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 II. The New England Plan

New England Churchmanship; distrust of loose views; first Connecticut Convention; political obstacles; choosing a Bishop; the programme; the sentiment in England; English Bishops' reluctance; the Scotch and New England Churches; the Nonjurors; the first Bishop.

In New England the controlling motive was ecclesiastical. The Church Idea had been far better wrought out there than elsewhere. Two influences had been at work for fifty years, to elevate the tone of Churchmanship. The "New England converts," led by President Cutler and recruited constantly by men of a like way of thinking, had all come to the Episcopal Church from strenuous conviction. They had studied her history. They knew her claims. They had forfeited much which they held dear when they transferred their allegiance to her. They had been called upon again and again to give a reason for their faith. No slight reason would suffice. Their challengers were men who knew how to weigh proofs and to test assumptions. They lived among a people who dearly loved an argument. To hold their own they must know clearly what they believed, and why they believed it. This had compelled them to work out the theory of the Church, and to free it from all subordinate considerations. Naturally they became pronounced Churchmen.

In this position they were sustained by the disposition of the Society for the Promotion of the Gospel in Foreign Parts, by which society most of them were supported. The "Venerable Society's" position in this regard had been emphatic from its organization. The New England clergy were agents much to its liking. In the other colonies Episcopacy was often regarded as just a part of the existing order of things. It was accepted without much thought either way. It was as good a mode of Church organization as another, in some points better, but, still, not a thing of life and death value. Its history was venerable; its endowments were valuable; its manners were good; its followers were worthy men; it was a present fact; but its ground and essential reason were not much studied. Beside that, the shocks and disturbances of revolution had brought people into the way of thinking all things capable of change. What institution could have been imagined more unchangeable and established by longer prescription than monarchy? But monarchy had been abandoned as an outworn and useless piece of lumber. Why not Episcopacy also?

The Churchmen of New England were very apprehensive of this latter feeling. What else, they asked, would account for the action of the Burlington Convocation, which entertained the proposition of an Independent Episcopal Church? What but this could explain the pestilent plan which Dr. White had just wrought out in his awful pamphlet? [Beardsley: Seabury, p. 97.] Their own convictions had not been disturbed by the Revolution. Their sympathies had not gone with it. They were Tories. They accepted its results as a providential dispensation which they could not gainsay, but they had no part or lot in its spirit of change. They had never had any endowments to seduce them from the pure, spiritual conception of the Church, or to distract them now from their clear purpose of securing the primitive Faith and Apostolic Order for which they had already suffered.

Their strength was mainly in Connecticut. When the war was over, there were in that State forty Episcopal congregations, fourteen clergy, and a Church population of about forty thousand. [Life of Seabury, n. 137. Beardsley: History of Church in Connecticut, vol. i. p. 346.] Unlike the other States, Connecticut had not fallen foul of the Tories when victory settled on the American side. [Ib., vol. i. p. 353.] They were allowed to repair their broken fortunes unmolested, in whatever way offered, but when they learned what their fellows in New York and Massachusetts were suffering they walked in fear and trembling.

