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A Pastoral Letter to the Clergy and the Laity of the Protestant Episcopal Church in the United States of America,

from the Bishops of the Same, Assembled in General Convention, in St. Peter's Church,
in the City Philadelphia, May, A.D. 1823.

Signed by William White

New-York: T. and J. Swords, 1823.


BEING assembled in general convention with the clerical and the lay deputies of our church, from the several sections of the Union, we comply with a call of duty laid on us by the forty-fifth canon of 1808, in presenting to you this Pastoral Address.

We congratulate our church at large on the addition to the Episcopal body, made during the session of this convention, by the consecration of a bishop for the State of North Carolina. Our prospects were, for a long time, especially discouraging, because of the prostration of our church in that district of our civil union. Within these few years, the scene had brightened, by deputies sent to the last three general conventions, and by well attested information of the increase of congregations, and of renewed attention to religious institutions. Under the influence of feelings excited by these events, it cannot but be highly gratifying to us, to have had personal agency in conveying the Episcopal character to a brother unanimously elected with confidence to participation in our counsels; and from whose qualifications we hope, that under the Divine blessing, he will be eminently useful in extending the kingdom of the Redeemer.

We behold with pleasure, the accession of deputies from the church in the State of Georgia, the only one of the original thirteen States of the Union, which had hitherto borne no part in our proceedings: not, as is believed, from the not feeling of any interest in the welfare of our church; but because of the want of suitable persons to give a beginning to energetic measures, for the revival of her dormant institutions.

There has been submitted to us by the house of clerical and lay deputies, an exhibition, gathered from the reports of the several local conventions, of the circumstances of the church within their respective bounds.

On the perusal of the statements, it became to us an agreeable subject of contemplation, that our church throughout these states, is on the increase; as is attested by the many new churches erected in various places, and by additions to the numbers of worshippers in very many of the congregations. May God grant, that in proportion as there shall be seen in her what verifies the promise to the church generally, of there being "a lengthening of the cords and a strengthening of the stakes of her habitations," there may be found a proportionate "adorning of the doctrine of our God and Saviour in all things." But while we cherish the hope that the labours of the ministry have not been without fruit in relation to this its great end; yet ire are aware, that, to use the language of one of our articles, "the evil will ever be mingled with the good," or, to use the more authoritative language of our Saviour, that "the tares will grow together with the wheat," and that, therefore, there will still press on ourselves, and on all our reverend brethren, the charge laid on us in ordination, of "never ceasing our labour, our care, and our diligence, until we have done all that lieth in us, according to our bounden duty," to bring all "such as are or shall be committed to our charge, unto that agreement in the faith and knowledge of God, and to that ripeness and perfectness of age in Christ, that there be no place left among us either for error in religion or for viciousness in life." Especially, the calling of sinners to repentance, and the carrying of the consolations of the Gospel to the bosoms, as well of those in sorrow under the sense of sin, as of those borne down by any of the calamities of life, will be, to the faithful minister, incentives to constant anxiety and exertion. Also, to the godly of every occupation, there will be motives to the doing of whatever may reasonably be expected, for the encouraging of him in his pastoral duties.

From the same statements; we derive the satisfaction of finding that it has pleased God to give his blessing on the endeavours which have been put forth, as well by individuals as by religious associations, for the extending of the means of grace, both to destitute and decaying congregations which had been formerly flourishing, and to the people of our communion in those extensive tracts of country which have been lately subjected to cultivation; and in which, without aid from the seats of their former residence, there is the danger of the degenerating of their posterity to utter ignorance of the truths of our holy religion; and consequently to licentiousness, and perhaps to barbarism. But while we rejoice in every instance of Christian zeal, put forth for the perpetuating of the light of the Gospel wherever it is in danger of being lost, we cannot shut our eyes to the notorious facts that the breaches made in our Zion, during former years of distress, are not yet repaired; and that the growth of the new settlements in population is, beyond proportion to any aids which have been administered to them. Although the latter circumstance is the result of the many years of the unexampled prosperity of our common country, yet we foresee, that however great this blessing in itself it calls for the alliance of religion; without which, it will eventually be a calamity, by a deterioration of the national character, poisoning the sources of public happiness.

