Chapter One

A View of the State of the Episcopal Church in New England in Pre-Revolutionary Days

 

THERE were various reasons why the Episcopal Church made slow progress in New England in Pre-Revolutionary days.
 

Puritan rule was intolerant of anything Pro-British, and as Episcopacy was associated in the mind of the Puritan with aristocracy, hier-archy, oppression and ecclesiasticism, from which thc Puritans had made their escape to take refuge in a new land, and to build a religion unfettered by the rule of bishops, it took an exhibition of fine courage for American Episcopalians to face this hostile atmosphere, and to seek to plant and foster the Episcopal Church in America in accordance with the doctrine, discipline and worship of their fathers across the sea.
 

Bishop Burleson in the "Conquest of the Continent," says that in those early colonial times the Episcopal Church was looked upon by a great many people as the Church of good-for-nothing baggage which the British left behind.
 

The feeling aroused against the jurisdiction of bishops in New England a century and a half ago is illustrated by the following story told by Bishop Perry, formerly Presiding Bishop, at a service in Philadelphia in February 1937, commemorating the one hundred and fiftieth anniversary of the consecration of the Rev. Dr. William White and the Rev. Dr. Samuel Provost to the Episcopate: (Life and letters of Bishop William White" by Stowe).
 

"In a Puritan home in Rhode Island the head of the family was reading the news one morning. He looked up for a minute and said: ‘I am sorry to tell you that I am not to be with you long.’
 

"His family were startled and asked, ‘Why?’ He said: ‘I am to be hung.’ That was news to them and they still waited for an explana-tion. He said: ‘I have just read that they are going to send a bishop to this country, and when that day comes, I shall be at the landing to shoot him, and that means that I shall have to pay the penalty.’
 

This prejudice against bishops was probably not carried to such an extreme in all sections of New England as this story would suggest, but Dr. Hodges in the "Religious History of New England" (‘Religious History of New England," by Hodges, pp. 232-233) states that these antagonistic views were shared by some conservative minds. For example: John Adams said that "the objection was not only to the office of a bishop, though that was dreaded, but to the authority of Parlia-ment on which it may be founded."
 

"There is no power less than Parliament," he said, "which can create bishops in America. But if Parliament can erect dioceses and create bishops, they may introduce the whole hierarchy, establish titles, estab-lish religion, forbid dissenters, make schism heresy, impose penalties ex-tending to life and limb as well as to liberty and property."
 

This opinion was approved by many Churchmen particularly in the South. As late as 1785 the clergy and laity of South Carolina agreed to meet in convention with their brethren of other states only on con-dition that they should not be compelled to have a bishop.
 

A bishop was pictured in their minds as a domineering sort of person, having his residence in an Episcopal palace, from which he emerged only to go about on a coach drawn by four horses.
 

The Revolution which effected a complete political independence of the Colonies, made a great change in this situation, so that in March 1783 when the independence of the United States had become established the first steps toward the consecration of a bishop were made by ten clergymen of Connecticut who elected Samuel Seabury to go to England to seek Episcopal consecration. On his arrival in England Dr. Seabury sought in vain for consecration by the bishops of the Church of England, but went to Scotland and was consecrated by the bishops of the Scottish Church on November 14, 1784.
 

Thus for a period of 180 years no Episcopal acts were exercised in the colonies. Confirmations were omitted and the ministry was recruited either by missionaries sent from England by the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts or by men from the colonies sent to England for ordination.
 

The difficulties of this method were serious owing to the perils in crossing the sea and the expense involved in this journey of three thousand miles.
 

But though the interruption of the normal functions of the Church was a great impediment to its growth, it is a matter for gratitude that through the faith and perseverance of Churchmen bishops were finally secured and thus the apostolic order of the Church was preserved.
The progress of the Episcopal Church in this period was made difficult also by the attitude of prejudice and opposition on the part of Puritans and Separatists to the Liturgy and forms and ceremonies of the Book of Common Prayer.
 

Restive and unhappy as they had been in England by the Acts of Conformity of Parliament, and by ecclesiastical ceremonies which they characterized as the usurping of popery, the Puritans came to New England impelled with the conviction that they would be "forever free from ecclesiastical tyranny."
 

However, the pendulum was to swing in the other direction. In striking for religious liberty they trespassed upon the rights and liberties of others.
 

Bishop Perry says ("Life and Letters of Bishop White"): - "The first priest to make his way through the wilderness of New England as a refugee from the Puritan rule of Massachusetts described it well when he said: ‘I came indeed to escape the tyranny of my lords, the bishops, but now I find myself bound by the greater tyranny of my lords, the brethren.’
 

On the other hand Governor Cranfield of New Hampshire wrote to England to express his humble opinion as a Churchman, "That it will be absolutely necessary to admit no person into any place of trust, but such as will take the Sacrament and are conformable to the rites of the Church of England."
 

