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 VIII. New Spiritual Forces

Meagre spiritual life; the Evangelicals; their differentiate; conscious experiences; Simeon's Confessions; their conception of the Church; Low Churchmen; their achievements; cause of their decline; Thomas Scott; their leaders in America; High Church revival; the two parties; division of labor; advance of Churchmanship; following the emigration; two Ideals.

The preaching of the Evangelical leaders "awaked the Church of England from its philosophical pride and lethargy." [Merivale: Four Lectures, London, 1879. Ryle: Christian Leaders in the Eighteenth Century.] The sleep had been so profound that it had looked like death. The repulsive picture of English church and social life in the last century need not again be drawn. In America things had never been so bad. The decencies of life had always been maintained here. But in the first years of the century the religious tone had been very low indeed. The Church had largely caught the spirit of the age. Those who reorganized it were men whose religious habits had been fixed under the old conditions. A very few were men of marked devotion, but, as a rule, they were content with a very low spiritual life, and entirely indifferent to doctrine. [Perry: History, vol. ii. p. 188.] The clergy hardly took their office seriously, and the laity feared "enthusiasm" so much that they were content with less than earnestness. Virginia rejected the "Proposed Book" because its rubric gave the minister the power to repel an evil liver from the Holy Communion. Maryland chose Dr. Smith its bishop, well knowing his questionable habits; and the General Convention, with the same knowledge, elected him its president. Bishop Provoost lived for years in neglect of the offices of the Church, and Bishop Madison was currently believed to be an infidel. The ecclesiastical precision of Bishop Seabury and the Connecticut clergy made them earnest to preserve the Church's purity in doctrine and discipline rather than the vigor of its life. A spiritual motive force was needed to carry the new Church into and through its Titanic task of ministering to the needs of a new nation. Such a force had begun to show itself in England in the darkest days of the last century, and was destined in the first quarter of the present one to dominate the American Church.

The "Holy Club," which Wesley joined at Oxford, was only one of many similar groups of earnest-minded men who prayed for light in the midst of abounding gloom. The group to which Wesley belonged pursued its own course. He and his following started upon a path which led them outside the Church of England. But the great majority, his peers in zeal and wisdom, remained within. Wesley's path and theirs ran parallel a little way, but soon diverged. Methodists and Evangelicals had quite as many points of difference as of likeness. [Abbey and Overton: Church of England in the Eighteenth Century, vol. ii. p. 168.] They were different stocks from the same root. The Evangelical fathers could not march with Wesley. He turned from them with impatience when they refused to break away from the old order. [Ib., col. ii. p. 190.] His methods were equally distasteful to them. The hypercritical Hervey and the learned, decorous Romaine were men of an altogether different type from Ingham, the Yorkshire evangelist, and Asbury, the itinerant revivalist. [Tyerman: Oxford Methodists, p. 332] It was Venn, the faithful parish priest and writer of the robust "Complete Duty of Man," Scott, the staid curate of Olney, Milner, the Church historian, Simeon, the missionary, and such as these who were the fathers of the Evangelicals. Their influence was dominant in the English Church when this century opened. They lifted its sodden body from the mire of the Georgian era, set its feet upon a rock, and established its goings. They had their peculiar cant, as all religious parties have, but they secured an attention which other language would hardly have compelled. A mode of presenting Christianity which could compel the assent of human beings so far unlike as Dr. Johnson and Hannah More must needs be potent. The two salient features of the school were its conceptions of the personal Christian life, and of the function of the Church. As to the first of these, it laid emphasis upon Conversion. Like Roger Williams and Jonathan Edwards, like the Moravians and Wesley, it conceived the starting point to be a conscious experience. Their system had for its background the Augustinian dogma of total depravity. John Newton, the converted slave trader, was its type. The good priest Thomas Scott, already of saintly life, must needs be "converted" after years of a useful ministry. [Seely: Later Evangelical Fathers, p. 160. Petitions were publicly offered in the "Prayer Meetings" of certain Philadelphia parishes for the "conversion" of Bishop White when he was already a patriarch!] When Simeon gained a scholarship at King's College, Cambridge, and confronted the legal duty of receiving the Lord's Supper, he shrinks away in terror. He buys the old "Whole Duty of Man," and makes himself ill with reading, fasting, and praying. He "sought to lay his sins on the sacred head of Jesus, and on the Wednesday began to have a hope of mercy; on Thursday that hope increased; on the Friday and Saturday it became more strong; on the Sunday morning peace flowed in rich abundance into my soul." [Seely: Later Evangelical Fathers, p. 238.] This is typical. Milner expands the individual experience and traces it in his history of the Church. Heretofore, he contends, men have written the story of the Church as they would the annals of an empire. He will distinguish between the real and nominal Christians, leave the latter to one side, and trace the Church through the former. [Abbey and Overton: English Church in Eighteenth Century, vol. ii. p. 210.]

