Anglicans and Episcopalians

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The Church of England was a product of the dynastic ambitions of Henry VIII (r. 1509–1547), who divorced it from the international Roman Catholic Church and confiscated much of its property, and the Protestant Reformation, which affected religious beliefs and practices in many fundamental ways. Because England's rulers and citizens were never entirely of one mind about these things, they never restored religious unity. In spite of intermittent and sometimes severe persecution, Roman Catholics and dissenting Protestants remained in the realm. Meanwhile, the Church of England developed as a compromise between these extremes, resembling Rome in its hierarchical government and uniform services while resembling the Protestant churches in its articles of belief and its use of vernacular language. Deprived of most of its income-producing property by King Henry and required by law and custom to perform various social services, the Church of England, like the monarchy itself, was relatively poor. Gifts, endowments, and local taxes were its main supports, yet after the Glorious Revolution of 1688, Parliament held more power over it than did the crown, its nominal head.

anglicans before 1750

Anglicans—members of the Church of England—established Virginia, the first permanent British colony in the Americas. Once the colony became self-supporting and prosperous, the church grew apace with population, though never quite catching up. One problem was the supply of ministers. By 1750 a few private schools operated by ministers and the College of William and Mary offered respectable education, but Virginia had no Anglican bishop, nor was there any in North America, to ordain ministers. Anglican parishes either imported their ministers or sent young men on a dangerous and expensive trip to England for ordination. Meanwhile, the Church of England made the bishop of London responsible for oversight of its far-flung colonial parishes. Though no bishop ever actually visited them, beginning around 1690 London sent ministers with the special office of commissary, with powers to appoint and remove ministers and generally see to the health of colonial churches. In most respects the Anglican churches of Virginia were governed by their vestries, self-perpetuating committees made up of leading men in their parishes. They had power to collect taxes for the support of ministers and church property and for the care of orphans, widows, and others unable to support themselves.

Meanwhile, the Church of England managed, under varying circumstances, to gain a foothold in all the other colonies, most successfully in Maryland, New York, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, and surprisingly, Connecticut. The Puritan saints of Massachusetts, mostly with ill humor, were forced to accept an Anglican church in Boston under their new royal charter granted by William III in 1691. But it was Connecticut that proved to be the seedbed for both colonial Anglicanism with an American face and for the "High Church" party of the Protestant Episcopal Church in the United States of America, officially organized between 1785 and 1789 (later simply the Episcopal Church). In 1723 the Reverend Timothy Cutler, president of Yale University, declared that he and several of his disciples were convinced that the Congregational establishment was fundamentally defective in constitution and belief; therefore, they would henceforth seek full communion with the Church of England. Cutler resigned his position at Yale, went to England, received ordination, and returned with a modest income guaranteed by England's Society for the Propagation of the Gospel (SPG). So did young Samuel Johnson (1696–1772), who would sustain Anglicanism in Connecticut, train several young men for the ministry, and in the 1750s serve as first president of King's College (later Columbia University) in New York City.

The SPG and a related organization, the Society for the Promotion of Christian Knowledge (SPCK), were organized around 1700 by the Reverend Thomas Bray (1656–1730) and associates, who were deeply concerned by the spiritual wastelands they perceived in the rapidly growing British colonies of North America and the Caribbean. Bray's concerns extended to the temporal and eternal condition of African slaves and Indians in those colonies; the seeds of British antislavery were planted by his organization. Bray also encouraged the belief that changes in environment could change behavior, and so besides working for the conversion of prisoners, he floated the idea of transporting felons to the colonies instead of executing them. Bray's friend, General James Oglethorpe, undertook—with indifferent success—to implement this idea in founding the colony of Georgia (1733). The greatest success of the SPG before American independence was the sending of more than three hundred capable ministers to the colonies.

anglicans, evangelicals, and great awakenings

The religious revivals that swept like tidal waves through the English colonies in the eighteenth century affected all of the Protestant denominations, including the Anglicans. The brothers John (1703–1791) and Charles (1707–1788) Wesley preached for a few months to small and indifferent congregations in Georgia. They were then practicing the devout and cerebral Anglicanism they had learned at Oxford. Both soon converted to evangelical activity—in John's case after close friendship and study with German Pietists, especially the Moravian Brethren. Their chief field of work was England, though their movement soon spread to North America. From the 1740s until just after the American Revolution, the Methodists were a society within the Church of England; indeed, Charles Wesley remained firmly in the church, and John, with a gift for making his own rules, continued to think himself a member until his death. Another Anglican minister, George Whitefield (1714–1770), found North America a most fertile field for saving souls. His revivalist preaching tours in the middle colonies in 1739 and New England in 1740 drew tens of thousands in packed church buildings and open fields. It was difficult to be neutral regarding Whitefield; denominations and particular congregations divided over him, especially among the Presbyterians and Congregationalists, but also among Baptists, Lutherans, and his fellow Anglicans.

the american revolution

The Church of England unintentionally played a significant if limited part in creating the imperial crisis that culminated in war and the independence of the United States. Thomas Secker, who became archbishop of Canterbury in 1758, had learned much about the state of his church overseas in his previous job as bishop of London. Though always concerned to avoid conflict, he received sympathetically the growing number of petitions from America requesting the seating of a bishop in North America. Merely discussing the question raised suspicions among colonial Patriots, who took alarm at the growing number and power of royal officials—governors, customs inspectors, Indian agents, and soldiers—settled among them. Furthermore, the archbishop planted an Anglican seminary in eastern Massachusetts to prepare young men for the Anglican ministry. While this was a far more peaceful act than the stationing of redcoats in Boston Harbor, it was still perceived as a threat by the descendants of the Puritan pioneers.

