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Vol I No. 7
History & Theology

Episcopalians After the American Revolution – Three Plans

by D. N. Keane

The end of the American Revolution in 1783 severed the Bishop of London’s jurisdiction over members of the Church of England in thirteen former British colonies. Many Church of England clergy fled to England, some north into Canada, but other clergy and congregations wished to remain where they were and, under the new republican government, continue to practice their religion as they hitherto had done, as protestant episcopalians who worshiped according to the Book of Common Prayer and held to the English Articles of Religion. The Church of England held that every sovereign state of necessity also has independence from any foreign jurisdiction in religion, so the English churchmen of the newly independent republican states had to determine how to organize their religious lives. Three models quickly emerged led by three very different priests of the Church of England, working within very different contexts.

The first proposal came from the Rector of United Parish of Christ Church and St Peter, Philadelphia – of which Benjamin Franklin was a member. White was a low-churchman, as that term was then understood – in the tradition of Gilbert Burnet, what we’d now call broad church –Pennsylvania was the most religiously tolerant of the colonies and did not have an established church. Nearly all the Church of England clergy in Pennsylvania supported the revolution, including White, who had served as chaplain to the Continental Congress from 1777 to 1789. In 1782, he published The Case of the Episcopal Churches in the United States Considered, a pamphlet widely circulated on both sides of the Atlantic. Drawing on the ecclesiology of Richard Hooker, James Ussher, and Benjamin Hoadly, he proposed that the former Church of England congregations in each of the several states should organize an annual convention (not a synod, because not called by bishops) of clerical and lay representatives to constitute a church in each sovereign American state. State conventions would, in turn, elect clerical and lay representatives to a general convention. Recognizing that no American republican could swear allegiance to the King of England – then required for episcopal consecration in England – White proposed that, under the extraordinary circumstances, the representative body should assume the authority to elect and consecrate bishops. In October 1784, representatives from nine states met in New York City, recommending the formation of a general convention. The General Convention was first convened in Philadelphia in September 1785 and adopted the descriptive name the Protestant Episcopal Church in the United States of America, though as of yet it was episcopal only in principle and aspiration, lacking any actual bishops. 

Another route was taken on 25 March 1783 by ten clergy in Glebe House, the Rectory of St. Paul’s Church in Woodbury, Connecticut. Episcopalians in Connecticut had their roots in the famous 1722 Yale Apostasy – as the Congregationalists called it – when seven congregationalist clerics associated with Yale, including the rector of the college, publicly renounced their orders and expressed their desire to be ordained by a bishop. The Congregationalist Church was established by law in Connecticut (until 1818) – supported by taxes and controlling the schools – so, episcopalians were dissenters and inclined to (old) high-churchmanship. Much keener on the historic episcopacy than episcopalians in the middle and southern states, they blanched at White’s plan. In their view, it put the cart before the horse – bishops must be had before any authority to organize could be exercised. So, the clerics at Glebe House elected Jeremiah Leaming to sail to England to petition for Episcopal consecration. He refused, citing age and ill health, so they already elected backup, Samuel Seabury, sent instead. After a year in London, he had gotten nowhere. The Bishop of London and Archbishop of Canterbury regarded him as a nuisance and William Pitt the Younger declined to help someone who only spoke for ten clerics in Connecticut. But interestingly, he met with Charles Wesley, a leader of the transatlantic methodist movement, and agreed to ordain methodist lay preachers when he returned to America as a bishop. After failing in England Seabury decided to try in Scotland, where episcopalians were also dissenters. Three Scottish bishops consecrated him in Aberdeen on 14 November 1784. Seabury signed a Concordat, establishing what we would now describe as a full communion relationship between the Scottish Episcopal Church and ‘the now rising Church in Connecticut’. The Archbishop of Canterbury advised White that Seabury was not validly consecrated – a judgment later softened to irregularly consecrated – and White duly ignored him – at first. Seabury was not invited to the 1786 General Convention, nor did he wish to attend.

A third unilateral response came from John Wesley. He was the acknowledged leader of a revival movement with the Church of England that began in the 1730s and developed into Methodist Societies, a parachurch organization operating on both sides of the Atlantic. Wesley, as others had, asked for the Bishop of London to ordain a bishop for America but was rebuffed. Whether he knew of his brother’s agreement with Seabury is unclear – if he knew, he did not share his brother’s faith in Seabury. Reluctantly, like White, Wesley decided that the extraordinary situation justified an extraordinary response. Two months before the consecration of Samuel Seabury, in September 1784 in Bristol, Wesley, though only a priest, set apart Richard Whatcoat and Thomas Vasey as ‘elders’ (translation of the Greek prebuteros, from which we get the English word priest) and Thomas Coke (already a priest in the Church of England) as superintendent (translation for the Greek episcopos, from which we get the English word bishop). Because a methodist parachurch infrastructure already existed in America, Coke had an organizational head-start over White and Seabury. Wesley instructed Coke, when he arrived, to also set apart Francis Asbury as a fellow superintendent. Asbury had been an itinerant Methodist lay preacher in the colonies since 1771, one of only two to remain after the revolution began. A conference of methodists was called in Baltimore, on Christmas Day 1784. Coke and Asbury were popularly elected superintendents (a title changed to bishop three years later), and a new, independent church was constituted under the name of the Methodist Episcopal Church. Many disapproved of Wesley’s irregular ordinations including his brother Charles Wesley, who chided his brother’s refusal to wait for Seabury’s consecration. 

Three independent plans were hatched for the future of protestant episcopalians in the new republic. Each was irregular, and the irregularity was regarded as forced by extraordinary circumstances. It was entirely possible the three inchoate organizations could have remained separate. What, then, changed? In 1786 the British Parliament passed the Consecrations of Bishops Abroad Act, removing the necessity that made a break in the historic episcopal succession acceptable to the General Convention. William White and Samuel Provoost were duly elected by the General Convention and were consecrated in the Lambeth Palace Chapel on 4 February 1787. This led Seabury to reconsider his opposition to White and his Convention. Representatives from the Protestant Episcopal Church in Connecticut attended the 1789 General Convention. 

What about the Methodists? During the 1784 Christmas Conference at which the Methodist Episcopal Church was constituted, two clerics affiliated with White’s plan met with Coke and Asbury, promising that Coke would be consecrated bishop. Unfortunately, they snubbed Asbury, regarding him as an uneducated social inferior. Asbury, accordingly, wanted nothing to do with them, certain that methodist clergy would forever be treated as inferior by their ilk. Talk of a merger was revived in 1791 when Coke wrote to White and Seabury – likely without Asbury’s knowledge. White was enthusiastic and met with Coke several times, assuring him that he and Asbury could both be consecrated to the episcopacy and methodist societies continue to operate without interference alongside the church as they did in England. Seabury, however, was not keen and it is unlikely that Asbury would have agreed to a merger either. Nevertheless, as Seabury had promised Charles Wesley, he did ordain methodist lay preachers, though only two, perhaps not quite as many as Wesley had imagined. Another individual initiative came when Absalom Jones approached Bishop White to propose that his congregation of black methodists join the Protestant Episcopal Church. Jones was, with Richard Allen, one of the two first black men ordained to preach in the new Methodist Episcopal Church. Jones was ordained deacon in 1785, and priest in 1801. His life-long friend, Richard Allen, went on to found the African Methodist Episcopal Church in Philadelphia in 1816. Beyond these individual initiatives, these two American daughters of the Church of England went their separate ways.