An Address to the Bishop White Prayer Book Society (of 1845)
by Joseph Reed Ingersoll
Introduced and transcribed
by Richard J. Mammana
The Bishop White Prayer Book Society (BWPBS) is one of the few survivors of the multitude of local American organizations formed in the nineteenth century to promote distribution of the Book of Common Prayer. Based in Philadelphia, and affiliated closely with the Diocese of Pennsylvania, the BWPBS was established in the year 1834 “with the view to supply missionaries, destitute parishes, and Episcopalians everywhere, with the public formularies of the Church.” Still active today, the society has a remarkable record of supporting not just distribution of the BCP, but also translations into languages other than English, and the provision of related materials such as hymnals and supplementary liturgical texts.
The modern researcher on the BWPBS is fortunate to have a wealth of annual reports of its activities, many of them with an address by a prominent lay supporter, or an anniversary sermon by a local rector or diocesan bishop. The society was named for Bishop William White whose portrait 1795 is shown below. (He lived from 1748-1836, and was Bishop of Pennsylvania 1787-1836, Chaplain of the Senate, and Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church in two terms: 1789, and 1795-1836.)
The 1845 report noted a very wide degree of activity during the preceding calendar year, and a small increase over previous years’ work:
“The number of Prayer Books distributed during the past business year, from May, 1844, to May, 1845, amounts to 5925 copies, and they have been appropriated as follows:—Pennsylvania, 2565; New York, 330; New Jersey, 245; Rhode Island, 200; Massachusetts, 48; Connecticut, 25; Maine, 125; New Hampshire, 98; Delaware, 63; Virginia, 100; Maryland, 50; Ohio, 150; Kentucky, 50; Indiana, 370; Alabama, 100; Mississippi, 208; Missouri, 265; Illinois, 50; Iowa, 12; Nashotah Mission, 400; N. Carolina, 74; District of Columbia, 20; China, 112; Seamen, 215; U. S. Navy, 50. The distribution for the year ending May, 1844, was 5400 copies; for the year ending May, 1843, 5395.”
This annual report also included an address by Joseph Reed Ingersoll (1786-1868), an American attorney, diplomat, and politician who represented Pennsylvania in the House from 1835-1837, and from 1841-1849. He also served as United States Minister to the Court of St. James from 1852-1853 under Millard Fillmore. (Joseph’s father Jared [1749-1822] was a delegate to the Continental Congress and a signer of the United States Constitution.)
A graduate of Princeton, Ingersoll was a parishioner at St. Peter’s Church, Philadelphia. Ingersoll’s involvement in the Bishop White Prayer Book Society was as a layman and financial backer, and his understanding of the contemporary American religious situation is both careful and subtle. He was the author of occasional speeches and addresses before organizations such as the Pennsylvania Colonization Society, the Philomathean Society, and the Bishop White Prayer Book Society, as well as brief memoirs of colleagues in statecraft, translations of European legal treatises, and a popular essay Secession: Folly and Crime(1861, reissued frequently). He is buried in the cemetery at St. Peter’s, Philadelphia.
The Address to the Bishop White Prayer Book Society
By Joseph R. Ingersoll
After the very interesting and eloquent report which has just been read, comment and argument would seem to be in a great degree superfluous. I would myself not venture to hazard a remark that might possibly disturb its influence, were it not for the invitation from the chair which I do not feel at liberty to resist. Perhaps the interests of this almost entirely spiritual association, might most safely be confided to the especial care of spiritual men. To a cause however so pure and so benevolent, so well calculated to do permanent and extensive good, so full of disinterested as well as virtuous purposes,—all may present their offerings without intrusion, and the mite of the lay, as well as the mass of the active influence of the clerical members of the church, may, not without usefulness, be contributed.
Every one can appreciate the value of prayer. It is an evidence in outward and practical expression, of those inward devotional sentiments, which are necessarily inseparable from piety, and without which morality itself would have a precarious and a frail control over human conduct. Every one can appreciate the importance of diffusing widely both the sentiments of devotion, and as an index and an incentive to their cultivation and growth, the disposition and the power and the habit and the facility of the utterance of them. The instinctive tendencies of a well-balanced mind lead to the worship of God. Every thing around us and within us shows the influence of infinite power and wisdom, and our own dependence and imbecility. We naturally cherish a feeling of adoration towards the Being that is above us, and of reliance upon him for support and protection amid the chances of an uncertain world. If there be any gratitude, it dictates thanksgiving for what is past;—and experience unites with hope, in suggesting an humble supplication for future blessings.
