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.’
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
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
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
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.
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.
("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
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.
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
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",
"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
"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
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
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
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
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
"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
"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
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
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
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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