Project Canterbury





The First American Bishop
by the
Rev. S. C. Hughson
O. H. C.





Transcribed by Wayne Kempton
Archivist and Historiographer of the Episcopal Diocese of New York, 2008

Samuel Seabury



The fourteenth of November each year marks the anniversary of the consecration of the first Bishop of the American Church. On that day, in the year 1784, the Rev. Samuel Seabury, rector of St. Peter's Church, Westchester, New York, was consecrated as Bishop for the Church in Connecticut, by the Right Rev. Robert Kilgour, Bishop of Aberdeen, and Primus of Scotland; the Right Rev. Arthur Petrie, Bishop of Ross and Moray, and the Right Rev. John Skinner, Coadjutor Bishop of Aberdeen. The consecration took place in Bishop Skinner's private chapel in Longacre, in the city of Aberdeen.

Samuel Seabury was born in the little village of North Groton, Connecticut--now known as Ledyard--near New London, on St. Andrew's Day, November 30, 1729. His father had been a Congregationalist, but in 1722, while a student at Yale, had entered the Episcopal Church, but owing to the strong feeling against Episcopacy in Yale at that period, had withdrawn, and finished his education at Harvard.

Samuel Seabury received his primary education from his father, and in the schools of New London [1/2] and Hempstead, Long Island. In spite of his father's difficulties at Yale, his love for the old institution made him enter his son there, and Samuel Seabury graduated in the class of 1748. He went to Scotland shortly after, and in 1752 he took a degree in medicine at the University of Edinburgh.

But the practice of healing the bodies of men was not the young colonial's ambition in life, as noble a profession as that is. He aimed to become a shepherd of souls. Proceeding to London, he was ordained to the diaconate on the feast of St. Thomas in the following year and to the priesthood two days later. With an appointment as missionary of the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel, he returned to America and served at New Brunswick, New Jersey, and on Long Island. When the Revolution broke out he was the rector of Westchester, New York, and through that entire struggle, he remained loyal to the King. In 1778 he was commissioned as Chaplain to the King's American Regiment, and in that capacity, served through the greater part of the war.

Few people who now see the Episcopal Church in America respected and prosperous, realize what her condition was when the Revolutionary War came to an end. In Virginia the Church was practically dead. Even a generation later, when Bishop Meade of that Diocese was ordained deacon, some of his friends thought him a little touched in the head because he purposed to identify himself with so moribund an institution.

[3] The best that the Church presented was to be found in South Carolina and Connecticut. These two states had sent more of their sons into the ministry than any others, and while Churchmen were largely Tories, in these two sections they had succeeded in retaining at least the respect of their neighbours.

The Church in Connecticut was stronger by far than in any other part of the country, and Churchmen there were keener to carry on the work of the ministry than in any other section. At the close of the war there were in Connecticut fourteen clergy, forty congregations, and forty thousand Church population. In other parts of the states most Churchmen seemed content to go on, or rather to lag behind, as they had been wont to do for generations.

In Connecticut it was realized as nowhere else that the Church would in a few years be dead if Bishops were not secured, and the clergy were resolute that this should not happen. They had suffered in the past for the sake of the Church, and they were quite ready to suffer again if it was the will of God. Connecticut had not persecuted the Tories as had the other States, but there was peril enough to make them walk softly. They were not even sure of the attitude of their laity.

It is not, therefore, to be wondered at that they were more than cautious in their proceedings. The war was scarcely over when ten out of the fourteen priests of Connecticut met in the [3/4] little village of Woodbury, amongst the hills of Litchfield County, of which the Rev. John R. Marshall was the priest, to take steps to secure the preservation of the Church by choosing a Bishop.

There was no matter of choice between candidates. The question was simply whether there was anyone who would assume the post which "was likely to be attended with more sacrifice than emolument, more trial than honour." The meeting was held in the last week of March, and was kept a profound secret. The necessity of this course can be seen when we are told that Mr. Marshall during the progress of the war was the victim of much violence from the malice of an unrestrained populace. He was more than once assaulted on the public highway, once being beaten so cruelly as to be confined to his house for weeks as a consequence. His services were broken up, and he himself driven from the house in which he was officiating.

