Project Canterbury

Personal Reminiscences of the Founding of the Reformed Episcopal Church.

By Charles Edward Cheney.

Philadelphia: Reformed Episcopal Publication Society, 1913.

It is difficult for me to overcome the embarrassment that I have felt in undertaking to give this address to-night. In the first place, as Dr. Tracy has very kindly stated, I have been asked to repeat an address which I made here more than a year ago. But when I came to try to remember what I said on that occasion, I could not recall one solitary idea or word. It was simply an extemporaneous talk, for which I had made no preparation whatever. Since three o’clock this afternoon I have been searching the corners of my memory to see if I could find there anything of what I said on that occasion. Whether I shall come anywhere near such repetition, those who heard me before can tell.

My embarrassment, however, is not so much owing to the fact of my inability to recall what I said on a previous occasion, as it is because I have been requested to relate those personal reminiscences of the genesis of our Church in which I, as an individual, was very largely involved. I beg you to believe that it is not personal vanity or a sense of my own importance that leads me to speak so much about myself as your request demands.

[2] I should begin, I think, by saying that, since the Reformation in the sixteenth century, there have always been two great elements—two great parties—in the Church of Christ. On the one hand have been those who hold to Justification by Faith; the essential importance of the Atonement through the blood of our Lord Jesus Christ, and the necessity of spiritual Regeneration; while, on the other hand, have been those who, however earnest, however sincere, seem to us of the Evangelical element to be groping in the dark of a religious system which exalts the outward in religion to the sacrifice of the inward and the spiritual. I said that this division has existed “ever since the Reformation,” but it antedates that epoch—for any one who reads the Epistle to the Galatians with the care that it deserves will very speedily discover that two such parties existed in the apostolic Church.

If I must come to my own personal story, I will simply say that I am an Episcopalian of the Episcopalians. My father and my grandfather were wardens in the Protestant Episcopal Church. I was educated in that Church, baptized in it, confirmed in it, twice ordained in it; and as I look back over the years that have fled, I realize an experience of intense thankfulness that my early training at my mother’s knee was training in evangelical Episcopacy.

As I recall the days of my youth, I remember an occasion soon after I had entered on my ministry in Chicago, which was a test of my loyalty to my principles; I think it was in the year 1860 that, in the Diocesan Convention of Illinois, attention was called to the fact that the Secretary of the Diocese had published the [2/3] Journal the previous year, omitting from it the word “Protestant.” A resolution was offered that the Secretary of the Council be directed, in the publication of the Journal of that present Convention, to restore to its proper place the name “Protestant;” I seconded the motion, and made an address, which some of my friends so approved that they took the pains to have it printed and scattered broadcast. I remember to have said: “I was born a Protestant, I drank in Protestantism with my mother’s milk; I was educated in a Protestant Church; a Protestant I will live; a Protestant I will die; and when men come to lay me underneath the sod, I hope the epitaph above me will be: ‘Here lies a Protestant.’”

Educated, train, as I say, in my own home, as well as in the Church, in the spirit and temper of an evangelical faith, it was hardly to be expected that in those days I could get my theological education anywhere except in the Alexandria Seminary. There were circumstances, almost immediately upon my entering the ministry, which led me to feel that there was a possibility of a rupture of the Evangelical Party as against the old line High Churchmen. We had at that date very few of such ritualists as are to be found now. But about the time that I myself began to experience trouble in my relations to the Diocese of Illinois and to the Bishop, the trial of the Reverend Steven H. Tyng, Jr., took place in the City of New York, he being accused of preaching in a non-Episcopal Church within the bounds of a High Church parish. About the same time, the Reverend John P. Hubbard was charged with a similar offence, and the whole Church was stirred up from one [3/4] end to the other by these ecclesiastical trials. At that period, the Protestant Episcopal Church enjoyed the presence, the splendid talents, the intense piety and the Evangelical teaching that characterized such men as Bishop Meade, Bishop Johns, Bishop McIlvaine, Bishop Bedell, and a number of others in the House of Bishops. It was not a day when the Evangelical Party had ceased to exist or had wholly lost its influence—and the consequence was that excitement was everywhere roused in the train of these two trials. They had been preparing the way.