Word was quietly passed about among the clergy to attend a meeting to consider the state of affairs. Ten of the fourteen met at Woodbury, a little straggling village among the hills of Litchfield County. Their meeting was kept a profound secret. [Beardsley: Life of Seabury, p. 78. Beardsley: History of Church in Connecticut, vol. i. p. 346.] They were very doubtful as to how their plans would be regarded by the populace. Ten years before, an attempt to secure the Episcopate would have raised a howl; there was reason to believe that it would be still more strongly resented now that the Presbyterians were in position to formulate their objections in the shape of law. Nor were the clergy sure of their own laymen. These were not taken into council. Those of them who were loyalists were in sufficient peril already. It would require all their circumspection to come out of it unscathed. To exacerbate the situation by a revival of the Episcopate seemed very madness. But the clergy were both courageous and clear-minded. They saw distinctly that the life of the Church was at stake. If anything effective were to be done to secure it, it must be done at once. There was serious risk in what they proposed to do. The temper of the new State towards Episcopacy had not been tested, and, judging by the past, the worst might be looked for. They would therefore not involve the laymen in the project at all; they would proceed at their own proper peril. If they succeeded in building the Church, well and good; if not, they would fail like honest men and conscientious Churchmen. There are no records extant of their proceedings at this conference at Woodbury. No minutes were kept, no roll of the members' names has come down. In truth, it was hardly a convention in any sense. Every man present had had his mind made up, long before, what was to be done. There was only one thing to do, that was to secure a bishop. The meeting was only to determine whom they should select to undertake that duty. It was no question of preferment, nor were there many available men to choose from. Whoever he might be must, of course, be a man whose life and learning would be respectable; but they could all meet that requirement. The difficulty was to find a man who could accept it. It would mean for him, in all probability, personal unpopularity among his neighbors at home, a costly and dangerous voyage over the sea for consecration, infinite labor to meet and overcome the prejudices of the authorities in the English Church, and, in all likelihood, permanent expatriation.

Their choice fell finally upon two men, either of whom would be suitable, but neither of whom was present. They were the Rev. Drs. Jeremiah Learning and Samuel Seabury. They were both in

New York, but belonged in Connecticut by birth and service. Dr. Learning was an old man. He had been rector of the church at Norwalk, but had been driven away, with loss of goods and friends. When he was informed of the action of his Connecticut brethren, he at once declined the office. He was too infirm to bear the voyage, and, at his age, he could not face the probability of making for himself a new home outside of the State. Dr. Seabury accepted. He was a Connecticut man by birth, and was now fifty-four years of age, in the vigor of his life. He was the son of one of the "New England converts" from Puritanism, and, like all that stock, a High Churchman. He had studied medicine at Edinburgh, been ordained in England, had served as a missionary in Long Island and New Jersey. At the beginning of the war he was rector of the parish at Westchester, N. Y. He had been a pronounced and active Tory from the beginning. With his friends Inglis and Chandler, he had conducted a literary bureau advocating the British side of the contest. He was generally believed to have written the biting letters of Wilkins, signed by "A Westchester Farmer." He had published some very "Free Thoughts on the Proceedings of the Congress at Philadelphia." [Beardsley: Life of Seabury, p. 30.] He had been seized by the Continental authorities and imprisoned, had escaped and taken refuge in the British lines on Long Island. While there he had used his topographical knowledge of the surrounding country to make maps for the military operations of his protectors; had been mustered into the British regular service as chaplain of an infantry regiment; and was now, after his retirement, receiving English half-pay. His personal character and devotion in his priestly office were well known to those who chose him bishop, and were, in point of fact, beyond all question. Both ecclesiastically and politically he was in every way grateful to them. He represented their spirit and their situation more fairly than any other man who could have been chosen.

At the time they selected him they outlined the plan of procedure he was to follow. [Ib., p. 104.] He was to go to England and lay before the bishops his credentials, submitting to them the facts which, in the judgment of the Connecticut people, made the appointment of an American bishop an immediate and imperative necessity. He was to leave no stone unturned to secure from them his consecration. In case he should fail of this, he was to go to Scotland and endeavor to secure consecration at the hands of the Nonjuring Episcopal College there. If he should succeed in either place he was to return to Connecticut,--if he would be allowed to do so. Upon this point there was much doubt. The status of the loyalists had not yet been determined. The treaty was still pending. Its terms might ensure restitution for their losses and security for the future, or it might do the opposite. That remained to be seen. Then there was no certainty that all the States would take the same action upon this subject. It might prove to be possible for a Tory bishop to live in one section, and be outlawed in another. In view of these contingencies he was, if consecrated, to return to Connecticut if that course should be open; if that should be closed, then to fix his seat in some other State. If all should be barred against him, then he was to make his habitation across the border in Nova Scotia. There he could be reached by candidates for ordination without the burden of crossing the sea, and from there he could look out and superintend the Church's growth in New England, while he and it would wait for better times. The scheme had the indorsement of Sir Guy Carleton, and Dr. Seabury sailed away to England in the returning flagship of Admiral Digby [Beardsley: Life of Seabury, pp. 95, 96.] to carry it into effect.

