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White, William

White, William

Born April 4, 1748 (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania)
Died July 17, 1836 (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania)

Episcopal church leader

William White has been called the chief architect of the Episcopal Church in America. His gifts as a theologian and an organizer, along with his family connections, made him an important leader during the development of the Church. He was largely responsible for creating the Constitution of the Protestant Episcopal Church in the United States. White helped organize the system of church government that remains the base of the modern Episcopal Church. As the rector (clergyman in charge of a parish) of a prominent Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, parish, White wrote extensively on the unity and future growth of Anglicanism, or the Episcopal Church, in the new nation. He was elected bishop of the diocese of Pennsylvania in 1786 and was presiding bishop of the Protestant Episcopal Church from 1795 until his death in 1836.

"Being invited to preach before a battalion, I declined and mentioned to the colonel ... my objections to the making of the ministry instrumental to the war."

Growing up

William White was born in 1748 to a wealthy Philadelphia family who had made their money in real estate. His father, Colonel Thomas White, was a lawyer and surveyor who held various public offices in both Pennsylvania and Maryland. His mother was Esther Hewlings. The White family was socially connected with the affluent upper classes of Philadelphia, the largest colonial city in America at the time. William graduated from the College of Philadelphia (later the University of Pennsylvania) in 1765. Early in his education, he settled on a ministerial vocation (career). In 1770, the twenty-two-year-old White went to England for study and ordination (ceremony for giving ministerial authority) because there was no Anglican bishop in the colonies. However, because he was still quite young, his formal ordination did not occur until April 25, 1772.

White returned to the United States as conflict between the colonists and British rulers was escalating. In 1772, he was elected assistant to the rector in his home church at Christ Church in Philadelphia. He was seen as a moderate revolutionary who made every effort to remain on good terms with the significant number of Loyalists (those who favored British rule) who were members of his parish. In 1773, William married Mary Harrison, the daughter of a former mayor of Philadelphia. William and Mary had eight children. William's sister, Mary White, married Robert Morris (1734–1806) in 1769 (see box). Morris was a successful businessman who became the chief financier of the Continental Army during the American Revolution (1775–83).

When the American Revolution officially began in 1775, White's rector, Jacob Duché (1737–1798), took sides with the Patriots (those favoring independence from British rule) and became chaplain to the Continental Congress. Duché reversed his allegiance when the British occupied Philadelphia in 1777. When Duché returned to England, White was then elected rector of the United Parish of Christ Church and St. Peter's. He remained in this position for the rest of his life.

White was also named chaplain to the Continental Congress in Duché's place. While serving the Congress, White became friends with several leading patriots, including George Washington (1732–1799; see entry in volume 2), who was an Episcopalian. White served as chaplain from 1777 to 1789.

The case of the Episcopal churches in America

White fully supported the cause of American independence but refused to use his pulpit to further the Patriots' cause. In the colonies, many prominent Loyalists were also Anglican clergymen with ties to the British civil authorities. This led people who considered themselves Patriots to characterize all Anglican clergymen as Loyalists, even though many of these clergy supported the Revolution. In the northern colonies, most Anglican ministers facing public hostility shut their churches. When the British withdrew from Boston in the spring of 1776, public religious services were no longer held. Anglican clergymen who remained in the United States could not conduct public worship. Instead, they went from house to house giving personal sermons to families. In the course of their ministry, they performed marriages and baptisms, taught catechism (religious instruction), and attended to the needs of the sick and the dying.

Robert Morris

Robert Morris was known as the "financier of the American Revolution" because of his role in obtaining financial assistance for the colonies in their fight against the British. Morris was born in England in 1734 and moved to Maryland at the age of thirteen. His father died two years later. Morris apprenticed at the shipping and banking firm of the wealthy Philadelphia merchant Charles Willing (1710–1754). When Willing died, Morris joined his son to form Willing, Morris and Company, a firm that specialized in importation (bringing goods into the country), exportation (shipping goods out of the country), and general banking. This business made Morris one of the wealthiest and most influential citizens of Philadelphia. In 1769, Morris, a member of the Episcopal Church, married Mary White, the sister of future Episcopal bishop William White. Morris was elected to represent Pennsylvania in the Continental Congress from 1775 until 1778.