But the exploitation of the personal experience did not blind them to the use of the Church. Scott maintained the weekly Communion at a time when it was generally neglected. [Seely: Later Evangelical Fathers, p. 168.] Simeon "had the sweetest access to God through my blessed Saviour at the Lord's table." But he brings his previous experience into the closest relation with it. When the priest gave him a piece left over of the consecrated bread, after the service, "I put it into my mouth, covered my face with my hand, and prayed. The clergyman, seeing it, smiled at me; but I thought that if he had felt such a load taken off his soul as I had, he would not deem my praises superfluous."

The place assigned by them to personal experience, of course, gave the Evangelicals a peculiar relation to Christians outside their own or any church. Whoever was ready to testify to his own conscious connection with Christ must needs be accepted as a brother. No one might go behind the man's own testimony,--unless, indeed, his life should grossly discredit it. This led them to relations with other churches, which induced those who claim for the Church an original jurisdiction in the religious life to distrust their purpose. Simeon, when he goes to Scotland, has Presbyterians for his friends, and joins with them in the Sacrament without hesitation. [Seely: Later Evangelical Fathers, p. 265.] But he at once turns to his brethren in the Church and explains. He holds that an English clergyman may preach in the Established Church of Scotland, in which his king must worship, if there. Besides that, he declares with earnestness, that after every such experience he "returns to the use of the Liturgy perfectly astonished at the vast superiority of our own mode of worship." [Ib., p. 264.] The men of this school, both in England and America, were always emphatic in protesting their loyalty to the Church. They must be allowed to have known their own minds, and to have spoken sincerely. But they did not always get themselves believed. They gave their allegiance to the Church from use and wont, from conviction of her better ways and methods. But it was with them an act of choice. In the background of their minds was always the feeling that they might innocently have chosen otherwise. The people, with that rough accuracy which belongs to popular judgment, called them low Churchmen. Their Churchmanship was a matter of their own election, and not of obligation. [Johns: Life of Bishop Meade, p. 140.] The high Churchman distrusted them, not because of their present conduct, but from fear of the latent mischief which might any day spring from their reservation of the possibility of choice. To his mind, it was not a region where a choice was allowable.

In an age when the spiritual life of the Church was well-nigh extinct, only such men could revive it. They believed with all their souls in the awful doom which awaited every unconverted man. They believed that every man might be aroused and set to work out the tragedy of salvation in his own conscious life. This gave to the words of earnest men, as it needs must, a pathos and entreaty which told. Two generations later the Evangelical School, as such, had practically disappeared. By that time the Church, which it had waked into life, had been taken by the hand by other leaders, and led in another direction. They looked after her sadly, for they loved her. They felt that she had been beguiled away from their safer guardianship. But the truth was that their decadence, when it came, was not due so much to the triumph of a rival ecclesiasticism, as to the fact that a far deeper change had taken place in the mind of the religious world. The Evangelicals had been Calvinists. When the people ceased to believe the Augustinian anthropology, the motive to which they had appealed had gone. [The Churchman: vol. v. p. 856.] Their preaching, which had so deeply stirred a generation which had believed itself to be "totally depraved," failed to move a generation which had come into a truer way of thinking about itself. Salvation had come to be thought of less as a rescue from impending doom, and more as an education in righteousness. The dread of future torment became less easy to awake. The "larger hope" embodied itself at first in a crude universalism. A soi-disant church sprang up with this belief for its foundation and title, and for a while grew strong. But what truth was in it diffused itself through the Christian world, and Universalism declined. A truer estimate of man's complex nature began to obtain. This fundamental change of view coincided in point of time with the fresh presentation of the Church as an authoritative teacher and guide. When this had come about, men turned away from the Evangelicals. In the first quarter of the century, they throve apace; in the second, they encountered a rival too strong for them; in the third, they began to decline.