Upon his arrival he found the prospect of success very small indeed. The bishops, however they might sympathize with the colonial Church, were chagrined at the defeat of the British power. Lowth, the great Bishop of London, had flatly refused to lay his hands upon any man who was going back to America to preach, [McMaster: History of the United States, vol. i. p. 230.] even though he had been assured that Parliament would not demur at his omitting the oaths. [Abbey: English Church and its Bishops, vol. ii. p. 186.] To the current conception of the nature of the Episcopal office, it seemed even more absurd to give it to the petty States than it would have been to give it to the colonies, where it could at least have had the moral support of the English kingdom. The bishops were stolid, impracticable, hopeless. While they treated Seabury with consideration, and a few of them manifested a curious interest in American affairs, they were incapable of appreciating, as the Americans did, the kind of an Episcopate which was desired. They were concerned about the "dignity" of the office. There was no suitable provision for the proper support [Beardsley: Life of Seabury, p. 111.] of Dr. Seabury, so that he might live in a style which a bishop ought to maintain. The office would fall into contempt. [This idea was slow to disappear. After the middle of the present century, when Bishop Wilberforce had fixed, by his example, the modern standard, an old don complained that--"I remember when a bishop never came into Oxford without a coach and six. But what does Sam do? Just mounts his horse, without even a groom behind him, and rides away to a visitation before breakfast!"] Moreover, their hands were tied. The law required that a bishop, at his consecration, must swear allegiance to the Crown. They shook their heads when it was suggested that the king in council might waive that requirement. That seemed sufficient to a few, but to most it appeared that an Act of Parliament only could give exemption. Beside that, they feared that if they should overcome all difficulties and consecrate an American bishop, it would be construed as an unfriendly act by the new States, who had now taken their place in the family of nations. England had had trouble enough with America; why should they provoke her further? Her opinion had always been pronounced against this action, and the bishops could not see that the ground of the opposition had dropped out when the Church became innocuous on its political side.

In addition to all this, they were by no means satisfied that Connecticut would receive Bishop Seabury if he should be consecrated. If this should turn out to be the case, they would have on their hands a churchless bishop, who would be an awkward personage to dispose of. This last difficulty was met by showing the declaration of all the leading members of the Connecticut Legislature, to the effect that there would be no political objection whatever to receiving the new bishop, but that, on the contrary, there were so many Episcopalians in the State that it would be for the public good to give them a head.

After interminable delay, an Act of Parliament was introduced to allow a dispensation from the oaths, in the case of bishops consecrated for foreign countries. The bishops gave a tardy assent, but the preliminary requirements were endless. When a whole year had passed, Dr. Seabury was at the end of his patience and of his money. He was a poor man. He had been living for a year in London at his own expense, and there seemed to be no more prospect than when he had first come. He therefore turned his back upon England and her impotent, State-bound Church, and went to Scotland.