Another fact which had had a profound influence upon the education of the Evangelical Party in the Protestant Episcopal Church was the annual assembling of what were known as the “Evangelical Conferences.” There are very few in this generation—probably none in this present auditory, except my honored friend, Mrs. Nicholson—who remembers them. There were then three great societies under the complete control of the Evangelical Party. One was the Evangelical Knowledge Society, which scattered Gospel literature throughout the Church. Another was the Church Missionary Society, engaged in the raising of money for the support of evangelical ministers, especially in the western dioceses. The third was the Evangelical Education Society, which supplied money to aid impoverished students of an Evangelical type in the seminaries of the Church. These societies met annually in the seaboard cities—sometimes in New York, sometimes in Philadelphia, sometimes in Baltimore, and I think once or twice in the city of Boston. And there we younger men were stirred by the eloquent appeals of the veteran chiefs of [4/5] the Evangelical Party. I can almost see them now—the venerable head of Dr. Richard Newton, and the stately form of Dr. Stephen H. Tyng the elder, and the leonine countenance of Dr. Alexander H. Vinton. They were all men whom I knew personally, and who exercised a profound influence over my youthful enthusiasm. Every one of those leaders was constantly harping upon this string: “We must do something; we must rise up and agitate and work, and, if necessary, create a sentiment in the Church that will make the Evangelical Party the power that it used to be when a majority of the House of Bishops was of the Evangelical type.” They were preparing the way by their tremendous influence over us younger men.

Then it came to pass that some of the younger clergy of the Evangelical type began to meet together and formed a society for the study of the history of the early Church, known as “The Latimer Society.” The result of that organization and study was that they became convinced that the doctrine of Apostolic Succession was a pure figment of tradition, and that the whole spirit of the early Church was a spirit that could not be content with the mere outward and visible in religion.

All this was preparing the way; but it led especially to one conclusion on the part of these younger men, of whom I speak. It was that, whatever else we had, we must have a revision of the Book of Common Prayer. They felt that it was absolutely necessary that the Baptismal Service, possibly the Communion Service, and certainly various other parts of the Prayer Book which involved the idea of a priesthood in the ministry of Christ, should be changed. Yet we would have been [5/6] content at that time with very small changes. I think it was Bishop Cummins himself who said that if only the word "priest” could he blotted out from the Prayer Book wherever it stood, he would be content to use that formulary in its entirety.

Referring to our beloved founder, let me say that he had been for several years side by side with me in the city of Chicago, as the rector in a great, powerful church. It used to be said that every Sunday night, if one wanted to find the way to Trinity Church, he had only to follow the crowd. The magnetic eloquence characteristic of that great man drew other men like a magnet. I was in charge of a tiny organization, which at the first enrolled seven communicants, of whom only two were men. But despite our disparity in years and position, we became warm friends. I think that Bishop Cummins very frankly stated, in a pamphlet that was published here in Philadelphia, that at that time he did not sympathize with the more radical wing of the Evangelical Party, that he hoped that such compromises might be effected, and that the dominant party in the Church might be so influenced, that we could remain in peace, and work on together in harmony. Later his mind changed, as we all know. But he and I were in sympathy in the fact that, after I became the object of Church discipline, on account of my views about the Baptismal Service, I was in frequent receipt of letters from Bishop Cummins (who was then the Assistant Bishop of the Diocese of Kentucky), which expressed the tenderest sympathy with me, assuring me that I was constantly in his prayers, and that he believed that the time would come when we should be enabled to carry [6/7] the views that we both held in regard to the revision of the Prayer Book, into something like success.

May I say again (though I dislike to allude to my own personal affairs), the Baptismal Service of the Protestant Episcopal Church in which I had been reared, I had, during the first seven or eight years of my active ministry in Chicago, been enabled so to explain as to satisfy my conscience. I tried to accept what was called “the hypothetical view,” which taught that when the minister said that the child or the adult was “regenerate” the moment that the water of baptism had been applied, he was simply looking down the future of the baptized person, and upon the theory that the candidate would he converted and become a Christian, the officiating clergyman was justified in assuming hypothetically that he was already regenerate.

