Conventions, Conventions


Elizabeth Town Convention (1766)

This was the first organized convention among Church of England folk in the colonies. Hosted by Thomas Bradbury Chandler in Oct 1766

  • An SPG missionary and distinguished rector.
  • He had just recently received a doctorate from Oxford.
  • (Chandler’s daughter would eventually marry John Henry Hobart)

He was assisted in the calling of the Convention by Samuel Johnson (the elder).

  • Johnson was an educator as well as a priest.
  • He was also one of the Connecticut converts.
  • In 1752 B. Franklin published Johnson’s System of Morality (Elementa Philosophica) which was very highly regarded.
  • In 1754 he became head of King’s College (Columbia).
  • In 1763, he returned to Stratford CT to deal with “family problems” and because of his age (67 yrs).
  • At the time, he was regarded as one of the most learned men of the colonies!
  • Johnson was well-known to the Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Secker.

The Elizabeth Town meeting proposed a renewal of a scheme to obtain bishops in the colonies. 19 clergy from CT, NY, NJ, PA attended, among them, Charles Inglis, Samuel Seabury, Jeremiah Leaming, from New England; Richard Peters from Christ and St. Peter’s, Philadelphia. These determined “to use their joint influence and endeavors to obtain the happiness of bishops.”

The idea was to have “purely spiritual” bishops – i.e., not princely bishops with secular prerogatives or power. They sent petitions to the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Bishop of London. They determined to introduce the idea to the governors and clergy of Maryland and Virginia (in both of which the Church of England was established). Each member would write letters to friends and fellow clergy. E.g., Johnson wrote to a friend at William & Mary College in Virginia that unless he and other clergy from that colony joined the cause, it would very likely fail.  

This scheme became known as the Johnson-Chandler plan.  

Peters presents an interesting case: He had been a proponent of bishops. He had written a treatise (1764) in favor of obtaining bishops entitled “Thoughts on the Present State of the Church of England in America.” But during the Elizabeth Town convention, he opposed the plan. Instead, he subscribed to William Smith’s (College of Philadelphia) proposal for the appointment of enhanced Commissaries. This is known as the Smith-Peters Proposal.

What happened? With the Stamp Act and the Townshend Acts, the colonists resented the Imperial policy of Britain. In Pennsylvania, the Penns were against the extension of royal government of colonies, and therefore also bishops. Smith and Peters, therefore, seemed motivated to head off a confrontation with the populace – and in some cases the colonial governments – over bishops.  

A Second Convention (1767)  

In 1767, the Clergy of New Jersey hosted a second Convention.   In preparation for this meeting, they invited The Rev. Thomas Chandler to write a pamphlet on the necessity of bishops. It was entitled: An Appeal to the Public, in behalf of the Church of England in America.

The pamphlet contained four parts:

    1. Origin and nature of the Episcopal Office

    2. Reasons for sending Bishops to America

    3. Plan by which they are to be sent

    4. Refutation of objections to the plan  

Again, Chandler emphasized a “purely spiritual episcopate” There were problems with the proposal. It was not clear under what authority these bishops would exercise their ministry. They were not to be suffragans, apparently, under either Canterbury or London. And there was no clearly defined process for their selection.

Aftermath: Charles Chauncy (First Church, Boston - Congregationalist) wrote a pamphlet against Chandler Then followed many pamphlets back and forth pamphlets. Chauncy’s points:

  • Bishops were not superior to presbyters – the idea was non-biblical
  • Denied the use of apostolic succession
  • Pointed out that even Anglicans were divided over the issue
  • Pointed out that the Anglican clergy who had supported the idea had not gotten the support of English bishops to do so – an infraction of Canon Law #63!
  • Suggested that if the Anglican clergy were to vote by secret ballot, the issue would fail!  

In general, a hue of cry against the whole idea of bishops arose from non-Anglicans (and even some Anglicans) The New York Gazette carried 57 articles in as many issues – “The American Whig” – against bishops (largely Presbyterian authors). These showed up in Boston and in Philadelphia as well. The authors were highly suspicious that bishops would be introduced as “purely spiritual” but then become fully prelatical – in other words, it was a CONSPIRACY!