This was in effect a proposal to overthrow Puritan control and to put its place the discipline and authority of the Church of England.
Recent historians give a very different view of the Loyalist during the Revolutionary period from the which has been generally held. ( Kenneth Roberts in "Oliver Wiswell.")
 

According to this view it was the Loyalist, not always the Patriot, who believed in maintaining the government by orderly processes; and among the Loyalists a goodly proportion were governed by the highest motives, and ranked as people of the finest type of integrity. Both Loyalist and Patriot deprecated the policy of England in inflicting oppressive measures on the Colonists; but the Loyalists, a large proportion of whom were members of the Church of England, were well disposed toward England, while the Patriots had no good word to say for England, and were suspicious of those who spoke in her defense, and who sought to conciliate the Colonists and England by appealing to their sense of fair play and tolerance.
 

Unfortunately it has happened many times in the history of the Church that there have been waves of intolerance, and that no ecclesiastical groups or reformers on one side or the other have escaped from the infection of the bias of the group.
 

Puritans and Churchmen were quite wide apart in their codes of behavior, the one holding under its ban all amusements and frivolities, the other regarding the Christian man as functioning more normally when free to indulge in recreation and amusements within the limits of Christ’s law.
 

For example, ("Religious History of New England," by Hodges) Thomas Morton, an Englishman who came in 1622 to Quincy, Rhode Island, with a group of Englishmen and settled among Puritans, was criticized by his Puritan neighbors, who declared that Morton and his friends not only made no contribution to religion, but rather, they said, to irreligion.
 

The occasion for this judgment was the fact that when Morton came to Quincy he combined the custom of reading the prayers according to the rubrics of the Prayer Book, with a code of behavior, which was offensive to his more sober neighbors.
 

Of Morton the Puritans said: "He kept Christmas with much festivity and worshipped the Roman goddess Flora by leading his household in a merry dance about the May-pole."
 

Of the Prayer Book they said: "The Book of Common Prayer, what poore thing is that, for a man to reade in a booke? No, no, good sirs, I would you were neere us, you might receave comfort by instruction-give me a man that hath the guiftes of the spirit, not a booke in his hand.’’
 

In expressing his opinion of Puritans Morton says: "I found two sorts of people, the one Christians, the other infidels. These I found most full of humanity and more friendly than the other."
 

Because of Morton’s reference to the human kindness of infidels he was accused of setting up a "School of Atheism."
 

John Fiske says that this accusation was probably based on the fact that lie "used the Book of Common Prayer."
 

Another ease is cited by Dean Hodges showing the temper of the times.
 

"Reverend John Lyford, an Episcopalian, came from England appointed by the men who financed the Plymouth Colony to be pastor of a Separatist congregation in Massachusetts.
 

"For an Episcopal clergyman to be pastor of a Separatist congregation was most unusual, but the matter was delicate because the colony was financially dependent upon the English company.
 

"The new pastor to all appearances sought to conform to the ideas of his congregation. But it transpired that he had written to the members in England who financed the colony letters that were critical of the religious opinions of his congregation.
 

"The outcome of the matter was that the governor of the colony discovered that Lyford was recruiting followers to set up a public meeting apart, and ‘have the sacraments,’ as they expressed it.
 

"This discovery was followed by the trial of Mr. Lyford and his followers for schism and sedition and they were sentenced to expulsion." (Religious History of New England," by Hodges, p. 208).
 

In addition to the adverse attitude of the majority of Separatists and a few Churchmen to the establishment of Episcopacy in New England and their intolerance of the use of the Prayer Book, there was another factor, which impeded the growth of the Episcopal Church. This was the fact that during the growing popular feeling in the colonies for independence of the claims of the Crown, anyone who was Pro-British was regarded with suspicion.
 

The position of clergymen and laymen of the Anglican faith was therefore one of extreme difficulty, for though many of the signers of the Declaration of Independence were Churchmen and George Washington was himself a Churchman, the Church of England was the Mother Church and many Churchmen felt that they should be loyal to it. Thus as a rule the plain people in the churches were Patriots, but the wardens and their families and the clergy who were closely linked to the Church of England were generally Loyalists.
 

In 1775 the Rev. Ramea Cossitt, Rector of the Church at Portsmouth, New Hampshire, wrote as follows to the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in England: ("Religious History of New England", by Hodges)
 

"I have constantly kept up public services without any omissions for the King and the Royal Family and likewise made use of the prayers for the High Court of Parliament and the prayers used in time of wars and tumults".
 

"The number of my parishioners and communicants in Claremount is increased, but I have been cruelly distressed with fines for refusing entirely to fight against the King".
 

"In sundry places where I used to officiate the Church People are dwindled away, some have fled to the King’s army for protection, some are banished and many are dead."
 

He added: "I have been by the committee confined in prison in the town of Claremount since April 12, 1775; yet God has preserved my life from the rage of the people."
 

