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 Second. The Protestant Episcopal Church in the United States.

Chapter I. Gathering up the Fragments

The confusion; treatment of the Tories; popular opinion about the Church; three motives in reorganization; the Southern attempt; the Church named; organization in Maryland and Virginia; relation of Church and State settled.

When the verdict of the trial by war was reached and the independence of the Colonies recognized by treaty, the English Church in America ceased to exist. As a Church which was content to regard itself as a department of the English state, it could have no being where that state was not. Its fragments lay scattered from Portsmouth to Savannah. The ligature which had fastened these parishes together and tied them to the see of London was now cut, and they fell asunder like so many beads when the string is broken. They had all been wasted by war, and many had perished during the last ten years from sheer neglect. Their members, being generally loyalists, had been proscribed during the conflict, and were now under a political and social ban. They had hoped that England would guarantee their rights in the stipulations of the treaty. They found to their horror that she had abandoned them in the most cold-blooded manner. [McMaster: History of the United States, vol. i. p. 109.] They had been robbed, outraged, their property confiscated, and their persons roughly handled, and now they not only found that they had no redress, but that they were again confronted with a new peril. During the war the colonists' hands had been full with the foreign enemy. Now that he had withdrawn, they proposed to make a finish of the wretches who had given him aid and comfort. General Greene, Hamilton, Jay, Patrick Henry, Gadsden, and Marion championed their cause in vain. [Sabine: Loyalists, vol. i. p. 89.] In spite of their arguments that it would be unjust and impolitic now to proscribe men for opinions which twenty years ago had been held by everybody, [General Greene.] the passions of the populace ran so high that they set about deliberately to extirpate the hated Tories. They were denounced as monsters who had put themselves beyond the pale of mercy or even justice. Then set in a period of personal violence, social persecution, and legal repression, which is not a pleasant page in American history. [McMaster: vol. i. pp. 109­130.] The leading patriots, men who had given their best counsel and their best blood for the American cause, tried in vain to stem the tide. They were themselves swept under by it, and some of them well-nigh ruined. Some of the Tories indeed had no right to hope for anything. The score against them for their deeds in the troubled times was so long and ugly that all who bore the same party name with them were taxed to pay it. Many abandoned everything and fled from the storm. They embarked in the British men-of-war and were carried back to England. Numbers moved to Florida and the Spanish possessions. [McMaster: History of the United States, vol. i. p. 111.] Still more went to Nova Scotia and the Bermudas. In this final emigration the weakened Church was still further depleted. It was left without reputation, without money, without men. The hostility to it as a Church, however, subsided. The fear and hatred with which it had been so long regarded as a possible source of political danger, disappeared almost at once upon the achievement of independence. [Beardsley: Life of Seabury, pp. 91, 93.] As a religious sect, it was conceived to be practically defunct. It was regarded as a "piece of heavy baggage which the British had left behind them when they evacuated New York and Boston." [An expression of Bishop Williams, of Connecticut.]

Now, what shall be done with the thrice broken fragments of the Colonial Church of England? What hands shall gather them up and put them together? Upon what principles shall the new Church to be formed from them be organized?

The first sign of movement among the broken members of the body showed itself in Maryland. There had always been a marked difference in temper, habits, and mode of life, among the Eastern, Middle, and Southern colonies. This difference was even more plainly marked in ecclesiastical things. It became most significant in the reconstruction period now before us. In each section a different motive and purpose dominated the men who set about to rebuild the Church.

In Virginia and Maryland the uppermost thought was to save the endowments of which the Church of England had stood possessed before the war. To rescue and hold these, an organization must be created which could have a standing before the law in the new government.

In New England the dominant purpose was to save the Church's ideal; to guarantee its apostolic order; to establish in its completeness that primitive doctrine and discipline for the sake of which many of its clergy had come out of Presbyterianism at great cost.

In the Middle colonies the leaders set clearly before themselves the task to organize a National Church, an Episcopal foundation which would be to all its members what the federal government then in process of construction would be to its citizens. Of the three ideas Dr. Smith of Maryland, Dr. Seabury of Connecticut, and Dr. White of Pennsylvania, became the several champions. The first failed, partly through the faults of its leader, and still more because the thing aimed at was impracticable: the other two succeeded, and the combination of their plans produced the Church substantially as it has continued to be.

