The Americanisation of the English Church in the nineteenth-century United States

By Joe Hardwick

Nineteenth-century white Americans appear to have had an ambiguous and changeable attitude towards England and the English. On the one hand nineteenth-century America showed signs of being an Anglophobic society founded on the idea that monarchical England was everything that the young republic was not. More than one nineteenth-century English traveller complained about the vitriolic anti-Englishness that seemed to pervade American society.[1] But on the 217px-Shield_of_the_US_Episcopal_Church_svgother hand we have examples of nineteenth-century Americans consuming, appropriating and then naturalising symbols and institutions that, in origin at least, were English. Perhaps the most notable symbol – certainly it is the one that has attracted the most modern scholarship – was William Shakespeare. Early nineteenth-century Americans, so the argument goes, saw Shakespeare as familiar, local and relevant: Americans apparently spoke the ‘pure’ form of English found in Shakespeare, and the bard’s plays carried themes about the fate of tyrants that took easy root in republican America.[2]

It is not surprising that Shakespeare should have flourished in a society that spoke English and in which notions of ‘Anglo-Saxonism’ were important building-blocks of a nativist identity. What is more surprising is that the Anglican Church – perhaps the most ‘English’ of all English institutions – should have, like Shakespeare, survived and prospered in post-Revolution America. This is not to say that the institution that became known as the Episcopal Church of the United States was massively popular or of great social or political significance. It was not. Later American Episcopal bishops recognised that their Church struggled to keep its head above ‘nonconformist’ evangelicalism, and the proportion of Episcopalians in America as a whole declined as Irish and German immigration took hold from the 1840s onwards (by the twentieth century Episcopalians were not even in the ascendancy in its old Virginia stronghold).[3]

But the very fact that the Episcopal Church had survived in the United States would have been remarkable to those Anglican clergymen who were among the tens of thousands of loyalists who were evacuated from American ports during the American Revolution (around 60,000 left for new lives in Nova Scotia, Quebec, Florida, the West Indies and Britain itself).[4] For loyalist clergymen like Charles Inglis, the future bishop of Nova Scotia, the Church of England seemed to have little future in an America that had always been resistant to Anglican claims. It was true that not every loyalist was an Anglican, and it was also true that revolutionaries could be churchmen; but undoubtedly it was the case that the Church was widely associated in the popular mind with the forces of imperial control. The fact that the America lost roughly half its Anglican clergy between 1774 and 1785 (some died, but most of those who left were loyalist refugees) could only further damage the Church’s image as a conservative, loyalist and anti-republican institution.

The drain of clergy from Revolutionary America was just one element in the wider Anglican crisis: prominent lay people joined the loyalist exodus; the Church lost its established status in five southern states; in Virginia its property was sold off; and, perhaps most damagingly of all, the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel – a British institution that had funded new churches and clergy in the American colonies – refused to send any money to the newly independent, post-Revolutionary Church in America. In spite of these hammer blows, Episcopalians bounced back; within less than a decade America’s remaining Anglicans showed that an apparently conservative and reactionary institution was able to acculturate itself to the new environment of republican America. Native-born clergy were recruited and ordained by newly-elected American bishops; individual congregations turned themselves into self-funding voluntary associations; and, most importantly of all, Episcopalians put together a system of Church government that seemed to pull off the impossible – reconciling a hierarchical and ostensibly non-democratic institution, episcopacy, to the climate and temper of a modern, democratic, republic.

This reorganisation and adaptation of the American Church began before formal independence came in 1783. In 1782 William White, the future bishop of Pennsylvania, penned a treatise – The Case of the Protestant Episcopal Churches in the United States Considered – that laid out a model of a unified and independent American Church governed by a ‘General Convention’ in which representatives of the clergy and laity elected ministers and voted on measures effecting the administration of the Church. This republican model of Episcopal government – a model that owed a considerable amount to the systems of secular government that were being developed contemporaneously at the level of the state and nation – was the one that was adopted when two bishops and twenty clergy ratified a constitution at the General Convention in October 1789.[5]