The Rev. Abraham Jarvis, the secretary of the meeting, was authorized to go to New York, and try to prevail on the Rev. Jeremiah Leaming to go to England and seek episcopal consecration; and should he decline to serve, to offer the post with its perils and burdens, to Dr. Seabury. Mr. Learning was an old man, and had suffered much during the Revolution from both Whigs and Tories. The British burned his church in Norwalk, and destroyed all his property, while the Americans showed their patriotism by throwing [4/5] him into jail where they denied him even a bed on which to sleep, and otherwise treated him so barbarously that he came out from his prison a cripple for life.

He declined the honour of the Episcopate, and the choice then fell upon Samuel Seabury. This selection was a bold one. Dr. Seabury had not only been a consistent Tory, but he had been in the actual service of the British Army as chaplain. Like not a few of his brethren, he had been imprisoned by the Continental authorities, but had escaped and found refuge within the British lines. At the time the choice of his brethren fell upon him, he was receiving a pension from the British Government.

All this combined to make the chances of the new Bishop's popularity slender indeed. But none of these men were looking for popular favour. They only desired the peace of Jerusalem, and Dr. Seabury had the temerity to sail for England in the flag-ship of Admiral Digby.

His adventures in England, and the disregard showed by Bishop Lowth of London, and the rest of the Hanoverized bench of Bishops, is told below.

The old colonial town of Woodbury in Connecticut has never developed into a modern city of importance, but its interest to American Churchmen is of the first order, and if we rightly regarded our history and traditions, it would be a point of pious pilgrimage for the faithful. There still stands the old glebe-house where that little [5/6] band of men met nearly a century and a half ago, and took the courageous action which marked the beginning of our national Church. Elsewhere men were despairing. Even Dr. William White of Philadelphia, a recognized leader in all things spiritual, thought the day far distant when the American Church could have her Bishops, and was advising that she should have to get on without them as she had done for more than century and a half of her history.

Perhaps no Church in any land has been freer from political influence than the Episcopal Church in the United States, but even to our own day one hears now and again, the question raised concerning the wisdom of the course pursued by the Church in Connecticut to secure a Bishop. It is asked if she should not have waited until such time as the British Parliament was willing to grant permission to the English Episcopate to consecrate Bishops for the American dioceses; and if her action was not an infringement upon the rights of the very remote jurisdiction which the Bishop of London had for some time exercised in the American Colonies.

That Connecticut did not thus wait is to her lasting honour. She wanted no state-made Bishop. She desired, and expressly declared that she would have none but "a free, valid and purely ecclesiastical Episcopacy." When it became evident that the English Bishops would not act until they had the permission of a legislature made up of all kinds of men, ranging from pious High [6/7] Churchmen to Deists and Voltarian infidels, Connecticut rejoiced that her Bishop-elect sought his office from those who had the Catholic right to bestow it, without considering the yea or nay of any secular authority.

On January 20, 1783, the provisional articles of peace agreed upon by England and her late American Colonies, became effective, and on March 25th, the Feast of the Incarnation of our Lord, the clergy of Connecticut met and elected Dr. Seabury to be their Bishop.

The answer to the question which has been raised regarding Connecticut's right to take such action is found in the simple fact that the Church of England had never claimed any jurisdiction over the Colonial Church except that which she had assumed at a somewhat late period, in obedience to the mandate of the civil powers. This is a matter of historical record. It is not worth while to discuss the right of a civil ruler to give either "mission" or "jurisdiction" to a Bishop. Such rights can be derived only from God, acting through His Church.

But even if the King of England, (who was at that time officially a Presbyterian in Scotland, a Lutheran in his German dominions, and a Churchman only in England), possessed in reality this right, it came to an end when he acknowledged the independence of the United States.

Even Dr. Inglis, the rector of Trinity Church, New York, who was so unyielding a Royalist that [7/8] he left the country after the Revolution rather than renounce his King, had no illusions on this point. Writing to James Duane in March, 1783, concerning his legal rights, if he chose to claim them, he said, "By recognizing the independency of America, the King gives up his claim to my allegiance."

An ecclesiastical allegiance which was grounded only on the interference of the King, by the same token, also fell to the ground. Again and again the English Church authorities, in their negotiations with Bishop Seabury, insisted that neither the English Church nor Crown had any authority now that Connecticut was "a foreign state."

