Star InactiveStar InactiveStar InactiveStar InactiveStar Inactive

Article Index

Seven years of war left the American people exhausted, impoverished, disorganized, conscious of having come into possession of a national existence, and stirred with anxious searchings of heart over the question what new institutions should succeed to those overthrown in the struggle for independence.

Like questions pervaded the commonwealth of American Christians through all its divisions. The inter-confessional divisions of the body ecclesiastic were about to prove themselves a more effectual bar to union than the political and territorial divisions of the body politic.

The religious divisions were nearly equal in number to the political. Naming them in the order in which they had settled themselves on the soil of the new nation, they were as follows: 1. The Protestant Episcopalians; 2. The Reformed Dutch; 3. The Congregationalists; 4. The Roman Catholics; 5. The Friends; 6. The Baptists; 7. The Presbyterians; 8. The Methodists; to which must be added three sects which up to this time had almost exclusively to do with the German language and the German immigrant population, to wit, 9. The German Reformed; 10. The Lutherans; 11. The Moravians. Some of these, as the Congregationalists and the Baptists, were of so simple and elastic a polity, so self-adaptive to whatever new environment, as to require no effort to adjust themselves. Others, as the Dutch and the Presbyterians, had already organized themselves as independent of foreign spiritual jurisdiction. Others still, as the German Reformed, the Moravians, and the Quakers, were content to remain for years to come in a relation of subordination to foreign centers of organization. But there were three communions, of great prospective importance, which found it necessary to address themselves to the task of reorganization to suit the changed political conditions. These were the Episcopalians, the Catholics, and the Methodists.

In one respect all the various orders of churches were alike. They had all suffered from the waste and damage of war. Pastors and missionaries had been driven from their cures, congregations had been scattered, houses of worship had been desecrated or destroyed. The Episcopalian and Methodist ministers were generally Tories, and their churches, and in some instances their persons, were not spared by the patriots. The Friends and the Moravians, principled against taking active part in warfare, were exposed to aggressions from both sides. All other sects were safely presumed to be in earnest sympathy with the cause of independence, which many of their pastors actively served as chaplains or as combatants, or in other ways; wherever the British troops held the ground, their churches were the object of spite. Nor were these the chief losses by the war. More grievous still were the death of the strong men and the young men of the churches, the demoralization of camp life, and, as the war advanced, the infection of the current fashions of unbelief from the officers both of the French and of the British armies. The prevalent diathesis of the American church in all its sects was one of spiritual torpor, from which, however, it soon began to be aroused as the grave exigencies of the situation disclosed themselves.

Perhaps no one of the Christian organizations of America came out of the war in a more forlorn condition than the Episcopalians. This condition was thus described by Bishop White, in an official charge to his clergy at Philadelphia in 1832:

     "The congregations of our communion throughout the United States were approaching annihilation. Although within this city three Episcopal clergymen were resident and officiating, the churches over the rest of the State had become deprived of their clergy during the war, either by death or by departure for England. In the Eastern States, with two or three exceptions, there was a cessation of the exercises of the pulpit, owing to the necessary disuse of the prayers for the former civil rulers. In Maryland and Virginia, where the church had enjoyed civil establishments, on the ceasing of these, the incumbents of the parishes, almost without exception, ceased to officiate. Farther south the condition of the church was not better, to say the least."[210:1]

