Part Second. The Protestant Episcopal Church in the United States. Chapter III. The Federal Idea
Colonial school of statesmanship; Rev. Dr. White; the Conference at New Brunswick; fundamental principles; Constitutional Convention; two proposed policies; State and Church Constitutions; laymen in Church Councils; revising the Prayer Book; the "Proposed Book"; Fourth of July Service; anti-dogmatic spirit; Unitarianism; the Episcopate Address to the English Bishops; the Bishops' reply; Bishops chosen.
Philadelphia was the American College of Statesmanship. As the meeting place of the Continental Congress, and, for the most part, the seat of government, it brought together that remarkable group of men who may truthfully be called the builders of the nation. It was the meeting place of Franklin, Washington, Jay, Madison, Jefferson, Hamilton, Randolph, and Morris. These men were at once students and teachers. They differed widely among themselves as to the exact appearance which the new nation would present when established, but upon one thing they all agreed,--America was a nation. She had and must have an independent life of her own. Beside that, they saw clearly that the various sections of the country were so intimately bound together that their interests must be in common. The long-drawn debates through which the Federal Constitution was fashioned, and the popular tumults amidst which it got itself adopted, all ended by fixing upon the public mind the firm conviction which the leading Federalists had held from the beginning, that the nation is one, and must be bound together in a common government.
The Rev. William White, rector of Christ Church, Philadelphia, had spent his whole life in close acquaintance with these statesmen. He approached the problem of the American Church in the same spirit that they did the American State. None of his contemporaries surpassed and few equalled him in sagacity. When the war ended he was thirty-five years old. He was well born, well bred, and well educated, [White: Memoirs, Introduction of Dr. DaCosta, p. liii. Norton: Life of Bishop White, p. 10. Wilson: Life of Bishop White.] both in this country and abroad. In England he vas a friend of Dr. Johnson; had him for his guest at his inn; chatted with him while he watched him at work on his lexicon; supped with him at Kensington; and wrote him when he came back to Philadelphia. [Norton: Life of Bishop White, p. 21.] He was on familiar terms with Goldsmith, visited him, praised his work, and condoled with him that so clever a man should have to harness his genius to a cart to earn his daily bread. [Ib., p. 21.] He was ordained in England; became Assistant, and soon after Rector of Christ Church, Philadelphia; was chosen Chaplain of Congress; and, when the war ended, was next after Franklin, the leading citizen of the State. While Dr. Smith, of Maryland, was engrossed with the small economies of a struggling college, and Dr. Seabury was observing the petty routine of an infantry barracks, Dr. White was unconsciously learning the statecraft which guided the founders of the Protestant Episcopal Church.
He took the first step by calling together a few friends at his own house [White: Memoirs, p. 93.] to talk over the situation. No plan of procedure was proposed, but the men present were found to be of the same mind with him.
In May of 1784, there was a meeting in New Brunswick, N. J., of the managers of the "Society for the Relief of the Widows and Orphans of Clergymen." This society had been organized twenty years before, and at the outbreak of the war had held considerable funds. Its board was made up of members from New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania, acting conjointly. They had had no meeting for more than seven years. Now they came together to reorganize. When their business was transacted, they fell to discussing the general condition of the Church. Some prominent laymen who chanced to be at the same place were called in to assist. During the discussion they learned for the first time [White: Memoirs, p. 8.] of the action which Connecticut had taken. So secretly had the New England people carried forward their project that the Churchmen of the Middle colonies were in ignorance of it, though Dr. Seabury, the bishop-elect, had already been in England for nearly a year! In point of fact, the people of the two sections distrusted each other equally. In the East they feared the "latitudinarianism" of the South; in the South they dreaded the "ecclesiasticism" of the East. Can this difference be a permanent affair of latitude?