On August 2, 1776, Morris signed the Declaration of Independence. In March 1778, Morris also signed the Articles of Confederation as a representative of Pennsylvania. When Morris signed the newly created U.S. Constitution in 1787, he joined Roger Sherman (1721–1793) as one of only two people to have signed all three of the significant founding documents of the United States.

During the American Revolution, Morris remained in Philadelphia and gave critical financial support to the Continental government. Throughout the war, Morris's company imported arms and munitions and seized the cargo of British ships as they came into port. Morris obtained critically needed supplies for the army of General Nathanael Greene (1742–1786) in 1779, and in 1780 he raised more than a million dollars to contribute to George Washington's success in the Battle of Yorktown the following year. Morris served as superintendent of finance of the United States under the Articles of Confederation from 1781 until 1784. Along with Alexander Hamilton (1755–1804; see entry in volume 1) and Albert Gallatin (1761–1849; see entry in volume 1), Morris is considered one of the key founders of the American financial system.

On January 15, 1782, Morris went before the U.S. Congress to recommend the establishment of a national mint (a place where money is produced) and a new coinage system, both later adopted. His portrait appeared on U.S. thousand-dollar notes from 1862 to 1863 and on ten-dollar silver certificates from 1878 until 1880. Morris, along with Oliver Pollock (c. 1737–1823), is thought to also have played a role in the creation of the dollar sign.

In 1787, Morris was elected to the Constitutional Convention, where he nominated his friend George Washington as president of the convention. Washington appointed Morris as secretary of the Treasury in 1789 in the new U.S. government, but Morris declined the position. Morris served as a U.S. senator from 1789 until 1795.

In 1794, Morris began construction of a mansion in Philadelphia designed by the noted French architect Pierre-Charles L'Enfant (1754–1825; see entry in volume 2). During this time, Morris also became involved with some unsuccessful business deals. With Morris's debt mounting, the mansion remained unfinished and became known as "Morris's Folly." Morris was arrested and imprisoned for debt in Philadelphia's Prune Street prison from February 1798 until August 1801. His health suffered, and he spent the remainder of his life in retirement until his death on May 8, 1806. He was buried in the family vault of William White at Christ Church in Philadelphia.

Reflecting his allegiance to the new United States, on the Sunday before July 4, 1776, White stopped praying for the British king and altered other parts of his church services accordingly. By November, Pennsylvania was without Anglican church services everywhere except in Philadelphia. By the fall of 1778, thirty-year-old William White was the only Anglican clergyman left in Philadelphia. He was concerned about the unity and future growth of Anglicanism in the new nation. So in 1782, he wrote and published a pamphlet titled The Case of the Episcopal Churches in the United States Considered. In it, he recommended amendments to church structure that would conform with the new political values of the United States. He argued that, under the circumstances, the American church might proceed to ordain clergy without bishops in order to fill the desperate need. He also urged the use of the laity, or unordained church members, in carrying out church business. The High Church clergy (those who supported complete reliance on traditional church authority) in Connecticut and elsewhere posed strong resistance to White's proposal. They stressed the formal, liturgical character of Anglicanism that relied totally on formally established church authority and did not support American autonomy (right of self-government) in the Church that proposed giving laity greater powers.

The first efforts to reorganize the Anglican churches occurred in Maryland in November 1780. A convention was assembled composed of three clergymen and a number of laymen. They met to ask for public support for changes in the church during the troublesome times of the war. At the convention, organizers used the name "Protestant Episcopal Church" to replace their former designation as members of the Church of England, the official religion of England. They hoped that the name change would further distance their association with Britain. The name the Protestant Episcopal Church was eventually adopted by general agreement for the national church organization. The word Protestant was applied because it had come to describe any form of Western Christianity that owed no allegiance to the pope.

Taking care of business

The Anglican community faced more difficult decisions when the war ended with the signing of the 1783 Treaty of Paris. The establishment of an American branch of the Anglican Church holding the power to elect its own bishops became necessary. Ministers who remained in the United States had to decide whether they wanted to participate in the founding of a church that operated independently of the British king and the Church of England. The Revolution had left a general suspicion of Anglican disloyalty to American interests and raised some doubts about the Church's long-term survival in the United States. White and others envisioned an independent American church. They believed that once the church could be separated from all governmental ties it would be free to remodel itself.

