put an end to the project.

The same year, Governor Nicholson of Maryland wrote the Archbishop of Canterbury that "unless bishops can be had, the Church will surely decline."

In 1715, the S. P. G. laid before George I a well-digested scheme for the same purpose. It was proposed that four bishops should be consecrated, one for Barbadoes, one for Jamaica, one to have his seat at Burlington, N. J., and another at Williamsburg, Va. The Northern Diocese was to include all the settlements east of the Delaware, extending to Newfoundland; the Southern Diocese having all west of the Delaware, and reaching to the Spanish possessions. They represented that the college at Williamsburg would provide a place for the one, and that they had purchased, for six hundred pounds, a house and grounds at Burlington for the other. Just then the Scotch rebellion broke out, and the High Church clergy showed so much sympathy for the Stuart line that the King and his minister, Walpole, would hear nothing further about the Church's affairs. [MSS. Letters, vol. x. p. 28.] With a lingering hope in the ultimate fulfillment of the plan, Bishop Tenison left one thousand pounds in his will for the American part of it.

In 1765 a still more promising plan was devised on this side of the sea. In southern Pennsylvania there were rich manors which had been reserved for the Duke of York. They were not occupied by anybody who could show good title. In the Delaware River were also sundry islands, occupied in part by squatters, but which were not included in Penn's grant. These together would provide ample endowment for a bishopric, and their resumption for that purpose would disturb no equities. [Perry: Historical Collections, vol. Pa. p. 373.] Nothing came of it.

Nothing came of the petition in which the clergy of Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and New York all joined. [Smith: Life of Dr. William Smith, vol. i. p. 270.] Nothing came of the appeals of Cutler and Johnson, and the Commissaries, and fifty others who pleaded for the Episcopate. They represented with truth that for the lack of it the Church was falling into disorder and disgrace; that dissenting ministers in plenty were ready to conform, but were not willing to cross the sea for ordination; that of those who had crossed, one-fourth, by actual count, had been lost at sea, captured by pirates, shipwrecked, or died of smallpox in England. But their prayers, joined with those of the officers of the S. P. G., of Tenison, Compton, and Seeker, had been fruitless,--and why? Why was an action apparently so easily done, so desired by the parties concerned, and so essential to the Church's welfare, persistently refused?

The fundamental reason was that same entanglement of Church with State which had nearly choked out all spiritual life. The Church of England, paralyzed by this fatal alliance, had lost the power not only to act but even to think for herself. But even if she had had the power to do her duty to her far-away children, she, for the most part, had neither the knowledge nor the goodwill requisite. British ignorance of American affairs is even now a standing jest. That density which cannot perceive an American witticism, which looks for buffalo about the suburbs of New York and wild Indians in the streets of Chicago, two hundred years ago was still more hopeless. The English piqued themselves upon their ignorance and indifference. A few bishops and agents of the S. P. G., and the vulgar merchants of the City, were fairly well informed; but, as a rule, the people gave no thought to the plantations. Especially were they indifferent to matters pertaining to the Church. [White: Memoirs, New York, 1880, p. 76.] That sense of personal responsibility for the progress of the body, which marks the membership of a voluntary Church, is not to be expected in an Establishment. In it is the business of the official class to make plans and execute them. Could Englishmen have realized at all the mighty destiny of the then neglected colonies, they would, of course, have acted differently towards them; but this sort of knowledge is too much to expect of any generation. As the feeling then was, the suggestion of a bishop for the colonies seemed to the ordinary mind the most grotesque of incongruities. It was as though a serious proposal had been made to send a sword of state to the King of the Cannibal Islands, or a coach and six to Prester John. The current conceptions of what a bishop was, and what a "plantation" was, were two notions which would not fit together. A bishop was a dignitary, a peer, a being of exalted state, as much for show as for use, but indispensable to the right constitution of things,--in England. The modern idea of an Apostolic Bishop was not thinkable. Such a creature had not been seen for so many centuries that his memory had faded out. They were not capable of imagining a bishop who had no connection with the State, no artificial dignity, simply an Apostolic man, going about like Selwyn or Chase, in the humblest guise, without state or ceremonial or guaranteed livelihood even, mindful of his work for Christ and His Church. The officer which the American Church asked was an official which the English Churchmen could not then picture to themselves.

