I have lately been reading your Letter on the subject of Episcopacy, addressed to a young gentleman of this city. This Letter contains such a multiplicity of observations, that I find it somewhat difficult to trace the connection of your argument. Your important conclusion, however, is, "that the doctrine of a regular uninterrupted succession in the Christian ministry is absurd, and consequently that the pretensions of Episcopalians are presumptuous, and ought to be abandoned." Now, although I entirely dissent from you in this opinion, I will acknowledge, that the perusal of your letter afforded me a not a little satisfaction. It is pleasing to see gentlemen, not of the clerical order, turning their attention to a subject which is certainly too much neglected by people in general, and I am perfectly convinced, the more this matter is investigated, the more apparent it will be, that Episcopacy is the true, primitive mode of government in the church of Christ.
I cannot imagine, that the more considerate of your Presbyterian brethren, however they may commend your good intentions, will be much gratified by the doctrine inculcated in the Letter now under consideration, for it certainly tends to the subversion of all ministerial power in the Christian church. It will not be denied, that the church is a visible, regular, and well-ordered society, blessed with good laws, and furnished with duly-appointed officers. Christ himself calls it my kingdom. He rules in it with supreme authority, and all the legal power which is exercised in it must be derived from Him. But, if the doctrine of uninterrupted succession from him through his Apostles, be false and ridiculous, from what source do Christian ministers of the present day derive their authority to preach the Word, and administer the Holy Sacraments? This authority cannot be derived from the people, for they who have nothing to give, cannot possible communicate to another what they do not themselves possess. You are a believer in Jesus Christ; you hold fast the profession of your faith without wavering. But, does the profession of a sound faith, attended by a virtuous practice, confer upon you the right of constituting a minister in the Christian church? No; you are entirely destitute of this power, and your neighbours are as destitute as yourself. Although one hundred or one hundred thousand were to combine in an act of ordination to the ministry, their act on this occasion would be a mere nullity: the product of the multiplication of a hundred thousand noughts would still be nothing.
As to those who come with the pretence of an immediate call from Heaven to speak and to act authoritatively in the church of Christ, I suppose that you and every other sober Christian will not be much inclined to acquiesce in their bold pretensions. If, like St. Paul, they claim to be immediately designated to the work of the ministry by Christ himself, let them give the evidence which St. Paul afforded in confirmation of their high commission; and the, and not till then, we will be disposed to receive them in the character of ambassadors from Christ, and stewards of the mysteries of God.
What then remains? If the people possess not the power of ordination to the ministry, and if our yielding to the confident pretensions of self-constituted ministers would open a wider door to confusion and every evil work; we must have recourse to the doctrine of uninterrupted succession; we must go back through a line of properly authorised ordainers up to Christ himself, the source of all power and authority, who founded his church on a rock, and promised his Apostles to be with them always even unto the end of the world. This, you say, is an impracticable undertaking, and therefore reject the position as absolutely false. Perhaps the task is not so difficult as you have hitherto imagined.
In the prosecution of truth of every sort, reason tells us that we ought to be satisfied with such evidence as the nature of the case will admit of. You believe the book, which by way of eminence we call the Bible, to contain the Scriptures originally given by inspiration of God. What proof can you produce in support of this belief? Can you trace these Scriptures from manuscript to manuscript, and (after the invention of the art of printing) from one edition to another, from the original writers down to our own times? It may be difficult, perhaps impossible, to do so; and yet you may very justly say, "The book has been received in every age of the church as the authentic record of the revelation of God's will to the children of men; and therefore, I should deem myself guilty of the most culpable absurdity and presumption, were I now to argue, in order to establish the point relative to the Episcopal government of the Christian church.
