Some years on the Sunday closest to the Fourth of July we have held a historical service—a recreation of what worship would have been like in the colonial era. We didn’t plan that this year, but I now kind of wish we had, since I am feeling a little cheated out of my usual Independence Day enjoyments due to Hurricane Arthur—watching bombs bursting in air on TV a day early is not quite the same as in person. Even so, special service or not this time of year my mind always seems to turn to things historical—both the history of our nation and also the history of the Episcopal Church. So, rather than our lessons, my focus this morning will be on recalling that story. Sorry if you were hoping for a sermon on the story of Rebekkah being claimed for Isaac with a nose ring.
You may know, or maybe you don’t, that the Episcopal Church was really born in the struggle for American independence. The Revolution was like the act that cut the Episcopal Church’s umbilical cord from its mother, the Church of England. After the war, we were on our own, much like the country as a whole. I imagine it was both exhilarating and very frightening. A significant number of the colonial Anglicans—both lay and ordained—were loyalist, supporting the king and not the struggle for independence. As a result, during the war over half of the Anglican clergy gave up their churches, a goodly number fleeing to Canada or back to England.
That loyalist sensibility was particularly strong among Anglicans in the north. In New England, as many as 90% of Anglican clergy were loyalist. I suspect that’s because here, the Congregational Church, descendents of the Puritans who came in search of religious freedom—specifically freedom from the Church of England—had official sanction by the colonial government, and the Anglicans, ironically, were an oppressed minority. So, they saw their allegiance to the king and England as their security in hostile, Puritan territory.
There has even been some suggestion that a conflict between Anglicans and Congregationalists contributed to the Revolution. The Anglicans, you see, were tired of traveling back and forth to England, particularly for priests to be ordained, and wanted a bishop of their own. Well, the New England Congregationalists were appalled and aghast at the suggestion. Leading Congregationalist minister Jonathan Mayhew of the Old West Church in Boston, who was a theological liberal, nearly Unitarian and a leading voice crying for American liberty, viewed bishops as nothing more than a tool of royal oppression. He said: "Is it not enough, that they persecuted us out of the Old World? Will they pursue us into the New to convert us here?" Mayhew died in 1766, before the Revolution, but his ideas were influential in coalescing momentum against the king and against the king’s church.
The situation was different in the southern colonies: in Maryland, Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Georgia. There, as well as New York, the Church of England was the established, authorized church. Because of that, Anglicans were greater in number and really in a much more secure position. Down there, only 23% of the Anglican clergy were loyalist (remember it was 90% in the north!). And in many cases the leaders of Colonial government themselves were Anglican, including some names you’ll probably recognize: Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, James Monroe, John Jay, John Marshall, Patrick Henry. Also General George Washington. In fact, three quarters of the signers of the Declaration of Independence were Anglican laymen; though, some were more religious than others, and a good number were Deists, embracing a very reason-based approach to religion. Thomas Jefferson, for example, was Unitarian in belief, not believing in miracles or creeds or anything like that, but still attending and even serving on the vestry of an Episcopal Church. Because of their more prosperous position, the southern Anglicans didn’t look to England for their security and freedom in the way the northerners did.
After the Revolution, those who remained set about to pick up the pieces and organize their orphaned church. They built it around the very same ideals as the new American government, while striving to maintain the beliefs and practices they inherited from the Church of England—the Book of Common Prayer, sacraments, and the like. They valued democracy, and for the most part sought to give laity as well as clergy as voice and vote in church matters. But, they also still believed in bishops as spiritual leaders—they just thought the bishops should be elected, rather than appointed by a king, and should have limited authority. And, of course, parishes had to be self-supporting, no longer relying on England to keep them going. That’s where the concept of pledging comes from, hand in hand with the idea of a democratic church.
It took time for everything to sort itself out. For a while it seemed like each diocese was its own autonomous church (sometimes with only one or two parishes). The northern New England areas that had been largely loyalist tended to be more high church, in stark contrast with the Congregationalist majority, while the south was more Protestant and far more democratic. In 1780 the Diocese of Maryland held a convention and called itself “the Protestant Episcopal Church.” It was the first time that name was used—sort of ironic or at least aspirational, as the word “Episcopal” means with bishops and they didn’t have any yet in the new country, nor really any way of getting them, since the Church of England likely wasn’t willing to help.
Even so, in 1783 the clergy of the Diocese of Connecticut met secretly (no laity, since they weren’t so sure about giving laity a vote up here, thinking it too much like their adversaries the Congregationalists). These clergy elected a priest named Samuel Seabury to be their bishop. He had been a loyalist during the war, serving as a chaplain to the king’s army, even drawing maps of the colonies, and was imprisoned by the Continental army in Connecticut for a while. However, following the war, he chose to live in the new nation. After his election he sailed to England to see if he could get the bishops there to consecrate him a bishop for the United States. He was unsuccessful, as he refused to swear another oath to the king.