Prayer is not only prompted by the unbiased movements of a reflecting and a grateful heart. It is urged by precept and example in the written word of inspiration. It would not be easy to point out any particular duties which above all others are more strenuously insisted on in the Scriptures. None of the vital principles of human conduct are overlooked, while none are pre-eminently enjoined to the delay or hindrance of the rest. It is the charm of that sacred volume that it neither essentially postpones, nor exclusively prefers, any of the wise behests of the Creator, or any of the corresponding obligations upon his creatures of the human race. Laying down certain rules as the basis upon which all allegiance depends—the fear of God and observance of his will—minute details of duty, and specific enumerations of all the long catalogue of items which go to make up the sum total of a perfect code of laws, are shadowed forth in broad and obvious outline which renders each in similar degree and equal sanctity as binding as the rest. But the Old and the New Testaments are replete with instances and virtually with instructions, showing the necessity, the efficacy, and the duty of prayer. The worshipper is led insensibly to a conviction of its sublimity as a mysterious bond of intercourse with the Most High.
He is led with no less confidence to seek it as an immediate source of consolation to a troubled spirit, and in good time for the sake of its, regulated indeed and possibly remote but hallowed, influences upon his communion with mankind. Whatever maybe our proneness to error, how uncontrolled soever our spirit, and ordinarily regardless of its final destiny, there is a season which may happen to all men, when the most unruly passions are put to rest. It is that serene and tranquil moment, of however rare occurrence in the lives of most men, when all their affections are absorbed in this holy exercise. Who is so lost to the finer sensibilities of his nature as to be capable of indulging in criminal designs while he is holding high converse with his Maker? What heart is so callous to the influence of heavenly association as not to undergo at least a short-lived separation from impure thoughts, at such an hour? I speak not of an outward seeming of devotion. Appearances may be assumed without a particle of religious sentiment beneath them. Hypocrisy is truly said to be the homage which vice pays to virtue. It is at least an acknowledgment of the beauty of religion extorted from its opponents. It is the strongest evidence, afforded by those who have no interest, as they conceive, in the cause of piety, and dare not or do not aspire to its profession, how much they esteem its observances and those who practise them, and how gladly they would avail themselves of the advantages which its very appearance can create in the estimation of the wise. If indeed actual companionship could exist between a mortal and immortal being, between man and his Maker, such a relation would protect him from all tendencies to error. Bad actions would not be perpetrated, for evil inclinations could not arise. Fervent prayer approaches as nearly to this divine companionship as human nature can attain. It brings with it an assurance of the immediate presence of that Being, who is of purer eyes than to behold iniquity, and in the firmness of that assurance it furnishes a barrier to the allurements of sin.
Some of the sublimest conceptions recorded in the Bible are in the shape and on the occasion of prayer. The best and the wisest men, whose examples are selected from the myriads of the human family for the instruction and imitation of mankind, are conspicuous for the fervency of their aspirations to the throne of grace. David blessed the Lord God of Israel for ever and ever, before all the congregation of the princes and the people that he had “assembled unto Jerusalem,” and ascribed to him greatness, and power, and glory, and victory, and praise. David’s yet wiser son, when he had erected a temple worthy of the worship of the Most High, kneeled down upon his knees before all the congregation of Israel, and poured forth supplications solemn and sublime, that the Lord God of Israel, whom the heavens and the heaven of heavens were not able to contain, would hear the prayers of his people, and when he should hear, would mercifully forgive. To him would that people look for succor in time of famine and pestilence, blasting or mildew, when enemies should besiege their cities, or plague or sickness should desolate the land. Daniel was speaking in prayer and confessing his sin and the sin of his people about the time of the evening oblation, when at the beginning of his supplications the responsive commandment came forth from the lips of an angel, whose body was like the chrysolite, and his face like the lightning, and the voice of his words like the voice of a multitude. Well might he confide in the efficacy of prayer, who had already defied the stratagems of rulers and the decrees of tyrants, and in utter disregard of the wiles of the one and the power of the other, had gone into his house, and his window being open in his chamber towards Jerusalem, had kneeled upon his knees three times a day, and prayed and praised his God as he did aforetime. Thus prepared for every danger, armed with virtuous innocence and assured of the protection of heaven, he passed unhurt through the fiery furnace, and the lion’s den.
