Thursday, May 20, 2010


This book, available in its entirety, seems a useful reference on among other things, the strange political theological dynamic of Anglicanism and the American Revolution. The Anglican, soon to be Episcopalian, Church was the "Church of England" -- the church of the mother country against which America rebelled. As such, the church's official teachings were Tory in nature. Many, perhaps most American Anglicans were loyalists. A strong majority of Anglican ministers were loyalists. Yet, some of the most notable American Whigs were Anglicans. In short, they were members of a church against whose official political-theological doctrines they revolted.

That's one reason why I am suspicious of the logic that goes: X Founder was an Anglican; Anglicans officially adhered to orthodox Trinitarian doctrine, found in oaths that they may have or did indeed take to the church; therefore, X was an orthodox Trinitarian. No, the oaths that Anglicans of the Founding era took were high church/Tory oriented. And many American Anglicans remained loyal precisely because they were devoutly attached to their church's official doctrines as contained in those oaths.

If they could rebel against their church's official theological teachings on the King of England's civil supremacy, then why not orthodox Trinitarian doctrine? Perhaps they had a commitment to historic orthodox Christianity that was unmoored from Anglican doctrine on loyalty to the King? Yes, perhaps.

But that needs to be proven. And proof of belief in such orthodoxy must involve something beyond their mere memberships or even taking oaths as means to an end in the Anglican church (i.e., to become a Vestryman as George Washington AND Thomas Jefferson were). As Whigs, they are already proven dissenters from official Anglican doctrine. Doctrines to which many Anglicans took oaths.

With that, what follows is from the chapter entitled, "The Crisis of the American Revolution: 1763–1783":


Inasmuch as the prewar debate over bishops caused conflict even among Anglicans, it is hardly surprising that the Church of England in America divided more than any other denomination over the War for Independence itself. Like their fellow colonists, American Anglicans covered a broad spectrum of political views—from patriots on the left, to neutralists and conciliators in the center, to loyalists on the right. The paradoxes within Anglicanism in the revolutionary era are quite clear. About three-quarters of the signers of the Declaration of Independence were Anglican laymen, yet throughout the war loyalism had a decidedly Anglican tinge.13 The greatest leaders of the revolutionary cause—statesmen such as Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, Patrick Henry, Alexander Hamilton, and John Jay—were members (at least nominally) of the Church of England, yet in some towns and villages “Tory” and “Anglican” were virtually synonymous.

Large numbers of Anglican clergy also had loyalist sympathies—a political stance that was generally linked to the relative weakness of the Church of England in the colonies where the loyalists served....Conversely, Anglicans were usually the most committed to the patriot cause where the Church of England was strongest, because in those colonies the clergy were maintained by local, not British governmental, sources.14 Although a precise calculation of the political views of all Anglican laypeople is not possible, a tally of the orientation of the approximately three hundred clergymen in America between 1776 and 1783 has been compiled. According to the historian Nancy Rhoden, over 80 percent of the clergy in colonial New England, New York, and New Jersey were loyalists, while less than 23 percent of the clergy in the four southern colonies adopted that stance during the war with Great Britain.15 In New England, where Anglicans were a small minority among Congregationalists and where the SPG had helped found most of the parishes, all Anglican clergy except two (Edward Bass of Newburyport, Massachusetts, and Samuel Parker of Boston) were loyalists. In New York, and especially in the lower four counties where Anglicanism was established, only one priest (Samuel Provoost) was a patriot. For most of the war, the city of New York served as a British military stronghold and as refuge for prominent loyalists, many of whom belonged to the Church of England. And in New Jersey, where all of the clergy were SPG missionaries, all but one of the clergy (Robert Blackwell, who served as a chaplain in the Continental Army) took the British side.16

Another reason why so many Anglican clergymen remained loyal to Great Britain is contained in the oaths taken by each minister of the Church of England at the time of his ordination. According to the canons of 1604, Anglican clergy were required to affirm that the king “within his realms of England, Scotland, and Ireland, and all other his dominions and countries, is the highest power under God; to whom all men . . . do by God’s laws owe most loyalty and obedience, afore and above all other powers and potentates in earth.”17 When he was ordained, each Anglican deacon or priest was obliged publicly to swear allegiance to the king, recognizing his authority as head of both church and state in Great Britain. Furthermore, the 1662 Act of Uniformity bound clergy to use the official liturgy of the Church of England whenever they led public worship.18 This provision required the verbatim reading of services in the Book of Common Prayer, which included prayers for the king, for the royal family, and for Parliament. In the service of Holy Communion, for example, the priest was obliged to say the following prayer:

Almighty God, whose kingdom is everlasting, and power infinite; Have mercy upon the whole Church; and so rule the heart of thy chosen servant George, our King and Governor, that he (knowing whose Minister he is) may above all Things seek thy honour and glory: And that we, and all his subjects (duly considering whose authority he hath) may faithfully serve, honour, and humbly obey him, . . . through Jesus Christ our Lord. . . . Amen.19

