History of the Church in America


The first Anglican service in North America occurred during Sir Francis Drake’s circumnavigation of the Earth. It is recorded that he and his crew landed just north of San Francisco Bay in 1579 and celebrated Communion there. Further services must have been celebrated during the attempt made by Sir Walter Raleigh to found a colony in what is now North Carolina in 1589, whilst the first Anglican parishes were established with the Virginia Colony in the years following 1607.  Each Virginia County was provided with a church, a minister, a vestry, magistrates, a courthouse and other essential institutions at the expense of the tax payer, and it was this tradition of self-governance that was to do much to form and inform the founders of the American Republic as they struggled to establish a new state.

Generally speaking, Anglicanism progressed from South to North among the American colonies.  Virginia had a strong established Anglican Church from the start.  Charles II (1660-85) established Anglicanism in Maryland, and six counties of New York, whilst Anglican parishes began to appear in Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, Connecticut, and New Jersey at the end of the 17th century.  Anglicanism had gained a toehold in Rhode Island quite early on, as there was no Puritan establishment to oppose it.  However, the Church was weak in New England, and had to be supported by the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts, an English which had been founded with just this work in mind in 1697.

One major problem for the Church of England in the American Colonies was the lack of a bishop.  Puritan New England and the Whigs in England did all they could to scupper plans for a colonial Bishop in the reign of Queen Anne (1702-14) and again under George III in the early 1760s.  As a stop gap, various Bishops of London appointed “Commissaries” who exercised the non-sacramental functions of a bishop.  Whilst this eased the situation somewhat, those who sought ordination still had to go to England to be made deacon and ordained priest, and about 1 in 10 of these men were lost at sea.  Confirmation was a rite unknown in the Colonial Church, and folks were admitted to communion when they had learned the catechism, and the minister deemed them ‘ready and desirous’ to be confirmed.

By the 1770s, the Church of England in the American had around 250 churches and 200 clergy.  These numbers were sharply reduced during the Revolutionary War, so that by 1782 probably a quarter of Anglican parishes, and a third of the clergy were no longer functioning.  The Church was to be slow recovering from this set back.

A New Founding

The task of organizing the remnants of the Church of England into a new jurisdiction fell largely to a small group of men based in or near to Philadelphia.  The lead was taken by the Rev. William White, Rector of Christ Church and St Peter in that city.  In 1782 he published a snappily entitled pamphlet ‘The Case of Protestant Episcopalians Considered’ which set out a model for a new church government of State Conventions affiliated to a General Convention to administer the Church in the 13 States.  He proposed electing bishops as the presiding officers in each diocese, and proposed a temporary non-episcopal form of ordination until bishops could be secured from England.  This was not “Anglican” enough for the sterner spirits in Connecticut, where the clergy met in March of 1783 to elect a Bishop who they would then send to England (they hoped) for Consecration.  The chosen candidates were Jeremiah Leeming, who declined, and Samuel Seabury, who set off for England in the spring of 1783, and spent the next 18 months knocking on doors and trying to secure consecration in England.  Unfortunately, English law at that time did not permit the consecration of Bishops for dioceses outside of the United Kingdom, Ireland, and the Isle of Man, so Seabury was checkmated until he was advised to go to Scotland and seek out the Bishops of the Scottish Episcopal Church.

The Scottish Episcopalians had been disestablished in 1690, and had managed to survive as a voluntary organisation ever since, though, because of the Jacobite sympathies of many of its members, it had been placed under severe restriction by the Hanoverian regime in Scotland.  In the event, Seabury was consecrated by the Bishop Primus, Robert Kilgour, assisted by Bishops Skinner and Petrie, on the 14th November 1784 at St Andrew’s Church, Aberdeen.  He returned as quickly as he could to Connecticut where he took up his duties as bishop.

Meanwhile, moves were made in England to allow the consecration of three bishops for the USA, and a Bishop for Canada.  The Act allowing this to occur passed in 1786.  William White, Samuel Provoost, and David Griffith had been elected by the Diocesan Conventions of Pennsylvania, New York, and Virginia respectively.  The first two could afford to make the trip, and were duly consecrated by the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Archbishop of York and the Bishop of Peterborough on 4th February 1787.  Griffith resigned his election in 1787 and died shortly thereafter, while Virginia proceeded to elect James Madison to fill the vacant bishopric.  Madison was consecrated in 1791 in London.  The first Bishop to be consecrated on American soil was Thomas Claggett of Maryland who was consecrated by the four existing bishops in 1792.

For the next twenty years, the Church’s future looked far from certain.  Disendowment greatly weakened the Church in Virginia and broke the spirit of James Madison, its bishop.  In New York, Bishop Provoost seemed to alternate between actively promoting the Episcopal Church and prophesying its doom.  Seabury, White and Claggett proved to be active and capable men, so in Connecticut, Maryland, and Pennsylvania the Church got off to a solid start, which in the first instance meant that it survived.  From 1797 onwards there was a steady stream of consecrations with Massachusetts, North Carolina, South Carolina, and New Jersey all receiving their first Bishops.  Provoost resigned in 1801 and was replaced with Benjamin Moore, who proved to be quite active until a stroke seriously impaired his abilities in 1810.

