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 IV. The Two Episcopacies

Two Episcopal Churches; obstacles to union; plans to perpetuate the separation; striving for union; Dr. Parker's scheme; Convention of 1789; Bishop White and the English succession; adjusting difficulties; Bishop Seabury's Toryism; adopting a Liturgy; modifying the Constitution; consolidation.

When Dr. Provoost returned to his work in Trinity Church, New York, and Dr. White to Christ Church, Philadelphia, commissioned to do the office and work of bishops, their presence completed the organization of a second Episcopal Church in America. Bishop Seabury had been at work in Connecticut for eighteen months. Rhode Island had placed herself under his ecclesiastical jurisdiction. Massachusetts and New Hampshire had asked for his episcopal oversight.

Thus the New England Church had been built up around the ecclesiastical idea which animated the ten clergymen at Woodbury. The Federal idea had prevailed in the other States, but had stopped in its eastward progress at the Housatonic. Can the two Churches, so diverse in sentiment, traditions, and ideals, ever coalesce? The future of American Episcopacy is involved in the issue. Union seemed to be impossible. Their principles were antagonistic in essentials, and, what is far more potent in affecting action, their passions were deeply moved. In the East they were Tories; in the South they were Whigs. It was a time when political feeling was running higher than it has ever since done, with the single exception of the period immediately preceding the Civil War. [McMaster: History of the United States, vol. i. p.128.] A band of well-known gentlemen of position and standing had just vowed to murder Alexander Hamilton for only demanding common humanity in the treatment of Tories. [Morse: Life of Hamilton, vol. i. p. 149.] The laymen in the South could not forget that Bishop Seabury had been a British partisan, a British chaplain, and that his name was still borne on the rolls of the British army, in which he was yet receiving the pay of a retired officer,--a place which he kept till the day of his death. [Perry: History, vol. ii. p. 120. Norton: Life of Bishop Provoost, p. 134.] Bishop Provoost entertained against him an implacable hostility, which he took no pains to conceal. He introduced into the convention of 1786 a resolution declaring Seabury's bishopric invalid, [White: Memoirs, p. 161.] in which he expressed the general sentiment of the New York clergy.

The New England people, on their part, were distrustful of the whole spirit of the Federal Church. They did not believe its leaders to be sound in the faith; and were sure of their unsoundness in Churchmanship. The place given to laymen in the Church's government by the new constitution seemed to them a subversion of ecclesiastical order and Catholic custom. The proposed Prayer Book was abhorrent to them. It was a monstrosity. It emptied the Sacraments of all meaning, overturned ancient and venerable use, and trampled upon traditions. In doctrine the antagonism seemed to be still greater. The Convention had ruthlessly thrown out the two chief symbols of the Faith, and mutilated the third. To be sure, they had restored the Nicene Creed, but the motive under which they replaced it was, if possible, worse than the one which had led to its omission. The Convention, in their view, were so unmindful of the awful prescription of the Creed that they were ready to strike it out for a caprice, and to restore it to gain the end they sought in England. What reason was there to believe that such Churchmen would ever become comfortable yokefellows with the sons of the New England converts, and the spiritual brethren of the Nonjurors? A federated Episcopacy was an idle and dangerous dream.