The result of the informal discussion at Brunswick was to issue a call for a conference of Churchmen from all the States, to be held at New York, in October of the same year. Delegations came to this meeting from Pennsylvania, New York, New Jersey, Delaware, Maryland, Virginia, and Connecticut. The Connecticut delegation stated at the outset, however, that they were not at liberty to take any formal part in the deliberations while they were awaiting the result of Dr. Seabury's journey to England. The others present proceeded to formulate some general and fundamental principles of organization to be recommended for adoption by the churches in the several States. [The leading mind in formulating these principles was Dr. White. As finally adopted by the united Church, they were substantially the same that he submitted to the first little group of clergy at his own house in Philadelphia. The form in which they were submitted to the States for action was as follows:--
First, That there be a General Convention of the Episcopal Church in the United States of America.
Second, That the Episcopal Church in each State send Deputies to the Convention, consisting of Clergy and Laity.
Third, That associated congregations, in two or more States, may send Deputies jointly.
Fourth, That the said Church shall maintain the doctrines of the Gospel as now held by the Church of England, and shall adhere to the Liturgy of the said Church, as far as shall be consistent with the American Revolution, and the Constitution of the respective States.
Fifth, That in every State where there shall be a Bishop duly consecrated and settled, he shall be considered as a member of the Convention ex officio.
Sixth, That the Clergy and Laity assembled in Convention, shall deliberate in one body, but shall vote separately, and the concurrence of both shall be necessary to give validity to every measure.
Seventh, That no powers be delegated to a general ecclesiastical government, except such as cannot conveniently be exercised by the Clergy and Laity in their respective congregations.] Those principles contemplated: (a) A Federal, Constitutional Church; (b) the several States to be its units; (c) its governing body to include both clergy and laymen; (d) the maintenance of continuity with the Church of England, making such changes in worship and discipline only as the changed political situation might render necessary; (e) to confer no powers upon the general body save such as could not conveniently be exercised by the several local churches. The few clergy in Massachusetts and to the eastward were not present, but held a conference of their own, at which they adopted substantially the same fundamental principles.
The conference had no power to do more than recommend to the churches such principles or actions as seemed to its members desirable. But there was no prince or parliament to summon a council, so this conference ventured to do so. They issued a call summoning the churches in the several States to send delegates to a Constitutional Convention to be held at Philadelphia on St. Michael's Day, September, 1785. New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Delaware, Maryland, Virginia, and South Carolina responded with representatives. Connecticut declined; Massachusetts sent a letter. When the Convention met, two conflicting plans of procedure were confronted. The ecclesiastical idea of New England and the federal idea of the Middle colonies were now face to face. [White: Memoirs, p. 109.]
The former insisted that nothing could be done unless they began the business at the right end. The first thing necessary is to secure bishops; nothing binding can be enacted by the Church until the Church is present; the Church is not present and cannot be until its chief officers are on the ground; anything which such conventions as this may do will be but as the arrangements which children might make in a household while the father is abroad; when he comes he may set them all aside; the bishop is the source of authority; in his absence there is no authority. [White: Memoirs, p. 112. Beardsley: Life of Bishop Seabury, p. 234.]
The other side urged in reply, that if the father has his rights and powers the children also have theirs; in this case the children are quite grown up and capable; their action, within its proper sphere, is legitimate and will be valid. In addition, the practical difficulties in the way of the other scheme were insurmountable. Who could determine what number of clergy or parishes should have the right to choose a bishop? Shall it be the clergy of a State? But by what authority is a political territory made a boundary for the Church's action? What is to hinder any group of half a dozen clergy anywhere to combine and choose a bishop? The outcome would be confusion worse confounded. Half a dozen "bishoprics" might spring up in the same State. And even if they should be confined to a single one for each State, what assurance could be given that they would come into federation? Unless some constitution and law could be agreed upon in advance, only anarchy could be looked for.