After the Revolution, two different schemes emerged for structuring the American church. In 1783, the High Church clergy in Connecticut met to consider their situation. They decided the most pressing issue was the need for a bishop. The clergy elected Samuel Seabury (1729–1796) to fill the role, and he set sail for England, hoping to be consecrated (formally dedicated to religious service) by the bishops there. He did not receive consecration in England, so he journeyed to Scotland and was consecrated by the Scottish bishops on November 14, 1784. He then returned to Connecticut, where he organized his diocese on the English model. Meanwhile, in Pennsylvania and other states, the American church was organizing in the same way the nation was being organized, at the state and national levels as proposed by White.

White's pamphlet on church structure, along with his position as rector of the United Parish of Christ Church and St. Peter's, made him a prominent leader to whom both High Church clergy and those seeking reform in church authority (often referred to as Low Church) could turn for counsel. In 1784, the first meeting of clerical and lay delegates in New York City used White's suggestion for church structure. They agreed to continue using a modified English prayer book and recommended that each state should have a bishop. The delegates proposed that the national church should be governed by general conventions at which the bishops would meet with clergy and lay delegates.

The nature and authority of the Church

White helped write the Constitution of the Protestant Episcopal Church in the United States of America. It gave a republican form to the church's governing institutions by giving laypeople the power to participate in the election of church leaders. White also had an important role in writing the American revision of the English prayer book.

In 1785, White was elected president of the first meeting of the General Convention of the Protestant Episcopal Church, which met in Philadelphia. In the opening session, one of his first actions was to publicly recognize the consecration of Bishop Seabury. White fully supported Seabury in the hopes of promoting church unity in the United States. He worked in cooperation with Seabury to move the church's organizational efforts forward.

In 1786, the convention of the diocese of Pennsylvania elected White bishop. The Church of England and the British government were still wrestling with the problem of consecrating bishops who neither swore allegiance to the king nor obedience to the archbishop. They finally agreed to consecrate three such bishops in order to start the Episcopal Church in the United States. White was one of those bishops. He traveled to Lambeth Palace in England, and the archbishops of Canterbury and York consecrated him in February 1787.

The nature and authority of the Church

In 1789, Bishop White presided at the First General Convention of the Protestant Episcopal Church, where the constitution and prayer book were formally adopted. It was the same year that George Washington was inaugurated as the first president of the United States. By 1792, the Episcopal Church was finally established as an American denomination. It had a governing body, a national constitution, and the ability to consecrate new bishops. White was again called on to preside at the general convention in 1795. Because of White's long influential history with the Church, many bishops, priests, and laypersons looked to him as a father figure. They called on White to preside at every general convention until 1836.

Bishop White continued serving at his home parish in Philadelphia while attending to his national church duties. He was a trusted advisor to a new generation of leaders in the American Episcopal Church. White encouraged educational opportunities for women and helped found institutions for the deaf. White ordained Absalom Jones (1746–1818; see entry in volume 1), the first black American to be ordained by a major religious denomination.

As a public-spirited citizen and leader in Philadelphia, White was second only to diplomat and scientist Benjamin Franklin (1706–1790; see entry in volume 1) in popularity and respect. Toward the end of his life, White wrote Memoirs of the Protestant Episcopal Church in the United States of America. It is the only firsthand account of the events leading to the formation of the Episcopal Church. White's death in Philadelphia at the age of eighty-eight marked the end of an era for the Church.

For More Information


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

Locke, David. Episcopal Church (Great Religions of the World). New York: Hippocrene Books, 1991.

Prichard, Robert W. A History of the Episcopal Church. Rev. ed. Harrisburg, PA: Morehouse Publishing, 1999.

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

White, William. Memoirs of the Protestant Episcopal Church in the United States of America. 3rd ed. Philadelphia: S. Potter & Co., 1880.

Web Sites

"William White, Bishop of Pennsylvania: 17 July 1836." The Society of Archbishop Justus. (accessed on August 18, 2005).

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