As the state of British-colonial relations grew more alarming in 1773 and 1774, a few Anglican ministers preached loyalty to the crown and engaged in the paper wars of pamphlets and letters to newspapers. Two of the most famous (or notorious) were the Reverend Jonathan Boucher of Maryland and the Reverend Samuel Seabury of Westchester County, New York, a native of Connecticut and disciple of Samuel Johnson. Some Anglican ministers supported the Patriot side, especially in the southern colonies, and many prominent Anglican laymen took leading roles in the Revolution, including John Jay of New York and George Washington of Virginia. Once the Revolutionary War began, outspoken partisans of the crown either fled to areas under British control, such as New York City, returned to England, or sought refuge in loyal British colonies, such as Nova Scotia. A large middling group succeeded in remaining neutral.

the protestant episcopal church in the united states

For obvious reasons, the Anglican Church suffered greatly from American independence. Membership in the Church of England seemed disloyal prima facie. Even worse, the SPG could continue to support its missionaries only by reassigning them to colonies that remained in the British Empire or by helping them find parishes in England. Virginia and Maryland, having the largest numbers of ministers before the war, also lost the largest numbers, in part because those states disestablished the Anglicans and proceeded, with most of the other states, to eliminate established churches entirely. Henceforth all denominations would be voluntary societies. With all public support withdrawn, ministers who wished to remain in Maryland and Virginia required new, voluntary support. From the 1780s onward Anglicans, reconstituting themselves as Episcopalians, also struggled to keep their ministers and laypersons from converting to the Methodists, who began organizing themselves as a distinct American denomination under Thomas Coke and Francis Asbury. Only Connecticut and Massachusetts continued to support state churches, but this hardly helped the Episcopalians, their establishments being Congregational. The Episcopalians accordingly made common cause with Quakers, Baptists, Methodists, Universalists, and other dissenters to disestablish the Congregationalists. Connecticut did so in 1818, Massachusetts in 1833.

The substantial remnant of the former Church of England in the United States continued to worship using the Anglican Book of Common Prayer—as revised in 1662, with prayers for the king tactfully removed—under ministers who had been ordained in England prior to the Revolutionary War. A few were radical enough to propose creating their own bishops, officers who were required to ordain ministers, govern regional associations (dioceses), and confirm communicants. But the overwhelming majority believed so devoutly in the apostolic succession—an unbroken sequence of consecrations of bishops and ordinations of ministers from the original apostles down through history—that they insisted on having bishops created in the traditional and orthodox manner in which the consecration of a bishop had to be accomplished by three existing bishops. First to seek elevation to this rank was the former Tory Samuel Seabury, living once more in Connecticut; reconciled to American independence; and through his long and cordial association with the SPG and his unquestioned strength of faith and intellect, an ideal candidate. Yet the archbishop of Canterbury, while seeming sympathetic, in fact gave Seabury a humiliating runaround. After enduring over a year of delay and indecision, Seabury tried another option. The alternative was ordination by Anglican bishops of Scotland, who represented a succession founded by the Stuarts, hence known as nonjuring and still suspected of secretly wishing for a Stuart restoration. These were not the bishops most Americans would have chosen. But Seabury found them preoccupied with religious matters only, not political matters, and so, after considerable negotiation—they were especially concerned about the wording of the Holy Communion service—three Scottish bishops consecrated the first American bishop in November 1784. Seabury became bishop of Connecticut, was recognized as such throughout New England, and upon returning home ordained a number of new ministers.

But most Episcopalians lived south of New England and, under the expert leadership of the Reverend William White of Pennsylvania, they dominated the Episcopal conventions in Philadelphia in 1785 and 1786. By this time the English bishops had decided to cooperate with the Americans, had approved their proposed Book of Common Prayer, and had consecrated three new bishops: White; Samuel Provoost of New York; and James Madison of Virginia, the president of the College of William and Mary and a cousin of the fourth president of the United States. In 1789 another General Convention met in Philadelphia, with Bishop Seabury and New England delegates fully participating. The organization of the Protestant Episcopal Church, USA, was now complete. Episcopal authority was guaranteed by the preservation of the apostolic succession: only bishops could create new bishops and ordain ministers. But laymen continued to control the temporal affairs of their congregations and sent lay delegates to their diocesan meetings as well as to the triennial

General Convention. There, authority was divided into two houses, the first consisting of ministers and laymen, the second of bishops alone. The 1789 Book of Common Prayer remained in force with only minor changes until the wholesale revisions of the 1960s.

another great awakening and expansion

Little additional creative effort came from the leaders who stood by the former Church of England, preserving and then transforming it into a denomination in the United States.

