Anglicanism and Revolution

views updated

Anglicanism and Revolution


Anglicans and Empire. One of the closest connections between religion and the American Revolution involved the Anglicans. These people belonged to the official Church of England, which enjoyed the protection of the state and was supported by tax money. In five of the thirteen colonies the Anglican Church was the legally established religion in the 1750s and 1760s. Anglicanism was a version of Protestantism, distinguished by the fact that the king of England was the official religious leader as well as the head of state. Theologically it was closely related to the Calvinist reformed tradition, the religion of the Puritans who settled New England, but Anglicans were more moderate in tone and placed greater importance on more-elaborate rituals. As a belief and a practice, then, it fit comfortably among the varieties of Christian religions practiced by most early Americans. The feature that most set Anglicans apart from other American Protestants was the presence of bishops as religious leaders. Most reformed Protestant denominations were congregational, giving authority to individual churches to govern their own affairs, without interference from any central authority, such as the Pope exercised in Roman Catholicism. Anglicans rejected the authority of the Pope but did not abolish the bishops role in church government. Anglicanism was among the most hierarchical of early American religious groups, with individual congregations or parishes run by a priest, who was answerable to a bishop. It also was intimately connected to Britains effort to shape an empire out of the individualistic American colonies. Most people considered church and state to be mutually supportive and believed that one could not exist for long without the other. This idea was fundamentally challenged by the American Revolution, which ended with the separation of church and state. In the 1750s, however, the British tried to strengthen their political control over the colonies through religious means that involved the Anglican Church.

Missions. The Anglicans pursued their efforts through a series of missionary ventures run by the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel (SPG), based in London. The SPG recruited young Englishmen to become Anglican priests in the American colonies, educating them and supporting them in their initial work. It raised money tirelessly in England to support these efforts and sent books and other supplies, as well as ministers, to all the American colonies. It sponsored more than three hundred ministers from its founding in 1701 until the coming of the Revolution. In its efforts to reach as large a proportion of the American population as possible, including Indians and slaves, and to do this in a organized way, the SPG was one of the most important ties between Britain and America during the late colonial period. This was true despite the failure of these missions as religious ventures. Relatively few Americans were drawn to Anglicanism, and some, especially in the Puritan Northern colonies, were hostile to the practices of Anglicanism, which labored under various legal restrictions in these areas. Nevertheless, by the revolutionary

period the Anglican Church had a presence in every colony. In some cases that presence was substantial even though Anglican numbers might be small. In New York and Pennsylvania, for example, Anglicans were instrumental in founding Kings College (later Columbia University) in 1754 and the Philadelphia College and Academy (later the University of Pennsylvania), which granted its first bachelors degrees in 1757.

Weakness. The Anglican Church was strongest in the Southern colonies, where it was the established religion. Even there, however, it was a weak presence. Churches were few and far between, and priests to serve them were even rarer. Because of the weakness of the ministry, lay people, called vestrymen, were the main powers within the church. These men, the elders of the church and usually also the local planter gentry, controlled the churchs finances and were in charge of choosing and supporting the minister. Ministers beholden to the gentry for support tended to emulate their manners and echo their values. This limited the churchs appeal to the lower orders, who understandably had less interest in maintaining a strongly hierarchical social order, especially with the arrival of revolutionary republican values. Many Anglican ministers put their material interest before the spiritual needs of their parishes, further limiting their influence. Finally, recruiting better clergymen was made harder because every Anglican priest had to be ordained by a bishop in England. The long and expensive journey to London was possible for only a relatively few men.

Evangelicalism. In response to the churchs weakness, as well as to the Great Awakening and its aftermath, a small evangelical movement developed in Virginia Anglicanism. Devereux Jarratt and a few other Anglican priests had come to a more lively appreciation of their faith through the preaching of Presbyterians in the Virginia backcountry. They tried to bring that spirit into their own pastoral work within the Anglican Church. Jarrett worked in rural Dinwiddie County from 1763 until his death in 1801, sparking a revival that smoldered for many years. Jarrett and his associates preached throughout the parishes of southern Virginia and northern North Carolina. He reached many people who were normally disenchanted with the elaborate ways of gentry Anglicanism. His work indicates how flexible revivalism was in meeting the needs of various Protestant groups. Jarretts movement was small, however. Evangelical Anglicanism was undermined by the emergence of Methodism, by conflict with other revivalistic groups in the South, and by the opposition of many Anglicans to the independence movement.