At St. John’s Church, Providence, the Rector "was pleased to absent himself from duty, though very earnestly requested to keep up the worship, saying he could not say prayers for King George as the were forbidden." (Religious History of New England," by Hodges).
In the minute book of the Vestry of Christ Church, Boston, Dr. Hodges says in his chapter on "Episcopalians" in the "Religious History of New England," that there are two blank pages between the sixth of September 1774 and the third of March 1779.
On the second date the Rector was desired to prepare a proper form of prayers for Congress for the several states, and for their "success in the present important contest," to be used daily in the Church.
 

During the Revolution such prayers were used in Trinity Church, Boston, by the Rev. Samuel Parker, and in consequence the parish had been maintained.
 

"In Connecticut," says Dr. Hodges, "there were only fourteen Episcopal clergymen at the end of the war, and they were subject to the ill-will of their patriotic neighbors".
 

"Churches had been destroyed or plundered and defaced, some by British soldiers and some by patriots".
 

"Some of the clergy had fled, some had been imprisoned, some had been mobbed".
 

"The Rev. Abraham Beach, DD., in the course of a bold sermon against rebellion, had been fired at by an aggressive parishioner; the mark of the bullet is still to be seen in the molding board of the church at Redding."
 

Mr. Walter Herbert Stow, in an article in the Historical Magazine entitled "Documentary History of the Church" (June 1936) refers to important letters of the Rev. Abraham Beach, DD., from 1768 to 1784, to the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts. On December 1, 1772, Dr. Beach speaks of the general prosperity of the Church in America before the war of Independence, and of the growing spirit of self-help among the people. This condition, however, was soon to be changed by the war.
 

He also refers to the fact that the Society’s missionaries were giving regular ministrations to Negroes as well as white people.
 

A letter of July 2, 1778 indicates the increasing difficulties of the Church in the midst of the war; the missionary’s unwillingness to compromise with his oath of allegiance to the King; the necessity of closing the Church as a consequence of this unwillingness; and his conscientious ministrations of visits, baptisms, marriages and burials in spite of this handicap.
 

In another letter on October 2, 1790, he says that there is a growing concern on the part of the more spiritually-minded laity due to the ces-sation of public worship; and owing to his perplexity between fidelity to his ordination vow and his desire to lessen the growing evils by opening the Church for public worship, he pleads for counsel.
 

About the time that Mr. Beach was re-opening the Church for services a letter was on its way from Dr. Chandler representing the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel, stating the opinion of the ecclesiastical authorities of the Church of England on this subject
 

In this letter Dr. Chandler says: "I need not tell you how much I approve of your conduct in shutting up your church, as soon as you were not suffered to make use of the Liturgy in its full dimensions".
 

"Your backwardness to open it, when urged by your people, and pressed by other cogent reasons, until you knew the mind of the Society, is equally commendable".
 

"The state of your case and that of the Connecticut clergy, I presented to the Society and to the Bishop of London".
 

"Though they did not choose to give a formal answer, yet they authorized me to assure all parties concerned that, under the present situation of affairs, the use of the Liturgy, with omitting the prayers for the King, provided others for the Congress were not substituted in their place, would not meet with their censure or disapprobation".
 

"The Canons of the Church must for the present give way to the Cannon of Congress".
 

"In the meanwhile an honest man will not give up his principles; and while he is not able to fulfil the letter of the law, he will be careful not to counteract the spirit of it."
 

Other letters give evidence of the distress of missionaries who, like Beach, stayed by their posts.
 

They were confronted on the one hand with loss of financial support from their congregations, and on the other hand with the rise in the cost of living.
 

Mr. Beach was impelled for the sake of his family to ask for an increase in his stipend, which was granted by the Society.
 

It was a dark period for the Church, with the general religious indifference, the high taxes, and the consequent lack of support from the people.
 

Mr. Beach continued faithful in prayer and labor during this trying period, and lived to see (1828) in this country a reconstituted and self-governing Church.
 

As to the manifestations of political and religious intolerance, which played so important, though so unhappy a part in the pre-Revolutionary period in New England, the flight of years has to a large extent softened and allayed them.
 

The bitter prophesies of ecclesiastical tyranny that were uttered in protest against the introduction of Episcopacy into the religious life of New England may be viewed as having but little, if any, justification in the light of the present recognized position of our bishops in this country as leaders in civic and moral reforms.
 

The American Episcopate is democratic, not monarchical. The struggle for Episcopacy was worthwhile for had there been no Episcopacy there could have been no real Episcopal Church.
 

Our Bishops in those early days, White, Seabury, Provoost and Claggetr, were like the pillars of a permanent structure.
 

They were outstanding leaders in a time of great difficulty, and it was through their wise and far-seeing counsels that the Episcopal Church in the United States emerged from a state of well-nigh extinction, and has grown to be, through her heritage as both catholic and protestant, a Media Res among the religious bodies of our land.

 

 

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