Yet Episcopalianism’s American transformation did not mean that the old metropolitan heritage was completely lost sight of – though there were those like John Henry Hobart, the third bishop of New York, who wanted to push the American Church as far away as possible from any association with an English past.[6] One problem, however, was that there were different British Anglican traditions on which American clergymen could draw. While White’s Pennsylvania followers maintained that the Church had to maintain the liturgy of the English Church, other Anglicans – a particularly important grouping were in Connecticut – looked to the more catholic and high church Episcopal Church in Scotland for inspiration. These connections between Scottish and American Anglicans were ancient (many of the clergy of the colonial period had Scottish backgrounds), but they also became more important after the Connecticut clergyman Samuel Seabury was consecrated as America’s first bishop in November 1784. Seabury would ordain a small number of men from Scotland into his diocese, and in 1789 he was successful in including a communion service that closely followed the communion service in the Scottish Church’s prayer book (the so-called ‘Scottish Office’), as opposed to that contained in the 1662 English prayer book.

But while the Episcopal Church could claim a Scottish foundation, the following decades saw American churchmen develop much closer links with the English church. English-born clergymen started taking up posts in the American Church very quickly after 1783 (and would continue to do so throughout the nineteenth century); American bishops undertook fund-raising missions in England from the early 1820s; and from the 1830s onwards American churchmen would keep a close eye on ecclesiastical movements in the mother country, such as the high church Tractarianism that came out of Oxford colleges in the 1830s. American interest in the revival of the cathedral in the second half of the nineteenth century, was, for instance, closely linked to the earlier revival of dioceses and cathedrals in the English Church.[7] The growing accord between the English and American churches – something that benefited from more positive perceptions of England in America – was reflected in the fact that references to the Episcopal Church as an ‘Anglo-American Church’ began to appear from the 1860s.[8] From the 1840s we can find American clergy, some with English backgrounds, others not, playing very active roles in English cultural events and monarchical celebrations in American cities.

Therefore by mid-century American churchmen appeared to have found a way to reconcile a set of seemingly competing heritages and identities. An institution that was attuned to the American landscape had found a way to display and celebrate their attachments to both England past and present. That Bishop Doane of New Jersey chose to deliver a panegyric on the unity of American and British civilisation on the Fourth of July 1848 vividly demonstrated how the Episcopal Church was able to retain and celebrate both its Englishness and Americaness at one and the same time. But what is important to recognise, is that while the American Church was discovering, or rediscovering its English heritage, British churchmen were discovering and learning from the American Church.[9] Bishop White’s model of a self-governing Church – one in which ministers were elected and the clergy and laity shared a voice in the running of the Church – was one that would eventually be rolled out in Britain’s empire of white settlement in the decades after 1850. So while America’s Church came to celebrate its English roots, British clergymen were finding out that America’s Church offered models for how the Church could survive in modern democracies.

[1] I. Fidler, Observations on Professions, Literature, Manners and Emigration, in the United States and Canada (New York: J. And J. Harper, 1833), pp. 37-8.

[2] Kim Sturgess, Shakespeare and the American Nation (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004), chs 4 and 6.

[3] E. S. Gaustad, ‘The Geography of American Religion’, Journal of Bible and Religion, 30:1 (1962), p. 44.

[4] M. Jasanoff, Liberties Exiles: The Loss of America and the Remaking of the British Empire (London: Harper Press, 2011).

[5] For this adaptation, see Frederick V. Mills, ‘The Protestant Episcopal Churches in the United States 1783-1789: Suspended Animation or Remarkable Recovery?’, Historical Magazine of the Protestant Episcopal Church (1977), pp. 151-70.

[6] R. B. Mullin, Episcopal Vision / American Reality: High Church Theology and Social Thought in Evangelical America (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1986), p. 196.

[7] James M. Woolworth, The Cathedral in the American Church (New York: E. P. Dutton and Company, 1883).

[8] Recent Recollections of the Anglo-American Church in the United States: By an English Layman, 2 vols. (London: Rivingtons, 1861).

[9] George Washington Doane, America and Great Britain: The Address, at Burlington College, on the Seventy-First Anniversary of American Independence (Burlington: Edmund Morris, 1848).