Methodism. In 1772 the first Methodist preachers began to arrive in Virginia. Jarrett supported their work at first but later realized how different their beliefs were from orthodox Anglicanism. Methodism began as an evangelical reform movement within the Church of England, just as Jarrett had tried to bring revivalism to colonial Anglicanism. The English leaders John Wesley and his brother Charles had both been in America in the 1730s as associates of George Whitefield, the most prominent itinerant of the American Great Awakening. The Wesleys developed a different set of beliefs than Whitefield, however, who never formally broke with the Church of England. In addition to promoting revivals as the means to an awakening to sin and redemption, the Wesleys stressed the discipline of the godly life as a way of coming to that awakening. They preached that a perfect adherence to Christian principles was possible. This perfectionism was a way of offering hope to their listeners that a better life in this world would be the result of better relations with God, thus motivating them to greater spiritual efforts. The disciplined life of the individual was mirrored in the disciplined life of the church, and Methodists developed a highly centralized organization that left them well positioned to promote their beliefs at every opportunity. They drew on the tradition of Anglican missionary work to send their own preachers to America. These men brought more than four thousand people into their fold between 1768 and 1776. One of the greatest of these was Francis Asbury, a lay preacher when he arrived in Pennsylvania in 1771. Asbury and his colleagues developed a number of techniques that became key features of American evangelicalism. One was circuit riding, the organized itinerancy of ministers who traveled from town to town on the frontier, serving small groups in sequence over the course of a few months and then starting the circuit over again. In Virginia, Jarrett and like-minded Anglicans welcomed the first Methodists but later broke with them over their different beliefs. By 1776, with the coming of war, both Anglicans and Methodists experienced severe strains, as they were identified with the Loyalist side. Methodists were better posed to recover from the period of disruption, given their closer connections to the common people of the South who had supported the independence movement and who fueled the western expansion that resumed after the war. In 1784 Asbury led the Methodists in forming their own separate church. By this time Jarrett still continued his effort to end the carnal repose of his fellow churchmen, but with increasingly limited results.


Philadelphia was Americas largest city during the revolutionary period and its most diverse. It offered its visitors a wide range of experiences including religious experiences. John Adams represented Massachusetts during the First Continental Congress held in Philadelphia in 1774, and he savored the new opportunities he found there. On Sundays he often visited various churches, recording his impressions in his diary, as in these excerpts.

11 September 1774. Mr. Reed was so kind as to wait on us to Mr. Sprouts Meeting, where we heard Mr. Spencer. These Ministers all preach without Notes. We had an Opportunity of seeing the Custom of the Presbyterians in administering the Sacrament. The Communicants all came to a row of Seats, placed on each Side of a narrow Table spread in the Middle of the alley reaching from the Deacons Seat to the front of the House. Three setts of Persons of both sexes, came in Succession. Each new sett had the Bread and the Cup given to them by a new Minister.... Each Communicant has a token, which he delivers to the Deacons or Elders, I dont know which they call em.

9 October 1774. Went to hear Dr. Allison, an Aged Gentleman. It was Sacrament Day and he gave us a sacramental Discourse. This Dr. Allison is a Man of Abilities and Worth, but I hear no Preachers here like ours in Boston, excepting Mr. Duche. Coombs indeed is a good Speaker, but not an original, but a Copy of Duche.... Went in the Afternoon to the Romish Chappell and heard a good discourse upon the Duty of Parents to their Children, founded in Justice and Charity. The Scenery and the Musick is so callculated to take in Mankind that I wonder, the Reformation ever succeeded. The Paintings, the Bells, the Candles, the Gold and Silver. Our Saviour on the Cross, over the Altar, at full Length, and all his Wounds a bleeding. The Chanting is exquisitely soft and sweet.

23 October 1774. In the Afternoon I went to the Baptist Church and heard a trans Alleganiana Preacher, from the back Parts of Virginia, behind the Allegany Mountains. He preached an hour and an half. No LearningNo Grace of Action or Utterancebut an honest Zeal. . . . In the Evening I went to the Methodist Meeting and heard Mr. Webb, the old soldier, who first came to America, in the Character of Quarter Master under Gen. Braddock. He is one of the most fluent, eloquent Men I ever heard. He reaches the Imagination and touches the Passions, very well, and expresses himself with great Propriety. The Singing here is very sweet and soft indeed. The first Musick I have heard in any Society, except the Moravians, and once at Church with the organ.