The influence upon the American Church of Seabury's Scotch connection has been so far-reaching that it is necessary here to suspend the story long enough to trace its origin. In Scotland there were two Episcopal Churches, neither of which recognized the other. [Abbey: English Church and Bishops, vol. ii. pp. 176­187.] At the Revolution of 1688, when the Stuarts were deported, and William of Orange came to the throne, the Episcopalians and Presbyterians in Scotland were not unequally divided. [Grub: Ecclesiastical History of Scotland, vol. iii. p. 316.] William offered the support of the government to the Episcopalians, but they would have nothing to do with him. They declared their unalterable loyalty to the Stuart line. When the bishops to a man, and most of the clergy and people, turned their backs upon his offer, he gave his patronage to the Presbyterians. Presbytery was established, and Episcopacy was proscribed. The bishops and clergy who refused to take William's oath--and hence were called nonjurors--were deprived and their places filled by Presbyterians. Those of the clergy who did take the oath were protected, but placed under the sharp oversight of the Presbyterian General Assembly. Then succeeded a dreadful century for Scotch Episcopalians. Even though it cannot be denied that they had brought the evils on themselves by their factious attachment to the wretched Stuarts, still, their stubborn fixity of purpose in following their twisted consciences must excite admiration. Their marked feature was their Jacobitism. Attachment to their royal line was with them a religious cult. James Stuart was the "anointed of the Lord." After him they turned to poor "Prince Charlie," and took him to their hearts. When Charles Edward, the debauched "Chevalier," died, in 1788, their last idol was broken, but they continued even then to offer a sentimental devotion before an empty throne. In the risings of 1715 and 1745, the Episcopalians were the head and front. After the last, the English government proceeded deliberately to extirpate them as a brood of inveterate treason hatchers. After Culloden, the Duke of Cumberland, by the King's command, burned every chapel in his path. Scotch orders were declared null and void. [This was the ground of the constant complaint made by the Churchmen of Virginia and Maryland, at that date, that the clergy who came ever to them were "Scotchmen."] It was made a penal offence for more than five nonjurors to assemble for worship. They were driven into holes and corners. The well-disposed clergy and men in English orders were introduced as far as possible. These latter were regarded by the nonjurors as intruders, and they in turn called the others traitors. The Scotch Episcopalians were detested equally by Scotch Presbyterians and English Churchmen. It was an open question whether the Churches in the two kingdoms were even in communion. [Grub: Ecclesiastical History of Scotland, vol. iii. p. 370.] Whether they were or not, they certainly were not in sympathy. The Scotch were all Jacobites and all High Churchmen, and in these respects had few in England like them. Two Liturgies had been in use in Scotland for a century and a half. In Edinburgh and the south the English was adopted; but at Aberdeen and the north the Liturgy in use was substantially the first Prayer Book of Edward VI. In its sacramental teaching it was far more emphatic than the English book. After a long and earnest controversy, this Liturgy, in a revised form, was adopted for general use in Scotland in 1764. By that time the repressive laws had been allowed quietly to become relaxed so that the nonjuring remnant, which had its existence mainly about Aberdeen and the Northern Highlands, could meet without molestation.

It was to the bishops of this obscure and broken body that Dr. Seabury turned when he despaired of English consecration. He found in them men of his own spiritual kin. They welcomed him as a man after their own heart. Bishop John Skinner possessed a sort of private chapel, made by throwing together the upper rooms of his modest house in Aberdeen. In that chapel Dr. Seabury was consecrated bishop, November 14, 1784. His consecrators were Robert Kilgour, Arthur Petrie, and John Skinner. They and their Church had a strange similarity to him and his. Both Churches had, through their political situation, been driven to emphasize strongly the divine side of Episcopacy. They both had their homes in the midst of a hostile Presbyterian community. They had each been trained to recognize a king who was hateful to their fellow citizens. The people in both cases had learned to live their religious lives apart from the people among whom they dwelt. They were not readily touched by the spirit of their time and place. Their spirit was, at its best, serene, assured, self-contained. But it had, and has, its besetting sins. The Churchmen of the nonjuring, Seabury type have been often found to be impracticable, narrow, prejudiced, governed in their actions by inherited sentiments rather than by present facts. But they brought to the building of the American Church its clearly defined architecture. This principle was guaranteed, as far as was possible to do, by the Concordat agreed to by Seabury and the Scotch Episcopal College. [Beardsley: Life of Seabury, p. 150.] This secured the principle of national autonomy by the pledge that the American Church would hold no fellowship with the intruding Episcopal organization in Scotland. It insured Catholic doctrine by the pledge that Seabury would use his endeavor to have the Scotch Communion Office given place in the American Liturgy,--a pledge which he was able to redeem.

Thus, after the labors of one hundred and seventy-five years, there was, when Bishop Seabury returned, an Episcopal Church in America.

He became rector of the parish at New London. He called a convocation of the Connecticut clergy, displayed his certificates of consecration, received their pledge of canonical obedience, avowed the principles which would control his work, and began the Church's share in the task of making and keeping a new nation Christian.

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