So convinced were the Connecticut clergy of this, and so angered were they by the tone of their neighbors, that they set about to complete their own structure and make it permanently independent. They had one bishop; to be completely equipped, they would need two more. The ancient and wise custom of assuring against hasty consecration by requiring at least three bishops to join in every such act was recognized by both churches. The Connecticut clergy chose Dr. Jarvis to go to Scotland to the Nonjurors, as Dr. Seabury had done. [Perry: History, vol. ii. p. 77.] This would provide two. For the third they moved the clergy of Massachusetts to choose Dr. Parker of Boston, who, if chosen, might pursue the same course. In that event a New England hierarchy would be established in affiliation with the Scotch Church. Its high Churchmanship and its soundness in the traditional faith would be guaranteed in advance. Fortunately the scheme failed, and America was spared the pragmatic Church which would thus have risen. Closely related as it would have been with the impracticable Nonjurors, and out of sympathy with the political movement of American life, it would have survived as a standing warning against Episcopacy. But the danger of such an attempt being made was very real. Through Bishops Seabury and White it was averted. Seabury's clear grasp of the nature of the Episcopal office led him to see that the solidarity of the Episcopate in a national Church must be maintained. Other bishops were now present in America, and, let the estrangement from them and theirs be what it might, the fact must be recognized. He was quite alive to the political dislike in which he and his were held. He was still more alive to the laxity of the Federal Convention in doctrine and discipline; but he also saw the imperative need of union. Putting aside all personal considerations, he wrote to the newly made bishops a letter of greeting and Godspeed. He offered them his brotherly hand. He assured them of his sympathy in their hope for a united Church; that he would work with them to that end; that he would be glad to meet with them as bishops at any time and place to consult of the matter; and invited them to be present at the Convocation to meet at Stamford in the coming Whitsuntide. Up to this time his difficulty had been that there was no power in the Federal Church with which he could negotiate. Now there was: and to this power he offered his memorandum. Bishop Provoost could hardly bring himself even to make a courteous reply to the proffer of the Tory ex-chaplain. But Bishop White was quick to seize such an opportunity to further the federation. He replied that union was the prime object in his mind, as it had always been; that if the changes in the Prayer Book were the obstacle, he himself would be the first man to have them modified; but, he states frankly, if the Connecticut people insist that the constitution be changed so as to lodge all power in the Episcopate, and to dislodge the lay order from practical share in Church government, then negotiation will be hopeless; in that case the most which could be hoped for would be that the Scotch-American and English-American Churches might live side by side as friendly neighbors. [Bishop White's letter, quoted by Perry: History, vol. ii. p. 80.] This letter seems to mark the lowest point of Bishop White's hopefulness. What with Bishop Provoost's savage Whiggery, the Virginia laymen's partisan feeling, and the quiet reluctance of the Connecticut clergy, the task seemed hopeless.

As the Eastern clergy had sought for Dr. Parker of Boston to fill up the nonjuring triad, so Bishop White now sought for him to complete the English complement. Dr. Griffith was still detained in Virginia by his poverty. Dr. Smith of Maryland, the other bishop-elect, was not improving either in temper or reputation, and, in any case, a quiet determination not to accept him is evident at every point. [Perry: History, vol. ii. p. 79.] So he also sought the Boston rector for the third, partly on account of his high character, and partly as a strategic move to detach from Connecticut the State which was likely to be her first ally.

But the astute Parker had a project of his own. He had no notion of going for consecration to either London or Aberdeen; indeed, he did not want the office at all. But he did want the unity of the Church. To effect this he cooked a plan which put all the bishops in a corner. Through his management the few clergy in Massachusetts and New Hampshire, who had no great need or any wish for a bishop, decided to choose Dr. Bass of Newburyport for that office, and to send a formal request to all three Bishops now in the States to unite in his consecration. This, he thought, they could not, with any face, refuse to do. But if they should do it, then mutual recognition and practical unity would be an accomplished fact. Organic unity would come as a result.

While the situation stood thus the time came for the Convention to meet at Philadelphia in July, 1789. The presentation of the request of the Massachusetts people for the consecration of Dr. Bass brought up the whole question of the relation of the Churches. Could Connecticut and the Federal Bishops unite in this act? If not, why not? The issue was now, thanks to Dr. Parker, squarely before the Church, and must be disposed of. Bishop Seabury, though not present, was known to be willing to act. It was not thought that Bishop Provoost, also absent, would stand out against any agreement which might be reached. But the difficulty now was with Bishop White. [White Memoirs, p. 28.] He would be only too glad, personally, to join in the consecration, but he felt that a tacit promise had been given to the English Bishops that no such action would be taken in this country till the full complement of three in their line should be present. It was true that no such explicit promise had been given, but then the Act of Parliament under which he and Provoost had been consecrated provided for three bishops, and it had only been through the accident of Dr. Griffith's detention that this had not been done. Besides this, and still more weighty, was the fact that the Scotch nonjuring Church, from which Seabury derived his Episcopate, was not recognized by the English Church. [White: Memoirs, p. 163. Grub: Ecclesiastical History of Scotland, vol. iii. p. 370.] Bishop White questioned whether two bishops of that line here ought to venture officially to do what the whole English Church would not do at home.

