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 XVIII. The Net Result.

In his "American Commonwealth" Mr. Bryce makes an interesting although cautious estimate of the religious life of the people of the United States. His judgment is that the diffused religiousness is more intense than that of the Continental peoples of Europe, probably about the same as that of England, and rather less than that of Scotland. But he points out that it has a quality of its own. It is Christian, of course, but it is American. It has a flavor, a tinge, a character different from the Christianity which exists elsewhere. It is not easy to say just wherein this peculiarity consists. Institutions, doctrines, rituals, are much the same as in the rest of the world, but the impression which it makes upon the observer is characteristic.

Is it possible to discover and discriminate the Church's influence in forming American Christianity as it now exists? Has she had any real effect, and if so, what? No task could be more difficult or delicate than the attempt to make such an estimate. The required information, the candor, and the skill are all alike hard to command. And yet no history of the Church can be deemed complete with this task left unattempted, for it is in this way rather than by the exhibition of statistics that the Church's present position is to be measured. The data are hard to obtain. Every considerable sect in the United States has had its history written, both by friends and enemies. But practically no attempt has been made to weigh the influence which each has had upon another or upon the life of the people as a whole. There are no authorities to be consulted in the attempt to traverse this untrodden ground. This historic fact itself is one sufficiently interesting to be recorded.

The religious life of the people of the United States has been derived through many sources. It may be likened to a broad moving river fed by affluents which stream into it from a hundred quarters. Of course when these tributaries merge into the broad stream they lose for the most part their distinctive colors. But this fusion was not effected at once. In some instances a tributary stream acts as does the Blue Nile in the great river of Egypt. It keeps its color and its especial density in the midst of the flood with which it moves. But all, sooner or later, merge themselves so entirely in the common current that only something like a chemical analysis will discover the several contributions.

It is to be remarked that the societies within which the people conduct their religious lives are almost without exception of foreign origin. Only two or three denominations calling themselves Churches can be named which originated in the United States. These are the "Christian," the Mormon, and the Reformed Episcopal. This country has not been prolific in sects. The tendency, though slow, has been, upon the whole, towards unification. No "Confessions of Faith" are of American manufacture. The only one which has exercised any considerable influence, the Cambridge Platform, has been well-nigh forgotten. The same might be said generally of the imported Articles and Confessions, also, so far as their actual influence upon the religious life of the people is concerned.

In order to estimate the influence of the Church a brief historical survey will be necessary. It is difficult to realize that almost two-thirds of the history of the people of the United States lies anterior to the Revolutionary War. The events which have occurred since that date have been so striking and have moved in such rapid sequence, that they throw into the background the colonial period. Nevertheless, it is within that period that one must seek the causes which today show their results in many important areas of life.

In regard of their everyday habits of religious thought and action the early colonists may be roughly classed in three groups--the Southern, the Eastern, and the Middle Colonies. These people were more alike religiously than is often assumed, but they had also certain different tendencies, which made them draw quickly apart. To begin with, they were all alike Church of England people. That foundation of unconscious habit and custom upon which all conscious belief rests was that which had been slowly laid during the preceding centuries of Christian England. And habit has to do quite as much as volition with everyday religion. One assumption which was fixed in the very structure of their thought was the union of Church and State. They were all alike in this. Our assumption of the normal separateness of Church and State was not even thinkable by them. But the groups differed from each other in the distribution of emphasis which they laid upon religious and civil institutions. In Virginia and Maryland they conceived of the Church as a department of State. The civil side was uppermost in their thought when they came here, just as it had been uppermost while they abode in Old England. The ideal of a Virginia parish was to reproduce the life of a Devonshire parish. Priest and people came out together, and the squire was a more considerable person than the parson here, as he had been there. They thought to organize a new society whose predicate was State, and of which the term Christian was but a descriptive epithet. Organized society was a personality which had both secular and spiritual relations, but they believed that its life was best and most safely conducted from the secular side. The Church was subordinated to the State.

The New England colonists were Church of England people also. That little group of Independents who landed at Plymouth had but little influence in affairs. Their experiment was soon concluded. Their ideal was not to be realized until more than two centuries should have elapsed. The Puritans were members of the Church of England. Their early Clergy were Episcopally ordained. Their enterprise set out with the benediction of the bishop. They also conceived of Church and State as one. The modern idea of the Church as a voluntary association, having its life in the midst of a State with which it has no official connection, was inconceivable to them, and would have been abhorrent if it had been suggested. They were the highest of high Churchmen. The Southern Colonist had in mind to found a State which should contain a Church, the Northern had in mind to found a Church which should include a State.