In 1835, the period at which the Church adjusted her machinery of propagandism, their vigor was at its best. The tracts and leaflets of Bishop Porteus, himself a Virginian, had been eagerly read by Virginians. Thomas Scott, the rector of Aston Sanford, Bucks, to eke out his meagre salary, had written the famous Commentary from which so many millions have received their theology. It had a circulation hardly paralleled in literary history. Before his death, in 1821, the English edition had reached twelve thousand copies, and the American mare than twenty-five thousand. [Abbey and Overton : Church of England in the Eighteenth Century, vol. ii. p. 206.] The "Great Awakening" and the Methodist movement had prepared the way for Evangelical work. Rev. Joseph Pilmore, once a Wesleyan preacher, had taught it in Philadelphia. [Perry : History, vol. ii. p. 192.] Dr. Percy, one time a chaplain of Lady Huntingdon, had proclaimed it in South Carolina. William Duke, a Methodist while the Methodists remained in the Church, had preached it in Maryland. Bishop Griswold commended it by his deep piety in New England, outside of Connecticut. But the great apostle was Bishop Meade of Virginia. It was the motive power of his own earnestly religious life. [Johns: Life of Bishop Meade, p. 255. (Dr. Sparrow's Sermon.)] For years, almost single-handed, he had labored, and successfully, to revive the old Virginia Church. Now he was the Evangelical champion in the National Church. The founding of the Virginia Seminary gave their distinctive doctrines a home. In Dr. Wilmer, its chief teacher, they found a fit and winning expositor. [Memoirs of Dr. Tyng, p. 70.] Hopkins, Boyd, Bull, and Bedell in Pennsylvania; Milnor and Channing Moore in New York; McIlvaine in Brooklyn; Tyng, Bristed, and Crocker in New England, all poured their evangelical fervor into the Church's life. [Perry : History, vol. ii. p. 193.] The striking success of Chase in Ohio, in spite of the sustained opposition of Bishop Hobart, had given it ├ęclat. It was at its best in mind and heart.

But, meanwhile, a stream of renewed life had set in from another quarter. The hard and narrow Churchmanship of the Tory school had been taken up by Bishop Hobart of New York and his followers. Their broader spirit and deeper devotion made it more humane. Bishop Seabury's task had been to stand out for the organizing principle of the Church. But his eye, from being so long and so persistently fixed upon a single point, had lost the power of looking afield. By the political circumstance in which he and his had been set, they had been isolated from contemporary life. Bishop Hobart was as uncompromising a Churchman as Seabury, but he was a man of his time. He brought the Episcopal Church into harmony with the spirit of modern life. In the report upon the state of the Church for 1820, the State upon which he had left his impress shows more life and work than all the rest together. [Gen. Con. Journal, 1820.] One hundred and eighteen organized churches, twenty-four deacons, and fourteen priests ordained, fifteen hundred persons confirmed, a flourishing mission among the Oneida Indians, Bible societies, Prayer Book societies, Sunday school unions and the foundation for a theological seminary, show the presence of a new force. Being set in charge of Connecticut temporarily, he carried there, also, the same broad sympathy, tireless energy, ready adaptability,--the elements which the Church of Bishop Seabury needed. His conception of the Church colored the stream of emigration which flowed steadily westward following the latitude of his own State.

Away to the south, a man of more fiery zeal, but holding fast to the same idea of Episcopacy, [Norton: Life of Bishop Ravenscroft, p. 95.] revived the work in North Carolina. Bishop Ravenscroft left his mark on the Church in the South and Southwest. [Johns: Life of Bishop Meade, p. 192. The Churchman, March 17, 1832.] Otey, the pioneer bishop of that great region, who had sat at his feet and loved him as a father, caught his spirit and passed it on to his own successor.

