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Early Days of the Episcopal Church in Connecticut

Address, in Commemoration of the One Hundredth Anniversary of the Election of Bishop Seabury, March 25th, 1783. Delivered in St. John's Church, Stamford, and before the Fairfield County Clerical Association.

By William Tatlock.

Bridgeport, Connecticut: Farmer Office Print, 1883.


The Bishop of the Diocese set forth recently for use in the churches of Connecticut a special Thanksgiving for an event which took place one hundred years before, and on which important issues depended to the Episcopal Church in this country. It was the first of a series of events which will be commemorated by various parts of our Church in the way of centennial observance, and I have chosen it, therefore, as a fitting text for that notice of the establishment and early history of our American Church, especially in Connecticut, which seems not inappropriate to an occasion like the present, and in a place so near to the scenes of its earliest movement.

The event specially commemorated this year is the election of the first American Bishop, Dr. Samuel Seabury, by ten of the clergy of Connecticut, in the parsonage house at Woodbury, in Litchfield County, on the 25th of March, A. D. 1783. This was the first step taken for the complete establishment of the American Episcopal Church as independent of the Church of England. The treaty of peace between the colonies and the mother-country was signed Nov. 30th, 1782, and the work of re-construction, ecclesiastical as well as civil, had to be immediately taken in hand. Our church on this continent was Episcopal, of course, from the outset, when it was established in Maine and Virginia, before the settlement of Massachusetts and Connecticut by the Puritans; Episcopal, inasmuch as it was part of the Church of England, and its ministers, when it had any, were ordained by the English bishops and used the English liturgy. But as to Episcopal government, that was of the most unsatisfactory and uncertain kind, and confirmation was not administered here until the year 1785.

I. In order to understand historically the situation of the members of the Episcopal Church in Connecticut, we must recall their relation to the State at successive periods, at [3/4] first as they were proscribed, then as they were tolerated, and finally as they won for themselves and others that entire freedom and equality before the law which all Christians now enjoy.

There never was a more unwarranted assumption than that the Puritans gave to the world either the idea of religious liberty or the substance of it. The fact is, that no religious body, as such, with perhaps the exception of the Quakers and the founders of Rhode Island, ever did or ever would have done so. Wherever religious liberty has been secured it has been the gift of the State to its citizens, given in spite of ecclesiastical protest and opposition, when the development of civil society made it no longer possible for the ecclesiastical power to use the civil power for its own purposes of repression. The minority has always talked freedom of conscience--so long as it was the minority. When it became the majority, it did just what the other majority had done--it sought to protect and perpetuate itself by oppression and persecution.

The leading idea of the Puritans of New England was that of a theocracy, a government by the Lord's chosen, in the name of the Lord. When the New Haven colony took possession of the northern shore of Long Island Sound, in 1638, the right of suffrage was restricted at first to church members, and every one was taxed for the support of religion according to the Congregational order. To a people educated as they had been this seemed the only way of realizing the highest ideal of a Christian commonwealth. When the charter of King Charles II. united the Hartford and New Haven colonies under the one government of Connecticut, and the suffrage was opened to all male citizens, they were all taxed for the support of religion under the established order, but the royal commissioners received assurances that all the King's subjects should be free to exercise their religion according to their own conscientious convictions, subject to taxation for the State establishment. Notwithstanding these assurances, however, every hindrance was thrown in the way of such of the King's subjects as desired to practice the King's religion, and worship according to the order of the Church of England; and it was not until [4/5] A.D.1708 that what was called the "Toleration Act" was passed, tinder which all persons who "soberly dissented" from the established order w ere granted freedom of public worship, though they were not exempted from taxation for the support of the Congregational ministry. In the towns between New Haven and the New York line there was considerable trade, and an influx of persons attached to the Church of England, who commanded consideration by their wealth and enterprise; and Episcopal clergymen occasionally ministered to; them, especially at Stratford, Fairfield, Norwalk, and Stamford. But the Puritan ascendency was felt to be in danger, and from time to time active measures of repression were taken against the growing influence of the Church. Ten persons were imprisoned at Fairfield in 1727 for refusing to pay the taxes imposed for the support of religion. So much feeling was aroused by this, however, that the General Assembly in that year took another step in the direction of toleration, and a law was passed authorizing the Church of England people living within two miles of an Episcopal clergyman to "sign off," as it was called, from the general tax-list, and pay their legal rates towards the support of their own clergyman. The restriction as to distance operated hardly upon many churchmen, for their clergy were few and far between. But every effort to have it removed was vain. until gradually it ceased to be enforced, and any person who declared his adhesion to the Church of England was allowed to present his receipt from the Episcopal clergyman as a sufficient answer to the demand upon him for the support of Christian institutions in the town.