There were half a dozen equally unsatisfactory explanations of the Baptismal Office, which I have not time to detail. But I tried to appease my conscience with one after another of the theories by which Evangelical men endeavored to reconcile the Prayer Book and the Bible regarding the effect of Baptism. Especially I tried to believe that when I said; “This child (or this person) is regenerate,” when the water had just been applied, that the Prayer Book did not mean a spiritual regeneration, but simply a translation out of the world into the Church. But by and by I came upon a more difficult point. The exhortation said: “Seeing now, dearly beloved, that this person is regenerate and grafted into the body of Christ’s Church, let us give thanks.” Well, perhaps I could explain the language as only signifying that the candidate had now passed [7/8] from the world into the Church, and that this ecclesiastical change was the only regeneration inculcated in the Prayer Book. But when I got down on my knees and began to thank God—what was I thanking Him for? “We thank Thee that it hath pleased Thee to regenerate this person by Thy Holy Spirit.” Then it was precisely the same regeneration about which our Lord talked to Nicodemus. Suddenly I found that my conscience was troubled beyond possible endurance; and without a word to any human being, not even to my beloved wife, I dropped that expression quietly from both the exhortation and thanksgiving itself. I do not think, however, that the omission would have ever created the excitement that it afterwards did, if it had not been, oddly enough, for a Baptist minister.

One day, in a Chicago book store, I fell into conversation with a Baptist clergyman of Chicago, whom I knew very well, and who was an exceptionally prominent man. It so happened that we drifted into a little controversy about Infant Baptism; and turning upon me, my Baptist friend said: “Mr. Cheney, I do not see how you can conscientiously use your Baptismal Service while holding your views about spiritual regeneration.” “Well,” I said, “to tell you the truth. Doctor, I do not use it; that is, I do not use the part of it that asserts spiritual regeneration as infallibly tied to baptism.”

The days passed on—I do not know how many—when one day to the door of my little parsonage in Chicago there drew up a carriage, and the card of Bishop Henry John Whitehouse was sent to my study. He desired to see me privately, and told me that from the lips of [8/9] this Baptist minister he had heard that which he could not believe, namely, that I made this omission in the Baptismal Service. I could not deny it; and thereupon he told me that I would be tried and deposed from the ministry. “But,” I said, “Bishop, how can you tell beforehand that 1 will he found guilty, or that I will be deposed from the ministry?” “Because,” he said, ”I shall not allow any man to be on the court who has signed his name to a certain document, referring to a protest against certain unevangelical methods and teachings issued a short time before in the Diocese of Illinois. The result was precisely what he predicted. He organized the court, which allowed him to choose, if I am not mistaken, ten presbyters, and from that number I was empowered to strike off five. But as long as the whole ten were men of the highest type of churchmanship, my striking off five did not do me much good.

At the trial I was fortunate enough to secure as my attorney the Honorable Melville Weston Fuller, afterward Chief Justice of the United States, a man of noble character, a High Churchman in his religious theories, but thoroughly out of sympathy with the spirit of the Diocese of Illinois. As the trial proceeded, it became very evident that the court was practically “packed.” It was impossible for the assessors fairly to weigh the merits of the case. For example, we proposed to call Dr. Richard Newton, Dr. Alexander H. Vinton, Dr. Stephen H. Tyng, and a number of prominent clergymen of the Evangelical school in the Eastern States, who offered to give their positive testimony that they knew of cases in various dioceses where clergymen had made the same omission with which I was accused, and [9/10] that their bishops, though aware of it, had said nothing about it. That testimony was not allowed, being ruled out by the Bishop. But finally, finding that it was utterly impossible to obtain justice there, Mr. Fuller, in my behalf, appealed to the civil tribunals, and an injunction was issued that practically suspended the ecclesiastical court, and gave me eighteen months to educate my own people along the lines of truth in regard to the question of Baptismal Regeneration. In the summer of 1871 that injunction was dissolved. Then the court was ready to proceed, but meanwhile one of the five triers had been made the Bishop of Arkansas, had been consecrated, and had gone to his new diocese. He, therefore, was no longer my peer, nor was he in the diocese of Illinois. Naturally, Mr. Fuller claimed that a new panel of jurymen or triers should be selected for the purpose. “No,” Bishop Whitehouse said, “an ecclesiastical court is constituted on the general analogy of a court martial, and not of the civil courts of the country; and therefore the four remaining men may go on and try the defendant.” This ruling he persisted in—an error which ultimately proved fatal to the prosecution.