The question which first pressed in Virginia and Maryland was a practical one. Who now should administer upon the Colonial Church's estate? The property was a valuable one. It consisted not only of churches, glebes, parsonages, and landed endowments, but also of the right to the proceeds of taxation for religious objects. Who was its owner? It was contended on the one hand that the property had been created by the state; that the state, while the state was England, had only held the property in trust for the public religious weal; that a new state was now substituted for the old one; that the new one was seized of all the power and right in the premises which the old one had possessed. But it was agreed on all hands that in the new state there should be no religious establishment. What, then, should it do with the Church property which it found on its hands? Should it resume it and secularize it?--retain it as a trust for the benefit of all religious denominations?--turn it over in fee simple to the representatives of the Colonial Episcopal Church? If the latter, who was its representative? The Bishop of London?--that was absurd on the face of it. The various parishes?--they were not independent legal corporations, but only subdivisions of an empire which was now extinct. In any case the question of how to dispose of the proceeds of taxation would still remain.

The Churchmen's feeling was that the property was theirs absolutely; they would not agree that the state had simply held it in trust for them; they insisted that it had been a gift outright. But the practical difficulty could not be evaded. There was no organized Church on the ground which could take it over, even if it were offered. Maryland had indeed, after the Declaration of Independence, secured to the Church of England all the glebes, churches, chapels, and other property owned by her," [Hawks: Ecclesiastical Contributions, vol. Md. p. 288.] but the question now was, who represents the Church of England? [Hawks: Ecclesiastical Contributions, vol. Va. p. 224 et seq.]

One of the most sagacious men of his age, the Rev. Dr. William Smith, previously rector of the Philadelphia College, and now President of Washington College, lived in Maryland. He foresaw, while the war was raging, that this question would have to be met, and that upon its right answer would depend the Church's temporal fortunes in that State. In 1780 he called a conference of clergy and laymen to consider the matter. His purpose was to organize the disjecta membra into a body corporate which could have a local habitation and a name. He gave it the name himself. [Smith: Life of Dr. William Smith, vol. ii. p. 39. Cf. Perry: History, vol. ii. p. 5.] He called it the "Protestant Episcopal Church." This name, which still obtains, does not seem to have been the result of any special thought or deliberation, but was adopted unconsciously as the title which best expressed the fact. They could not have called it "the Church" in any exclusive sense, for their intention was to approach the Legislature which had just declared that it was not the Church in that sense. They could not call it "the American Church," for there was no American Church. To call it "the Catholic Church" would have been in the face of a common usage which had already given that title to another body. But, in common with all the Churchmen of their time, they assumed that they were Protestant;--Episcopacy was their differentiate. They combined the two facts and gave the Church its present name.

The result of the conference was to recommend that the action already taken by the State, allowing each denomination to receive the benefits accruing from taxation, should be accepted; and that, in addition, the Protestant Episcopal parishes should be allowed "to lay rates on pews," or otherwise to increase their revenuer. [Smith: Life, vol. ii. p. 93.]

This was while the war still dragged its length along, and the Legislature took no action upon their recommendation. When peace had come, Dr. Smith induced Governor Paca, his old pupil at the Philadelphia College, to bring the matter forward in his message. At the same time, in conjunction with another minister, he asked leave to call a formal conference. [Ib. vol. ii. p. 93.] This convention, which met at Annapolis, in 1783, contained eighteen clergymen. It called itself the Protestant Episcopal Church in that State. It declared itself to be the legal and actual successor of the Church of England there; that therefore all glebes, lands, and property belonging to its predecessor now belonged to it by law; that it would be at once its right and its duty to modify the liturgy and customs of the old Church so as to fit the changed political circumstances; that in doing so it must not be thought to destroy its identity; that in order to hold its trusts and discharge its duties it must now proceed forthwith to effect a complete organization; that the prime thing needed for the complete equipment of an Episcopal Church was a bishop. The Rev. Dr. William Smith was elected to fill that office, when, and as soon as, he could procure consecration. Dr. Smith's testimonials of fitness for this office were signed by the eighteen clergy present, and afterward by the few others in the State who were detained away. [Smith: Life of Dr. Wm. Smith, vol. ii. p. 100.]

Virginia, in the process of organization, followed much the same lines. [Hawks: Contributions, col. Va. p. 179, et seq.] In both States the feeling and action were the outcome of their previous habits of Church life. They approached the task upon the side which first presented itself. That was the secular side. Ecclesiastical issues of great importance were bound up with it, but these were not at first so clearly seen as in both the other groups of colonies. But to them fell the weighty task of settling the relation of the Church to the civil power in the new Republic. Before it was finally determined, the Church was shorn of much of her former prerogatives, and lost much property which was equitably hers. But here, as always, the children bore their parents' faults. To disentangle Church and State in the colonies where they had been united for a century and a half, was a task so arduous that it would have been too much to expect it to have been done without errors, and even injustices. But, upon the whole, it was effected with a fair amount of equity.

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