The third group, New York, Pennsylvania, and New Jersey, were dominated by a different motive. They included a far smaller proportion of pure English stock. The Scotch, Dutch, and Germans brought with them a different set of prepossessions. The idea of the separateness of Church and State had emerged much more clearly in their minds while they dwelt in their old homes. They had not thought out very clearly any theory concerning the matter, but they proceeded to settle the great question of the Reformation by actual practice. They set up secular courts to secure secular rights, and allowed the people to group themselves spiritually as their several affinities might lead.

The above was, in general, the ecclesiastical situation at the middle of the eighteenth century. So far as doctrinal beliefs were concerned, the people of the Colonies, whether English, Dutch, Scotch, or German, were what would now be called Calvinistic, but which is really Augustinian. With the exception of the Quakers, whom the possession of the "Inner Light" rendered indifferent to all doctrine, they believed in the Fall; the Incarnation of God in Christ; the expiatory quality of Christ's life and death; in a sharp distinction between the "saved" and the "lost"; in a materially pictured heaven and hell; in the literal inspiration of the Bible; and took for granted the causal relation between religion and conduct. They were generally agreed in their dislike of what they called "enthusiasm". They condemned and feared the appeal to the emotions in religion. This was as true of the Puritan of Massachusetts and the Presbyterian of Pennsylvania as it was of the High Churchman of Connecticut or the Latitudinarian of Virginia. The tradition of the extravagancies of the Anabaptists and the Fifth Monarchy men was still vivid. The Quaker, the Baptist, and the Mennonite were looked at askance by the great mass of the population.

These were, in the main, the characteristics of the primary stratum of American religious life. It was deposited but slowly, and the various portions were so separated from each other in the spaciousness of a new country that their influence upon each other was but slight.

Each denomination long retained the peculiarities it brought with it. A few retain them yet. There are certain small bodies, as, for example, the Reformed Presbyterian, which remain almost uninfluenced by the religious movement in America. Indeed, one, the largest of all, the Roman Church, may be left out of consideration in any attempt to estimate the reciprocal effect of the various portions upon each other. While it is true that the Roman Church has been profoundly affected by the religious and political atmosphere of America, so that Romanism here is easily distinguished from Romanism elsewhere in the world, still it moves apart from the main current. "Romanism and Protestantism are not, as it is so generally assumed, varieties of the same religion; they are different religions." [R. H. Hutton: Essays.]

The Romanist lives his religious life apart from his Protestant neighbors, and they probably understand as little both its virtues and its faults as he does theirs.

But the first religious problem which confronted the people of this country was one in which all alike were concerned. That was to delimit Church and State. For the first time since Constantine, was offered both the opportunity and the necessity for its solution. Only in New York and Rhode Island was this adjustment reached before the War of Independence, and in these Colonies not completely. It is not complete yet in the United States as a whole. There are still undetermined frontiers. [For example, in one State Roman Catholics are still ineligible for office; in several others infidels, atheists, and blasphemers are liable to be disfranchised.] The causes of marriage and divorce and the field of public education are still regions where the adjustment of the religious and secular is far from complete.

But in this apportionment of the concerns of life between God and Caesar, the Episcopal Church was before all others. This was a necessity of the situation. During the Colonial Period she had been far more closely bound to the civil power than had any other. The Revolutionary War tore her loose by violence and completely. The "Standing Order" of Congregationalism in Massachusetts and Connecticut could leisurely adjust itself to the new political life during sixty years. But the Church in Maryland and Virginia had to do it at once. Politically it was an outcast in the new Republic. This drove it to organize at once as a national Church for sheer self-preservation. It was the first to do so. [The Presbyterian General Assembly was constituted the same year, 1789, but it included only a portion of the great Presbyterian family. Briggs: American Presbyterianism, p. 362.] Ever since it has held itself aloof from politics. The lesson it learned during the eighteenth century has never been forgotten. Even during the passionate period of the Civil War men could go to Church in confidence that they would hear no echo of party strife either in prayers or sermon. Sooner or later all the denominations followed in the movement. It came to be natural that a Church should be a free, voluntary organization, living its life according to its own rules, in the midst of a State from which it asked nothing but to be safeguarded against encroachment.

