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 XVIII. A Survey.

Spread of the Church in Connecticut; in New York; in New Jersey and Pennsylvania; in the South; Indian Missions; sources of gain; lack of Clergy; state of Religion; influence of Franklin; coarseness of the age; social distinctions; Services; Architecture; Confirmation; Clerical support.

It is not easy to reproduce a picture of a past time, but it will be of interest to pause here to take a broad view of the condition of the Colonial Church at the period immediately preceding the War of Independence.

It had then extended from the chief towns and settlements on the seaboard, where it had first gained a lodgement, to the new places of the second rank. At the opening of the century it had been found only at such places as Boston, Newport, New York, Philadelphia, Charleston, and on the Virginia coast. Now there were parishes at Falmouth and Casco, besides the old one at Portsmouth; at Salem, Dedham, Marblehead, in Massachusetts; at Bristol, R. I., and New England towns of a similar class. When New Hampshire, with its territorial appendage Vermont, had a Churchman for its governor at the middle of the century, it was determined to endow the Church from its public lands. A half-section in each township in Vermont was set apart for this purpose, but the people from whom the surveyors were taken being hostile, the sections were located in swamps, on mountain tops, and in the bottoms of lakes, so that but little else came of it than came of all similar attempts; that is, the ill will of the people and small gain to the Church. [Caswall: American Church and American Union, p. 73.] In Connecticut alone can it be said that striking success had been achieved. The drift toward the Church of England, which began with the President of Yale College and his colleagues, had steadily spread. The people came in large numbers. [Beardsley: History of the Church in Connecticut, vol. i. passim.] There was to be found there a native-born clergy, of a far higher character and education, and with more intelligent and pronounced views concerning the Church, than was the rule elsewhere. Even after the war, during which the Church had been torn to pieces and hundreds had moved away, there were still to be found twenty clergy and forty thousand Church people in that colony. [Beardsley: Life of Seabury, p. 137.] In it there had never been any of those impotent attempts at legal coercion which the Church essayed elsewhere. There was no bad blood, no memories of legal violence.

There was a fair parish at the Dutch town of Albany, little churches at Rye, Jamaica, Hempstead, and on Staten Island, [Smith: History of New York. Briggs: American Presbyterianism, p. 109.] beside the strong and growing Church in New York. In that province the Episcopalians were reckoned at about one-fifteenth of the population. [Smith: History of New York, p. 218.] Burlington, N. J., was one of the centres of Church life, and the seat of one of the proposed bishoprics. In Pennsylvania missions had pushed as far west as Lancaster, and even Carlisle, with the nucleus of a parish on the Juniata. In the South there had been a distinct retrogression. [Perry: History, vol. ii. pp. 141­143.] Even in faithful old Virginia dissenters were two to one. [Lodge: History of the Colonies, p. 57.] The results of the fatal breach between clergy and people had already appeared there. Religious indifference prevailed everywhere; churches were falling into neglect and ruin; many of the clergy had withdrawn; still more could have done so to advantage; the few faithful men who remained lamented and despaired. [Ib. p. 58.] Further south the condition was scarcely better. There were two churches in Charleston,--an increase of one in eighty years,--and six meeting houses. [Ib. p. 176.] But the clergy of South Carolina were, as a rule, zealous men, and had the great advantage of being able generally to take the side of their people against England. [Ib. p. 176.]

All the parishes from Maine to Georgia belonged to the jurisdiction of the Bishop of London. Except in Virginia and Maryland the clergy were practically all missionaries of the "British Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts."