Guided by this view, the Convention proceeded to its momentous task without New England. The constitution of the Episcopal Church they then elaborated is a document worthy of profound attention. If the Presbyterians may claim to have produced the spirit and form of the Declaration of Independence, ["The Mecklenburg Declaration," Craighead: Scotch and Irish Seeds, p. 327. Briggs: American Presbyterianism, p. 349.] Churchmen may claim with a better right to have laid down the lines of the National Constitution. The truth is that in both cases a striking coincidence is all. The constitution of the Church in point of time preceded that of the nation. But they were the handiwork of the same men, and the result of the same set of circumstances. Dr. White arid Dr. Smith had been fellow-students in statecraft with those mighty men who built and launched the ship of State. Their opportunity to put their principles in form came when they applied them to the Church's constitution. [It was draughted by Dr. White. White: Memoirs, p. 93.] In its salient features it anticipated that other one which was given to the American people five years later. It contemplated: (a) a national organization; (b) the States to be its component units; (e) its governing body to be composed of two orders, clergy and laity; [Bishop Seabury's contention that the bishops should constitute a still third house disarranged the scheme as it lay in Bishop White's mind. The balance was restored again by merging into one house the first two proposed.] (d) each State to retain in its own hand a sovereign authority, and to conduct its own affairs. On its political side these were its cardinal features. In addition it provided for things ecclesiastical and doctrinal. There was to be: [Journal of Convention of 1785.] (a) a Triennial Convention; (b) bishops when obtained were to be ex-officio members of the convention; (c) persons were to be admitted to Orders upon subscription generally to the Holy Scriptures, and a pledge of canonical obedience to the ecclesiastical authorities; (d) the English Prayer Book was to be the basis of the Liturgy, but to be modified so as to bring it into agreement with the new political arrangements.
The provision in its fundamental law for the admission of the laity into the Church's governing body as an independent estate deserves particular remark. It proposed an arrangement which had not been in operation for fifteen centuries, probably for sixteen. It was a return to the practice of the most primitive period. Those who were under the domination of the ecclesiastical ideas which had been current at least since Constantine's time, like Bishop Seabury and his fellow prelates in England, stumbled at it. It was true that kings and princes had for centuries had a potential voice in causes ecclesiastic, but this had not been in their capacity as laymen, but as "ministers ordained of God." The plan proposed was radically different, and it had no contemporary illustration. The churches then in existence which were organized after the Independent fashion were based upon the theory which they still maintain,--that there is no genuine distinction between priests and laymen. To their view they are both alike, and equally, "kings and priests unto God." In the Presbyterian scheme the elders, who at first glance might be taken for laymen, were not so, but were ordained men. For the scheme proposed by the Church, which has as an organizing principle the doctrine of the Ministry, there was no example extant, and it had no imitators for many a year. It is the key to a proper understanding of the Church's legislation since its adoption. Its radical defect, in the form first proposed, was that it provided no proper place for the intrinsic differences of power and right among the orders of the Ministry. It shut the Episcopate out from its proper place. Bishop Seabury became the champion of his order. Fortunately, in the issue his candid, though determined spirit, together with Dr. White's sagacity and incomparable diplomacy, effected that coalescence of the two views which is the Church's present possession. But before the consummation was reached much was to be done.
The Convention proceeded to the second item of its agenda.
The English Prayer Book had been in use ever since the planting of the colonies. The somewhat superstitious reverence for it, however, which, half a century later, came to regard it as incapable of being changed, did not then generally prevail. Some changes in it were imperative. It was English, and the Church was American. It must either be made catholic, so as to be of universal fitness, or the political portions of it must be made American also. The Convention approached the revision of it with a lightheartedness somewhat startling to those who are familiar with the arduous labors of later years in the same line. The first purpose entertained was to change only its political portions, but, the task being once entered upon, the opportunity to make other desired alterations seemed too good to be thrown away. A committee of one clergyman and one layman from each State represented was appointed to submit to the Convention a schedule of changes deemed desirable. [Convention Journal, 1785.] After three days' work of the committee, they reported the revised book. The Convention spent four days in considering the proposed changes, by which time they had taken action upon all that related to political things. There they rested, and referred the other propositions back to the committee, to be acted upon by them after adjournment. There was a lack of clearness in the instructions, which left the committee in doubt as to whether they were to complete the revision and publish the book, or whether they were to report their work to the next Convention for approval. They acted upon the former opinion, completed their task, and published that edition of the Common Prayer known as the "Proposed Book." The work was done chiefly by Dr. Smith of Maryland and Dr. White of Pennsylvania, having before them the opinions which the other members of the committee had expressed generally before they departed to their far-away homes.