There can, therefore, be no question, canonical or otherwise, that the Church in the newly formed Republic had the right to elect her own Bishops, and to seek their consecration anywhere in the world she chose, provided she followed the necessary Catholic rule and custom.

In June, 1783, Dr. Seabury sailed for England--five months before the British evacuation of New York, so eager was Connecticut to secure her organization as a diocese. On August 7, he reached London, full of hope and sure confidence that a few weeks would see him once more on the seas, bearing to the infant Church the inestimable gift of the Catholic Episcopate.

But just as eight years before, the Colonies had counted in vain on the political generosity of the Mother-country, so now they were to find [8/9] that the Mother-Church, which should have rejoiced to equip and send forth with her blessing this her daughter of the western world, was to prove a broken reed.

Never did Roman curia have readier a solemn non possumus than did English Church and State. The Archbishop of Canterbury received Dr. Seabury "politely," but was "cool and restrained." The Bishop of London gave him personally a "cordial reception," but "was not disposed to take the lead in the matter." The Archbishop of York would express no opinion.

For sixteen weary months the first Bishop-elect of the American Church waited in the ante- chambers of Lords Bishops, and of statesmen--or rather, of politicians, for the loss of the Colonies had showed that there was not a statesman in the whole length of England who could make his voice heard, the Archbishop of Canterbury himself complaining to Dr. Seabury "of the people in power, that there is no getting them to attend to anything in which their own party interest is not concerned."

But the waiting was in vain. Dr. Seabury's indictment, after three months of sickening delays, applied to the politicians both civil and ecclesiastical--"Nobody here," he wrote, "will risk anything for the sake of the Church."

Weeks and months drifted by. Dr. Seabury, who was in England at his own charges, and who had never received a salary of more than $500 a year, was nearing the end of his resources. But [9/10] like all brave-hearted men, his optimism never failed him. After being more than a year on his quest, he wrote at the end of July, 1784, "Measures are now concerting, and I am flattered with every prospect of success."

A bill had been introduced into Parliament, and in the summer of 1784, it passed. But what was his chagrin to find that while it authorized the Bishop of London to ordain foreign candidates for priests' and deacons' orders without requiring the civil oaths, not a word was said about the consecration of Bishops. Parliament had adjourned, and there was no possibility of further action for an indefinite period of time to come.

Dr. Seabury's instructions from the Church in Connecticut had been to exhaust every means of securing consecration in England, and, failing there, to apply to the Bishops in Scotland. No other resource was now open to him, and so, making a journey of more than five hundred miles in a stage-coach over roads not worthy to be dignified by the name of cattle-trails, he received there the spiritual treasure which England would not give.

America can never forget the debt she owes to Scotland for the Episcopate, and this debt of gratitude is seen to be the greater when the status of that Church a century and a half ago is recalled.

For a hundred years Episcopacy had been a forbidden form of religion in Scotland. Under [10/11] William and Mary the Church had been proscribed. Presbyterian courts were set up with authority to fine and imprison the Episcopal clergy if they held services even in private.

By the end of the eighteenth century the offense was quite generally condoned, but less than forty years before, the formidable Stuart uprising under Prince Charles, the Young Pretender, had brought upon the harried Scottish Church a persecution, the terrors of which can only be appreciated by those who might read some such record as the Jacobite Memoirs of the Scottish Bishop Forbes.

Episcopal Churches had been everywhere demolished, and prayers with more than four persons, even in a private house, were forbidden under penalty of six months in jail for the first offense, and transportation for life for the second.

The rigour of these laws had been much abated with the lapse of time, but they were unrepealed, and had, within the memory of many living men, been savagely enforced. Any action on the part of the Scottish Bishops, irritating to the English authorities, might have brought the law about their ears in a manner that would mean trouble to the Church.

It is no wonder, then, that the Scottish Primus sounded the Archbishop of Canterbury before planning any action regarding an American Episcopate. This was done through Dr. Berkeley, a son of the famous Bishop and philosopher, whose devotion to the Church in the Colonies, [11/12] is one of the treasured memories of American Churchmen.

Canterbury intimated that he would raise no objection, and on Sunday, November 14, 1784, Samuel Seabury was consecrated Bishop in the Church of God in Bishop Skinner's private chapel in Aberdeen. Three of the four living Scottish Bishops took part in the consecration. The fourth, Bishop Rose of Dunblane, who was unable to be present on account of ill-health, recorded his consent. Thus was the long desired Episcopate obtained by the American Church.