It is a more unmixed source of satisfaction to us, that there is visible, over the face of our communion, a disposition to strengthen the bonds of Christian charity; and to avoid such questions as gender strife, and often end in schism: From the beginning of our organization, this temper of conciliation has been manifested; and may therefore be humbly hoped to have been generated by the gracious influences of the great Being, who, as one of our collects expresses it, is "the author of peace and lover of concord." That there should be occasionally differences of opinion, especially on subjects locally interesting, is to be expected from the imperfection and the frailties of human nature. But they may stop short of material injury, if they should hereafter, as heretofore, be conducted with moderation, and yield to the interposition of healing counsels; which, under the blessing of God, may improve such occasions to the promoting of his glory, by their being made provocatives to love and to good works.

It is no small addition to the satisfaction of "being at peace among ourselves," that we are on terms of good neighbourhood and Christian sympathy with our fellow-Christians of other denominations. We promised in ordination, to "maintain and set forwards, as much as in us should lie, quietness, peace, and love among all Christian people;" and although this object is not to be accomplished by the surrendering of Gospel truth, since we are bound to "contend for the faith once delivered to the saints;" yet it is a duty which may be discharged under the control of Christian meekness. Moreover, if it should seem to any, that, for the "following of peace with all men," there should be an abandonment of those properties of our church, which we believe to have descended to us from the earliest and best ages, such compliance would not only be contrary to obligations most solemnly assumed, but, far from promoting the proposed object of conciliation, would be more operative than any other cause that can be imagined, to the opening of a door for the hydra of religious controversy. The wisest and the most Christian course that can be pursued by us; is to conduct the concerns of our church agreeably to its matured and long existing institutions, and under the sense of responsibility to its Divine Head; but without reference to others, professing to worship the same God through the merits of the same Redeemer; except to put the most favourable construction on their acts, to rejoice in any good resulting from them, and scrupulously to avoid whatever may have a tendency to excite angry passions either in them or in ourselves.

In our former Pastoral Letters, we have freely delivered our opinions on the various points which were considered by us, at the several times, as the most interesting to our communion. They are still held by us in the same grade of importance: but at present, we rather refer to those addresses, as records of the sentiments which we are still desirous of sustaining, and of impressing on the minds of all degrees of persons within our church; In order that we may, at this time, invite your attention to two institutions, which were matured and solemnly established by the late special convention, held in the autumn of the year 1821. We mean the Theological Seminary located in the city of New York, and the society for Domestic and Foreign Missions, the seat of which is the city of Philadelphia.

Although our more immediate motive to the combining of the two institutions in this address, is, their being coincident in regard to the period of their respective organization; yet we also consider them as having a bearing on one another. The Theological Seminary may be expected to increase the number of labourers in the Lord's vineyard; and it is owing to deficiency in this particular, added to there being so many destitute congregations in the long settled states, that so few have felt the calls of religious ardour, or conceived of it as a duty, to give their personal agency, in extending the influence of religion over states recently organized and settled. There being a central point, around which there will be congregated young men from different sections of the Union, will be a mean, not only of binding to diligence in study, but of the excitement of religious zeal.

For some considerable time, the design of a Theological Seminary wavered between the scheme of its being constituted for the whole Union; and that of its being left entirely to the discretion of any of the authorities in the different dioceses, in which there should be felt competency combined with inclination. The latter principle was favoured by considerations not unworthy of attention, but yielding to the advantages considered as attached to the other scheme of a General Seminary; which, it is to be hoped, will be more and more developed. It has been thought not likely; that for the purpose of accommodation to sections distant from one another, there could be a sufficient number of dioceses, the schools of which could raise funds adequate to the giving of scope to the talents of professors in the various branches; and provide, in other respects, for what would be requisite for the supporting of them with reputation and usefulness. Besides, in proportion to the number of students, there may be expected a correspondent measure of excitement to study, and of information arising from the mutual exchange of sentiment in religious conversation. Under either of these schemes, and within the sphere of such communications, there may arise differences of opinion issuing in controversies, sometimes verging either to the generating of uncharitableness, or to the opening of a door to real or supposed error. If the issue should be the obtruding of dogmas alien from the great truths of religion, and threatening the peace and the orthodoxy of our communion, they will be more likely to be borne down by a board of professors, and by a competent number of trustees, enjoying the confidence of the representative body of the church, than in circumstances under which an equal weight of opinion is not generally to be expected. In cases, more likely to occur, of variety of opinion not endangering the essential interests of religion; and to which, therefore, the exercise of authority should not extend, we suppose--and our opinion on the point is independent of all considerations besides the nature of the subject--that intolerance would be more apt to show its head within a very limited, than within a very enlarged sphere. It were much to be apprehended, that on subjects on which latitude is designedly tolerated by the church, opposite instructions would be the standards of orthodoxy in different places; the opposing parties affirming of their respective sentiments, that they are fundamental.