Since Anglican clergy observed these oaths and prayers with great seriousness, they faced a crisis of conscience as soon as the revolt against Great Britain began. During 1775 and 1776, the Continental Congress issued a series of decrees ordering churches to observe specific days of fasting and prayer on behalf of the American cause. Although some loyalist clergy braved the consequences and refused to observe the fast days, most reluctantly held services. When they read the prayer book liturgy with its required prayers for the king, however, disturbances inevitably ensued. On July 4, 1776, when the Declaration of Independence was adopted, the dilemma faced by Anglicans grew even worse. After that date, the actions of Congress, supported by subsequent state laws, made prayers for the king and Parliament acts of treason. Whichever way the clergyman turned, he faced condemnation. Until such time as he was released from obedience to his ordination vows, he would be guilty of betraying his oath to the king if he prayed for the American cause. But if he remained faithful to the traditions of the Church of England, he risked both fines and imprisonment at the hands of American patriots.20

While ordination vows represented the chief reason, several other considerations also compelled Anglican clergy to become loyalists. The men supported by the SPG, for instance, were liable for dismissal by the society if they expressed any hint of disloyalty.21 Another important factor was the unbending respect for political and ecclesiastical authority that was characteristic of Anglicanism. Although some Anglican loyalists sympathized with the grievances of their fellow colonists, they did not think that gaining independence through a violent revolt was at all justifiable.22 Related to this conservative political attitude was a fear that the Revolution was fundamentally a neo-Puritan plot to destroy Anglicanism in the colonies. This concern was especially evident in New England, where British defeat left Anglicans at the mercy of the Congregational religious establishment. In Massachusetts and Connecticut, Anglicans tended to see clear parallels between the American Revolution and the English Civil War, when Puritans had not only executed the king and the archbishop of Canterbury but also outlawed Anglicanism itself.23

Sensing the potential hardship and disruption that lay ahead, some Anglican clergy who opposed independence started leaving the colonies before 1776. This group of emigrants included such prominent clergy as Thomas Bradbury Chandler and Myles Cooper, president of King’s College in New York. On the same day that Paul Revere received his famous signal from the steeple of Christ (Old North) Church in Boston, the rector of the parish, Mather Byles, resigned his position.

As threats intensified, increasing numbers of clergy fled to Britain, to Canada, and to American areas still under British military control, where some (e.g., Samuel Seabury of New York and Jonathan Odell of New Jersey) joined loyalist regiments as chaplains. Most of the Anglican clergy who remained in the colonies after the Declaration of Independence also decided, albeit reluctantly, to suspend services until they could perform them in accordance with the Book of Common Prayer and without interference from the patriot governments. By the summer of 1776, Anglican church doors were closing throughout America. At the end of the year, a missionary informed the SPG leadership that in the four colonies of Pennsylvania, New Jersey, New York, and Connecticut, the only Anglican churches still open were those in Philadelphia, one or two in rural Pennsylvania, those in British-controlled New York, and two parishes in Connecticut.24

The closing of churches did not mean that Anglican loyalists were left entirely without opportunities for worship. Clergy who did not flee from the colonies continued to minister to their congregations as best they could, using churches or private homes. In other parishes, lay readers, who were not bound by oath to perform prayer book liturgies verbatim, read the services of Morning and Evening Prayer and delivered printed homilies. In addition, at least one church in Massachusetts hired a non-Anglican clergyman to lead worship. A few Anglican clergy, moreover, defiantly continued to hold services. John Beach of Connecticut not only conducted worship throughout the war but also swore that he would continue praying for the king until the rebels cut out his tongue. And Charles Inglis of Trinity Church in New York persisted in reading the royal prayers even when George Washington was in the congregation and when a patriot militia company stood by, observing the service. In addition, those who were willing either to omit or to modify the royal prayers were usually able to read the prayer book liturgy without interference from revolutionaries.... (pgs. 38-40.)


Tom Van Dyke said...

Makes sense, and puts a piece right in the middle of the jigsaw puzzle. Well done, Jon.

I wouldn't tie the C of E [that's what the English call it] requirement to drag the King into the Communion moment, but it's worth a look for Washington's absenting himself from it.

There's no definitive evidence as to why he did absent himself. I still favor the explanation that Washington just didn't believe in the Eucharist, because it fits with all his other writings, which never embraced Jesus as the Christ, let alone divine.

The second explanation, which I find viable, is that a person in the state of serious unrepentant and/or continuous sin absents himself from the Lord's Supper, and indeed, is obliged to. Washington seems the type of fellow to take that obligation seriously.

I plant the tying of the prayer for the king to Communion only as a third explanation, and consider it least likely, but I thought I'd mention it to anyone wanting to birddog some dates and accounts.

Jonathan Rowe said...

Thanks. I was hoping this would be helpful.