Nevertheless, the verdict found by the court, and pronounced by the Bishop, was that I should be suspended from the ministry until such time as I “should express contrition for the past and promise conformity in the future.” I immediately went to the chaplain of Bishop Whitehouse—a man of high character—and said to him: “My dear brother, do you see that such a sentence brands me as a hypocrite and a liar? For if I tell the truth, it is my conscience that is involved in [10/11] this matter, and if I cannot conscientiously use the language of the Baptismal Service, how is it possible that I should express honest contrition for the past, and promise conformity in the future?” It was of no avail. The sentence was passed by this court, and immediately on the pronouncing of the sentence, my own vestry met together and asked me in the name of the congregation to proceed with my services as I had done for the preceding years. I complied with that request, and for the whole period from that time on. Bishop Whitehouse refused to visit the church, and we could have no confirmation.

But later a new indictment was brought against me. I was charged, not, as in the first trial, with violation of my ordination vows, but for “contumacy” in disobeying the sentence of the first court. The second trial I did not attend. They proceeded to try me in absentia; thus giving me “absent treatment,” like the Christian/ Scientists. The result of it all was that when the sentence of deposition was pronounced by Bishop Whitehouse on the ground that I was contumacious in not obeying the sentence of the first court, and when the civil courts of Illinois subsequently ruled that the first court itself had not been constituted according to the Canons of the Church, and therefore violated the civil laws of Illinois, then, of course, the second trial was also invalid and of no effect. I am glad to say that as high an authority as the late Bishop Doane, of the Diocese of Albany; the Rev. John Fulton, D. D., the editor of The Church Standard here in Philadelphia, and a number of other clergymen and laymen of great prominence in the Protestant Episcopal Church, have [11/12] within the last few years agreed to that view. It was clear that I had never been legally or canonically tried. Indeed, Dr. Fulton contended that I should appeal to the Bishop of the Protestant Episcopal Church of the Diocese of Chicago, and demand of him that I be restored to its ministry. I am not in any particular danger of doing it, however!

Now from the time of the pronouncing of that first sentence until December, 1873, I stood absolutely alone. It was a sad thing. When I wrote to one—I think at that time the most distinguished clergyman of the Protestant Episcopal Church in Philadelphia a venerable man, at whose feet I might almost say I was brought up, although I had never studied theology under him—a man who was my friend and whose sons were my friends—when I wrote to him that the Bishop of the Diocese had threatened me with deposition from the ministry because of the omission, of that sentence in the Baptismal Service, he wrote to me: “My dear brother, I have not been stirred since the firing on Fort Sumter as I have been stirred by this outrageous thing. Now let me give you, as an older brother, some advice. If your congregation stand by you, well and good; if they fail to do so, go out; get the nearest hall that you can rent, and proceed to organize as an Evangelical or (and I quote his very word) Reformed Episcopal Church.”

And another, a great leader of the Evangelical Party in the Diocese of New York, wrote to me at the very beginning of my troubles: “My dear brother, I shall take pleasure in defying any sentence that an ecclesiastical court may pass upon you, and whether deposed or not, I shall welcome you to the pulpit of my church.”

But eighteen months passed away. I had been deposed, as was claimed. I firmly held, and still hold, that I never was deposed, and the civil courts had also decided that my trial and sentence were utterly invalid.

But I was alone. I felt as if the whole world had deserted me, except my loyal and beloved people in Christ Church. And the very clergyman who urged me to form a “Reformed” Episcopal Church, wrote a pamphlet in reply to Bishop Nicholson, when the latter stated his reasons for joining the Reformed Episcopal Church. This distinguished minister, in setting forth his reasons for not joining the Reformed Episcopal Church, used the following language: “I am told that there are some ministers who find difficulty in reconciling their consciences to the use of the Baptismal Service. Then let them omit that which offends their consciences. But I shall be answered that for that very omission Mr. Cheney was deposed from the ministry. Not at all. Mr. Cheney was not deposed from the ministry for a violation of any rubric, or of his ordination vow, or for omitting a phrase from the Baptismal Service. He was deposed for his contumacy in going on with his ministry after he had been deposed.” And he was the very man that counseled me to do it! I tell you what I went through in a sense of betrayal and desertion for nearly two years, none will ever know.