For these reasons, and for others less prominent, preference has been given to the general plan which has been established by the special convention, and which carries to our minds a great weight of recommendation, from the improvements which have been made by that body, at the cost of the sacrifice of local partialities. We are aware, however, of the cases which happen of young men, who can be supported under parental roofs, and within the reach of instruction, while their means may be incompetent to distant journeys and residence. The wants of our church are too many and too pressing to permit the discouragement, in reference to the ministry, of any persons possessed of the requisite qualifications, who may have been under the tuition of some learned and pious clergyman of our communion.

From the concerns of the Theological Seminary, we pass to those of the society for Domestic and Foreign Missions. The objects contemplated by it, had engaged the attention of our church, at an early period of its organization. In the year 1789, and in the first convention held after the obtaining of the episcopacy, there was brought forwards and adopted a plan for the carrying of the design into effect, and in some places, there were incipient proceedings under it. So depressed, however, at that time, was the state of our communion generally; and in very many, and very large tracts of country, so destitute had the population become of the means of grace, after having formerly enjoyed them agreeably to the ministry and the services of our church; that without intermediate revivals of our institutions, where they had become dormant, there was wanting a sufficient basis on which to construct a machinery, the operation of which might be expected to be felt in districts recently subjected to cultivation, and in large states rising into existence. In the mean while, the field for Christian zeal was continually enlarging, not without exciting deep feeling in our minds for the wants of our distant brethren, but without the prospect, until lately, of undertaking their relief with a sufficient degree of confidence of success.

The time is at last come, when, in the estimation of the representative body of our church, her energies should be put forth for the effectuating of the object. At the meeting of the directors in the month of May last, there was appointed an executive committee, with limited powers, but competent to the appointing of agents for the obtaining of funds; to be in readiness for the choosing of missionaries at the next annual meeting, determined by the constitution to be coincident with that of the present convention.

The agents of the executive committee have been industrious in the discharge of the duties of their appointments: but although their endeavours have not been without the fruit of pecuniary contributions, paid into the treasury, yet we depend principally on the zeal which they have been the mean of exciting in various places, and on the measures which have been consequently put into operation, with the fairest prospects of success.

Although the success of the executive committee, constituted in May last, has fallen short of their expectations, yet it is partly owing to a cause not to be regretted, because answering the same purpose in other lines of direction--the instituting of missionary societies in several states, in which they had not before existed, for the supply of the wants of destitute districts in the said states respectively. So far as this provision extends, it is proportionably a relief of the general society, and although it is earnestly wished and hoped, that wherever there exists a local society, there will be the concurrence of aid to the object contemplated by the general convention of our aura; yet we do not undertake, in regard to any part of the Union, to calculate the comparative weights of the different claims: of which, in every case, the church in question should be considered as the proper judge. Be the determinations on those comparisons what they may, we trust that wherever there may be bestowed benefactions for the sending of missionaries to people destitute of the means of grace, there will not be denied a portion of the benefit to the inhabitants of those extensive districts who have especial claims from the recency of their settlements, and their distances from the ministry which they look to as legitimate.

Our western brethren stand to us in a relation like that in which the elder states were to our parent church, before the severance of the political tie connecting them: or rather, the community of interest is stronger in the present case, on account of the nearness of neighbourhood. Of the aids which were extended to us, under the excitements of the venerable prelates of that church, there are imperishable records. The bishops of the American church are anxious to follow the honourable example, which has been transmitted to them with the episcopal succession, and they hope that the episcopalians throughout the Union will adopt the measure of showing themselves worthy of the beneficence which was extended to their forefathers, and that they will repay the benefit, not in the quarter from which it came, and where it is neither wanted nor demanded, but to bodies of our fellow-members of the same communion, who possess claims similar to those which we know to have not been made in vain.