To this difficulty of the understanding, the moral darkness of the eighteenth century added a difficulty of spirit. The great men of the Church were writing books; the little men were scheming for preferment; the mass was careless of the whole matter. [Perry: Historical Collections, vol. Mass. p. 675. Abbey and Overton; English Church in Eighteenth Century, vol. i. pp. 39, 40.] Besides this there was the long-continued feeling of distrust of Churchmen, entertained by the civil power. [Abbey: English Church and its Bishops, vol. i. pp. 35, 36.] To the secular official's way of thinking, there were too many bishops already. "Priestcraft" was one of the cries of the day. No action would be permitted, if politicians could help it, which would even seem to be in the interest of the sacerdotal order.

These were the obstacles in the mother country,--ignorance, indifference, prejudice, political entanglements, and secular jealousies. By the time they were in the way of being overcome, a dangerous opposition to Episcopacy had developed in the colonies themselves. [Baird: Religion in America, p. 182.]

The idea of an ultimate separation from England, or, rather, of securing a home rule for the colonies, began to be entertained at a much earlier date than is generally supposed. [Sabine: Loyalists of the American Revolution, vol. i. p. 65. Abbey: English Church and Bishops, vol. i. p. 88. Caswall: The American Church and the American Union, p. 73.] Indeed it was present to some minds from the very first. It was openly charged against the colonies, during the long contests over their charters, that their purpose was to break away entirely from English authority. It cannot be said that this was their purpose in the way of being before their minds in the shape of a definite design; but it was in the form of a dream which many loved to entertain. In truth the war for independence became a future certainty the day the first permanent settlement was made. The necessity was in the situation. Some saw it early; some saw it clearly; but all felt it instinctively. Out of this instinct arose the strenuous opposition which the great body of colonists showed to the introduction of the Episcopate. It commenced to manifest itself as soon as the dream of ultimate separation began to be clearly defined, and continued until separation became a fact, when it suddenly ceased.

The ground of the opposition was twofold, political and ecclesiastical. In form the long controversy was a discussion concerning the right and scriptural organization of the Church; but in spirit it was a political contest. "The whole body of the Puritans were determined to resist the introduction of bishops into America. They feared lest these might use all the authority of the Crown to destroy Puritanism and establish Prelacy." [Briggs: American Presbyterianism, p. 143.] The primary objection to bishops was that they were officers of the Crown; opposition to them as being officials unknown to Scripture and the primitive Church was an afterthought. No question was discussed in colonial times which so seriously enlisted the interest of the people as did this one. The controversy raged intermittently for seventy years. Checkly, Johnson, Beach, Apthorp, and Chandler maintained the Church's side. [White: Memoirs, p. 73.] They were answered by Dickinson, Mayhew, Chauncey, and a hundred others, from the Dissenters' standpoint. Pamphlets, broadsides, letters, newspaper skits, "Questions Stated," "Replies to Questions Stated," and "Answers to Replies to Questions Stated," kept the printers busy for years.

It is much the custom for Church writers to assume that the opposition to the Episcopate was but the outcome of the wanton and gratuitous enmity of those who hated the Church. Both charity and fact condemn this assumption. The situation being what it then was, there was good and substantial ground for opposition.