The lessons of the New Testament are no less unequivocal. Christians are there enjoined to continuance and constancy in prayer. It is peculiarly appropriate to the purposes of this Society, that the noblest sermon that ever was delivered contains the simplest and yet the most comprehensive of prayers. That prayer is itself a form now universally adopted. We are told by Bishop Horne that it was such when prescribed in the Sermon on the Mount. It was even then known as a Jewish homily, and not originally uttered from the lips of the divine speaker.
If there be efficacy in prayer, and it be a duty to practise it, if indeed it be the first important step in a career of piety, how meritorious are they who facilitate and augment its exercise? To the large classes of the ignorant and the depraved, means of prayer would be inaccessible were it not for the exertions of this and similar associations. It is no argument in disproof of the value and merit of their efforts that they are directed towards reluctant objects, who may not desire interposition in their behalf. The whole design of the gospel is to invite the unwilling, to recall those who are voluntary wanderers, to bring sinners to repentance. Were mankind already virtuously inclined, and, especially, had they become firmly established in good principles, and proof against the evil temptations and seductions which every where surround them, there would be little occasion for the exertions of the benevolent. If not already possessed of necessary aids and incentives to a continuance in well doing, they would seek them for themselves and provision would scarcely be required from strangers. On the other hand, lost indeed would be the mass of men if not reclaimed by the few who are charitable. Example is contagious. Evil communications corrupt, more readily than good ones purify. The way of the transgressor, though hard in reality, is seemingly and in its outset smooth and alluring. He must be taught the error of his ways, the peril of his condition, the certainty of the perdition that awaits him,—or his own intuition will prove a feeble monitor.
Large classes of the human family are incapable of furnishing themselves with means of religious exercise, even if an occasional ray of celestial light gleams upon their humble habitation, and a responsive aspiration sometimes ascends to heaven. Poverty and ignorance combined must fix a narrow limit to the view of piety, if it be not enlarged and elevated by instruction from the benevolent. Books of devotion are inaccessible to those whose daily earnings are required for their daily bread. There are many who have not power to earn the scantiest subsistence, who derive even their morsel of humble food from the hand of charity. Inmates of hospitals and poor houses! The helplessly infirm! The aged and sick! What should they do unaided, towards a religious life? Place in their hands the Book of Prayer—if they have the rudest elements of education,—or go with them in kindly fellowship over its sublime and simple lessons, and they are at once provided with spiritual food.
Not less destitute of the knowledge and the practice of piety, if left to themselves, would be a large proportion of those whose lives are chiefly spent upon the ocean. Distant from all the ordinary sources of instruction, seamen are especially strangers to incentives to a religious life. Place among them the Book of Common Prayer and opportunity is at once afforded for gaining habits of devotion, if but a small part of each particular crew be able to read its varied and comprehensive instructions to the rest.
But there is a class far more degraded than any that has been alluded to, who stand more than all others in need of assistance from associations such as this. What must be the consolation of the tenant of a prison, the condemned and wretched criminal, shut out almost from sympathy, if he can find companionship and ever cheering employment, and pure and holy exercise in the perusal and use of the book of prayer? The sacred Scriptures teach him how to live and how to die. They are and ever should be foremost in his view, and in the view of those who pity him. But next to them, and first of merely human sources of relief, contributing indeed, and largely assisting him in seeking the purely divine Source of Consolation, is this Book of Common Prayer.