The changes from the English Prayer-Book nay be grouped conveniently into five categories. The examples, by no means exhaustive, here set forth under each, will give a conception of the "Proposed Book's" peculiarities.
(1) Political:--Prayers for the king's majesty, for the princes, royal family, and for the High Court of Parliament, were stricken out, and in their stead were placed the prayers for the President and for the Congress.
The observation of the 5th November, the 30th January, the 29th May, and the 25th October was omitted, and instead thereof a service was inserted for the 4th July, "being the Anniversary of Independence."
(2) Changes in the Interest of Taste:--Such as, "didst humble thyself to be born of a virgin," for "didst not abhor the virgin's womb;" omitting the plain-spoken and objectionable statement of the purpose of matrimony from the exhortation in the Marriage Service; omitting the "Commination, or denouncing of God's anger and judgment against sinners"; numerous verbal changes of phrases which were deemed inept or inelegant.
(3) Anti-Sacerdotal Changes:--For example, substituting "A Declaration to be made by the Minister concerning the Forgiveness of Sins," for "The Absolution or Remission of Sins to be pronounced by the Priest"; omitting the sign of the cross in Baptism; omitting the phrase "regenerate" in the post-baptismal exhortation; changing in the Catechism the definition of the effect of Baptism from "made a member of Christ, a child of God, and an inheritor of the Kingdom of Heaven," to "made a member of the Christian Church"; omitting "unbaptized" from the limitations of use in the Burial Service. [The animus of the changes under this head is evident from the fact that the book was long afterward reprinted for use by the followers of Bishop Cummins.]
(4) Changes in the Interest of Liberty:--The selections of Psalms to be used to be left to the discretion of the Minister; and likewise the Scripture Lessons.
(5) Dogmatic Changes:--The Athanasian and the Nicene Creeds were omitted; the "descent into hell" was left out of the Apostles' Creed; the Gloria Patri was omitted after the versicles, after each separate psalm, and generally its use reduced to a minimum; the phrase "damnation" in the Communion Warning was altered into "condemnation"; the words "as our hope is this our brother doth," were dropped from the Burial Service,--and the like.
Two of the categories deserve special consideration. The Introduction of the Office for the Fourth of July was a source of much uneasiness. The large majority of the clergy and people were Tories. It was asking a good deal to expect them to adopt the frame of thankfulness which the service postulates. It was much as though the Confederate States' Churchmen, after the Civil War, should have been required to return thanks for the surrender at Appomattox. It was introduced against the strenuous opposition of Dr. White and such unquestionable patriots as he. [White: Memoirs, p. 117.] But, as is so likely to be the case, the class of men whom General Grant graphically described as those "who did not get warmed up until the fight was over," prevailed to have it introduced, and the Tory members of the Convention allowed it to pass in silence. In after years it might well have found a place among the Offices, but at the time it could but be a stumbling block. When adopted, Dr. White, who had striven against it, was almost the only man who used it. [Ib., p. 119.] Only in two or three places outside of Philadelphia was it ever heard.
The other list is that of dogmatic changes. A glance at them will show that the revisers either doubted the truth or questioned the form of statement of certain doctrines which were and are generally held to be of prime importance. Foremost among them is the dogma of the Trinity. Their treatment of it leads to the inquiry whether they were at all, and, if so, to what extent, under the influence of the Unitarian movement then beginning to attract attention in America?
