PBS History Detectives
For most Americans of the time, the Revolutionary War was a struggle for freedom and an independent nation.
However, for members of the church it represented a conflict between loyalty to an emerging United States and an oath to the King of England sworn before the eyes of God.
For some this dissidence was too great to bear. During the campaign over half the Anglican priests in America gave up their ministries rather than go against their promise to serve the king, while some even supported the British forces.
For others the Revolution became something of a religious crusade. Jonathan Mayhew, the pastor of the West Church in Boston, gave moral sanction to the war by preaching that opposition to a tyrant, in this case the British occupiers, was a “glorious” Christian duty.
Ministers could also take part in the more clerical side of the Revolution. John Witherspoon was a political parson and represented New Jersey in the Continental Congress from 1776 to 1782. Not only did he serve on over one hundred committees, but his signature can be found on the Declaration of Independence.
In order to continue the spiritual legacy of the Church of England, but to be separate from it, a proposition was made by William White, the Chaplain of the Continental Congress that the congregations become an American church. A Convention of clergy and laity was held in the early 1780s resulted in taking the church properties from the Church of England and establishing a new church in American. During that decade interstate conventions for the new church were held, and a constitution and prayer book were drafted. Dr. Samuel Seabury of Connecticut was consecrated Bishop in 1784 by the bishops of Scotland, and William White of Pennsylvania and Samuel Provoost of New York were consecrated bishops in England in 1787. The Episcopal Church, autonomous but part of the Anglican Communion, was formally organized in Philadelphia in 1789 as the successor to the Church of England. William White became the first Presiding Bishop of the United States.
History of the Episcopal Church
Picture yourself an American member of the colonial Church of England (COE) during or after the Revolutionary War. Your church was part of the royal government, the same government that people were fighting against. Perhaps you felt more allegiance to the Crown than your fellow colonists. After all, the Church of England in the United States (remember “Anglican” wasn’t a term in common use until the 19th century) attracted members of the merchant class, civil servants, royal governors, and others with strong ties to England.
If you left during the Revolution to go to Canada or return to England you weren’t alone. About 40% of Anglicans did. For those who stayed on after the war, their church was a shadow of its former self. Where the COE was the established (government-subsidized) church, such as the southern colonies and parts of New York, the church was quickly dis-established and lands sold off. Clergy, who took an oath of loyalty to the King, were caught in a dilemma: do you remain faithful to your ordination vows and support the King or side with the colonists who were part of the Revolution?
All these and more problems faced those clergy and laity who remained in the church after the Revolution. To begin with, the church had no name. You couldn’t really call it the COE, since the colonies were free. There were no bishops in the colonies before the Revolution (there never were, as clergy traveled to England for ordination before the War) and there was no mechanism to consecrate any new ones. Church assets and property was lost to disestablishment and there were 40% fewer members to support the church.
Preamble to the The Case of the Episcopal Churches of the United States Considered by The Rev. William White (1782)
IT may be presumed, that the members of the episcopal churches, some from conviction, and others from the influence of ancient habits, entertain a preference for their own communion; and that accordingly they are not a little anxious, to see some speedy and decisive measures adopted for its continuance. The author believes, therefore, that his undertaking needs no apology to the public; and that those for whom it is designed will give him credit for his good intentions.
Nothing is farther from his wishes, than the reviving of such controversies as have been found destructive of good neighbourhood and the christian temper; especially as he conceives them to be unconnected with the peculiar situation of the churches in question. He has for this reason, avoided the discussion of subjects, on which episcopalians differ from their fellow christians; and even of those, concerning which a latitude of sentiment has prevailed among themselves.
He thinks his design is subservient to the general cause of religion and virtue; for a numerous society, losing the benefit of the [iii/iv] stated ordinances within itself, cannot but severely feel the effect of such a change, on the piety and morals of its members. In this point of view, all good men must lament that cessation of public worship which has happened to many of the episcopal churches, and threatens to become universal.
The present work he also believes to be connected with the civil happiness of the community. A prejudice has prevailed with many, that the episcopal churches cannot otherwise exist than under the dominion of Great-Britain. A church government that would contain the constituent principles of the church of England, and yet be independent of foreign jurisdiction or influence, would remove that anxiety which at present hangs heavy on the minds of many sincere persons.