The 13th article in fact revealed how Anglicans from Maryland to Georgia opposed the idea of bishops.  

In the end, however, William Samuel Johnson, Dr. Samuel Johnson’s son and a great jurist, despite opposition carried the Appeal to England. He Served as Connecticut’s colonial agent in England from 1767-1771 and was greatly admired among the Connecticut Congregationalists even though he was Anglican!

Johnson met with Archbishop Secker and many others to set the plan before them. What he  encountered was political indifference. Secker was positive toward the idea but beset by internal political problems Others, mostly Whigs, were hostile. The SPG, which had supported bishops early on, now found it inexpedient to do so. Bishop Terrick of London wrote back of his displeasure at the petition and maintained that bishops in the colonies was a governmental problem, not ecclesiastical. Bishop Lowth of Oxford wrote back that the plan was doomed, even though he favored the idea.  

Archbishop Secker died in 1768. With him the idea of bishops in America died as well. Archbishop Cornwallis put an end to the idea in England.

The furor over bishops due to the Johnson-Chandler plan took a while to die down. Even so, it undermined the way non-Anglicans viewed the loyalty of their Anglican neighbors.

Bishops were of concern especially to the Puritans in New England, and likely among many Anglicans throughout the colonies. For the Puritans, Presbyterians and Congregationalists, bishops could not be thought of as separate from the monarchy. The notion of “primitive bishops” or purely “spiritual bishops” – i.e., bishops without political power – was highly suspect. The example of Laud and his high-handedness in England persisted long in the colonies. Pamphleteers and controversialists would explode with new critiques of episcopacy anytime the idea came up.   On the other side of the Atlantic, bishops and politicians had other concerns:

    1) whether and how bishops could be sustained in an appropriate style in the colonies

    2) whether and how appointment of bishops might unsettle colonial life and British control of them.

    3) doubtless some just didn’t want to bother – “real” life was going on in England not “over there”!  

Many Anglicans in the colonies, however, were also opposed to bishops because, primarily, they had become accustomed to a greater measure of freedom, precisely in ordering their Church life, through Vestries. Bishop’s had the power of appointment. In the colonies, Vestries had the power of appointment, and discharge. And they liked it like that. (In some places, the Governor had the power of appointment, but many did not use it except for large churches in the cities, and others did not use it for practical or political reasons.)

As pointed out earlier, on the English side it was a Whig government that basically undermined the idea of bishops in the colonies. Ironically, it was a Whig parliament that eventually, after the Revolution, give permission for bishops to be ordained for this country. They had changed positions because, during the colonial period, they thought that having bishops in the colonies would strengthen the power of bishops at home, and therefore strengthen the Tories (conservative: monarchy and church) in Parliament. Once independent, however, the domestic political effects no longer mattered!  

Through and After the Revolutionary War

General State of the Churches:

Although it is estimated that less than half the residents in the colonies supported independence, and the loyalists (Tories) were much smaller yet, Anglicans were prominent on both sides of the issue. Two-thirds of the signers of the Declaration were Anglican Churchmen. Probably at least that many of the clergy – some 250 in total – were loyalists. The greatest support for independence among the clergy came from Virginia: over 60 of the priests (out of 92!). On the other hand, most clergy remained in principle at least loyal to the king; e.g.  in Maryland, 2/3 were loyalist.  

One thing that played a central role in this for clergy was the fact that a loyalty oath was required for ordination, and many took these “vows” seriously. That is, they actually held their vows to the King to supersede their own principles with respect to home rule, or their own desires with respect to politics, economics, etc. (Compare this situation today with respect to the General Convention and the many clergy and lay people: what do they make of their own commitments and pledges – vis-à-vis, for example, the Ordination Oath, or the Preamble to the Constitution?)  

Whether loyal to the king or not, most Anglicans were looked at with suspicion by their neighbors. Many left the colonies and fled either to Canada, or back to England. Some were imprisoned, harassed, fined, humiliated, or shot. Things were, of course, less dire in the southern colonies than in New England. We may glimpse then a rather desperate situation for the Anglican churches through and after the American Revolution.    