As has been pointed out, the Deistical infidelity so rife in England and so prolific of evil in the English life of the eighteenth century, never reached the same extent in this country, but yet it made itself felt. About 1760 the negative Deism began to take on the positive form of what has since been called Unitarianism, under the lead of Lardner and Priestly. [Abbey: English Church and Bishops, vol. ii. p. 129.] In the colonies it retained its negative form, and in that shape spread widely. The scepticism of Hume and Gibbon dominated many educated men. It was especially prevalent in the Middle and Southern colonies. [Sabine: Loyalists, vol. i. p. 141.] In Boston and its neighborhood it put on the dogmatic dress of Unitarianism. In that shape it came sharply in contact with the Church. The minister in charge of King's Chapel, Mr. Freeman, a man who had not yet been ordained in any wise, was a pronounced Unitarian. The majority of the congregation agreed with him. They found the English Prayer Book unsuited to their use, and revised it so as to eliminate the doctrine of the Trinity. King's Chapel still called itself a parish of the Episcopal Church. When Bishop Seabury returned with his office, he was asked to ordain Freeman. He emphatically declined. Bishop Provoost of New York was afterwards solicited to do the same. He neither complied nor refused, but referred the matter to the Convention for advice and consent. The advice was adverse. [History of Unitarianism: fourth edition, Boston, 1815, p. 13.] But the King's Chapel people declared that they were justified in hoping that Bishop Provoost would comply, on account of what they knew to be his own sentiment as well as that of some of his brethren in Pennsylvania and the South. [Ib., p. 13.] They said that he had proposed in the Convention at Philadelphia to omit the Invocations to the Son, the Holy Ghost, and the Trinity, from the Litany. [Rev. Dr. DaCosta, in editing the memoirs of Bishop White, flatly denies the truth of this statement, and refers to Wilson's Life of Bishop White for its refutation (p. 325). The correspondence of Bishop White there printed does not seem to furnish the refutation. The categorical assertion of Mr. Belsham appears, in the absence of both evidence and probability to the contrary, to be correct.] Such a proposition had been made in the Convention [White: Memoirs, p. 116.] by another person, and there is reason to believe that it expressed a prevalent feeling, not in favor of Unitarianism, but against the attempt to dogmatize upon the great mysteries of religion. [Bishop White says: "I am no friend to these metaphysical distinctions which have perplexed the present subject and discredited Divine truth." Wilson: Life of Bishop White, p. 325.] This seems to be the key to the final action of the Church in both directions. They cast out the Athanasian Creed, not because they disbelieved it, but because they disliked it as an impotent attempt to state what cannot be stated. On the other hand, they would not ordain Mr. Freeman even to retain the King's Chapel congregation, because they equally disliked the dogmatic spirit of Unitarianism. This seeming lack of certitude, want of definiteness in doctrine, this repugnance to nice definitions, was altogether distasteful to the New England Church. [Bishop Seabury's Second Charge. Beardsley: Life of Seabury, p. 267. Perry: Hist., vol. ii. p. 119.] For this, in some places, as well as for the very opposite reason in others, the Proposed Book was received by the Church generally with scant favor. The best proof of this was that it would not sell. [Beardsley: Seabury, p. 309.] Even when Dr. White had packages of them sent North and South, and advertised assiduously, they still stood on the booksellers' shelves. New England would not touch it. New Jersey flatly rejected it. Maryland wanted the Nicene Creed put back, and South Carolina wanted still more left out. Pennsylvania and Virginia proposed still further amendments. The parishes generally kept on using the English Book, to which they were accustomed, the officiating minister making such changes as he found necessary.