This was the situation when several of the oldest parishes in this county were founded, between 1725 and 1750. I find on my own parish records continually entries of the names of persons who "signed off," and paid their dues for the support of the rector instead of the Congregational minister. It continued until shortly after the Revolution, an act was passed allowing all religious societies to manage their own affairs, and provide for their own support either by a rate laid upon their members on the basis of the grand levy or town assessment, or by the sale of pews, or otherwise. But' all who did not enrol themselves as [5/6] Episcopalians, or as members of what were called then the "minor sects," were still taxed for the support of the established Church or "Standing Order." It seemed then to be little less than heathenish for a man not to contribute in some way to the support of public worship. And it is heathenish.

In the years 1817 and 1818 the present Constitution of the State was adopted, in which all public taxation for the support of religion was abolished, and freedom of worship was made absolute. In bringing this about the Episcopal Church was a powerful element in the combination which was known as the Toleration Party; and I may mention here, as a matter of interest to ourselves, that the then rector of Stamford parish drew up the platform, and in a meeting of the Clerical Association of Fairfield County, 65 years before this present meeting of the same association, inaugurated the movement among the Churchmen of Connecticut, which turned the scale in favor of the new constitution, and the establishment of the perfect equality of all religious denominations before the Law. His proposals were accepted by the clergy then present, .and published in the Bridgeport FARMER, copied into the ether papers of the State, and united the Churchmen of Connecticut generally with one of the great political parties of the day. This fact may account for a number of things in the political history of our land, for Connecticut has always been a seed-bed of political influences.

This brief statement will show the external conditions of the Episcopal Church in Connecticut, and its relations to the community, civil and social, in the period to which we are looking back in this commemoration. The descendants of Puritans and Prelatists are mingled now in all our congregations, and each can afford to smile at any assumption in behalf of either party in those old days of any special zeal for abstract religious liberty. There are a great many saints in all ages who like wonderfully well to have their own way, and to keep other saints from having theirs. Each party in turn wanted liberty for itself, but not much liberty for the other. And finally the paternal State undertook to see that each had it.

II. The second point that comes under review in this connection is the need which [6/7] Episcopalians felt of the Episcopate, and their efforts to get it.

The fundamental teaching of the Episcopal Church, as regards ecclesiastical organization, is, that a distinct and definite institution of the ministry was part of the order established by the apostles; that this ministry was designed to be perpetuated; and that the power of perpetuating it, together with the function of government, resided in the bishops who derived it from the apostles. The opposite theory was that ministerial office was conferred by vote of the people.

It is not necessary here to discuss this question on its merits; our predecessors had a right to hold the view which, until the rise of Puritanism, had been universally held, and is the view of the nature of the Christian ministry which is held by six-sevenths of the Christian world to day.

Up to the time of the Revolution the Episcopal Churches in America were under the jurisdiction of the Bishops of London, not one of whom has ever set foot on this continent. The laity did not go to London for confirmation, but the clergy were obliged to resort thither for ordination. One-fifth of those who went for this purpose never came back. When, in 1744, my own congregation chose Mr. Richardson Miner to go to London for Holy Orders, he was captured by the French on his passage, and died of a fever in England shortly after his release. Under such difficulties the increase of the ministry was slow and inadequate. Discipline, too, was sometimes necessary, but it could not be had. There was no recognized authority at hand to adjust differences between the clergy and their parishes. The canons of the Church of England were the ecclesiastical law, but there was no one to enforce it. It is not to be wondered at that the 39,000 Episcopalians in Connecticut were earnest in their appeal to the authorities in the mother-country to grant them the privilege of a complete organization of the Church. Their efforts were seconded by many excellent bishops, and by statesmen also, in England. But every such effort was met by determined opposition on the part of the Puritans here, and the Church of England was so hampered by its connection with the State that its authorities could do [7/8] nothing. The ministers of the crown refused to promote the passage of an enabling act, for political reasons. The only conception the Puritans had of the office of a bishop was that of a State officer, empowered to reduce them to conformity with the English established church, lording it over God's heritage; and so no wonder they opposed its introduction into the heritage of the Pilgrims. There is reason to think that much of the actual opposition would have been disarmed if the conception of the Episcopal office as it now actually exists in simple dignity among us had then been present to their minds--an office purely spiritual, whose exercise should be attended by no pomp and circumstance, and should be limited to those who recognized its authority as binding upon their consciences. And it must be remembered, too, that the conception which English statesmen entertained of the Episcopacy, as a part of the peerage of the realm, as a State institution having but little reference to any condition of things existing in the Colonies, did not tend to make them think of it as a spiritual necessity to the Church. And there was much in the character and mode of life of the bishops themselves, often, in an age of little spirituality, which did not suggest very much of the missionary idea in connection with the Episcopal office. When George III., who, with all his faults as a King, was yet an honest and earnest Christian man, thought it necessary to write a note to the Archbishop of Canterbury to tell him be was giving altogether too many card-parties, it was not surprising that he and others could not see exactly why the Americans should be anxious to provide themselves with that sort of bishops.