The result of the deliberation was the adoption of a set of resolutions, which, it was believed, would harmonize all conflicting interests. They are a model of Christian temper and sagacity.

The first resolution declares it to be the sense of the Convention that there subsists now in the United States "a complete order of bishops, derived as well under the English as the Scots line of Episcopacy." [White: Memoirs, p. 396.] This recognized the validity of Dr. Seabury's consecration in the independent judgment of the American Episcopal Church.

The second expands the first, and applies it:--these three Bishops have all the power which belongs to the office in respect of discipline, limited only by such canons as the entire Church may fix.

The third declares that these powers should be exercised in the interest of the Church in any State which may need and require their use.

The fourth explicitly requests Bishops Provoost and White to join with Bishop Seabury in the consecration of Dr. Bass.

The fifth takes account of the difficulty in the way, and promises to address the English Bishops to have it removed, in case it should really exist, of which there is reason to doubt.

This settled one of the points of disagreement. Two others still remained. The Constitution already adopted did not give to the Episcopate a separate and independent authority, and did give the laity an integral place in the Church's government. This the Connecticut people opposed. In the second place, the Prayer Book, as it had been changed, was obnoxious to them. The Convention now reconsidered both these actions so far as to leave them open to be rediscussed and acted upon by the united Church, in case the Connecticut people should come in.

Having done so much and notified Connecticut of its action, it took a recess till the following September, to await the result. When September came, Bishop Seabury came also. The whole Episcopal Church in the United States being now represented, the disputed articles in the Constitution were brought before it. Upon the general principle of admitting the laity to a place in the government, the Convention stood firm. They, however, modified somewhat the application of it, and safeguarded it against the possibilities of evil which Bishop Seabury apprehended.

In the matter of the place of the Episcopate in the government, Bishop Seabury's Toryism was like to have wrecked the whole enterprise. The laymen could not get over that British half-pay of his. This hateful fact bulked so before their eyes that they could not see the ecclesiastical question at issue. Fortunately Bishop White, the well-known patriot, was able to take them aside and show them that "ecclesiastical bodies needed not to be over-righteous, or more so than civil bodies, on such a point"; [White: Memoirs, p. 168.] that this was a dead issue; that the half-pay was for services rendered long ago, and did not prevent him now being a good citizen of Connecticut; that he might even be returned to Congress from that State, and, if so, could take his seat with the half-pay in his pocket. The Bishop was able to persuade the Whig gentlemen to keep silence. The Constitution was changed to the extent of constituting the Bishops a separate House, only providing that a four-fifths vote of the other House might override their action. With this, Connecticut was fain to be content.

In the matter of a Liturgy, the Proposed Book found no one to say a good word for it. It was resolved that the point of departure should be the English Prayer Book in common use; that it should be revised so as to bring it into harmony with the political status. These changes were made with care and caution. The Fourth of July service departed into obscurity with the book which contained it.

An Office for the Visitation of Prisoners, from the Irish Prayer Book; the Thanksgiving Day Service from the Proposed Book; and a Form of Family Prayer were all adopted. The Convention would not accept the Athanasian Creed on any terms, though Bishop Seabury strenuously urged it. But it accepted at his hands the Prayers of Consecration from the Scotch Book.

These things being done, the Connecticut people formally gave in their adhesion; the two rival Churches ceased to strive; and there became one Protestant Episcopal Church in the United States.

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