From Colonies to Independence


The Colonial Period: What to take Away

1.       The Anglican way survived the colonial era – this in itself is remarkable.

2.       The Great Divide for the Anglican Church came with the Glorious Revolution (1688): before that, Anglican Church tended to look to England and keep their heads low; following it, there is a great influx of immigrants to the new world, new opportunities for ministry, and new help and greater visibility and activity in the Churches.

3.       Furthermore, The Glorious Revolution marked an increase in the so-called Latitudianarian middle of the Church of England.

4.       The Anglican churches depended in large part of LAY DEVOTION and leadership: congregations of people often met in homes (especially early on) and said Morning or Evening Prayer with little or no help of clergy.

5.       The Colonial Church was greatly aided by missionary help – help that was motivated by a sincere desire to reach not only the colonist, but Native Americans and eventually African slaves with the Gospel – this missionary help was supported in England by sincere and committed giving.

6.       The missionary help that came to the colonies tended to be concentrated in the North, less so in the Middle, and still less so in the Southern Colonies.

7.       The strength or weakness of Anglican churches in the colonies depended largely upon the character of the people, lay and ordained, in their circumstances: devout people could create energetic, remarkable churches; passive people tended to produce passive chaplaincies that never grew.

8.       Converts to the Anglican Church were often more intentional and committed than those who “grew up Anglican.”

9.       The beauty of the liturgy was a definite draw to many in the colonies – especially from other traditions – and it “translated” well into even the simplest settings.

10.   Educational efforts were a paramount concern to Anglicans in the colonies.

11.   For many, engagement with the issues and discoveries of the day were highly important to Anglicans – but in this they were not especially different from other Christians at the time.

12.   Anglicans seemed to be more uniform in their resistance to the emotionalism of the Great Awakening, and were never as divided as some of their neighbors, such as the Presbyterians or the Congregationalists.

13.   But it must be admitted that many Anglicans also found a great awakening in themselves as a result of revival preachers and teachers, especially on the frontiers, and left the Anglican fold for Methodism or Baptist churches as a result.

14.   In general, Anglicans were not well prepared for the coming of the Revolution, and many who saw it coming departed the colonies for Nova Scotia or for the home country. Typically, those in the South (low-church) seemed more able to integrate, engage and respond to the possibilities for independence than those in the North (high-church) – while in the North, those who engaged the struggle for independence came generally from Non-Anglicans.

15.   In general, the higher one’s churchmanship, the more one tended to be loyalist; the lower, the more one tended to support the revolution.

16.   Finally, a word about the status of ministry: Clergymen fell into two classes, generally: those who had “means” (either through inheritance, or through “livings”), and those who worked to support themselves during their ministry. “Gentlemen” were uniformly those who had independent means. Clergy with a living could be regarded as “gentlemen” by their social betters – much as clergy are today made honorary members of country clubs, etc. But clergy who must work at other business in order to support themselves were not considered “gentlemen.” Sad to say, this distinction applied within the ranks of the clergy themselves. Social standing was very much a matter of concern in the pre-revolutionary period and continued for some time thereafter. And the question of standing had consequences for whether and how one gained a hearing, whether and how one was received by his fellow clergy and what kind of influence he might wield.

The Quest for the Episcopate:  

Various calls for a bishop in the colonies were made during the colonial years. Some came from Commissaries. Some came through individual clergy. Some came through petitions of groups of clergy or laity – or both.  

An example of the petitions is extant. It came in a letter addressed to the Bishop of London by the Parish of St. Anne’s in New Jersey, in 1718. For a sense of these petitions, consider the following:

For want of Episcopacy being established amongst us, and that there has never been any Bishop sent to visit us, our churches remain unconsecrated, our children are grown up and cannot be confirmed.... But, more especially for the want of that sacred power which is inherent to your apostolic office, the vacancies which daily happen in our ministry cannot be supplied for a considerable time from England, whereby many congregations are not only become desolate, and the light of the Gospel therein extinguished; but great encouragement is thereby given to sectaries of all sorts which abound and increase amongst us; and some of them pretending to what they call the power of ordination, the country is filled with fanatic preachers, debauching the good inclinations of many poor souls who are left destitute of any instruction or ministry.  

The SPG tried to obtain a bishop for the colonies, and nearly succeeded. The closest any of these early calls came to fruition was in the reign of Queen Anne. Thomas Bray and John Talbot orchestrated petitions for an episcopate, and the Society prevailed on Queen Anne to get approval for their plan. In 1706, fourteen clergy signed a petition. In 1713, Anne decided to take this seriously and instructed her minister to formulate a plan. A plan was developed for four bishoprics in the colonies. But Anne died in 1714. When George I ascended the throne, the matter was referred to the Prime Minister. George (and all the Georges to follow) were completely unfamiliar with the Church of England and didn’t much care. As a consequence, from then on all religious matters would be referred to the Prime Minister and Parliament. Unfortunately, the government was in the hands of the Whigs – i.e., reformers who sought to constrict the power of bishops. So the plan was just quietly laid to rest.  

Bishop Henry Compton of London had begun to take seriously the need for supervision of the colonial churches. He required that all clergy be inducted only after he had issued certificates for them. Bishop Edmund Gibson (1723) got the king to make his powers explicit in a patent. But his successor, Bishop Thomas Sherlock (1748-1761) pursued a contrary policy, taking no responsibility at all for the colonial church. Sherlock did, however, seek to obtain an American bishop. Indeed, it appears that he thought that by essentially ignoring the colonial churches, this would speed up the process by which American bishops might be obtained. He was wrong, of course, and his method did not help the colonial church at all.  

Truth be told, there were many reasons why the mother country refused to provide for bishops, not least among which were fears of upsetting the colonists further.  

There were other reasons:

  • Expensive: bishops were a luxury item, and there was no plan for the support of a bishop.
  • Political opposition from Virginia and Maryland, where the Church was strongest, by the legislative bodies there: they sent counter petitions objecting to “this pernicious project.”
  • Addison names one reason “psychological”: In England a bishop was a functionary of the State, not a missionary. “The last thing a bishop was thought to be, or would have wanted to be, was a missionary pioneer.” (p. 55) In short, the prospect of sending a bishop to the rustic colonies was simply regarded as “fantastic.”
  • The most important factor was that there was considerable resistance to the whole idea of bishops in the colonies. Most of the settlers in the colonies were quite happy to live without bishops and had come to this continent to get away from them. The image of Laud did not fade away. Bishops in England were judges over the laity, and the laity in America did not want them. Had one been imposed, the revolution might well have occurred earlier than it did!
  • Cotton Mather: “Let all mankind know that we came into the wilderness because we would worship God without that Episcopacy, that Common Prayer, and those unwarrantable ceremonies with which the land of our forefather’s sepulchers has been defiled.”
  • Jonathan Mayhew: “People have no security against being unmercifully priest-ridden but by keeping all imperious bishops, and other clergymen who love to lord it over God’s heritage, from getting their feet into the stirrups at all.” “A modern English bishop would be dangerous to the religious rights and privileges of all the non-Episcopalians in America.”
  • John Adams would later say: “[The debate] excited a general and just apprehension that bishops and dioceses and churches and priests and tithes were to be imposed on us by Parliament.”    

But that is getting ahead of our story.   The next greatest push to obtain bishops came in the 1760s.   It was called the Elizabeth Town Convention.