Source: L. H. Butterfield, ed., The Diary and Autobiography of John Adams, 17711781, volume 2 (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1961), pp. 131132, 149150, 156.

Bishops. One key problem for American Anglicans was that there was no American bishop. This fact greatly impeded the growth of the religion. In order to become priests men had to be ordained by a bishop in a ceremony called the laying on of hands. The ritual symbolized the connection of all priests, through their bishops, with the entire line of priests and bishops stretching in an unbroken chain back to Christ and his apostles, thought by Anglicans to be the first bishops of the church. Since there were no bishops in America, men who wanted to become priests had to travel to England for training and ordination. While this meant that Anglican priests could be well educated and worldly, something that often appealed to the parishioners they eventually served, it also meant that relatively few priests were ordained. The cost of ordination, in time and money, was simply too high. From time to time since the late 1600s, some men had advocated the appointment of a bishop who would reside in America and care for the church there. These arguments went nowhere before the revolutionary period, when they began to be advanced more seriously. In 1758 Thomas Seeker became the archbishop of Canterbury, the highest ranking cleric in the Anglican Church. Seeker was deeply interested in the colonial church and wanted to strengthen it by appointing its own bishop. He supported other actions designed to improve the churchs situation, such as the establishment of yearly meetings of priests in each colony, starting with New Jersey in 1758. These conventions began to agitate for an American bishop. This combined with a renewed missionary push into New England to ignite the suspicions of non-Anglicans about the purpose of a bishop. Many Congregationalists resented the notion that they needed missionaries. They thought the elegant lifestyle of the Reverend East Apthorp, the missionary who arrived to serve Cambridge, Massachusetts, in 1760, was a sign of the decadent society that Anglicanism would produce. They also feared that Anglicans sought political as well as religious power, and their suspicions soon became part of the wider apprehension about British imperialism and oppression.

Debate. The end of the Seven Years War only increased these fears. The acquisition of Canada from France as part of the peace settlement along with the cost of the war led Britain to reassess the organization and management of its colonies. Seeker took the opportunity to petition for a bishop. At the same time, in 1763, Jonathan Mayhew, one of the leading Congregational ministers of Boston, published an attack on the Anglican missionary effort that provoked a lengthy debate in the colonial newspapers about Anglicans and their motives. The debate was quite inflammatory. John Adams, for one, thought the fear of bishops was widespread and significant for the coming of revolution. He wrote that the apprehension of Episcopacy contributed ... as much as any other cause, to arouse the attention not only of the inquiring mind, but of the common people, and urge them to close thinking on the constitutional authority of parliament over the colonies. Antiepiscopal feeling soon merged with even older and deeper antipapist prejudice, as rumors spread in the late 1760s over the religious plans for Catholic Quebec. As a Roman Catholic bishop arrived there, and later Britain guaranteed Catholic freedom of worship in the 1774 Quebec Act, non-Anglicans throughout the thirteen colonies came to fear for their own religious liberty. As political events developed at the same time, freedom from a central religious authority came to be one of the principal values of the independence movement. The more Americans committed themselves to the cause of religious freedom, the fewer were interested in Anglicanisms royalist politics or episcopal hierarchy.

Decline. The long decline of Anglicanism can be seen in the series of events that ended in the 1786 disestablishment of the church in Virginia, its stronghold. At the center of the process was a cultural revolution as profound as the political one occurring at the same time. The revivals in the Virginia backcountry had swelled the numbers of Presbyterians, Methodists, and especially Baptists in Virginia in the 1750s and 1760s. While Anglican numbers probably grew as well in these years, they hardly kept pace with the explosive growth of the other groups. Revivalisms growth presented a fundamental challenge to the social order of the colony. Virginia society rested on a close connection between genteel planters and the church. This order broke down as individuals left the established parishes and formed their own churches led by lay preachers. Revivalistic enthusiasm became a model for acceptable behavior, however impolite it appeared to the gentry. The itinerant minister became the chief moral spokesman, replacing a weak, often nonexistent Anglican priest. Baptist ministers gained adherents from people, mainly on the frontier, who were also challenging the political arrangements that concentrated power in the hands of Tidewater plantation owners. The political conflict between these groups paralleled the religious developments of the same time. As their influence spread through the 1770s, the Baptists came to offer an alternative social order, based on egalitarian fellowship rather than hierarchy and having love rather than deference as its core value. As the American Revolution developed, the Baptist alternative was poised to become the dominant pattern for the new nation.