But the American Churchmen's ideas of the office of a bishop were not founded on what was to be seen at Lambeth Palace, but on what they read in the Scriptures and the early fathers of the Church. To their conception the bishops were "Fathers in God,"--the source of law and order, the key-stone of the ecclesiastical structure, the commissioned conservators of the faith, the authorized senders forth of preachers of the Gospel and administrators of the Sacraments of Religion.

And so they persevered in their effort, and [8/9] when the independence of the country was assured, they sought further the independence and self government of the American Church. The ten clergy who met at Woodbury a hundred years ago made choice of Dr. Samuel Seabury, one of the ablest of their brethren to go to England with proper testimonials, and ask for Episcopal consecration. After spending more than a year there in fruitless effort to carry out the wishes of his constituents, and finding the English bishops, though willing themselves to grant the request, prevented by the unwillingness of the civil authorities to sanction it, he turned his steps to Scotland, where no relation existed between the Episcopal Church and the State. There, on the 14th of November, 1784, in a retired chapel in the city of Aberdeen, the first American bishop was consecrated, for the Diocese of Connecticut, by three bishops of the Scottish Church.

He returned home by way of Halifax, Nova Scotia, and immediately made a visitation of his diocese, confirming large numbers of persons who had been admitted to the Holy Communion without the rite which was intended to precede it, ordaining deacons and presbyters, establishing parishes, laying foundations for institutions of education and religion, and in no long time disarming prejudice, and vindicating, by preaching and example, the necessity of this office to the well-being of the Church. The Episcopal Church in Connecticut was not more fortunate in securing the Episcopate than in the man by and in whom it was secured. He lived only 12 years after his consecration, but in that brief administration he laid foundations so broad and deep as to make the Diocese of Connecticut what it now is, the strongest in proportion to population of all the dioceses of the American Episcopal Church.

III. It remains to speak of the influence of our Church in Connecticut upon the rest of the American Episcopal Church. It has been, and it is, distinctly a conservative influence, (1) as to the constitution of the ministry, and (2) as to the Prayer Book, especially with reference to the doctrine of the Sacraments.

The most influential churchman in the States to the south of New England was Dr. William White, of Philadelphia. Wise and moderate in counsel, gentle and attractive in disposition, [9/10] earnest and faithful as a Christian minister, no name in our history is more venerable than his. As a theologian, however, he had neither the grasp nor the firmness of Seabury. As it turned out, our church was happy, in its formative period, in having them both.

1. The difficulties in the way of securing the consecration of bishops for the American Episcopal Church appeared to Dr. White and to some others so utterly insurmountable, that he put forth a pamphlet in which he recommended that the churches should elect superintendents, as the Methodist churches now do, and agree to recognize them as bishops de facto, without their having received the Episcopal commission from those who already had it. In other words, he would have given up Episcopacy in everything but the name, and repudiated the principle which has obtained from the very beginnings of the Christian church, that the ministry which was to present God to man, and act by Christ's authority given to His first Apostles, should receive its commission from Him Who was supposed to send it, and not from those to whom it was sent. Such a departure from the principles of the vast majority of the Christian world would simply have made our Church Presbyterian in its order; and it is sufficient here to say, without discussing the abstract question, that it would have left the Episcopal Church without a reason for existence as a distinct communion, and that theretofore it would soon have ceased to exist. The convictions of Episcopalians on this point were so decided, however, not only in New England, but generally in New York and the more southern States, that the plan found but little favor, and as the temper of the English government was materially changed on the point soon after the Revolution, the representations of Benjamin Franklin, our Minister at London, and a parishioner of Dr. White, very shortly afterwards secured the consecration of Dr. White as Bishop of Pennsylvania, and of Dr. Provoost as Bishop of New York; and the insurmountable difficulty was happily surmounted.

There was still a tendency, however, outside of New England, to proceed with the settlement of an ecclesiastical constitution, and the enactment of laws for the Church, without the [10/11] presence and sanction of its chief ministers. So jealous was South Carolina of what it dreaded as Episcopal prerogative, that at one time it distinctly resolved that no bishop should ever reside in that State. And several of the conventions provided, in the original drafts of their ecclesiastical constitutions, that the bishops, as such, were not to have any share in legislation, nor any functions of government and discipline except as they were expressly delegated to them by the rest of the clergy and laity.