With surrender of Cornwallis in October 17, 1781, the colonies became free. The Anglican churches in these colonies were also free. But the need to understand what this meant was urgent.  

There were two needs which had to be met for there to be a future:

An Episcopacy – and Church unity.

The move for an episcopacy took on special urgency even before the surrender.  

In Nov 1780, a convention was held in Maryland, presided over by the Rev. William Smith. This was the first time use was made of the term “Protestant Episcopal Church.” This name was officially adopted in 1783 by the Convention of Maryland in Annapolis.  

1782 – The Rev. William White of Philadelphia published a booklet, entitled The Case of the Episcopal Churches in the United States Considered. He proposed a federal organization and stressed the importance of lay representation. His paper became the basis of the later organization of the Episcopal Church. Yet, he suggested that it was possible – and perhaps advisable to get along – at least for a time – without bishops! This caused a stir even among White’s supporters.  

1783, March 25:  A group of the clergy of Connecticut (10 of 14) met in Woodbury Connecticut to elect two men to be made bishops by the English Church, on the assumption that such could be done. The two men were Jeremiah Leaming, who declined due to age; and Samuel Seabury, age 53, who accepted. Seabury was a missionary on Staten Island at the time. He had been brought up in Connecticut, and educated at Yale. He had become a medical doctor in Edinburgh and was ordained a priest in England. He was a High churchman, a Tory who had served in the English Army and in fact was drawing a lifelong pension from the Crown.  

1783, July 7: Seabury arrived in England, and presented his testimonials to the bishops. The biggest issue facing his consecration was that he could not take the oath of allegiance to the King. The bishops in England could not, by law, take action. There was a secondary issue as well: Seabury had no testimonials of the Legislature of Connecticut (which, of course, was Congregationalist). See Seabury's Letter to William Smith on his experience in dealing with the English.

Meanwhile, in 1784 (May 11), William White presided at a general meeting of church representatives from the various states which would call for an official convention to be held in later in October.  

Later that month (1784, May 24), William White also presided at a Convention of Pennsylvania – both clergy and laity – which adopted a set of fundamental principles to guide future actions:  

    1. The Church is independent of all foreign or domestic civil authority.

    2. The Church is competent to regulate its own affairs.

    3. The Church’s liturgy should conform as close as possible to that of England.

    4. Ministry should consist of three orders: Bishops, priests, deacons.

    5. Canons should be made by both clergy and laity.

    6. No powers should be delegated to a general ecclesiastical government except such as could not be conveniently exercised by State conventions.  

In October, 1784, the larger convention ratified the principles of the PA Convention, but added that should there be bishops, and that they should have seats in a General Convention. A date was set for the first General Convention – Sep 27, 1785.  

On November 14, 1784, Seabury, having traveled to Aberdeen Scotland, met with and concluded a  Concordat with the non-juring bishops of the Scottish Episcopal Church. Upon completion of the Concordat, Seabury was consecrated by three Scottish bishops. (Aberdeen - Robert Kilgour; Aberdeen Coadjutor - John Skinner; and Moray -Arthur Petrie.)  

Seabury returned to Connecticut in June 1785. On August 3, Seabury presided at the Convention of the Church in Connecticut.  

In that same month, (August, 1785), John Wesley made the fateful decision to allow presbyters to ordain presbyters in the US – probably unaware that there was now a Bishop in the US. (There were some 15,000 Methodists by that time.)  

On Sep 27, 1785, the First General Convention of the Episcopal Church convened: There were 16 clergy, and 24 laymen from the churches in VA, MD, SC, DE, PA, NJ, NY. William White was chosen as President. New England – i.e., Connecticut – was absent because the Convention failed to provide for the presidency of a bishop. (NC and GA were absent because they were so small.)  

The Convention set up committees to carry on with its work between sessions:

     1) to deal with the episcopate;

     2) prepare a Prayer Book;

     3) write a constitution.  

We will discuss the Prayer Book revisions later in this course. It is interesting to note that the 1785 revision was carried out by the Rev. William White as chair of the committee. This book had a number of characteristics that caused great concern among the Convention members.

