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 XIV. Peace with Honor

When the General Convention had, by its action in 1871, tacitly affirmed the Church's comprehensiveness there came a moment of doubt and hesitation on the part of some who had hoped and expected a different issue. High Churchmen who had strenuously opposed Ritualism because it threatened confusion to existing order found little difficulty in the situation. They had opposed certain innovations because they believed them to be contrary to law. When it appeared that the law was not quite what they had believed it to be their very instinct of legality led them to acquiesce. They loved ritualism none the more, but the Church having, albeit grudgingly, pronounced its right to be, they would obey the Church. [Brand: Life of Bishop Wittingham, vol. ii. ch. 7. Harrison: Life of Bishop Kerfoot, vol. ii. p. 529.] While they did not like either the theory of the Church or the rationale of the Sacraments, which it symbolized, they liked still less those of the other extreme. But there were not a few who thought that they never could be reconciled to the situation. Not only was the Church in danger, but the truth of God was jeopardized. Justification by faith, the atrticulus stantis vel cadentis ecelesiae, was passing out of sight, or only found hearty expression in the Protestant Churches. Those of this way of thinking had long desired that on that side of the Church where her frontier marches with Protestantism, the line of delimitation should be drawn as vaguely as might be. When Dr. Hubbard preached in a Baptist meeting house in Westerly, R. I., and the younger Dr. Stephen Tyng invaded the ecclesiastical territory of the Rev. Messrs. Stubbs and Boggs to preach in a Methodist Church in New Jersey, the action was characterized as liberality and church fellowship. They did not believe that any legitimate frontier had been trespassed upon because they did not believe that there actually was any frontier--on that side. But now, when it became evident that there were those in the Church who desired equal liberty in precisely the opposite direction, they were filled with anxiety. This anxiety deepened into real alarm when it began to appear that the law of the Church as it stood was likely to be enforced with much more rigor against those guilty of "fault by defect of ritual observance" than those from excess. The temper of the whole Church was bad. Charity and magnanimity were sadly wanting. A pestilent band of partisan journals misnamed "religious" newspapers were doing their best, not in the interest of truth, but of party advantage. The "Church Journal" and the "Protestant Churchman" and the "Standard of the Cross" were doing their worst to egg their several parties to mutual proscription. The Low Churchman had reason to be afraid. Like the Ritualists, they had been in the habit of finding relief for their consciences in divagations from the letter of the rubrics. It began to look as if they would be estopped from this, and at the point where they were most sensitive. In 1868 the Rev. Charles E. Cheney of Chicago had been brought to trial by his Bishop for having habitually omitted the word "regenerate" in the use of the Baptismal Office. The Evangelicals had fallen into the popular habit of conceiving that the word "regeneration" connoted an internal, conscious transformation of the qualities of the soul. If this were its force it could not properly be used to describe the effect of Baptism upon an unconscious infant. Their contention was that, whatever might be the grace vouchsafed in Baptism, such grace was contingent upon its being properly administered by a duly commissioned person, and not at all upon the enunciation of any dogmatic theory pronounced by the minister in connection with the administration of the rite. They therefore quietly omitted the offensive phrase. Their critics did not, of course, call in question the validity of the Baptism thus administered, but they were scandalized, or affected to be, by the open violation of rubrical provision. In more pacific times the abuse, as it unquestionably was, would have corrected itself by the better information of those who fell into it. At the General Convention of 1871 the following "Declaration," signed by forty-eight bishops, was communicated to the Lower House "for the information of that body concerning the action of the Bishops in a matter of much gravity." "We the subscribers, being asked in order to the quieting of the consciences of sundry ministers of the Church, to declare our conviction as to the meaning of the word 'Regenerate,' in the Office for the Ministration of Baptism of Infants, do declare that in our opinion the word 'Regenerate' is not there so used as to declare that a moral change in the subject of Baptism is wrought in the Sacrament."

This declaration, bearing as it did the signatures of theologians whose bias was as diverse as that of Whittingham and Lee, Williams and Cummins, would in ordinary times have sufficed to remove the difficulty. It did remove it for all future time. The question has never been agitated since. But, unfortunately, Cheney had been tried and deposed in the mean time. And what made it worse was the fact that his trial had been conducted with so little regard to equity, by such highhanded arbitrariness on the part of the Bishop and court, that on an appeal to the secular courts it was set aside in so far as it affected Mr. Cheney's rectorship and emoluments.