But while guarding against any assumption of absolute and irresponsible authority by the bishops, and recognizing that in the due adjustment of corporate powers was the safeguard of individual freedom, the New England churches, under the leadership of Bishop Seabury and those who acted with him, had such influence in the general organization of our Church as to secure the recognition of the legitimate authority of the bishops, and the establishment of our ecclesiastical order as it now stands--the most perfect balance that has ever existed in the Christian church of the restraints of law with the liberty of the individual. Nowhere is there better order, and at the same time more freedom, than in the American Episcopal Church. Neither the Lord's bishops" nor "the Lord's brethren" can tyrannize it over God's heritage.

2: The influence of Seabury and the Church in Connecticut was felt, again, in connection with the Prayer Book. Of course, changes had to be made in the formularies of the church, in order to adapt them to the changes in our civil institutions, and about these there was no difference of opinion. But, the door being opened, a multitude of other changes were proposed, including the alteration of the Apostles' Creed and the omission of the Nicene Creed, with many changes affecting the doctrines and worship of the church. These were embodied in what was known as "The Proposed Book," and what that was may be inferred from the fact that when, a few years since, Bishop Cummins effected his abortive schism, that book was adopted as the prayer-book of the "Reformed Episcopalians." That it is not ours may be mainly attributed to the conservative influence of Seabury and Connecticut. To them also we owe the acknowledged superiority of our Communion Office to that of the Church of [11/12] England. Bishop Seabury introduced into his diocese the Communion Office of the Scottish Church, and the improvement upon the English office was so evident, when the Prayers Book was finally amended and adopted, that it met with all but universal acceptance. The Bishop's wisdom and considerateness in the manner in which he secured the adoption of the amended Prayer-Book in his own diocese was illustrated in my own parish. The old rector, Dr. Dibblee, had used the English Prayer Book for 41 years, with the State prayers only amended, as I find them in his own handwriting wafered over the originals, in the large Prayer-Books in the Rector's library; and he could hardly be reconciled to any change. But in Feb., 1792, the Bishop wrote him a kindly and earnest letter on the subject, which is a model of Episcopal wisdom and consideration, and which so far accomplished its purpose that our parish records, under date of April 9, 1792, contain the vote of the Society "to adopt the new littergy of the Church, provided that it is agreeable to the Rev. Mr. Dibblee."

"Connecticut churchmanship," notwithstanding that some in our day disparage it, has been a conservative element in our church life and thought from the beginning. It has gradually leavened the teaching and practice of the clergy everywhere, and has been able in many instances to save the Church from extremes of policy which might have impaired its influence and checked its growth. It cannot yet be spared, and under the present administration of the diocese it is not likely to lose its influence. It has strong hold on the fundamental principles of Christian faith and primitive order, while yet it is not inconsistent with all legitimate growth, and development, and adaptability to the needs of the time for progress and improvement in our formularies of worship and in our methods of spiritual work.

But I should ill use the present occasion to make it merely one of gratulation; a true thankfulness for privileges must always merge itself in a sense of serious responsibility. The Episcopal Church is too large, too wealthy, and too influential a body among the Christians of this laud to afford to forget its duties to the State and to society, which are also its duties to God. Its time of apology for existence, and [12/13] for controversial vindication of its distinctive principles has passed, and it has now to be vindicated by what it is and does for God and man. Its heritage of an apostolic ministry, of a pure and seemly worship, of sacramental means of grace, of the custody of sacred Scriptures, is not for itself alone, but for the world, in trust. I wish we might all be churchmen so high--so very high--so broad, so very broad--so truly evangelical--that no degrading, selfish conception of the Church and its mission, no narrowness of mental and spiritual sympathies, no imperfect grasp of Gospel truth, shall ever obscure our conceptions of Christian faith, and love, and duty. Church history, rightly read, is the revelation of how God uses both the strength and the weakness the wisdom and the folly, of men, to bring to pass His own purposes and to establish His Kingdom upon the earth. In whatever capacity we serve Him in His Church, we are making history, contributing our own small influence to the general body of influence which is making the world better. Those who have helped to make our Church what it is have passed or are passing away, and a serious question for every Christian man here to-day is, What am I doing to secure the future? And if I am doing nothing, what can I do? And there are more ways of usefulness open to us today, than Seabury ever dreamed of.

Yet, for our share, and the share of those who have gone before us and will come after us, in the true and healthy life and work of the Church of Christ in this land, we are largely indebted to him whose accession to the Episcopate we are called on to be thankful for; and, to the form of thanksgiving which our own bishop has set forth in commemoration thereof, we can heartily say Amen.

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