Convention also approved a petition to the Bishops of England regarding episcopacy.  

On June 20, 1786, the Convention reconvened to receive the reply of the English Bishops to their petition, which had been presented by John Adams (ambassador). This letter was friendly, but expressed doubts about the Proposed BCP (which they had not seen!).

The Convention then sent a reply to the English Bishops with copies of the Constitution and the Proposed Book, which had been prepared by this time.

The Convention also turned down two measures to reject the validity of Seabury’s order.  

Sometime in the interval between meetings of the Convention, and expecting a positive reaction from England, various bodies elected candidates for the episcopacy: William White in PA; Samuel Provoostin NY; David Griffith in VA. (William Smith in MD had been put forward, but not elected: he had apparently drunk too much at one of the Conventions!)  

On Oct 10, 1786, General Convention met in Wilmington, Delaware. The English bishops were now focused in their concerns: the omission of the Nicene and Athanasian creeds, changes in Baptism, the 39 Articles and a few others. The General Convention did not restore the Athanasian Creed but met all the other objections. Click here for the Prayer Book of 1786.

Meanwhile, word was received that Parliament had now made it possible to ordain bishops for foreign lands. So, in short order:

  • 1786, Nov. 2: White and Provoost set sail for England.
  • 1787, Feb 4: White and Provoost are ordained bishops in Lambeth Palace by the ABC, Bp of Bath and Wells, and Bp of Peterborough.
  • 1787, just before Easter: White and Provoost arrive in NY.  

The New Englanders were more high-church than the middle and southern states were, and they viewed with suspicion the developments there: especially the place of laity in making decisions affecting the Church. They also objected to many facets of the Proposed Book. Provoost in particular bore animosity toward Seabury. Provoost had been a supporter of the revolution, and, of course, Seabury had not. Serious division was on the horizon.  

Formulating a Constitution

The General Convention met again on July 28, 1789. It was to become the most important in Episcopal Church history.  

Sometimes it is said that the “same people who wrote the Constitution of the United States put together that of the Episcopal Church.” This is not technically true. None of the delegates to the federal Constitutional Convention attended the General Convention, though two delegates to the GC did help shape the principles of the Convention of 1786: Charles Pinckney of SC represented his state at the Convention of 1785. What is true is that so many of those who shaped the nation also gave advice and guidance to those framing the Church’s Constitution. What is inescapable was the exemplary statesmanlike influence of those who put together a nation on those who were charged with forming a Church.  

1789, July 28-Aug 8: First Session.

i)  The Convention adopted a resolution affirming the orders of Samuel Seabury. (Bishop Provoost did not attend due to illness!?)

ii) The Convention received a letter from NH, MA addressed to Seabury, White and Provoost electing Edward Bass of RI as bishop.

iii) The Convention passed a series of resolutions

     a. affirming that the Church now had a succession from both the English and Scottish lines;

     b. declaring that the three bishops were fully competent to act as bishops; and

     c. that the three should consecrate Bass.

iv) The convention requested that the New England representatives should meet between Conventions before any consecration is held;

v)  The Convention asked that consultations be held with the English bishops.

vi) It is important to note that Bass was not consecrated right away, because Provoost would not participate due to his animosity to Seabury – Bass was consecrated seven years later by White, Provoost and Claggett.

vii) The New Englanders were disturbed that there was no separate House of Bishops. It was originally proposed that the Bishops sit with the other deputies. The New Englanders opposed this arrangement. Negotiations went forward.  

1789, Sep 30-Oct 16: Second Session:

 i) The first action of General Convention was to welcome Bishop Seabury and seated 2 delegates from CN, 1 from MA, and 1 from NH (4 altogether).

ii) Bishop Provoost refused to preach at the opening worship.

iii) On the third day, General Convention moved to the State House. The Constitution was amended to create a House of Bishops with the right of veto of actions of the house of deputies, as well as to originate acts for concurrence with the Deputies. The New Englanders signed the Constitution.

iv) The Convention adopted the Constitution – 9 articles. And it enacted a set of Canons – 17 in number.

v) Convention also adopted a Book of Common Prayer.