Undeterred, he went north to visit the bishops of the Scottish Episcopal Church, who didn’t require an oath of royal assent. This time he was successful and on November 14, 1784, Seabury was consecrated in Aberdeen by three Scottish bishops. He sailed back to the United States to be the very first American bishop; in fact, he was the very first Anglican bishop outside the British Isles. Although he was only elected Bishop of Connecticut, for a while he gave himself the impressive title “Bishop of America.” Seabury’s promise to the Scottish bishops was that he would introduce their version of the Holy Communion liturgy here, which was more high church or catholic than England’s. He succeeded and it is one of his primary legacies.
Well, you know the rivalry between England and Scotland. When the English bishops learned that Seabury had been ordained up there, they got all worried that all of the American bishops would come from Scotland, which they felt was of questionable authenticity. Plus they feared the loss of their spiritual as well as political influence, so they passed a law allowing the consecration of three bishops for the United States, ensuring their legacy and influence here. As a result, between 1787 and 1790 three more priests from America sailed to England to be ordained bishops: William White of Philadelphia, Samuel Provoost of New York, and James Madison of Virginia (cousin of the president). With four bishops in the United States, we didn’t need to look to England or Scotland any longer, as traditionally it only takes three bishops to consecrate a new one.
Truth be told, though, it was still a tense time. In many areas the church’s membership was decimated by the war. Bishops Seabury of Connecticut (the former loyalist) and Provoost of New York (who had been a Patriot) couldn’t stand each other, archenemies is how historians describe them. They couldn’t even bear being in the same room together, so it took Herculean efforts to get the church organized—priests ordained by Seabury often weren’t welcome in middle and southern dioceses, and the northern dioceses refused to send delegates to national conventions and wouldn’t sign on to the first proposed prayer book, because it wasn’t high church enough. Bishop White of Philadelphia (who had been a chaplain to the Continental Congress) was the peacemaker, getting Seabury to agree to something when Provoost was away sick, always delicately balancing the high church, catholic sensibilities of the north and the low church, democratic ideals of the south. White was brilliant, but probably didn’t feel it at the time.
Bishop Seabury, by the way, in the very early days oversaw Massachusetts and Rhode Island, as well as his Connecticut diocese (since there were hardly any Episcopalians here—only about 5 parishes). King’s Chapel in Boston, the first Anglican church in New England, actually became Unitarian because of Seabury, since the bishop refused to ordain to the priesthood its lay reader, James Freeman, who had embraced Unitarian beliefs. Its previous clergy were loyalist and fled during the war. Edward Bass, rector of St. Paul’s Church in Newburyport was elected bishop of Massachusetts in 1789. However, his parish rejected the vote because, as in Connecticut, lay people had not been given the vote. He was elected again in 1796, with lay votes this time, and was consecrated the next year—the 7th bishop in the Episcopal Church.
Well, that’s some of the story of how we came to be—children of the Revolution and the struggle for American Independence, though some reluctantly. Always inspiring to me in the story of Anglicanism and the Episcopal Church is how very human we are. In the early days, infamously born of a king who wanted to divorce his wife, and later of a Revolution that not everyone supported, but once it was settled, they committed themselves to the ideals of this new country, even modeling the church on its principles of democracy. Our church is founded upon the belief that God can work and speak through all of us: lay and clergy alike, of many backgrounds, perspectives, and beliefs—both when we get things right and even when we get them wrong. The Episcopal Church is far from perfect, sometimes frustratingly far. But for me, it is holds in a unique way the best of Christian tradition and the extraordinary gifts and insights of the American experiment and experience in democracy, liberty, and a striving for justice for all.
I thought I would close this morning with a prayer for the Fourth of July from the proposed Book of Common Prayer from 1786, composed three years after the end of the Revolution. The prayer was controversial then because many Episcopalians weren’t so sure that the Fourth of July was a day to celebrate. But today, we can celebrate and give thanks—for the blessings of life in this country, for the blessings of other countries around the world, and most especially for the blessings of that country, that kingdom, of which all people are citizens.
So let us pray:
Almighty God, who hast in all ages shewed forth thy power and mercy in the wonderful preservation of thy church, and in the protection of every nation and people professing thy holy and eternal Truth, and putting their sure trust in thee; We yield thee our unfeigned thanks and praise for all thy public mercies, and more especially for that signal and wonderful manifestation of thy providence which we commemorate this day; Wherefore not unto us, O Lord, not unto us, but unto thy Name be ascribed all honor and glory, in all churches of the Saints, from generation to generation, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
© The Rev. Matthew P. Cadwell, Ph.D.