But when the voluntary system began to be universally accepted the free religious atoms began to move into groups according to their natural affinities. As a result of this new grouping, the Church began to find her own place and to show her own qualities. The diffused Protestantism of the United States has crystallized about three separate points. These are the intellect, the emotions, the conscience. About the first of these were ranged the whole Presbyterian group, the Congregationalists, the Lutherans, and later the Unitarians. The note of this class is that it conceives of religion as primarily a matter of intellectual consent. They ask, "What do you believe?" They stickle for precision of theological statement. They make orthodoxy the condition of admission for the inquirer and for intercommunion among denominations. They possess "Confessions of Faith" and "Platforms". They value learning and honor doctors of Theology. They are coherent, logical, learned. In a word, their religion finds its home in the understanding rather than in the affections or the conscience. This is not to say that in the lives of their individuals they are hard in heart or loose in morals. But it is to say that when they seek for a ground upon which to effect outward and visible organization they look for that ground in doctrine rather than in either feeling or living.

The second group draws together upon the ground of the emotions. The Baptists, Methodists, "Christians," the Salvation Army, the Revivalists all hold the same conception of religion. They ask not, "What do you believe?" but "How do you feel?" The condition of membership for the individual is that he shall have passed through a definite sequence of emotions. The individuals are fused together in a denomination by the emotional fire through which they have all been passed. They lay comparatively little emphasis upon learning or logic because they have no need to do so. Their appeal is not, in the last resort, to the understanding, but to the heart. They have grown apace. Their strength is to win the great multitude which can be far more easily moved by the contagion of a divine impulse than it can be led to have a right understanding or to righteousness of life. Nor, once again, may it be said that this group is unmindful of either orthodoxy or morality in the individual. It is enough to say that as visible bodies they organize themselves about the emotional element in human nature.

The third group is composed of the Church, the Moravians, and, as being in spiritual sympathy with them, the Dutch Reformed, the Reformed Presbyterian, and a few other small and inconspicuous bodies. All these, while living apart, and in many cases little known by one another, have one fundamental note in common. They think of Christ's Church not as an organization for the maintenance of doctrine, nor for the contagiousness of religious feeling, but as an Institute of Righteousness. They are substantially at one in their conception of what Christianity essentially is. The question they address to the postulant is not "What do you believe?" nor "What de you feel?" but "How will you live?" The characteristic feature of the Church is her attitude toward the world. To this attitude the Church in England and the Church in America have adhered tenaciously, even at times when powerful influences both from without and within have tempted her to change it. In England her position has been reviled as Erastianism, and in America as worldliness, but she has held fast to it. She has remembered her Lord's caution, that His disciples must not expect to be taken out of the world, but only to be kept from evil. She regards the Church as an institution which has primary regard to the life that now is. She thinks of it much as she does of the State. It is intended for all men, good and bad alike. Its purpose is to produce and conserve goodness. Its dominant tone is ethical rather than either intellectual or emotional. It has often been taunted with "lack of vital piety," with worldliness, with cold morality. Dogmatists and emotionalists from within have attempted to transform her genius, but have not succeeded. Her abiding instinct has kept her steadfast to her conception of the Church as an "Institute of Righteousness." This has determined her position towards Doctrine, Discipline, and Worship, and fixed her conditions of membership and intercommunion. Her only test of the truth and value of doctrine is its immediate effect upon living. Sermons are practical and ethical rather than doctrinal or inspiring. Her Liturgy is valued and insisted upon not chiefly for its beauty or its antiquity, or its fitness to express exalted emotions, but because of its disciplinary power to uphold the soul in right living. For admission to membership she exacts only the minimum of belief. The general and unrelated articles of the Apostles' Creed are enough for a working Consensus. This, as expanded in the Nicene Creed, she pronounces to be "a sufficient statement of Christian Doctrine." That word "sufficient" in its connection has wide implications. It at once relegates all other statements of doctrine to the region of individual opinion. Thus far no other Church has ventured so bold a statement. That this is the position of the Church is seen by a crucial test of practice. The only condition on which she will turn the Key of the Kingdom of Heaven to bind or loose is an ethical condition. She bids to the Holy Sacrament all those who "do earnestly repent them of their sins and are in love and charity with their neighbors, and intend to lead a new life, walking in the commandments of God"; she repels only those who are known to be "open and notorious evil livers, or to have done any wrong to their neighbors by word or deed." This conception of the Church's place and function in the world is the key to a right understanding of her whole history. She attaches an importance to sacraments, ordinances, ritual, and organization which those outside not seldom characterize as formalism, superstition, bigotry. The charge would lie if these things were valued for themselves or if they were arbitrarily created. But, in fact, they have their rationale in the Church's deep sense of the difficulty of right living. Righteousness is at once a thing so arduous and of such transcendent value that any machinery which has proven its value to induce or maintain it becomes sacred and obligatory. And because the antithesis of holiness is selfishness, therefore the Church sets her seal of condemnation upon individualism in the sphere of religion. Like Israel, she accounts that regime in which "every man does that which is right in his own eyes" as the worst possible. Because membership in the spiritual society is of divine obligation, she feels bound to leave the conditions of membership so simple and easy that every man may be able to fulfill the obligation.