But there was one man who cheered me by his letters, and even dared to visit me. That was George David Cummins.

 Finally, as you know, one day—I think it was either in October or November, 1873—as I opened my morning’s mail, I found a circular letter from Bishop [13/14] Cummins addressed to certain Evangelical brethren, asking them to meet in the Young Men’s Christian Association Hall in the city of New York, and form there an Evangelical Episcopal Church, and to take measures for the revising of the liturgy. You will find that circular letter in the earlier Journals of the Reformed Episcopal Church, as well as in Colonel Aycrigg’s Memoirs. Bishop Cummins had been driven to that step, as some of you know, by the fact that at the meeting of the Evangelical Alliance in New York, he joined in a Union Communion with non-Episcopal ministers in the Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church.

On the second of December, 1873, I was in the city of New York, with a thankful heart, and glad to join in that movement. At first it was intended to occupy the great hall of the Association building. It was supposed that a large number of evangelical men would feel that here was the opportunity for which they had longed and prayed for for years and years. But when we came to gather there, there were only seven ministers and I think less than twenty laymen. So we went into one of the small rooms of the Young Men’s Christian Association, feeling that the fewness of numbers would be less conspicuous there. I well remember that in the beginning of Bishop Cummins’ magnificent address, a group of students from the General Theological Seminary were in the back part of the room, and kept jeering in such an audible way that some of the brethren thought they ought to call the police to turn them out.

Well, we were but a handful. But that meeting organized the Reformed Episcopal Church. It also offered me a Missionary Episcopate, which I declined. [14/15] It was urged upon me, and I declined it a second time. I did not feel that I was fitted for the office. Finally I only yielded when Bishop Cummins urged me to go back to Chicago and consult my own people, and tell them that the Council would consent to my remaining with them as their rector. Our church was heavily in debt and I could not leave it.

So much for my individual relation to the founding of our Church.

Now, what I want to deduce from all this is that the  separation between the Reformed Episcopal Church and the Protestant Episcopal Church was purely a matter of doctrine. I repeat it—doctrine. It was not a matter of ritual, although, of course, we objected to the extreme ritualistic features that were then creeping into the worship, and that now prevail in the Anglican Church, as you are well aware. I say it was not a matter of ritual. It was not a matter of vested choirs, of pompous processions, or priestly genuflections. But it struck down deep into the eternal truth of God. It was a separation solely and only upon the ground of doctrine.

Here, on the one hand, was the matter of baptism. We could not believe in baptismal regeneration. Here, again, was the matter of the real presence in the Lord’s Supper. Every one of us held to the real presence in the Lord’s Supper in the hearts of the true and faithful believers in Jesus, hut we did not believe in any real presence of Jesus in a piece of bread or a cup of wine. And then we utterly repudiated the doctrine of Apostolic Succession. We might believe in a Historic Succession. I know that Bishop Cummins did. I know that I, too, believed, and still believe, in a Historic [15/16] Succession, running back to the days of the English Reformation. But we never undertook to trace it hack to apostolic times. And, above all, I think, we felt that the division had largely resulted from the over-strained idea of an Episcopally ordained ministry. We realized that that unchurching dogma prevailing in the old Church, was a fiction which was unhistorical and unscriptural, and yet which we had been forced to treat as a Bible truth by the laws of the Church. Bishop Cummins in his opening address, laid the greatest stress upon our distinctive historic Episcopate as running back to the founders of the English Church, but the line of cleavage in our separation from our old associates was between men who held doctrines that contradicted everything that the English Reformation stood for, and those who clung to the truths for which the Reformers died at the stake at Smithfield and Oxford. Especially we claimed that it was impossible for us longer to worship with an unrevised Prayer Book. Oh, how we had pleaded with General Convention after Convention! “Give us only a little liberty in this matter; allow us to omit these phrases from the Baptismal Service; to cease to style ourselves ‘priests’ when we believe that the word ‘priest’ carries with it the idea of Sacerdotalism. I say again that it was doctrine, not worship—it was doctrine above all else that made the cleavage between the historic parties in the Anglican Church. Such a gulf cannot be filled up by any outward compromise; it cannot be bridged over by a mere courtesy which says; “We will let you walk in your own way as far as you keep within the laws of the Church.”

