From Anglicans to Episcopalians
From Anglicans to Episcopalians
American Anglicanism . No denomination was more negatively affected by the Revolution and its outcome than the Anglicans, those who belonged to the official Church of England. The end of the war brought on a painful period of readjustment for them as they tried to create an American church that was true to their English traditions. The problem Anglicans faced in 1783 was their close identification with the English, who had lost the war for independence. Unlike all other Protestants,
Anglicans considered the king of England to be a spiritual leader as well as a political leader. As Americans rejected King George’s right to govern them in matters of taxes and laws, Anglicans found it impossible to continue to honor him as the leader of their church. Some reshaping of the beliefs and practices of the Anglicans was clearly called for, but the group was not well prepared to bring about change. The church was greatly weakened by the war; many Anglicans, particularly ministers, had supported the British. These Loyalists were often shunned by their neighbors, and many lost their property. Others left the new country altogether, emigrating to England or Canada. Many of those remaining were part of the growing evangelical wing of Anglicanism which soon broke away as the separate Methodist church. In 1783 the Anglican churches found themselves with far fewer—and poorer—members as compared to the colonial period. They also faced divisions over how to reorganize themselves, particularly about whether they should be led by a bishop. This was a sensitive topic, partly because non-Anglicans’ fears of a bishop for America had contributed to the onset of the Revolution.
Bishop Seabury . During 1783 and 1784 the churches sent delegates to a series of general meetings in the middle states to discuss the future of their denomination. Alarmed that these meetings seemed to be rejecting the idea of a bishop, a group of ten clergymen from Connecticut met and preempted the issue by electing Samuel Seabury, a former Anglican missionary, as their bishop. Seabury traveled to England for consecration as a bishop, but was rejected there because he could not swear the required oath of loyalty to the king. He had more success in Scotland and was consecrated in 1784. On returning to the United States he began to assert his authority, but he was resisted by many Episcopalians, especially those outside Connecticut, who placed more value on lay initiative in church matters. Others resented his stand against American independence during the war when he had become notorious for writing a series of Loyalist pamphlets, which had been answered by Alexander Hamilton. That Seabury was not personally well liked only made matters worse.
Episcopal Church . Eventually a compromise was reached, in two general conventions in 1785 and 1786. These meetings gave the church a national organization and paved the way for the consecration of more bishops, now approved by church authorities in London. A later meeting in 1789 finished the important work of writing an American Book of Common Prayer, the manual used for all the church’s worship services. Like the compromises over organization, this book struck a balance between retaining as many traditional ways as possible in a rapidly changing world. It kept the basic Anglican rituals intact while simplifying their relatively elaborate style. The 1789 meeting also gave the church a name, the Protestant Episcopal Church, usually called the Episcopal Church, after the Greek word for bishop.
Early Growth . The Episcopalians grew slowly despite the wave of conversions bringing new members to other churches. If the Episcopalians did not have a wide appeal, they did have a select one. For all the difficulties experienced by Seabury and his followers in setting up the new Episcopal Church, they still had a significant basis for hope. Many leading citizens became Episcopalians, some drawn by its liberal theology, others by its liturgy, which was much more elaborate than the plain-style preaching of the Congregationalists and the Presbyterians. The appointment of John Hobart as bishop of New York in 1811 was important on this score since he favored such “High Church” worship services despite their association with Roman Catholicism and despite what some considered their antirepublican character. The association of Episcopalianism and the elite members of society is just one sign of the struggle this denomination had in adjusting to the Revolution.
David L. Holmes, “The Anglican Tradition and the Episcopal Church,” in Encyclopedia of the American Religious Experience, edited by Charles H. Lippy and Peter W. Williams (New York: Scribners, 1988), pp. 391–418.