It may be a question, whether, in default of this, the vicinity of the old states to the new, do not only not profit the latter, but operate to their loss. In England, there have lately risen societies, some of them composed wholly of members of the established church of that country; and others considerably under the influence of persons of the same description, which extend their. Christian beneficence to many and very remote realms. The most, distant parts of Asia and, of Africa have felt the effects of their zeal. What should prevent their taking of our western settlements under their fostering care? It may be supposed that nothing would prevent it, were applications made, and were ably looked to. God forbid that so foul a stain should attach to the American church and to her children.

From the tenour of the reasons given in favour of the domestic branch of the Missionary Society, it cannot but appear that we contemplate it as the more prominent object of the institution, We, however, consider the foreign department of it, as not only enjoined on us and on all the members of the church by the terms of the constitution, but to rest on our consciences, as the exaction of Christian charity, and issuing out of the high command--"Go into all the world and preach the Gospel to every creature." Other denominations of professing Christians have been before us in this work. Is it, then, that our standards of doctrine, or that our modes of worship, are less-worthy of propagation, or less likely to conciliate the understandings or to interest the feeling of persons in the darkness of heathenism? We trust that neither of these is the fact. Why, then, should we be backward to take our share of labour and of expense, in the great field lately opened to the zeal of the Christian world? In regard to bodies of professing Christians, whose principles differ from those of our apostolic church, we respect their zeal, and rejoice in any good which may be achieved by it. But we submit, as a subject of very serious consideration, whether their laudable endeavours may not have a pernicious effect on the credit of our religious institutions, so as to lessen the probability of their being received within any sphere where they may be promulged. For, although we do not concede that zeal is an exact measure of the truth which it may be called forth to propagate, yet there may seem cause to doubt the validity of the tenets, which, not merely from peculiarity of time or of place, but generally, and among a widely-extended population, do not excite to the spreading of the knowledge of what is supposed to be connected with the highest interests of mankind.

We are not strangers to the inefficiency of many attempts, in former times put forth, for the extending of the religion of the Redeemer: but we detect the principal cause of failure, in the incompatibility of the means with the end. When the sword and the cross have been held in an unnatural union, for the subjecting of nations to crowns having no title to their allegiance, and to a supremacy in the church, having no foundation in the Scriptures, it is not surprising that there should either be generated deadly hatred, or that there should ensue a profession decorated by the name of Christian, but having little else to constitute a title to the character. When attempts have been made under better auspices, and with purity of motive, but under such mistaken views of the subject as to substitute evanescent feeling for "the demonstration of the spirit and of power," that is, evidence of prophecy and of miracle, with which the apostles made their extensive conquests within the former dominion of heathenism, it is no matter of wonder that there should be but little good accomplished, and no lasting effect of that little. It is to be hoped that the time is come when not only a more righteous, but a more intelligent zeal has found its openings, and is in successful progress.

Although we have placed this matter in the second degree of importance, yet we cannot but be of opinion, that there are two claims of the kind, which ought to press on us with great weight. One of them is that which comes from the western coast of Africa, and the other is that which reaches us from our aboriginal neighbours, in the western regions of our continent. It is not enough that we witness increasing conviction and abhorrence of the iniquity of the slave trade. There should be acknowledgment of past error, in energy to be now put forth, for the redeeming of the injured country from idolatry and barbarism. As for the Indians on our borders, it is notorious that besides the frauds sometimes practised, and the wars provoked, for the obtaining of the possession of their lands, the circumstance that the first settlers among them are often of the dregs of our population, has infused into their moral character many poisonous ingredients, to which they were strangers until their intercourse with emigrants from Europe. Shall the time never come, when the injury done and still doing to them, shall receive a counterbalance, in a benefit which could not fail to bind them to us in an everlasting chain of friendship!

If there be any who still contend that the more distant claims should be entirely lost sight of in the contemplation of those who have sprang from the same community with ourselves, let such persons be aware, that there are very many of their fellow-citizens, of the same church with themselves, who, without being insensible of the claims of the nearer duty, are convinced that something also should be done for the accomplishing of the decree of God, "giving to his blessed Son the heathen for his inheritance." With is the question is, whether neat of this description shall have an opportunity afforded to it, of contributing the stream of its beneficence through the channel of our own church, or shall be poured through some other less acceptable, yet tending to the, accomplishment of the object. It would not be unnatural, if, with many, on a comparison of the merits of different systems, the matter now treated of, should turn the balance to our disadvantage.