The conversion of the native Indians, which had been so prominent in the early plans of the Church, had almost entirely failed and been abandoned. In the South, where the promise for this work had once been best, it had gradually died away as negro slavery became more and more firmly established. The low estimate of the intrinsic value of a human being which slavery unconsciously creates, had operated to put an end to missionary work among savages. In the North a struggling mission was still maintained among the Mohawks, [Perry: History, vol. i. p. 333.] but it, too, was soon to be swept away by the imminent war. Speaking broadly, there cannot be said to have been any permanent work of any church effected among the Indians until they had become so surrounded and hemmed in by the white population that their restless savagery was to a degree restrained. The success was earliest and most marked among those tribes which were already partly civilized and fixed in their habitat when the whites first saw them. [Parkman: Discovery of the Great West, p. 275. Liggins: Value and Success of Foreign Missions, p. 157.] At the period before us they had only just laid down the tomahawk and butcher knife, which they had carried for so long at the instigation of the French, and were about to take them up again in the pay of the English. By the colonists they were feared and loathed as monsters compounded of wolf and fiend.

The Church growth was very unequal in different localities. The accession from Quakers in Pennsylvania, which had set in at a very early period, still continued. The reports of the missionaries in the outlying counties constantly record the baptism of these people and their children. The rapid growth in Connecticut has been already noticed. In New York and New Jersey the great gain was from the Dutch. The hereditary enmities which separated other Presbyterians from the Church did not operate among them. There had been differences, of course, but there was no deep-seated rancor on either hand. They deeply sympathized with the Church in one important particular; they also felt bound to cross the sea for ordination. [Gunn: Memoirs of Dr. Livingston, New York, 1829, pp. 92, 93.] When a schism was effected among themselves upon this question, and an "American Dutch Church" was set up, [Ib. p. 94.] many of the dissatisfied on either hand came to the English Church. But the most active cause was the stolid tenacity with which they held on to the Dutch tongue in their public worship, long after their children and youth had ceased to be at home in it. These became restive and came numerously to the Church, where they could hear English spoken. When the elders did bring themselves to give up their Dutch, it was too late; their children had become Episcopalians. [A Mr. Livingston, a member of the Dutch Church, writes in 1770: "Had this been done thirty years ago the Dutch Congregation would have been much more numerous than it is now. The greatest part of the Episcopal Church consists of the accessions they have had from the Dutch Church." And he adds that though Dutch was his own mother tongue, he could not understand a sermon half so well in it as he could in English; and as for his children, "there was not one that understood a sentence in Dutch." Memoirs of Dr. Livingston, p. 108.]

In Philadelphia the Dutch congregation offered to come over in a body if the Bishop of London would ordain their minister.

The Lutheran Coetus in Pennsylvania made the same proposition, and the Swedish Commissary offered to lead the movement, and to conduct the negotiations between the two Churches, in both of which his own ministry was recognized. [Perry: Historical Collections, vol. Pa., pp. 367, 396, 432.] Had there been a bishop resident there is every reason to believe that a permanent coalescence might have been effected between both these bodies and this Church, as could also have been done with the Methodists ten years later.

The constant complaint of the time was that there were not enough clergy to go in and possess the places which offered. Young men thought twice before they ventured upon the dangers of shipwreck and smallpox, as well as the great expense, which were involved in a journey to England for ordination. [Perry: Historical Collections, vol. Pa., p. 434 passim.]

With the meagre means at her hand the Church had done much in the way of education, but at the date before us was being left behind in this race by the other churches. The institutions now known as Columbia College and the University of Pennsylvania had both been established under Church auspices, and in both instances had for their primary object to increase the ministry. [Perry History, vol. i. ch. xxxiii.] They had clergymen for their organizers and first presidents, but as the political issue grew more clearly pronounced they passed more and more out from under Episcopal influence.

The Church life was affected, as it always is, by the prevailing moral habits of the age. Public and private morals never reached so low an ebb in the colonies as they did in the mother country; but still they were low enough. The Deism and its attendant loosening of moral sanctions, which dominated the popular life of England, affected America also. Tom Paine, the most effective writer on the Colonial side of the political issue, gained in that way the popularity which made his cheap and taking infidelity spread among the people. It never ran into that superfluity of naughtiness which forms so strange a chapter in the history of modern England, but rather produced a low standard of righteousness, and a sordid manner of life.