It is acknowledged by the most learned and candid Presbyterians that this mode of government universally prevailed soon after the days of the Apostles. Eusebius, who lived in the time of Constantine the Great, and who is an historian of great learning and unquestionable veracity, bears a decided testimony to the truth of this opinion. He gives us in the course of his history, a catalogue of the Bishops who presided over several of the most eminent Churches, and mentions their names in order, as they succeeded each other, from the Apostolic age down to his own time. All succeeding ecclesiastical writers speak of Bishops, as ministers of a superior order to Presbyters and Deacons, in every part of the Christian world. And from these considerations Bishop Potter in his discourse of church government, draws the following conclusion. "It is as impossible for an impartial man, who shall compare this historian with the rest of the primitive Fathers, to doubt whether there was a succession of Bishops from the Apostles; as it would be to call in question the succession of Roman Emperors from Julius Caesar, or the succession of Kings in any other country. Indeed these who have been produced, and others who have been passed by, are such a multitude of unexceptionable witnesses, as can scarce be produced for any other matter of fact, except the rise and progress of Christianity; so that whoever shall deny this, may, with better reason reject all histories whatever. It would be easy to continue this account of the government of the Church by Bishops through all succeeding ages to this time; but it being universally confessed even by the professed enemies of Episcopacy, that the church was governed by Bishops of a superior order to mere Presbyters, after the time of Constantine, in which Eusebius the last witness, I have cited, lived; it will be needless to carry it beyond this period." And here, I cannot but wonder, that you should introduce Bishop Potter as one of our Divines who entertained doubts on this subject; who would not take upon himself to decide the question about different orders of officers in the church. Whereas, upon reference to the passage which you have quoted from his book, you will find that the only controversy which he will not undertake to decide is, whether certain Texts of Scripture which had been cited, refer to the first or to the second order of officers in the church.
Respecting the genealogies so carefully preserved among the Jews, you have made some remarks; on which I would beg leave to observe, that it was necessary for God's ancient People to be very particular in this matter, because to one tribe the Priesthood exclusively belonged, and from another, according to the predictions of the Prophets, the Messiah was to spring. I need not remind you, that the Priesthood under the economy of Moses, was a divine institution, and that it was guarded with the utmost care against all sacrilegious intrusion. The instances of Corah, Uzza and Uzziah were dreadful warnings to the people, that no man except the sons of Levi, not even the King himself, should presume to execute any priestly office; and that no Priest of an inferior order should ever arrogantly undertake to perform the duties which were peculiar to his superior. Hence we may draw a strong argument in support of our Episcopal doctrine, that under the Gospel Dispensation also, a Priesthood has been instituted by the Divine Head of the church, invested with exclusive powers and privileges, which Priesthood is to be continued to the end of the world by a regular uniform mode of appointment. When Christ came into the world to fulfil the law and the Prophets, and to establish his church upon earth under a new form, it was reasonable to suppose that this church would still continue to be in all things well ordered and sure. To explain and vindicate this great truth, seems to be the chief design of the Epistle to the Hebrews, in every part of which we are taught that the institutions of the law were intended to prefigure the good things of the Gospel. St. Paul, writing to Christians, declares, "We have an Altar:" Now, Altar and Priesthood are correlative terms: It would be needless to erect an Altar, if at that Altar there were no Priest appointed to officiate. No man is to take this honor unto himself, unless he be called of God, as was Aaron. St. Jude asserts, that Christians may fall into a crime similar to that which was committed by Corah; and, let it be remembered, that the sin of Corah consisted in his presumptuous attempt to usurp an office which belonged exclusively to Priests of a superior order. In conformity to the language of Scripture,. the current doctrine of the primitive Fathers is, "What the High Priest, Priests and Levites were under the law, that are Bishops, Priests and Deacons now under the dispensation of the Gospel." From these considerations we may fairly conclude, that he who founded his church upon a rock, and declared that the gates of hell should not prevail against it; he who promised to be with his Apostles always even unto the end of the world, will take care that his church shall never be destitute of a duly authorized ministry; and that every man who undertakes to act as his minister without having received a regular commission from him, incurs the dreadful hazard of his Lord's displeasure.