The fundamental political question which was opened when the original charters were withdrawn, and which remained open till the Revolution, was: What is the legal status of the colonies? [Smith: History of New York, pp. 220­228. Sabine: Loyalists of the Revolution, vol. i. p. 24. McMaster: History of the United States, vol. i. p. 33.] Were they an integral part of the kingdom? Or did their charters give them an autonomy? These two contentions were the opposite poles of the dispute. If the former were the true principle, then English law and custom were of obligation at every point where they were not estopped by the distinct provision of a charter. Now the Church Establishment was part and parcel of the English law. It was seriously contended that it was ipso facto established here also; "that the constitutional laws of the mother country, antecedent to the legislatures of our own, are binding upon us; and therefore at the planting of the colony the English religious Establishment immediately took place; secondly, that the Act which established the Episcopal Church in South Britain, previous to the union of England and Scotland, extended to and equally affected all the colonies." [Smith: History of New York, p. 220.] If this contention of Churchmen were well founded, then bishops, if they came here at all, would come with the whole power of English law behind them. No matter what assurances they might give that they had only spiritual purposes in view, they would still be invested with secular powers which they could not renounce if they wanted to; and human nature being what it is, they could not be trusted to confine themselves to spiritual weapons while they would have such potent secular ones ready to hand. "If Parliament can tax us," says John Adams, "they can establish the Church of England with all its creeds, articles, tests, ceremonies, and tithes, and prohibit all other Churches as conventicles and schism shops." [John Adams: Works, vol. x. p. 287.] Adams was clearly right; at any rate he expressed the honest belief of the great majority in both sides of the question. Dr. Chandler's sincerity is not to be questioned when he asserted that "the bishops proposed were to have no temporal power, no maintenance from the colonies, to be confined to the exercise of their spiritual functions only." [Beardsley: Life of Seabury, p.73.] This was all very well, but who was to guarantee that the bishops, if they came, would take the same view of the case? And if they should take a different view, what, upon the Tory theory of the political status, was to hinder them from carrying it out to the discomfiture of dissenters? The Episcopal advocates themselves let out unconsciously that the bishop they had in mind was not just the meek and apostolic creature described. Every scheme proposed began with a "sufficient provision for his dignified maintenance." The power which he would be to allay political disaffection, is constantly dwelt upon in the letters of the Venerable Society's missionaries. [Perry: Historical Collections, passim.] "The King is thoroughly sensible that the Episcopalians are his best friends." [Abbey: English Church and Bishops, vol. i. p. 364.] The clergy here were careful to sustain this conviction of the King. The people generally knew this to be the case. They feared, and under the circumstances had reason to fear, the consequences which might flow from allowing the Church to set up her powerful machinery here in its entirety. This apprehension was not confined to dissenters or even Church laymen. In 1771, only twelve out of the one hundred clergy in Virginia joined in a petition to the Crown for an American bishop. A larger convention than the one which adopted the measure rejected it, and four of them sent their protest against it to the Virginia House of Burgesses,--almost all of which were Churchmen,--and received the formal thanks of the House for their patriotic action. [White: Memoirs, p. 76.] Few clergy indeed sympathized with these four, but the significant thing is that there were any such.

The truth would seem to be, that in the face of the dissenting opposition, the support which the opposition received from the dissenters and the colonial agents in England, the indifference of the American laity, the apathy of the English clergy, and the impotence of the bishops who moved in the matter, there was no time, from the opening of the eighteenth century till the close of the Revolution, when it would have been possible to have a bishop consecrated for America. [White: Memoirs, p. 75.]

This was the judgment to which the clergy themselves reluctantly came. [Smith: Life of Dr. Smith, vol. i. p. 387.] Some among them despaired entirely. Some began to turn their thoughts elsewhere--to the Swedish or Moravian Church. Not a few of the clergy in the Middle and Southern colonies entertained the idea of an "Independent Episcopal Church." Dr. Smith wrote to the Bishop of London in 1776, "The rest are a mixed sort, chiefly for an Independent Church of England--a strange sort of church indeed! But the notion gains too much ground here even among the clergy. I believe your lordship will perceive something of this sort not altogether pleasing if the resolves of a majority of the last Jersey Convention come before you, against commissaries, and preferring thereto a kind of presbyterian or synodical self-delegated government by conventions." [Smith: Life of Dr. Smith, vol. i. p. 401. Perry: Historical Collections, vol. Pa. p. 414.] This idea was developed by Dr. White of Philadelphia, in 1782, in his celebrated pamphlet, "The Case of the Episcopal Churches Considered." [White: Memoirs, p. 99.] Dr. White did not speak for himself alone, by any means, when he proposed his plan. His scheme assumed that the hope of obtaining the Episcopate from England had been demonstrated to be impossible, and had been abandoned. In that case there seemed to him to remain but the alternatives of permanent anarchy, or such an organization as could be made out of the materials present. He proposed that (a) the clergy and lay delegates from the parishes, in definite districts to be defined, should combine in an organization which might be called a Diocese or a Synod or what not; (b) that these organizations should, at the outset, record their attachment to Episcopacy, and their determination to secure it when God should open the way thereto; (c) that, meanwhile, the Church should proceed in presbyterial fashion, inasmuch as the Church contemplated would only possess presbyters. He justified his proposal by the plea of imperious necessity; and by the fact that the Church of England had never denied the validity of non-Episcopal orders, and had recognized them under a less exigent need. [White: Memoirs, p. 101, note.]

The popular judgment concerning the matter was fairly stated by Benjamin Franklin, who expressed his amazement that devout and learned men who were fully qualified to instruct and pray for their neighbors should hesitate to do so without taking the pains to cross the sea for the purpose of securing "the permission of a cross old gentleman at Canterbury." [McMaster: History of the United States, vol. i. p. 232.]

But whatever might be the theories held as to the succedaneums proposed, the fact was patent that the question of the Episcopate was involved in the deeper question of the legal position of the colonies, and that that question could only be decided by the stern arbitrament of the sword.

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