The Nineteenth Century

In retrospect, the 19th century was a game of two halves.  From about 1810 to the close of the War Between the States the Evangelical Movement made most of the forward momentum of the church possible.  For Evangelicals, 1811 with the consecration of Alexander Viets Griswold (1767-1843) as Bishop of the Eastern Diocese.  This was a loose jointed amalgam of five New England States which were unable to finance their own bishops.  Vermont, Rhode Island, New Hampshire, Massachusetts and Maine, all shared Bishop Griswold’s services as he attempted to build up the Church in the Northeast.  His consecration was swiftly followed by that of two other Evangelicals; Philander Chase, Bishop of Ohio, and Richard Channing Moore, Bishop of Virginia, beginning an Evangelical ascendency which was to last into the 1860s.

On the High Church side, New York elected John Henry Hobart as its Assistant Bishop in 1811.  His consecration took place in Trinity Church, Wall Street, in somewhat stressful circumstances.  Bishops White and Bass were present, but it was not known until that morning that Provoost would be well enough to join them.  In the event he was, and all was well, but the story illustrates the fragility of the PECUSA c.1810.  No such drama attended Griswold’s consecration a few months later, and it almost seems as though the church had already turned an important corner.  Both Hobart and Griswold were dynamic men.  Hobart was a High Churchman who believed in the Episcopal Church’s distinctiveness, whilst Griswold clave to the Evangelical side of the Anglican inheritance.  Both were great preachers.  Slowly but surely, Hobart converted a dispirited New York diocese into the largest and most successful in the Episcopal Church, whilst Griswold (re)established the Church in the Eastern Diocese – Vermont, New Hampshire, Maine, Rhode Island, and Massachusetts between 1811 and 1843.  Vermont was spun off from the Eastern Diocese in 1832, whilst the other four states became independent Dioceses on Griswold’s death in 1843.

A further move in the right direction came in 1814 when Richard Channing Moore (1762-1841), Rector of St Stephen’s, New York City, accepted election to be second bishop of Virginia.  The diocese was in a poor state, but Moore, a mild Evangelical whose religious convictions fit in well with the Virginia aristocracy (at least with the few that were religious) set about rebuilding it.  He became the ‘first circuit rider of the diocese’ during his summer vacations, and many a Virginia parish owes its establishment or re-establishment to his efforts in the 1810s, 20s, and 30s.  The similarly Evangelical Philander Chase was active as Bishop of Ohio, and later Michigan, and by 1841, and the consecration of Bishop Lee of Delaware, and Elliot of Georgia, all of the original thirteen states had bishops, and the new states of Kentucky, and Ohio had also received their first bishops.

By the mid-1830s the Protestant Episcopal Church had built up a considerable impetus that was taking it westwards.  Leonidas Polk was consecrated in 1832 to serve as Missionary Bishop of the Southwest, a vast territory that much of the southern half of the Louisiana Purchase, whilst the northern half came under the jurisdiction of Jackson Kemper, the Missionary Bishop of the Northwest.  Further expansion occurred with the consecration of Bishops for Texas, California, Oregon, and Washington in the late 1840s and early 1850s, which brought to a close the great pre-Civil War era of expansion.

The Protestant Episcopal Church had not split prior to the War Between the States.  This was in large measure due to the fact that Episcopalians had an innate loyalty to the Church, and a tendency to be political moderates.  The P. E. Church of the Confederate States formed only after secession with Stephen Elliott, Bishop of Georgia as its Presiding Bishop.  At the end of the War Elliott, who was great friends with Bishop Hopkins, the Presiding Bishop of the northern Church, quietly arranged for the two Churches to reunite at the 1866 General Convention.  At the 1863 General Convention, the Southern Dioceses had merely been reported as being ‘absent’ and little illusion was made to the political causes of the War then being fought.

There is no doubt that the War Between the States was an enormous set back for the Church’s work in the South, and was followed almost immediately by an escalating level of tension between the High and Low Church wings of the Episcopal Church, which led, in December 1873, to the formation of the Reformed Episcopal Church, by a group of Evangelical clergy headed by the Rt. Rev. George Cummins, Assistant Bishop of Kentucky.  However, it greatest strength lay in eastern Pennsylvania and central Maryland.  Besides the obvious wartime losses of men and plant – churches, schools, etc., – the whole process of Reconstruction further demoralized the Church.  Several dioceses in the South were unable or unwilling to continue what was then called “Coloured Work” among the African-American population after the War, with that of the Episcopal Diocese of South Carolina passing to the Reformed Episcopal Church in 1875.  However, the great revival that swept through the Confederate Army in 1863-65 proved to be a very fertile breeding ground for new vocations to the Episcopal ministry.  However, by the 1870s, the work of the Church in the South was moving forwards once again.  West Virginia was separated from Virginia in 1877, following the death of Bishop John Johns who had been adamantly opposed to such a move, and new Missionary Districts were created in the Southwest to serve New Mexico and Western Texas, and Arizona and Nevada, though the Church machinery in that part of the USA was to remain rudimentary for many years.