New leaders came forward after 1800, however, both to expand the Episcopal Church in the eastern states and to spread it across the rapidly growing West. Richard Channing Moore followed James Madison as bishop of Virginia in 1812 (consecrated in 1814) and was far more active in promoting the growth of the church in his state and beyond. He in turn was followed by a zealous minister, William Meade, who in his earlier years had promoted the abolition of slavery and served as an agent of the American Colonization Society. John Henry Hopkins (1792–1868), an immigrant from Ireland, served as an active layman and church musician in Pittsburgh and then as a minister in that city. In 1832 he became the bishop of Vermont and in 1865 was chosen presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church, serving to his death in 1868. Perhaps the most remarkable of all was Philander Chase. Born to a family of Congregationalists in New Hampshire, he converted to the Protestant Episcopal Church in the USA through reading the Book of Common Prayer. Bishop Provoost ordained him minister in 1799; after organizing the diocese of Ohio, he was consecrated bishop in 1819. Along the way he had led churches in upstate New York; Hartford, Connecticut; and New Orleans. In Ohio, Illinois, and Michigan he was in effect a missionary-itinerant. He founded Kenyon College in Ohio and Jubilee College in Illinois.

John Henry Hobart (1775–1830), born in Philadelphia and educated at Princeton, made his mark in the city and state of New York. As minister, assistant bishop, and finally bishop of New York, he wrote, edited, published, preached, traveled, opened missions, and greatly expanded the size and strength of his church. When the General Convention began considering creating a national seminary, Hobart at first stood with those who preferred diocesan seminaries, permitting each bishop to supervise the training of his future clergy. But when the General Theological Seminary opened in New York in 1817 and then moved to New Haven, Hobart succeeded in bringing it back, newly endowed, and administered in such a way that the bishop of New York could, in practice, be in charge. Reopening in New York City in 1822, the seminary has been there ever since. In 1826 it moved to its permanent location, a prime acreage donated by the Reverend Clement C. Moore, professor of Old Testament Studies, and, incidentally, the author of "A Visit from St. Nick," better known by its first five words, "'Twas the Night before Christmas."

high church, low church

From the time of Queen Elizabeth I (r. 1558–1603) to the twenty-first century, the Church of England and, since 1789, the Protestant Episcopal Church, USA, have included low-church groups with strong Puritan beliefs and practices that emphasize the sovereignty of God, salvation by faith rather than works, the necessity of a spiritual experience of conversion, and a tendency to minimize the efficacy of sacraments. Equally perennial (and in some respects enjoying the upper hand in the late twentieth century) has been the High Church party, insisting on the primacy of the sacraments—especially infant baptism, confirmation, and frequent (preferably every week) Holy Communion—in God's scheme of salvation. Because only ordained ministers and consecrated bishops can perform the rites of the church, the authority of these self-perpetuating apostles must obviously be paramount. Therefore, High Churchmen were traditionally reluctant to concede authority and spiritual responsibilities to laypersons.

Throughout this essay the term minister has been used rather than priest only because that was the usage customary in colonial and early national America. But "priest" is far more appropriate for the High Churchmen of the era, such as Samuel Johnson, Samuel Seabury, and John Henry Hobart. Since the Oxford movement in England and the United States began in the 1830s, the High Church party has tended toward neomedievalism, represented by Gothic architecture, elaborate vestments, monastic orders, sung services, burning incense, and other ancient Christian practices. America's High Churchmen before 1830 had much less concern with such things, though they were likely to be somewhat particular about ceremonies and architecture. They were just as likely to be hostile to Roman Catholicism as to the low-church party. In the era of the Second Great Awakening (c.1800–1846), High Churchmen were often energetic and revivalistic (always observing proper decorum) like Bishop Hobart, and low churchmen were typically dedicated to preserving the essentials of episcopacy in church government and the Book of Common Prayer in worship.

See alsoLoyalists; Professions: Clergy; Religion: Overview; Revivals and Revivalism .


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Albright, Raymond W. A History of the Protestant Episcopal Church. New York: Macmillan, 1964.

Butler, Diana Hochstedt. Standing against the Whirlwind: Evangelical Episcopalians in Nineteenth-Century America. New York: Oxford University Press, 1995.

Ellis, Joseph J. The New England Mind in Transition: Samuel Johnson of Connecticut, 1696–1772. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1973.

Noll, Mark A. America's God: From Jonathan Edwards to Abraham Lincoln. New York: Oxford University Press, 2002.

Rhoden, Nancy L. Revolutionary Anglicanism: The Colonial Church of England Clergy during the American Revolution. New York: New York University Press, 1999.

Steiner, Bruce E. Samuel Seabury, 1729–1796: A Study in the High Church Tradition. Athens: Ohio University Press, 1971.

Robert McColley

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Anglicans and Episcopalians

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