The typical man of his time was Benjamin Franklin. He had been longer known and exercised more influence in every department of life than any other man in America. Upon the moral and religious side this influence was wholly bad. His autobiography showed that the gross offences of his own early life were repented of, not because they had been sinful, but because they had been foolish. They were to be avoided by other young men, not because they were hateful to God and left stains upon the soul, but because they hindered earthly success. The mean and cautious maxims of Poor Richard "passed into the daily speech of the people, were quoted in sermons, were printed on the title pages of pamphlets, and used as matter by the newspaper moralists of the day, and continued to be read with avidity even down to the Revolution." [McMaster: Life of Benjamin Franklin, p. 113.] They contain no high or noble motive. They are all the maxims of a selfish man, and all such as might be kept with ease by an impure man. They tended to dry up the springs of religion. As the thoughts of a man who was rather non-religious than irreligious, they fairly reflect the spirit of a non-religious age. Franklin was the representative man of his generation. Unquestionably great in science, in statesmanship, in diplomacy and affairs, he was utterly incapable of understanding things which the world has always deemed of prime importance. Nominally a Churchman, he poked fun at those who sought the Episcopate. A man of letters, he produced a paraphrase of the Book of Job which he considered to be better English than King James's translation, [see below] and made a Prayer Book [Beardsley: Life of Seabury, p. 243.] which could only be of use to such as had no sense of devotion. But his age was like him, and he had largely made it so, in its lack of spiritual earnestness.


Verse 6. Now there was a day when the sons of God came to present themselves before the Lord, and Satan came also amongst them.

7. And the Lord said unto Satan, Whence comest thou? Then Satan answered the Lord and said, From going to and fro in the earth and from walking up and down in it.

8. And the Lord said unto Satan, Hast thou considered my servant Job, that there is none like him in the earth, a perfect and upright man, one that feareth God and escheweth evil?

9. And Satan answered the Lord and said, Doth Job fear God for naught?



Verse 6. And it being levee day in Heaven, all God's nobility came to court to present themselves before him; and Satan also appeared in the circle, as one of the ministry.

7. And God said unto Satan, You have been some time absent; where were you? And Satan answered, I have been at my country seat, and in different places visiting my friends.

8. And God said, Well, what think you of Lord Job? You see he is my best friend, a perfectly honest man, full of respect for me, and avoiding everything that might offend me.

9. And Satan answered, Does your majesty imagine that his good conduct is the effect of personal attachment and affection? -- McMaster: Benjamin Franklin, p. 87.


It is difficult now to conceive how coarse and cruel life in America was a century ago. "Redemptioners" and apprentices went half clad, slept in garrets, ate cold meat in the kitchen, and were acquainted with the cudgel. The man who was unfortunate enough to owe a few dollars was sent to a gaol so vile that it cannot here be even described. Prisoners for debt and for crime were herded together as regardless of sex as if they had been so many beasts. Even in Connecticut, convicts were confined in an underground cave, reeking with filth, chained by the neck to iron bars. In Massachusetts ten crimes, and in Delaware twenty, were punishable by death. The whole machinery of reform and the administration of charity with which the Church is identified now, was wanting. Soldiers and sailors were flogged half to death for petty offences. The stocks, the pillory, and the whipping post stood in the public square, and their victims were pelted by the rabble. A public hanging would draw a crowd from miles around. Women who had been convicted of larceny were carted down Broadway to the whipping post, and received thirty-nine lashes each. [Lodge: History of English Colonies, p. 324.] The year the Revolutionary War began, two men were burned at the stake at Poughkeepsie, for arson. [Ib. p. 324.] Within thirty years of the same date, men had been burned, hung alive in chains, and broken on the wheel, in New York. [Ib. p. 322.] Education was general among the better classes in the North, but in the South it was neither possessed nor desired. There, but few gentlemen were able to write an intelligent letter, [Ib. p. 75.] and the common people could neither read nor write at all.