Having formulated a Constitution and taken the action which they believed would settle a Liturgy, the Convocation proceeded to consider the Episcopate. In this also, their purpose of a National Church controlled. They had no mind to send one of their number abroad for consecration, as Bishop Seabury had gone, accredited only by a little group of unknown clergymen. Whoever went should go with a backing and authority which would compel a speedy answer for or against their request. Indeed the leaders among them had determined not to go at all without an assurance in advance that they would gain their object. [White: Memoirs, p. 139. "They who went had all along made up their minds not to go until the way should be opened by previous negotiation."] To secure this they drew up an Address to the Archbishops and Bishops of England. In it they set forth the situation in which the Episcopal Churches had been left by the result of the War for Independence; acknowledge the benefits they had received from the Mother Church in former days; declare their intention not to approach the English State in any wise; and ask the Bishops purely in their spiritual capacity to consecrate such fit men as the Convention representing the American Episcopal Church may send. They intimate plainly that if any legal obstacles should be in the way of the Bishops acting in the matter, it must be their own concern to have them removed.
With the Address were sent certificates from the Executives of New York, Pennsylvania, Maryland, and Virginia, to the effect that there was no political obstacle on this side of the ocean, and that the Church, when its organization should have been completed by bishops, would be allowed entire liberty to live unmolested. [White: Memoirs, p. 22.] The whole was intrusted to John Adams, the American ambassador in England. Though anything but a Churchman himself, he performed the duty required of him with interest and zeal. ["There is no part of my life on which I look back with more satisfaction than the part I took, bold, daring, and hazardous as it was to me and mine, in the introduction of Episcopacy in America."--John Adams, in Letter to Bishop White. Wilson: Life of Bishop White, p. 325.] He laid the Address and accompanying certificates before the Archbishop in such a way as to secure immediate and practical attention.
Meanwhile the Convention adjourned to wait a reply. When it came it was not very satisfactory. Upon the general question, the Bishops answered, that they were ready and Willing to consecrate, but that there were some things which needed to first be cleared up. Queer stories had come to them about this Philadelphia Convention. It was reported that they had thrown overboard all the Church's Creeds, or, at least, had reduced them to a point where they could hardly be seen; that they had torn the Prayer Book all to shreds; that they had adopted a Constitution which gave laymen an unheard-of power in the Church, even to the extent of making it possible for them to pass judgment on bishops; while to the bishops themselves no real power was given. These matters needed explanation. Until further information should be received they could take no action. If a satisfactory explanation could be given, or if the obnoxious arrangements should be modified, they stood ready to consecrate.
Upon receipt of this reply the Convention was hastily summoned to meet at Wilmington in October, 1786. The meeting was short and effective. They prepared an answer, saying that the Bishops had misapprehended the position given to the laity in the new Constitution; that the Nicene Creed and the Apostles' Creed, unmutilated, would be retained; that the English Prayer Book should remain as the standard until it should be replaced by a National Convention with unquestioned power.
Then they called the roll of States to know if any had chosen men for bishops. New York responded with the name of Dr. Provoost; Pennsylvania with that of Dr. White; Virginia with Dr. Griffith.
Maryland had chosen the celebrated Dr. Smith three years before. Distinguished above all the clergy of his time, a statesman, a theologian, a man of affairs, a Doctor of Divinity of Dublin and Aberdeen, the leader in the Southern Church, and the oft-chosen President of the Convention, he had grave defects of character, which led the Convention to pass him by in silence. [Smith: Life of Dr. Smith, vol. ii. pp. 450466.] His political career had been open to serious criticism. He had an uncertain temper. He had determined enemies. His personal habits exposed him to criticism, even in a bibulous age.
Dr. Griffith found himself to be too poor to make the journey to England, and the Church in Virginia failed to provide him with the means to pay his expenses. [Convention Journal of Va., 1787, May 19.]
Drs. White and Provoost went their way to London, and were consecrated bishops in Lambeth Chapel, February 4, 1787. The next day they turned their faces homeward, and entered New York Harbor Easter Sunday, 1787, while the bells of Trinity were calling the people to church.