The effect of the treatment of Dr. Stephen H. Tyng, Jr., Mr. Cheney, and other like occurrences convinced not a few among the Low Churchmen that the Church was being intentionally made too strait for them. So good a Churchman and so temperate a man as Dr. Sparrow of Virginia did not hesitate to declare that "There is a freedom for the offending Ritualist and a stringency of canon for the offending Evangelical which is wholly inexcusable. While such men as Ewer and Curtis are allowed to add or take away in their services with perfect freedom, others like Tyng and Cheney, upon a slight indiscretion, or for the omission of a word, are immediately under the Episcopal maul for discipline or for destruction." [Sparrow's Life and Correspondence, p. 350(or 550?).]

While Cheney's trial was going on, Dr. Sparrow wrote: "If he is condemned we shall have another Episcopal Church in these United States. We have the Romish, the Moravian, the Greek, the Swedish and the Protestant Episcopal. Why not the 'Reformed Episcopal'?" [Sparrow's Life and Correspondence, p. 297.] This ill-omened word had already been spoken in more than one quarter. Men's hearts were failing them for fear. The fact was that all parties in the Church were shaken with ill-concealed terror, and fear is at once the most suspicious as well as the most tyrannical of emotions. Each feared that his own favorite beliefs would be proscribed and those of his adversaries allowed. It is difficult to say whether, at the time, solicitude to defend his own truth or solicitude to suppress the other man's error predominated. In the summer of 1868 a Conference of Low Churchmen had been held in Chicago, presided over by the Hon. Felix R. Brunot. In the discussions of this Conference the words "withdrawal," "secession," "a Reformed Episcopal Church" were heard more than once. There was no intimation that such a project was seriously entertained. On the contrary, the terms were never used except with deprecation. But the use of the word showed that the thought was there. One member of the Conference euphemistically expressed it: "We do not contemplate secession; we contemplate being driven out." [Church Journal, 1868, p. 197.]

When the proposed drastic canon against Ritual failed of adoption in 1871, and when Dr. de Koven's gauntlet lay on the floor of the General Convention, there was nothing for the irreconcilables to do but acquiesce or to withdraw from the Church. There were few, if any, who really wished to secede. It is one thing to talk about self-expatriation in the heat of political strife, but it is a different thing to actually embark upon the craft which is ready to bear one away from his native land. Nothing could be more pathetic than the surprise and grief of the few who did secede when they discovered that most of those who had joined with them in denunciation of the Church's abuses proposed to remain with her.

The task of leading out the malcontents was left to one whose life within the Church had been brief. The Rev. Dr. George David Cummins, Assistant Bishop of Kentucky, had been a bishop seven years, and had been in the Church fifteen years when he left it. It is not very clear why he came or why he went. He had been a Methodist minister, earnest, devout, useful, and gifted with an eloquence more fluent and fervid than profound or cogent. On the 2d of December, 1873, he met, according to a call previously issued and widely circulated, with eight clergymen and twenty laymen at the rooms of the Young Men's Christian Association of New York and organized the "Reformed Episcopal Church." [Aycrigg: Memoirs of the Reformed Episcopal Church. A somewhat rare volume, which contains a valuable but undigested mass of information concerning the whole subject.] It does not lie in our way to follow the history of that body. It can scarcely be said to have had any history. To the candid observer there seemed at the time to be no raison d'ĂȘtre for it, and none such has since appeared. [After twenty-five years it now contains about a hundred feeble congregations scattered through the United States and Canada.] Its effect upon the Church by drawing from her membership has not been appreciable. Things being as they were, that some should be so ill at ease in the Church during the early seventies that they should feel bound to withdraw, was natural. No generous man will blame them overmuch. There was no need, however, to add a superfluous one to the already too numerous Protestant Churches. But the establishment of the Reformed Episcopal Church proved to be an almost unqualified gain to all concerned, except to those who composed it. It gave a salutary shock to all parties in the distracted Church. While it was a secession which caused little loss, though among those who went out were men who could but ill be spared, still it demonstrated that secession is always possible. Much of the ill humors of the Church seemed to have escaped through the wound made in her body by the excision. At any rate, the temper of the Church began slowly to improve. The whole question of Churchmanship was taken up again in a better spirit. In a few places "ritualistic" fanatics were relentlessly prosecuted by the ancient champions of Evangelicalism, and in a few cases "advanced" men abused the Church's hospitality, but as a whole the Church passed onward into a broader and better life.

Project Canterbury