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Memoir of Bishop Seabury

By William Jones Seabury, D.D.

New York: Edwin S. Gorham, 1908.
London: Rivingtons, 1908.

Chapter I. Early Years, and Ordination. 1729-1753

THE story of Bishop Seabury seems, so far as concerns the survival of materials out of which it can be constructed, to begin soon after the completion of his college course at Yale in 1748, while he was in the nineteenth year of his age. For the answer to questions of interest as to the influences under which he grew up, we are thus left somewhat to our imagination. We are not, however, altogether without facts on which it is safe to encourage the imagination to work. The character of his father, the Rev'd. Samuel Seabury, M. A., seems to have been such as to entitle him to universal respect, and to make him especially fitted to influence the son. From his mother, all that the Bishop could have derived must have been by inheritance rather than by personal influence. Abigail Mumford, his father's first wife, died in 1730, or 1731, after a married life of about four years, during which she had given birth to two sons--Caleb, born February 27, 1728, and Samuel, the subject of the present Memoir, born on the Feast of St. Andrew (November 30), 1729. She was the daughter of that Thomas Mumford who was Warden of the Church of St. James, New London, of which her husband was the first Rector, and who belonged to a family of some eminence in the history of the Colonies of Rhode Island and Connecticut. This family was connected with the Church of England; while the colonial line of Seabury, down to the date of the conformity and ordination of the Bishop's father (1731), seems to afford no instance of any but the staunchest Puritans of the Congregational type. The blending is not without its significance in this connection, but it need not now be dwelt upon.

All of maternal influence that the Bishop could have been conscious of was derived from the second wife of his father, who was Elizabeth, daughter of Adam Powell, and granddaughter of Gabriel Bernon of Rhode Island. Of this marriage there were three sons, Adam, Nathaniel and David; and two daughters, Jane, and Elizabeth Powell who became the wife of Dr. Benjamin Tredwell of Hempstead.

A youth spent amidst such associations as are thus indicated, in a well ordered Christian and Churchly home; with the best influences of parental example and guidance, and the affectionate intercourse of brothers and sisters in a loving family life, was certainly a good preparation for a useful manhood.

The Bishop was born at Groton, a place on the Thames river, opposite New London, in Connecticut. His father was, at the time of the birth, still acting as a licensed preacher among the Congregationalists in Groton, not having as yet conformed to the Church of England. It was natural, under these circumstances, that the child should be baptized by a Congregationalist Minister. The record of the Congregational Society in Groton is, "Samuel son of Samuel and Abigail Seabury baptized 14 Dec. 1729 by Rev. John Owen,"--the said John Owen being the Congregationalist Minister in South Groton. [Ms. letter of Rev. Dr. T. W. Coit to Rev. Dr. Samuel Seabury of April 3, 1851, and cf. Caulkins' History of New London.]

The ground taken by the recipient of this baptism in his later life, as to the invalidity of baptism without authority derived in due succession from the Apostles, upon whom only it had been originally conferred by Christ, renders it more than probable that he was afterward baptized by a clergyman of the Church of England. [Bp. Seabury's Sermons, I. pp. 97-99 and 183. Ed. 1793.] It is possible that his father performed the ceremony after returning from ordination in England: but, so far as has yet appeared, there is no record or other direct evidence of any such baptism.

The elder Samuel Seabury, the father of the Bishop, was, on his return from England, settled in charge of St. James' Church, New London, and to this place he transferred his residence; continuing there until his removal to Hempstead in 1742. The boyhood of the Bishop until his thirteenth year would thus appear to have been spent in New London. At Hempstead he completed, probably under the tuition of his father, his preparation for Yale College, which he entered in 1744, graduating Bachelor of Arts in 1748. From this college he afterward received the degree of Master of Arts, which degree was also conferred upon him at a later period by King's College in New York.

The only tale which appears to have survived in regard to the Bishop's boyhood, is that being once sent by his father to drive some cows out of the garden, he threw a stone which struck one of them with such force as almost to cause her death--an incident which served as a caution to him to use his uncommon strength with more moderation in future. Soon after his graduation he was appointed by the English Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in foreign parts to serve as a Catechist at Huntington, a station within the cure of his father, and some twenty miles distant from Hempstead.