Social distinctions were sharply drawn. Rights of precedence were as strenuously insisted upon as at the French Court. The "quality" were clearly marked off from the common folk. In the New England meeting houses it was still the custom to "dignify the congregation." Grave and discreet persons assigned pews to the families according to their standing and position. While this was not done formally in the parishes of the Church of England, it still was substantially. In point of fact, the Church was confined to the aristocracy either of education or of position. In New England it was the former, in the other colonies the latter. [Perry: History, vol. i. p. 446.] It contained the frequenters of the provincial governor's mimic court, the county families in Virginia and Maryland, the collectors of the ports, the great merchants, the judges and lawyers, the refined, cultivated, and fashionable.

The church buildings--where they possessed any architectural style at all--were of the petty elaborateness of Sir Christopher Wren. Himself the son of a clergyman and the grandson of a bishop, he had set his mark upon church architecture, which it retained in America long after it had been outgrown in England. In a collected group of his English parish churches, one can see whence came the New England meeting house and the colonial church. [Geo. C. Mason, architect: in Lippincott's Magazine, Nov. 1885.]

The services were what would now be deemed intolerably bare, cold, and lifeless. The surplice was rarely used. There were probably not above a score in America. The "gown and bands" was the usual vestment. The "clerk," from his stall below the reading desk, made the responses, and announced the hymns, [Ayres: Life of Dr. Muhlenberg, pp. 46, 47.] with the formula "Let us sing to the praise and glory of God." The congregation sat while singing; [White: Memoirs, p. 39.] when the custom of standing was introduced in 1814, it was considered a portentous ritual innovation, requiring action by the House of Bishops. [Perry: Half-Century of Legislation, p. 434.] At the Prayers it was not the custom for any but communicants to kneel, [Ayres: Life of Dr. Muhlenberg, p. 25.] the others sitting in a respectful attitude. The Holy Communion was celebrated quarterly, or, in a very few places, monthly; and the proportion of communicants to the congregation was very small.

Confirmation, of course, could not be had, and the nature and purpose of the rite had well-nigh been forgotten. Bishop White was never confirmed at all, [Dr. Muhlenberg says: "We recollect distinctly Bishop White telling us that he had never been confirmed, and his adding, moreover, that the English bishops were not in the practice of confirming those who came over from this country for ordination." Ayres: Life of Dr. Muhlenberg, p. 50.] and it is doubtful if Bishop Seabury was. [Dr. Beardsley, whose opinion must always carry weight, insists strenuously that Bishop Seabury must have been confirmed, because of the stress he always laid upon the rite after he became a bishop himself. This a priori argument, however, hardly overcomes the facts: first, that there is no record of or allusion to his confirmation; and second, that the bishop who ordained him was the most unlikely of all to insist upon a neglected ordinance.

"Thomas of Lincoln is spoken of as a worthy man, but too fond of the company of people of rank, and sadly forgetful of his promises. He squinted terribly, and was very deaf; but his never-failing humor and facetiousness made him an amusing companion. George II delighted in his society, and brought him over, with promises of promotion, from his chaplaincy in Hamburg." Abbey: English Church and its Bishops, vol. ii. p. 75.]

A favorite mode of raising the money to build churches was by lotteries, which were conducted under State control. [Perry: Historical Collections, vol. Pa. pp. 374, 376.] The clergy were never spoken of as "priests," but always as clergymen or ministers, and, if the order was meant to be designated, as Presbyters or Deacons. Their stipends were, for the most part, painfully meagre. Probably there were not more than five which reached one hundred and fifty pounds a year. The minister at Lancaster, Pa., complains that he cannot possibly support himself and family of eleven persons on less than one hundred pounds annually. [Ib. p. 371.] To take away from such ill-paid clergy, in part, at least, their cruel anxiety for the future of their families, a society had been formed in 1769, called, in the longwinded fashion of the time, "The Corporation for the Relief of Widows and Children of Clergymen in the Communion of the Church of England in America." [Perry: History, vol. i. p. 647, where an excellent sketch of this noble charity is given by the late John William Wallace, LL.D.] At the outbreak of the war the society already possessed a fund of nearly fifteen thousand pounds. When the war had ended, this society became the meeting place of the scattered parishes, and the rallying point for the disorganized Church.

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