In the midst of rising tensions between the colonies and the Mother Country, England could count on her clergy in America to be among her staunchest supporters. In Samuel Seabury, they would not be disappointed.
Samuel Seabury Rises to England's Defense
In 1774, a youthful and exceedingly energetic Alexander Hamilton published his "Full Vindication of the Measures of Congress", a piece aimed at drumming up support for the First Continental Congress.
Alarmed at the compelling nature of Hamilton's pen and the growing disenchantment many Americans were feeling towards Britain, Anglican minister Samuel Seabury took up the Crown's cause.
In the first of his "Letters from A Westchester Farmer," Seabury expressed dismay that the colonies were "involved in a scene of confusion and discord." Lamenting the persecution of Loyalists, Seabury wrote:
The bands of civil society are broken; the authority of government weakened, and in some instances taken away: Individuals are deprived of their liberty; their property is frequently invaded by violence, and not a single Magistrate has had courage or virtue enough to interpose.
As for the First Continental Congress, Seabury charged that, rather than helping ease tensions and mend relations, they "have either ignorantly misunderstood, carelessly neglected, or basely betrayed the interests of all the Colonies."
Seabury went on to criticize the specific decisions made by the Congress, namely the Non-Importation Agreement, Non-Exportation Agreement, and Non-Consumption Agreement. Seabury claimed that these measures would hurt people who had done the colonies "no harm" and would only excaberate tensions between America and Britain.
Seabury's letters, taken together, were a comprehensive, thorough, and spirited defense of British policies and interests. In his letters, he unmistakably and fairly articulately aligned himself with the British Crown.
Seabury and the Church of England
Americans today are accustomed to the institutional separation of Church and State. So accustomed are we, in fact, that many have called for such a separation to go even further, arguing that religion itself (and all morals or values stemming from religion) should be separated from the public square.
What the founding era generation was dealing with, however, was not whether a certain person or group might be made to feel "uncomfortable" should they happen to hear a public prayer or hear a valedictorian utter the word "Jesus" in her graduation speech. No, for the founding generation, the issue was something much more serious and real.
Samuel Seabury wasn't simply a pamphleteer. He was an official in the Church of England, which was legally and politically intertwined with the British government. The Church of England was indeed under the sovereign authority of the Crown. As an Anglican minister, Seabury was advancing the interests of not simply the British government, but his boss, King George III.
It should be noted, though, that Seabury's letters were at first not tied to him by name, but rather to "A.W. Farmer." However, Seabury's identity as the author would eventually become known (based on his own claims).
The timing of Seabury's authorship being known aside, Seabury's advocacy for the Crown illustrated an important truth. Anglican ministers were personally, professionally, and spiritually vested in the British government.
This, of course, isn't to suggest that's inappropriate for ministers to address questions of public policy (though, I'm sure, there are some who would take that position). Ministers have as much right to speak out on issues as any citizen. The take-away from Seabury's activism is that his involvement was not incidental, nor was it driven solely by personal conviction. As an Anglican clergyman, he was expected to support the Crown.
Seabury (and England) Refuted
Alexander Hamilton would take up his pen once again to defend the American cause and refute Seabury. In his famous "The Farmer Refuted," Hamilton encouraged the "Westchester Farmer" (aka Seabury) to study the "law of nature" by reading "Grotius, Puffendorf, Locke, Montesquieu, and Burlemaqui."
Considerable writing, discussion, and debate has been offered on this site concerning the Divine Right of Kings, the Enlightenment, and the theological beliefs of the religiously affiliated Founders. I will not re-hash all that, except to say that the exchanges between Hamilton and Seabury illustrate part of that divide.
While traditional England-oriented Christians (especially those within the Anglican Church) leaned toward (or, in some cases, embraced) the Divine Right of Kings, a growing consensus in America was that the people were accountable to God directly and not through the government.
To put it in layman's terms, one who embraced the Divine Right of Kings would claim the authority ran from God to the Government and then to the People. Americans increasingly saw it as God to the People and then to the Government.
The Fate of Samuel Seabury
Seabury's Loyalist sympathies would land him in prison for several weeks. Eventually, he escaped to Long Island, once it was safely in British hands. Granted a chaplaincy in the British military, Seabury spent the war as a dutiful minister in the service of King George III.
By 1783, it was clear that Britain would not reclaim her thirteen American colonies. In March of that year, Seabury was elected by ten of his New England Episcopal peers to serve as bishop over the Episcopal Church in America.
That Seabury would choose to remain in the United States was an interesting choice. After all, to say that he was not fully embraced or trusted by the Americans would be something of an understatement.
The Episcopal Church in America, however, needed structure and organization. It had been created as a result of the American Revolution. Anglicans supportive of the American Revolution could, after all, no longer comfortably worship and take Communion (a practice they saw as sacramental) in a church officially tied with King George III, the man they were waging war against. So, the Episcopal Church came into existence.
Seabury sailed for England for his consecration. Even though the Episcopal Church was formally separate from the Church of England, it was still spiritually and theologically aligned. An awkward situation, to say the least. So awkward, in fact, that the London-based Anglican Church refused to consecrate Seabury.
Seabury then turned to the Scottish Church, which granted his request. Seabury then returned to America to bolster and expand the Episcopal Church in the newly recognized United States of America.
Seabury's challenge was a tall one, as he did not enjoy a great deal of support from the new American government and, frankly, not even from all Episcopalians. Perhaps the most famous Episcopalian (former Anglican) in America was George Washington, who refused to even send a letter to Seabury, when asked by a young Episcopal minister for a note of recommendation.
High Church vs. Low Church Anglicanism
Not only was Seabury persona non grata in many quarters for his Loyalist politics, he was also not popular in "Low Church" circles of the American Episcopal Church.
High Church Anglicanism (Seabury's school of thought) was more liturgical and more philosophically aligned with the doctrine of apostolic succession, as originally embraced by the Roman Catholic Church. The difference, of course, was that (according to Anglicans) the King of England and the Archbishop of Canterbury spoke with apostolic authority for the day -- as opposed to the Vatican in Rome.
The influence of the Protestant Reformation in England, however, had divided the Anglican Communion into two groups over this doctrine. High Church Anglicans favored strict apostolic succession, whereas Low Church Anglicans adhered more toward scriptural authority and local church autonomy.
Not surprisingly, High Church Anglicans like Seabury sided with King George III during the American Revolution, whereas Low Church Anglicans like George Washington were more open to the Patriot cause.
Washington's Low Church Anglicanism also made him more open to other denominations, as seen in a letter to the Marquis de Lafayette, in which he wrote: "Being no bigot myself to any mode of worship, I am disposed to indulge the professors of Christianity in the church, that road to Heaven, which to them shall seem the most direct plainest easiest and least liable to exception."
Seabury's consecration as the American Episcopal Bishop was seen as an affront to many Low Church Anglicans, like Washington. In his impressive work George Washington's Sacred Fire, Peter Lillback explains:
[Seabury] had sought ordination independent of the concerns of Anglicans in the Low Church tradition, and he did so from the hands of Scottish bishops, who were more sympathetic to the Catholic side of the royal family, not the normal bishop of London, who had Protestant sympathies. This ecclesiastical maneuvering left the Low Church patriotic laymen in America feeling uncomfortable with Bishop Seabury and with little incentive or enthusiasm to embrace his leadership.
Samuel Seabury is not only one of the more interesting and unknown figures of the American Revolution, but his life and legacy provide an important view of the cultural and religious backdrop of the conflict.