There was a sequel to this event which was unpleasant at the time, but which, if regarded in the right light, does credit to the English Church. The authorities in England, when they realized the significance of what had happened, felt shamed that when it became imperative for the first National Church founded in the new lands of the west by Englishmen, to be given the Episcopate, politics and Erastianism should have forced her children to seek in another country what it was their right to claim from their own mother.

But, unhappily, the shame of it did not breed generosity. Bishop Seabury was treated with scant courtesy by the English ecclesiastics on his return from Scotland, en route home. He was accused of being "precipitate," and certain of those who has been most cordial, now even denied him the title of Bishop.

[13] Their feeling of shame did them honour, even though the way of showing it was unfortunate. Three years later when Bishop White and Provoost appeared in England to receive consecration as Bishops of Pennsylvania and New York, the matter was speedily arranged. But the Archbishop of Canterbury requested these gentlemen not to consent to the consecration of Bishops in America until such time as a full English succession of three Bishops could be had.

It was an ungracious request, and it was not to the credit of Bishop White and Bishop Provoost that they complied with it; but it was to the credit of the English Bishops that they showed themselves ashamed of the failure of three years previous. They did themselves honour in their determination, tardy as it was, to use every endeavour to see that the Church which England had mothered should receive from her the power to propagate a vigorous spiritual offspring.

Had it not been, however, for Bishop Seabury's resolute and independent course, it is not unlikely that years would have gone by before the British Parliament would have given the necessary permission for consecrating American Bishops.

If this conjecture be well grounded, it is to Samuel Seabury, more than to any other one man, that the American Church is indebted for the speedy organization of her Episcopate, permitting her, as it did, to strengthen her stakes, [13/14] and to extend her cords to the furthest bounds of the great continent which her missionary efforts were destined to conquer.

Bishop Seabury's episcopate was a short one. It lasted only a little more than eleven years, when he was called to his reward. But in that brief period he made an impress upon, not only the Church in Connecticut, but through the whole country.

He was called upon to carry on the Church's work, not only in his own diocese, but for several years had the state of Rhode Island under his pastoral care, and his work and influence had much to do with the spread of the Church in New England. The same strength of character, and persistent resolution which secured for America the episcopate, showed itself in his dealings with all men.

But with all his resolute and independent character, Samuel Seabury was the humblest of men. Like St. Paul, he indeed magnified his office, but when his personal interest or dignity was involved, he could stand aside with a Christian humility which showed that he had learned the lesson mastered only by those who sit always at the feet of Him who is "meek and lowly of heart."

A striking instance illustrates this. By virtue of seniority, he had presided over the House of Bishops in the Convention of 1789. In 1792, Bishops Provoost and Madison were displeased [14/15] at this plan, and proposed that the Presidency go in rotation, beginning from the North. The aim of this proposal was that Bishop Provoost should supersede Bishop Seabury. The latter wrote concerning it in his diary: "I had no inclination to contend who should be greatest in the kingdom of heaven, and therefore readily consented to relinquish the presidency into the hands of Bishop Provoost. I thank God for His grace on this occasion, and beseech Him that no self-exaltation or envy of others, may ever lead me into debate and contention, but that I may ever be willing to be the least, when the peace of His Church requires it. Amen."

It was this imitation of his Master that made him great, and as the years went by, men more and more recognized the likeness and accorded him the veneration his character commanded. He died on February 25, 1796, in the sixty-eighth year of his age, and the twelfth of his Episcopate.

No higher tribute could be paid to any man than that implied in a description of his funeral, written by Mr. Rogers, a Baptist gentleman. "The most interesting funeral I ever attended was Bishop Seabury's," he wrote years after. "It was not only the largest, but the most solemn and affecting. The sidewalks from the church to the grave for some considerable distance were lined with the decrepit, the aged, the halt and blind, lamenting their loss; and while their withered cheeks were bathed in tears, their heads [15/16] uncovered, and their gray locks waving in the wind, their wailing and lamentations were articulate."

It was just what this faithful shepherd of the sheep would have desired. No splendid cortege, no high panegyric, no lofty praise from the great ones of the earth, but the tribute of the love and tears of the poor testified to what his life and ministry had been.

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