While we press on the attention of the members of our church the interests of two institutions, in the success of which, as we conceive, her reputation, her increase, and her usefulness very much depend; we are sensible of the merits of several other species of association, which, of late years, within her bounds, as within those of other societies, have been formed with the view of cherishing and of extending religious belief and practice. Such are Sunday Schools, societies for the distributing of the Bible, of the Book of Common Prayer, of the Homilies, and of instruction in the form of tracts; suited to ordinary apprehension. Although we avoid enlarging on the merits of the expedients thus adopted for the furtherance of piety; and to which we have given our aid in our respective dioceses; it is not from a diminished opinion of their importance: since we still contemplate them as entering into the ground-work of what is represented in the Apocalypse, under the image of "an angel flying in the midst of heaven, having the everlasting Gospel to preach unto them that dwell on the earth, and to every nation, and tongue, and kindred, and people." But instead of enlarging on these topics, we rather, at this time, call the attention to the source from which they have issued--the excitement in late years given to the public mind, prompting the expedients which have been devised for the evangelizing of the world.

It is not many years ago, when infidelity was seen waving high her standard; first erecting it in the old world, and glorying in the prospect of the extirpation of the name of Christ from under heaven. Who would have believed, if it had been foretold, that the providence of God was then laying a train of causes, which should speedily end in successful expedients for the extending of the religion of the Gospel, wherever commerce unfurls her flag, and wherever political interests open the door of communication of one nation with another? not only this, but that in countries professing Christianity, with apathy to the spiritual wants of the lower orders of society, the time was now come, when in every cottage, and in every hovel, so far as endeavours can accomplish, there shall be the book which contains the glad tidings of salvation? and even not these things only; but that for the giving of the greater effect to its inestimable contents, there shall, if possible, be none advancing to the age of maturity, without having this treasure unlocked to their perusal by ability to read? Such are the plans of the moral government of God, by which he. verifies the saying indited under the inspiration of His Spirit, "Surely, the wrath of man shall praise thee."

It was not in the old world only, that infidelity had spread its poison, in every department of politics, of science, and of manners; threatening ruin to our institutions in their infancy; which it were folly to think to sustain, under its demoralizing influence. That the friends of religion should mourn over the increasing epidemic, was to be expected. But, in addition, all friends of social order have been alarmed at the prospect of the gulf to which they saw the public mind advancing. The effect is the conviction, that the interests of time, even if those of eternity be put out of view, demand the retracing of the steps. That in addition to this, many have been drawn to a serious weighing of the things which belong to their peace, is evident in an increased regard to the ordinances of religion, among all denominations of professing Christians; and in a growing concurrence in all promising endeavours for the extending of the kingdom of the Redeemer. We may perceive the operation of this spirit, in the many societies formed for the increase of religious knowledge: and were no such societies to be seen among us, the same fact would be established by the mass of Bibles, which, of late years, have been printed and sold with a view to honourable gain--in number far beyond proportion to the increase of population, great as it unquestionably is. In these events, we may perceive a crisis, similar to that which drew from our Saviour the saying--"Lift up your eyes and look on the fields, for they are white already to harvest."

Brethren, we consider the excitement noticed, as adding immense weight to the obligation always lying, of our contributing in our several spheres, to the extending of the influence of true religion. For although there are never wanting opportunities to this effect, yet they especially abound when the spirit of inquiry is awake, and when there are appearances of a verifying of the promises of God in Scripture. These promises will be fulfilled; but it will be by the mean of human agency; and it is the province of religious wisdom, to mark the seasons of sensibility, and to suit its efforts to the occasions.

On the clergy in particular, we make the call to put forth their zealous exertions, in reference, not only to the point the last pressed, but to all the matters comprehended in this address: and while we wish the admonition to be brought home with power to our own hearts, we entreat the prayers of all orders of persons in this church, for our having of wisdom to discern, and grace to execute, whatever may conduce to her spiritual welfare, and to the glory of her Divine Head.

Signed by order of the House of Bishops,

WILLIAM WHITE, Presiding Bishop.
Philadelphia, May 26th, 1823.

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