The stipend of £10 per annum, which he received from the Society with this appointment, enabled him to reside at his home in Hempstead without being burdensome to his father. He relinquished this appointment in 1752; and during the three or four years in which he held it, all the time which he could spare from its duties he used for the study of Medicine and of Theology. His father had applied himself to the study of Medicine in order to minister to the bodily as well as to the spiritual needs of his parishioners; and he himself was probably at first led to the study from the same desire to make it auxiliary to the missionary labours to which he purposed to devote his life. But he lacked, upon the completion of his college course, some five or six years of the age at which he could be admitted to priest's orders; and as he could not well take the double journey to England, first for deacon's orders at twenty-one, and then for priest's orders at twenty-four; and as he appears from the beginning, as well as throughout his life, to have been of a very practical turn of mind, it was most natural that while he was steadily pursuing his theological studies, and at the same time gaining experience in the exercise of his function as a Catechist, he should also be disposed to supplement his study of the theory of medicine by medical practice as occasion afforded opportunity. His course in this respect, however, in no way interfered with his theological studies, which he continued to pursue with his father until 1752 when he set out for his ordination in England. It appears from the letter of introduction which his father gave him to the Bishop of London that, as he would not attain the age requisite for Priest's Orders until 1753, it had been determined that he should spend a year at the University of Edinburgh "in studying physic and anatomy," before going to London for ordination; and the year 1752-3 was accordingly spent by him in diligent attendance upon the lectures of professors eminent in that day at that University.

It is related that while he was a student in Edinburgh, as he was walking one day along the street, his attention being suddenly aroused by shouts of excited spectators, he saw rushing toward him in full career a horse, bearing a lady whose power of control seemed to be exhausted, and whose danger was obvious and imminent. This situation the young man, with mingled activity, strength and skill, instantly changed; and with a dextrous grasp, and masterfully firm hold of the bridle, he so steadily checked the progress of the steed as not to unseat the rider. It is manifest that this anecdote is charged with romantic possibilities; which, however, one grieves to record were not realized. For though the father, outstripped in the race, came soon upon the scene, and both the gentleman and his daughter were profuse in their grateful acknowledgments, yet nothing seems to have come of so fruitful an incident beyond a pleasant extension of the young student's acquaintance during his stay in the city--which, after all, was enough; and certainly more than he had anticipated when he started on his lonely stroll.

The Scottish Episcopal Church, "the Catholic remainder of the Ancient Church of Scotland," was at that time in a sad state of depression. Some years had elapsed since the defeat of the young Pretender had extinguished the hopes and aspirations of the adherents to the Stuart Succession: but the severe penal laws against the Churchmen who had earned their title of non-jurors by their refusal to take the oath of allegiance to William and Mary and their later successors of the House of Hanover, were still in force; and these men were accustomed to meet for religious worship, if not like the primitive Christians in dens and caves of the earth, yet in places so obscure and comparatively inaccessible, as to tend to their better concealment from the observation of their enemies. Our student does not appear to have had (either then or at a later period of his life) any predilection for their politics; but he was drawn to them by the stronger sympathies of a common Christian profession. He did not, therefore, hesitate, during his abode in Edinburgh, to seek out the sorrowful and dispersed members of the ancient Church, and attach himself to their Communion. The secrecy which they found it necessary to maintain was new to him; and he used afterward to describe with much interest the winding streets and alleys through which he was taken until, having entered a house which had no exterior appearance of a church, and passing through a blind way to a room in the rear, he found himself unexpectedly in the midst of a small band of worshippers. Little did he then think that he was afterwards to seek and receive the highest gifts in the power of the same Church to bestow, and thus to become in an important measure instrumental in raising her from the obscurity which he then felt it his privilege to share.

Having finished the course of study which had been planned for him at Edinburgh, he repaired to London; and with the approbation of Bishop Sherlock, then Incumbent of the See of London, on whom he had waited, agreeably to his father's direction in the July previous, he was on Friday, December 21st, 1753, admitted to Deacon's Orders by John, Bishop of Lincoln, acting at the request and in the stead of the Bishop of London, in his Lordship's Palace at Fulham.

The requirement of the usual interval between the conferring of Deacon's and Priest's Orders appears to have been relaxed in favour of candidates from the distant Colonies; and hence one is not surprised to find that on the Sunday following, December 23d, 1753, the Deacon of Friday's Ordination was admitted at the same place to the Order of Priests, by Richard, Bishop of Carlisle, acting at the request, and in the stead of the Bishop of London. It was probably a disappointment to him that Sherlock was unable to officiate in person at either of these Ordinations. He always cherished a high veneration for Bishop Sherlock, was accustomed to study his sermons with great care; and, in the opinion of his son (Rev. Charles Seabury) used them to some extent as a model upon which to form his own style in writing of the same kind. He was fond, afterwards, of repeating a saying common among the younger Clergy of that day in reference to the two Sherlocks, William, Dean of St. Paul's, and his son, Thomas, Bishop of London, "that the father was the soundest Divine in England, except the Son."

The witty Dr. South seems to have thought that the elder Sherlock would not be disposed to admit this or any other exception. He dedicated his answer to Dr. Sherlock's treatise on the Trinity--"To the admirers of Dr. Sherlock, and to himself the chief of them." [Animadversions upon Dr. Sherlock's book entitled "A Vindication of the Holy and ever blessed Trinity," etc. London, 1693.]

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