There had now emerged in the Church two broadly distinguished types of thought and life. With the death of Bishop White, in 1836, the last survivor of the old "opportunist" school passed away. The future now for a generation lay between Evangelicals and High Churchmen. The line of cleavage did not run sharply through the mass. The two contrasted principles mingled in varying proportions in individuals. The same man might, and often did, embrace them both. He held to the conscious religious life with the Evangelical, and dreamed of ecclesiastical empire with the High Churchman. Indeed, in all the controversies of the period, each makes a point of asserting that he held to the principles of the other,--modified and corrected by his own. But two spirits strove within the Church. When action was necessary, party lines were drawn. When the High Churchmen took up the Sunday school Union, the Evangelicals, disturbed at Bishop Hobart's Catechism, and scandalized by the mutilation of Mrs. Sherwood's books, started an Evangelical Knowledge Society as an offset. [Johns : Life of Bishop Meade, p. 225.] When this grew influential, the other side set up the Churchman's Library. [Johns: Life of Bishop Meade, p. 230.] They worked and planned together to organize the new machinery of missions; but when the Evangelicals began to suspect that they had been outmanoeuvred, they set up a rival volunteer society. [Ib., p. 200.] Their enthusiasm had already found a vent in foreign missions. Through their beloved Simeon and Henry Martyn, the religious world had been stirred with pity for heathenesse. This was the field into which the Evangelical could move far more readily than could the pronounced High Churchman. The purpose which he set before himself, to awaken individual souls and lead them one by one to establish relations with God, required little machinery. All that was needed was to find a godly man who should go and "tell them the story of the Cross." In 1822 a mission to Africa was determined upon, but no ship could be found to carry out Ephraim Bacon and his wife. In 1834 the Rev. Henry Lockwood sailed to China, where this Church has now twenty-two native clergy. With the single exception of the abortive attempt in Turkey, all the foreign mission enterprises were manned from the Virginia Seminary. [Ib., p. 197.] A tacit understanding had been reached that this should be the field of the Evangelicals, while the High Churchmen should exploit the home field. [Perry : History, vol. ii. p. 194.] There does not seem to have been any conscious strategy in this arrangement, but it acted directly in the interest of High Churchmanship, which for a long time steadily gained ground. While its opponents' energy was directed elsewhere, it moved northwest and southwest, crossed the Mississippi, and has since been dominant. The Low Churchmen's expectation that they should secure at least one of the two new missionary bishoprics was disappointed. [Johns: Life of Bishop Meade, p. 200. Meade: Old Churches, p. 379.]

The Church's forces moved out, under the new leaders, to win the mighty West. To trace in detail the steps by which they covered the prairies, climbed the Rocky Mountains, and went with the gold hunters to the Pacific, would require a volume. The roll of the missionaries' names would fill a book. The Church simply followed the emigrant, often lagging far behind him, but keeping him in sight while her strength would hold out. When he had built his cabin, she sought him out in it. When the great cities sprang up in the wilderness, she entered into them and built her house. When the savage Indian was restrained, and fixed to a permanent abode, she did her share to make him human and Christian. She met a various welcome for her proffered gifts. Peoples who knew neither her nor her fathers founded new communities, and she could not speak their speech or win their friendship. Other churches entered the new field beside her, before her, and behind her. She often failed where they succeeded. She often succeeded after their success had changed to failure. It may fairly be said of her that she has striven with an honest heart to do her share in making and keeping the new America Christian. In the long, strenuous task, she has more and more sharply emphasized her churchly aspect.

When Chase reached the new land of Ohio, in 1817, it seemed natural for him to begin his work at "Covenant Creek" by calling together his neighbors for the preaching of the Word, and the Prayers. When Breck and his companions laid down their packs under an elm tree in Minnesota, in 1850, it seemed equally natural and fitting to them to "erect a rustic cross, build a rude altar of rough stones, and begin their work by the celebration of the Eucharistic Feast."

Project Canterbury