Seabury, Samuel (1729-1796)
Samuel Seabury (1729-1796)
First american episcopalian bishop
American Anglican . Samuel Sea-bury was a key figure in founding the American Episcopal Church from what was left of colonial Anglicanism after the Revolution. Sea-bury was born into the family of the Congregational minister in Gro-ton, Connecticut, on 30 November 1729. The next year Seabury’s father converted from Congregationalism to Anglicanism, as did several other young ministers drawn by the richness of Anglican sacramental life and the association with English ways. Seabury followed his father into the priesthood in 1753 and became a missionary in New Jersey and New York, sponsored by the Anglican Society for the Propagation of the Gospel. He continued this work through the pre-Revolutionary years. During this time he became embroiled in the controversy over the ordination of an Anglican bishop for the American colonies, a possibility many Americans feared, however irrationally, as one more sign of British tyranny. Seabury, naturally, favored the proposal. He was also a notorious opponent of American independence, writing a series of Loyalist pamphlets in 1774 which Alexander Hamilton answered. The next year Seabury was captured by a Patriot mob searching for a Loyalist printer. Despite these troubles Seabury persisted in his loyalty to England and served as a chaplain to American Loyalists serving in the British army.
An American Bishop . Seabury returned to Connecticut after the war and began the effort of rebuilding the Anglican Church. The church was greatly weakened by the departure of many Loyalists for Canada and England and by anti-Anglican sentiment among the victorious American Patriots. The Connecticut clergy sent Seabury to England in 1783 to seek ordination as their bishop, feeling reconstruction of their church was impossible without the establishment of this office and the installation of a man of Seabury’s abilities to fill it. Seabury faced opposition on both sides of the Atlantic. The English church refused to ordain him because it required its bishops to swear loyalty to the English king, which Seabury could not do. The Scottish Episcopal Church had no scruples on this point, however, and made Seabury the first American bishop on 14 November 1784. In exchange Seabury happily promised to promote High Church principles, namely an emphasis on the sacraments, especially holy communion, and adherence to a system of leadership by bishops and clergy. This made some American Anglicans angry, especially those from Virginia and Pennsylvania who were more skeptical about the need for a bishop and more interested in allowing for lay leadership of the church.
From Anglican to Episcopalian . Seabury returned to Connecticut and led a series of meetings of former American Anglicans which established the Protestant Episcopal Church in 1789, a church separate from the Anglican Church but in “communion” with it, that is, sharing its structure and beliefs. Seabury then began to compromise with his opponents in order to unify the denomination, a difficult process made harder by Seabury’s unpleasant personality. One important task was the writing of the American Book of Common Prayer, the church’s worship manual, which helped give the church a more American style, even as it adhered to its traditional English ways. As bishop Seabury led the church while also continuing his pastoral work, visiting Episcopalians and their parishes throughout New England. He died in his home parish of New London, Connecticut, on 25 February 1796.
Samuel Seabury was born in Groton, Conn., on Nov. 30, 1729, a son of Samuel Seabury, a minister of the Congregational Church who became a convert to the Church of England and was ordained in its ministry in 1730. Young Seabury graduated from Yale College in 1748, went to England in 1751, studied medicine in Edinburgh, and was ordained in 1753. A year later he returned to America under the auspices of the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel and became rector of Christ Church, New Brunswick, N.J. Later he served churches in Jamaica and Westchester, N.Y.
Conflict characterized Seabury's life. He was a High Churchman and a royalist. He believed that the establishment of a strong episcopate in America should take precedence over the organization of a national church. An early controversy left a mark on him. Dissenters, who were in the majority in the Jamaica vestry, opposed the governor's action in making Seabury, rather than the man they had chosen, the town minister. Later, in Westchester, using a pseudonym, he wrote pamphlets in defense of the Church of England and of British rule in America. In November 1775 he was arrested but was permitted to return to Westchester 2 months later. He sought refuge behind the British lines in September 1776 and in 1778 was appointed chaplain to a British regiment. After the war he received a pension from the British government.
In 1783 Seabury was chosen by the Connecticut clergy to obtain consecration as a bishop. The lack of bishops in America had been an obstacle to the growth of the Church, for ordination could be effected only in England. But the English authorities would not agree to Seabury's candidacy, and he was consecrated in the Episcopal Church of Scotland in November 1784. The following year he returned to America as rector of St. James Church, New London, Conn., and bishop of Connecticut, the first bishop of the Episcopal Church in the country.
Efforts to establish a national Episcopal Church had begun during Seabury's absence. His position as bishop caused some opposition to unification; some clergymen condemned him because of his actions in support of the British; others doubted the validity of his consecration. He was strongly supported by most of the New England clergy, however, and Church unity was achieved at the General Convention of 1789 in Philadelphia. Seabury died on Feb. 25, 1796, in New London.
James Thayer Addison, The Episcopal Church in the United States, 1789-1931 (1951), gives an account of Seabury's activities. Raymond W. Albright, A History of the Protestant Episcopal Church (1964), contains more detail and documentation. The classic biographical sketch of Seabury is in The Episcopate in America by William Stevens Perry (1895).
Mitgang, Herbert, The man who rode the tiger: the life of Judge Samuel Seabury and the story of the greatest investigation of city corruption in this century, New York: Norton, 1979, 1963.