The distractions and disruptions of the American Revolution combined to mark this period with some of the lowest rates of church membership in our history. The year 1780 is often considered the low point, with probably only about 10 percent of Americans formally claiming church membership, although many more attended church regularly. Membership rates declined when measured against the growth in population, yet all the major denominations grew during the revolutionary era, as the following chart of the number of congregations shows:

Roman Catholic2756

The ongoing influence of the revivals can be seen especially in the growth of the evangelical Baptists and Methodists. About 125 new Baptist churches were founded in New England during the revolutionary era, but their most dramatic growth came in the Southern states and on the frontier. Baptists formed 67 new churches in Virginia between 1770 and 1780. The Methodists had fewer than 1,000 members in 1771, but around 4,000 in 1775 and 15,000 by 1784, when they formed an independent church. Most of these were in the South. The membership of both of these groups would grow explosively in the nations first few decades.

Sources: Roger Finke and Rodney Stark, The Churching of America (New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1992), pp. 2430;

Edwin S. Gaustad, Historical Atlas of Religion in America, revised edition (New York: Harper & Row, 1976), p. 4.

The Parsons Cause. The shift in religious power is symbolized in the Parsons Cause, a legal case involving the payment of clerical salaries. Traditionally, Virginia ministers were paid in set pounds of tobacco. In 1758 the Virginia assembly passed the Twopenny Act, which allowed the salaries to be paid in money at the rate of two cents per pound of tobacco. At the time, the price of tobacco was rising, and the effect of the act was to let the vestrymen, rather than the ministers, benefit from the price increases. The church objected and managed to have the law disallowed by the king, who considered it an attack on his religious representatives and so on the royal prerogative. Reverend James Maury of Hanover County then sued to collect the back pay owed to him. Other parsons filed similar cases and made a stand for the dignity, independence, and power of the clergy. Maury prevailed in his 1763 case, but his victory backfired in the long run. The defendants secured Patrick Henry as their lawyer, and Henry made a name for himself in this case as he rose to the defense of colonial liberties. Henry argued strongly that the colony had a right to pass laws in its own defense even if they weakened the king. He cast the Anglican clergy as enemies of the peaceful order of colonial life, an image they were never able to shake. From this point on, Anglicans were identified with excessive royal power and with oppressive British imperial designs. They were marked as unpatriotic foes of American freedom.

Disestablishment. Support for Anglicans waned until 1779, when the state stopped paying clerical salaries through tax revenues. The final disestablishment of the church came only after the war, in 1786, as Virginia passed an Act for Religious Freedom that set the pace for the separation of church and state later embodied in the First Amendment to the United States Constitution. These years were the low point for American Anglicans, who were deeply divided politically and religiously. Many were joining the Methodists, as that group began to take independent shape, starting with a series of annual clerical conferences that began in 1773. They would form a national organization in 1784, successfully combining the organizational strengths of the Anglican Church with the emotions of the revival. The remaining Anglicans struggled to find a new identity. Now called Episcopalians, those from the Southern and Middle states began a series of meetings in the early 1780s. They endorsed measures to make their group more democratic, including greater lay participation. This effort alarmed a group of Connecticut Episcopalians. Meeting in 1783, this group selected one of their own, Samuel Seabury, to be their bishop and sent him to England to secure consecration in that office. Seabury was eventually successful, but this struggle further weakened the national body. It was not until 1789 that the Protestant Episcopal Church was firmly established.


Carl Bridenbaugh, Mitre and Sceptre (New York: Oxford University Press, 1962);

Rhys Isaac, The Transformation of Virginia, 17401790 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1982);

John Woolverton, Colonial Anglicanism in North America (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1984).

About this article

Anglicanism and Revolution

Updated About content Print Article