Wise and holy examples, precepts of prophets and apostles, proofs and illustrations drawn from the very fountain of celestial light, and exhibited through the medium of inspiration, no less than human observation and experience, concur in commending to the fervent exercise of men, this pious office. If all ages, the rude as well as the enlightened have in some shape adopted it; if all nations, heathen and Christian, barbarous and civilized, have, with different rites and ceremonies, practically conformed to it, may it not be regarded as a prompting of universal nature, besides and before its recognition in the revealed word of God? Confirmation too strong for doubt is given in that word that it is invited by stronger and more positive dictates than the instinctive impulses of the human heart. Doubt might linger upon the divine assistance which restored to health the pious king of Israel, and prolonged his days after the decree had gone forth that he should die. A miracle might not be discernible in the renewed energy of his debilitated body, which might have been bestowed by human skill alone. But when the visible shadow measured back its degrees upon the dial, and the sun himself obeyed the supplication of the doomed and prostrate monarch, no mortal hand was there. The days of miracles have gone; but the divine injunction of which they were once the illustration, will endure forever. Although no especial prominence be given to any particular duties in the long catalogue which is prescribed for us, yet there is one overruling principle, one supreme law, which pervades them all.
It is the principle and the law of obedience to the will of God. Short-sighted mortals may not be able to perceive the ends of providence. They may differ in their conclusions, or blindly grope for reasons, or fail to perceive the wisdom, or wildly imagine improvements, or foolishly speculate upon the operations of the paramount law in any or all of its injunctions. Let them reflect that “great is the mystery of godliness.” It often happens that the line of human knowledge is far too short to penetrate the depths of immeasurable wisdom. It is our duty in all such cases patiently to submit and devoutly to adore. If an Almighty power exist, and its ordinances are clearly made known, nothing is left but obedience—prompt and cheerful compliance with the eternal will. This is practical faith. It is the evidence of sincerity and the pledge of piety. No lessons are more strictly taught, no duties more sternly exacted than the lessons and the duties of implicit and uncompromising obedience, without regard to the precise character of the command, and without explanation, and without apprehension of the reasonableness of the thing enjoined. Infinite Wisdom cannot be justly judged in any of its operations by finite capacity. Wisdom may consist in the mere act of obedience, without analyzing the ingredients of the act performed. Destruction may fall upon the rebellious spirit when its pride and folly are made manifest, upon occasions seemingly disproportioned to the magnitude of the penalty. Measured by human reason, how small was the transgression by which our first parents lost the world! They thought they partook of pleasant fruit. They knew that they disobeyed the word of God. Measured by the same reason, how incomprehensible was the sacrifice required of Abraham, whose prompt compliance was the first great step towards the redemption of mankind! He thought he was to slay his son. He knew that he obeyed the word of God.
It would seem to be a needless effort to urge upon this assembly, or the extensive circles of which it is the representative, the necessity of fostering a society which is founded upon the best principles of pious charity. I feel that I have little right to plead the cause, itself so eloquent, before an audience already familiar with its merits and predisposed to give it every generous support. Yet it must not be forgotten that the exertions which long were crowned with eminent success because they were stimulated by the liberality of the benevolent, are now comparatively languishing from the want of continued encouragement. The report has informed us that the “offerings have ceased,” and that the Society has been compelled to refuse donations of Prayer Books within the last few months from the want of funds. While the power of doing good is far short of the desires of the active officers of this Society, their zeal is unabated, and they have failed in no duty that has devolved upon themselves. Nearly every state and territory of our country has received Prayer Books at their hands. Within the year which this month terminates, it appears that five thousand nine hundred and twenty-five have been distributed. Let these disinterested men be supplied with ample means, and their past labors afford the best assurance that they will not weary in well-doing. They will continue to merit and receive the gratitude of the poor and penitent whom they have solaced in their wretchedness, and taught the ways of piety. They will merit and receive the approving thanks of their country—and the blessings of their God.
Richard J. Mammana is the founder of Anglicanhistory.org, a free online archive of historical and academic material related to the Anglican/Episcopal tradition. He is a parishioner at Christ Church, New Haven, Connecticut.
Attached: Portrait of Joseph R. Ingersoll, 1868, painted in oil on canvas by Samuel Bell Waugh (1814-1885). From the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts: https://www.pafa.org/collection/joseph-r-ingersoll.
The Twelfth Annual Report, with the Address of the Hon. Joseph R. Ingersoll, at the Anniversary Meeting of the Bishop White Prayer Book Society, May 21st, 1845(Philadelphia: King and Baird, 1845), pp. 19-27.