Ask most people in an Episcopal congregation about the beginnings of the Episcopal Church after the Revolutionary War and they’ll tell you that “it was formed out of the Church of England.” Maybe in confirmation class some years ago you recall learning about Samuel Seabury, Bishop of Connecticut, who was the first Episcopalian bishop in America. And the rest is, well, church history.

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.

The old COE brought its liturgical tradition with it from England, and used the 1662 Book of Common Prayer. What liturgical tradition would the new church use? How could the church use a prayer book that contained prayers for the King?

These questions were on the minds of soon-to-be-Episcopalians in the colonies.

Bishop William White

A Pennsylvania rector, the Rev. William White, of Christ and St. Peter’s Churches in Philadelphia, stepped up and proposed several solutions including some thoughts on bishops, tradition, and how this new church should be governed. During that time a name for the new church was proposed as well.

The Rev. White was born in Pennsylvania in 1742 and ordained in London in 1770. He returned to Philadelphia in 1772 and served as the assistant at Christ Church and later became rector of both Christ Church and its sister church, St. Peter’s. While was sympathetic to the Revolution and served as chaplain to the Continental Congress (he would eventually become the United States Senate Chaplain).

In 1782 White wrote The Case of the Episcopal Churches in the United States Considered (available from here) where he addressed a number of issues. He began by acknowledging the spiritual connection with the COE but noted that the Revolutionary War dissolved any allegiance to it. White’s masterful argument for the development of an American church modeled on some features of the COE was based on very Anglican principles. The frotispiece of the work quotes the great English theologian Hooker:

To make new articles of faith and doctrine, no man thinketh it lawful; new laws of government, what commonwealth or church is there which maketh not at one time or another?

White continues his argument by noting that the authority for a national church to set its own tradition is found in the Articles of Religion, namely Article 35, which states:

Every particular or national Church hath authority to ordain, change, and abolish, Ceremonies or Rite of the Church ordained only by man’s authority, so that all things may be done to edifying.

It was, therefore, not only the right thing to do, but a very Anglican thing to do to incorporate the tradition of the COE into the new church without being governed by or swearing allegiance to it.

So where did the name Episcopal come from? The word episcopal is derived from the Greek episkopos and means overseer. The term “episcopal” was used to mean bishops, and to distinguish the Church of England model of governance, i.e. bishops, from other Protestant models of governance that did not have an episcopal form of governance, such as the Presbyterians or the Puritans. “Protestant Episcopal” was used in the colonies around 1780 to differentiate the new church from Roman Catholic churches, especially in the former Roman Catholic colony of Maryland. (Holmes, A Brief History of the Episcopal Church, page 50)

The concept of bishops was a contentious one for the colonies, as bishops implied the authority of the King, and, after all, isn’t that why there was a revolution? If there was never a Church of England bishop in the colonies before the war, why start now?

In the next post on this subject we’ll talk more about bishops, and how the new church eventually got some.

1 Response » to “How The Episcopal Church Got Its Start: The Post-Revolutionary War Church”

  1. Jay Freeman says:

    What I find to be the most interesting about our roots is that Samuel Seabury was cnsecrated by Bishops of the Scottish Episcopal Church in Aberdeen.

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