In traversing the field of controversy with the Presbyterians, I have often viewed with surprize and regret a method of disputation pursued by our opponents which I cannot help considering as devoid of both candour and strength. Let an Author in the general tenour of his writings be ever so clear and explicit in maintaining the Episcopal government of the church; if he happen to introduce au unguarded expression, or if, through a desire to conciliate, he make a concession that is a little too extensive; his decided language on the controverted subject is disregarded; his equivocal expressions are seized with avidity, and then brought forward in support of an opinion which he is known to disavow. With regard to the venerable Ignatius, indeed, disputants on your side of the question have adopted a singular mode of procedure. He was born before the death of St. John, was appointed the Bishop of Antioch, and so repeatedly and unequivocally speaks of Bishops, Presbyters and Deacons, as three distinct orders in the Christian ministry, that Presbyterians endeavour to get rid of his testimony altogether, by the bold stroke of denying the authority of his writings. And this is done, although those writings may be proved to be genuine by every argument that can be adduced in favor of Pliny's Epistles, or of any other literary work composed about that period of time; and, although the genuineness of the Epistles of St. Ignatius has been actually vindicated by Du Pin, Hammond, and Pearson, in a manner which defies all reasonable contradiction.
Because St. Jerome, in a dispute with an aspiring Deacon, makes use of some strong expressions, in order to elevate the Presbyter as far as possible above the Deacon; his words are continually brought forward by the advocates of Presbyterian party as favourable to their scheme of ecclesiastical government, although Jerome most expressly' declares that the Bishop is invested with a power (that of ordination) which is not possessed by the Presbyter; and in language equally explicit asserts, that Bishops, Presbyters, and Deacons are as much distinguished from each other under the Gospel; as the High Priest, Priests and Levites were under the law.
Modern authors have too often met with the same treatment. It is really surprising, Sir, that the authority of such men as Hooker, Chillingworth, Stillingfleet, Potter and others of the same character, should ever be produced in support of a cause which, so far as a judgment may be formed from the general tenour of their writings, they utterly condemned. Hooker has left a challenge upon record, and has boldly declared that he will give up the cause of dispute, if the Presbyterians will produce one instance for the first fifteen hundred years, of a church governed by their mode of discipline, and not by ours. Chillingworth seems to be with you, Sir, a favorite author. His piety and learning do, indeed, entitle him to the highest estimation. But is it necessary to remind you, that Chillingworth has written a small treatise which he calls "The Apostolical institution of Episcopacy Demonstrated?" The concluding section of this treatise is in the following words; "When I shall see, therefore, all the fables in the metamorphosis acted and prove stories; when I shall see all the Democracies and Aristocracies in the world, lie down and sleep, and wake into Monarchies; then will I begin to believe that Presbyterian government, having continued in the church during the Apostles' times, should presently after, against the Apostles' doctrine and the will of Christ, be whirled about like a scene in a Masque, and transformed into Episcopacy. In the mean time, while these things remain thus incredible, and in human reason impossible, I hope I shall have leave to conclude thus: Episcopal government is acknowledged to have been universally received in the church presently after the Apostles' times.
"Between the Apostles' times and this presently after, there was not time enough for, nor possibility of so great an alteration.
"And, therefore, there was no such alteration as is pretended. And, therefore, Episcopacy being confessed to be so Ancient and Catholic, must be granted also to be Apostolic, quod erat demonstrandum."
Stillingfleet, at an early period of life, wrote his Irenicum, in which, with the view of conciliating the minds of Christians who were Dissenters from the church of England, he conceded certain points which he ought to have maintained. When his understanding was better informed and his judgment became more mature, his subsequent writings show that he was sensible of his error. And after this, surely it is not candid to quote his Irenicum on every occasion, and say nothing of his clear and decided opinion formed upon more mature deliberation.
Bishop Potter has written a Discourse of church Government, the great design of which is to show that Episcopacy was the established mode of ecclesiastical discipline from the days of the Apostles, down to the time of John Calvin. And yet, detached passages from his book are produced for the purpose of invalidating those Episcopal sentiments, which his elaborate Treatise was written to inculcate.