The rebuilding of the Church in the South was paralleled by the ‘filling in’ of the map in the Northwest.  The vast Missionary District of Montana, Idaho and Utah was created at the 1866 General Convention, and the 30 year old Daniel Tuttle (1836-1923) chosen to be it first Bishop.  He established St Mark’s, Salt Lake City, UT as his pro-cathedral, which was the first non-Mormon place of worship in that city, if not the whole of Utah.  The Missionary District was divided in the 1880s, and in 1903, Bishop Tuttle was translated to become the Bishop of Missouri, a See he had first been offered some twenty-five years earlier.

Throughout this period, the Church in the South and Southwest developed along mainly Low Church lines and that in the Midwest and Northwest mainly on High Church or Anglo-Catholic lines.  The old eastern dioceses were a patchwork quilt, with Vermont, Connecticut, New York, New Jersey, and Maryland tending High; and Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, and Ohio tending Low.  This variety of opinions made for a lively, if not always harmonious Church, which was distinguished by the number and variety of its educational institutions.  However, this period – roughly 1880 to 1914 – was notable for a marked decline on the part of the Evangelical Party in PECUSA, and his partial replacement by a new Low Church party which tended to emphasize liberal theology and simple services according to the Book of Common Prayer.  Its liturgical priorities were not so far from those of the old Evangelicals, so the new Low Churchmen tended to find a happy home in formerly Evangelical dioceses such as Massachusetts.

The Evangelicals had been the dominant party in the Church between about 1825 and 1860.  The initial expansion of the Church into the Midwest, Georgia, Kentucky, and the former Louisiana Territory had been led by a series of strongly Evangelical bishops – Leonidas Polk, Philander Chase, Benjamin Lee, Benjamin Bosworth Smith, and Stephen Elliot.  By the 1870s, the old Evangelical party was in decline.  The major challenge came from higher criticism of the Bible, a movement that had started in Germany c.1815, which often served to undermine the doctrinal authority of the Bible.  As a result, a small, but influential “liberal” part grew up consisting mainly of former Evangelicals such as Phillips Brooks (1835-1893) and William Lawrence (1850-1941), who were successive Bishops of Massachusetts from 1891 to 1927.  In New York City, the Rev. H. Greer of St Bartholomew’s, and William Rainsford of St George’s also pushed the liberal/modernist approach to the Church, but for the most part these early liberals managed to maintain a creative tension between a liberal view of Scripture, and an acceptance of the historic Creeds of the Church.  However, there was one figure who failed to do this, and that was Montgomery Brown (1855-1937), the Bishop of Arkansas 1899-1912, gradually abandoned Christianity for Marxism and Darwinism and was deposed as a Bishop by the Episcopal Church in 1925 having embraced atheistic Communism.

The Twentieth Century

The inter-war period 1918-1941 was very largely dominated by Low Church liberals, and liberal Anglo-Catholics.  Whatever their view on Scripture, they maintained a reverence for the Creeds, and for the liturgy of the Church, which underwent a thorough revision 1914-1928.  The 1928 revision made some conservative changes, such as reorganising the Communion service more along the lines of the Scottish BCP, but in other respects it was liberalising in allowing Prayer for the Dead, a step opposed by Evangelicals but supported by Anglo-Catholics, and including a lectionary which, for the first time, omitted sections of the New Testament that were deemed controversial.  On the whole, though, the tensions between conservative and liberal within the Church were contained.  It was an era in which the Anglo-Catholics had a strong corporate identity holding a centenary Congress in Philadelphia in 1933, whilst the Oxford Evangelical Group Movement strengthen the Evangelical identity in the Episcopal Church, and provided the basis for Alcoholics Anonymous – an organisation that was, for many years, guided by William Shoemaker, the Rector of Grace Episcopal Church, NYC.  The Episcopal Church’s combination of Progressive and Traditional elements seemed to capture the mood of America between the Wars, and had it not been for the Depression, the massive growth of the late 1940s and 1950s would perhaps have occurred a decade or so earlier, but as it was it was not until 1945 that the Episcopal Church entered into what many still see as its golden age.

The 1916 and 1919 General Conventions had ushered in a series of structural changes to the way in which the Church was governed.  The old Domestic and Foreign Missionary Society was partly reorganised, and a new National Council was created in 1920 to oversea the Missionary and Educational work of the Church.  This body worked to gradually refocus domestic mission on the new suburbs, and overhauled the educational ministry of the Church, but it was not until the Office of Presiding Bishop was detached from Diocesan responsibilities in 1940, with the resignation of the then Presiding Bishop, Henry St George Tucker, as Bishop of Virginia that a proactive central executive body began to evolve.

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