“Now, a common saying in our day is this: There is [16/17] no use for the Reformed Episcopal Church. If it ever had any reason for existence, that reason has ceased to be.” I do not question that every minister in this assembly has heard that assertion, and possibly a good many of the laity have heard it also. We are told that the Protestant Episcopal Church has grown “more liberal” as the years have gone on. Is it not advocating constantly “the union of the churches?” Indeed, I heard but few sermons in the Protestant Episcopal church which I attended during my summer on the coast of Maine, which did not dwell upon “our unhappy divisions,” and upon the efforts that the Protestant Episcopal Church was making toward church union. Hence, they tell us that the old troubles that led to separation no longer exist; that the Church has become generous and liberal and is willing to take us back; and that, consequently, there exists to-day no need whatever for a Reformed Episcopal Church.

Are the great issues dead which gave birth to the Reformed Episcopal Church? Is it no longer a matter of moment whether, when I stand at the font and baptize a child or an adult, I say that God has by His Spirit regenerated that person in the very hour of my applying the water of outward baptism? Does it make no difference whether the minister of the Lord Jesus is a preacher of the everlasting Gospel, or whether he is a priest, holding the power of sacrifice to God for sin in his possession, and therefore holding the consciences of his people? Does it make no difference whether we teach in our churches that the Lord’s Supper is a blessed memorial that Christ gave us with His dying love—becoming a means of grace because it stirs our memories [17/18] to an intenser love to Him who died, for our sins and rose again for our justification or that we teach that the Lord Jesus Christ, after the prayer of consecration, is in that bit of bread, and is in that cup of wine, and that the Communion becomes a means of grace in the mechanical way of a man taking the sacrament by his mouth into the stomach? Is there no difference between our frank acknowledgment that the ministry of Christ is a ministry recognized and honored by the Holy Spirit—whether it be Episcopal or non-Episcopal—and the dogma which forbids, that a non-Episcopal minister should be recognized, in a Protestant Episcopal Church? Do you remember, the excitement, and debate that there was a few years ago when, in the General Convention, a canon was passed that would permit a Presbyterian or Methodist on Baptist minister to be invited to speak in a Protestant Episcopal Church? But mark it well! He must speak as a layman. There was not the least acknowledgment of his ministry permitted, nor even then could he be allowed to speak in the church by the invitation of the rector of that church, but only as the consent of the bishop had first been obtained. I question whether there have been a dozen instances in which a non-Episcopal clergyman, while consenting to reduce himself to the rank of a layman, has under that canon addressed a Protestant Episcopal congregation. I ask if any man has a right to say that, the Protestant Episcopal Church has changed essentially in doctrine, except as it has gone further along the line of these false doctrines to which I have alluded?

Has it changed in regard to baptismal regeneration? Has it changed in regard to this matter, on the real [18/19] presence in the elements of the Communion? Has it repudiated the idea that a mortal man can take the place of the Lord Jesus Christ, and offer from an altar, as a “priest,” a sacrifice to God in the Supper of the Lord? And has it, any more than in 1873, acknowledged non-episcopal ministers, whom God the Holy Ghost has acknowledged by His blessing on their preaching? You know that it has not.

Beloved friends, in the autumn of the year 1879 I stood in front of old Balliol College in the city of Oxford, England. There, set in the stone pavement, was an iron cross. It marked the very spot on which brave old Hugh Latimer and Nicholas Ridley, chained to the stake, were burned to death. For what? For holding the very doctrine of the Lord’s Supper which the Reformed Episcopal Church holds and teaches in her standards. Do you remember that old Latimer turned to Ridley, and said: “Cheer up, Brother Ridley; we light a candle to-day in England that shall never go out.” Shall never go out! Shall we Reformed Episcopalians, who bear that candle to-day, let it go out? I say never! never! never!

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