The church of England, I trust, will never be destitute of able advocates to maintain her cause against all opposition, although their words may be sometimes misunderstood, and sometimes perverted from their original intention. I am induced to express this desire not only from regard to Christianity in general, but from particular attachment to the Protestant Episcopal Church in the United States of America. Tracing our ministerial authority back to the church of England, we know that we stand on sure ground; we entertain not the least doubt of the validity of our Ordination to the work of the ministry. And here permit me to remark that you have unquestionably fallen into an error, when you assert, "that Luther and Calvin and their adherents must either have continued in communion with the Romish church to preserve that succession, or they must of necessity renounce that succession and commence a new one, that is, spiritual, which they did-and it is manifest the Episcopal church of England did the same things' It was not absolutely necessary for Luther and Calvin to renounce Episcopacy, when they undertook to purify the church from the corruptions of Popery. Indeed, it was not in the power of those Reformers to commence a new succession; no merely human authority was adequate to this purpose; it could be enacted only by the immediate interposition of Christ himself; the great Head of the church, the source of all spiritual power. And herein is the great advantage enjoyed by the church of England, when compared to several other churches on the continent of Europe where the Reformation was carried on by the People and the inferior Clergy. In England, the Bishops themselves took the lead in the Reformation; and having renounced the usurpation of the Bishop of Rome and purified the church from the erroneous doctrines which from time to time had been added to the primitive faith, they still retained the line of Episcopal succession unimpaired. But, you object to the propriety of this procedure, because this is an acknowledgment that we derive our ministerial power through the church of Rome. To this objection I will answer in the words of an able advocate for our Episcopal church; "Well, Sir, and what of that? Was preserving the succession from the Apostles, one of the corruptions of the church of Rome? I always supposed, that among her good things that was one. When a man of corrupt principles faithfully preserves a deposit committed to him to answer any valuable purpose, and hands it down without the least injury to his successors, is this one of his corruptions? The church of Rome has faithfully handed down to us the Apostles' and Nicene Creed, and the Holy Scriptures; are they polluted by coming to us through that channel? Is there nothing good in the church of Rome, because some things are bad? Is not an office valid, because the man who holds it is not what he ought to be; or the church in which it is exercised, not so pure as she ought to be? How is it that men can hold a sentiment which if true, must long since have destroyed the church of Christ? Was the Jewish priesthood, as to its validity, affected by the corruptions of that church? This mode of reasoning, by proving too much, proves nothing."
When we consider the insidious, or the violent assaults which infidelity is continually making upon the Christian cause; when we behold the divisions and contentions which already prevail among those who profess to be Christ's Disciples; surely, every friend of truth, every lover of religion, ought to be particularly solicitous to repress schisms, and to promote that Unity for which our Lord so ardently prayed, just before his departure out of this world. I am persuaded, that the promotion of the influence of our holy religion is an object which lies near your heart; and yet, I cannot help thinking that the sentiments expressed in your Letter have a direct tendency to injure the cause which you mean to support. For only consider, Sir; since religion cannot be maintained in the world without a body of men set apart expressly for the purpose of administering the Ordinances of the church; if, as you intimate, the mere possession of true faith, repentance and holy obedience qualifies any man for the valid administration of these Ordinances; will not separations be multiplied and contentions inflamed? May not every bold pretender to superior sanctity collect a congregation and then become its lawful minister? Is there not reason to apprehend, that they who thus presumptuously undertake to minister in holy things will be lightly esteemed and the Ordinances of religion sink into disrepute?
It is certainly a matter of more moment than the world commonly imagines, that the Stewards who undertake to manage the affairs of Christ's household, should receive their authority from the master of the family; that the Officers who act in a subordinate character in the kingdom of the Redeemer, should possess a valid commission from the great King who sits upon the holy hill of Zion. I have already expressed my satisfaction that you, Sir, have made this matter the subject of your serious consideration. When gentlemen of candid minds and liberal education attend to enquiries of this nature, we may reasonably hope that prejudice will be subdued, the ignorant enlightened, the indifferent roused from their lethargy, the empire of Truth enlarged, and the influence of virtue and religion extended over the earth. And in concluding this address, permit me to declare my earnest hope, my confident expectation, that before the consummation of all things, the primitive, that is, the Episcopal discipline will be restored to the whole church of Christ; and then the fervent desire of the holy Apostle will be completely accomplished, "Now I beseech you Brethren, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that ye all speak the same thing, and that there be no divisions among you; but that ye be so perfectly joined together in the same mind and the same judgment."
With due respect, I remain your obedient friend and servant.