This extreme feebleness of Episcopalianism in the several States conspired with the tendencies of the time in civil affairs to induce upon the new organization a character not at all conformed to the ideal of episcopal government. Instead of establishing as the unit of organization the bishop in every principal town, governing his diocese at the head of his clergy with some measure of authority, it was almost a necessity of the time to constitute dioceses as big as kingdoms, and then to take security against excess of power in the diocesan by overslaughing his authority through exorbitant powers conferred upon a periodical mixed synod, legislating for a whole continent, even in matters confessedly variable and unessential. In the later evolution of the system, this superior limitation of the bishop's powers is supplemented from below by magnifying the authority of representative bodies, diocesan and parochial, until the work of the bishop is reduced as nearly as possible to the merely "ministerial" performance of certain assigned functions according to prescribed directions. Concerning this frame of government it is to be remarked: 1. That it was quite consciously and confessedly devised for the government of a sect, with the full and fraternal understanding that other "religious denominations of Christians" (to use the favorite American euphemism) "were left at full and equal liberty to model and organize their respective churches" to suit themselves.[211:1] 2. That, judged according to its professed purpose, it has proved itself a practically good and effective government. 3. That it is in no proper sense of the word an episcopal government, but rather a classical and synodical government, according to the common type of the American church constitutions of the period.[211:2]

The objections which only a few years before had withstood the importation into the colonies of lord bishops, with the English common and canon law at their backs, vanished entirely before the proposal for the harmless functionaries provided for in the new constitution. John Adams himself, a leader of the former opposition, now, as American minister in London, did his best to secure for Bishops-elect White and Provoost the coveted consecration from English bishops. The only hindrance now to this long-desired boon was in the supercilious dilatoriness of the English prelates and of the civil authorities to whom they were subordinate. They were evidently in a sulky temper over the overwhelming defeat of the British arms. If it had been in their power to blockade effectively the channels of sacramental grace, there is no sign that they would have consented to the American petition. Happily there were other courses open. 1. There was the recourse to presbyterial ordination, an expedient sanctioned, when necessary, by the authority of "the judicious Hooker," and actually recommended, if the case should require, by the Rev. William White, soon to be consecrated as one of the first American bishops. 2. Already for more than a half-century the Moravian episcopate had been present and most apostolically active in America. 3. The Lutheran Episcopal churches of Denmark and Sweden were fully competent and known to be not unwilling to confer the episcopal succession on the American candidates. 4. There were the Scotch nonjuring bishops, outlawed for political reasons from communion with the English church, who were tending their "persecuted remnant" of a flock in Scotland. Theirs was a not less valid succession than those of their better-provided English brethren, and fully as honorable a history. It was due to the separate initiative of the Episcopalian ministers of Connecticut, and to the persistence of their bishop-elect, Samuel Seabury, that the deadlock imposed by the Englishmen was broken. Inheriting the Puritan spirit, which sought a _jus divinum_ in all church questions, they were men of deeper convictions and "higher" principles than their more southern brethren. In advance of the plans for national organization, without conferring with flesh and blood, they had met and acted, and their candidate for consecration was in London urging his claims, before the ministers in the Middle States had any knowledge of what was doing. After a year of costly and vexatious delay in London, finding no progress made and no hope of any, he proceeded to Aberdeen and was consecrated bishop November 14, 1784. It was more than two years longer before the English bishops succeeded in finding a way to do what their unrecognized Scotch brethren had done with small demur. But they did find it. So long as the Americans seemed dependent on English consecration they could not get it. When at last it was made quite plain that they could and would do without it if necessary, they were more than welcome to it. Dr. White for Pennsylvania, and Dr. Provoost for New York, were consecrated by the Archbishop of Canterbury at the chapel of Lambeth Palace, February 4, 1787. Dr. Griffith, elected for Virginia, failed to be present; in all that great diocese there was not interest enough felt in the matter to raise the money to pay his passage to England and back.

The American Episcopal Church was at last in a condition to live. Some formidable dangers of division arising from the double derivation of the episcopate were happily averted by the tact and statesmanship of Bishop White, and liturgical changes incidental to the reconstitution of the church were made, on the whole with cautious judgment and good taste, and successfully introduced. But for many years the church lived only a languishing life. Bishop Provoost of New York, after fourteen years of service, demitted his functions in 1801, discouraged about the continuance of the church. He "thought it would die out with the old colonial families."[213:1] The large prosperity of this church dates only from the second decade of this century. It is the more notable for the brief time in which so much has been accomplished.