At this point it becomes of interest to ask, To what extent, and by what means, has she been able to impress her thought concerning the Church upon the people of this land?

That the whole trend of the present time is toward her view is evident to any competent observer. It does not follow that the movement is toward her. Dogmatic religion is already moribund. Emotional religion, while popularly strong, has come to be distrusted by the judicious, and shows symptoms of suspecting itself. The age is ethical. Character is coming to take the pace of both experience and creed, both as the condition of membership in Church and as the real exponent of Christianity. The instinct of organization is also astir. The Church as a machinery for producing righteousness in a neighborhood has come to be the accepted thought. Fifty years ago this idea was hardly anywhere to be found. The movement generally toward a better church architecture, and a more formal and reverent liturgy, is an approach toward the Church's position. How much of this is due to the Church's direct influence is not easy to determine. Much of it simply manifests the operation of the spirit of truth, of which the Church holds no monopoly. But her organized presence in the land for a century has not been without direct result. While she has not been prolific of great theologians, and while the tone of her advocates and of her peculiar appeals may possibly have repelled more than they have attracted, nevertheless she has been for a century before the people a steadfast illustration of her idea of what the Church of Christ essentially is. Men have learned of her even while they disliked her; they have heard while they struck.

Her influence, moreover, has been immeasurably enhanced by her relationship to the Church of England. This has operated both directly and indirectly. The most powerful ecclesiastical organization of the world's dominant race has insensibly shared her prestige with the Church in the United States. The sense of relationship with the Mother Church has made her bold when she would otherwise have been deprecatory, and confident when she would have been timid. It has had its drawbacks, but they have been far more than counterbalanced by its advantages. If it has caused a curate here and there to affect a mediaeval English accent or a feeble-minded bishop to break out into cockade and knee breeches, it has, on the other hand, tended to give a Church which is the sixth in rank, judged by its numbers, a place among the foremost in point of influence. The English connection has operated even more powerfully indirectly. The higher literature read in America is predominantly of English origin, and its unconscious background is the English Church. Shakespeare takes the Church for granted. Scott leaves his every reader in friendly spirit toward her. Tennyson and Browning are tinged by her local color. English fiction, with whatever motive it be written, incidentally makes its readers familiar with her manners, thoughts, service, and spirit. The theology which is read by the clergy of every denomination in America; is English, as is also their Biblical history and criticism. "The Life of Christ" by Farrar and by Edersheim is in every hand. Although none of these are written in the spirit of an advocate or with the thought of propagandism, still the fundamental conception of the Church of Christ for which Episcopacy stands underlies them all and makes itself felt through all. The writings of the late Bishop Phillips Brooks have operated powerfully in the same direction. They have passed into the hands of tens of thousands outside the Church, and have opened to them the same thought of what the religion of Christ essentially is which unconsciously controlled him and which he imbibed from the Church in which he was born. This diffused and inarticulate predisposition toward the Church has been taken advantage of and been forcefully presented by a host of more churchly men who have been instant in season and out of season to advance her interests and extend her visible frontier. The net result has come that the Church has steadily grown by natural increase; has received many who have been drawn to her by various motives; has lost few; has remained hospitable at heart if not always in manner; and stands today, in the general respect and good will of the people, for freedom in truth, order in worship, and righteousness in life.

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