This is the first in a series of posts that I hope will be a "Reader's Digest condensed version" of not only the history of the Episcopal Church but also of recent events that have lead to the chaotic state of today's Episcopal Church. So without any further ado, my first post about the history of the beginnings of the Episcopal Church.
The first English Settlement at Jamestown, VA in 1607 brought the faith of the Church of England to this continent. These early settlers were accompanied by a chaplain, the Rev. Robert Hunt, who celebrated Holy Communion a mere six weeks after landing at Jamestown. Despite many hardships and sufferings of these early settlers, the settlement was securely established by 1614. Over time as settlement along the eastern coast occurred, the faith of the Church of England was spread up and down the coast from Rhode Island to Georgia. In the colony of South Carolina, the earliest Church of England Parish is St. Philip's Church in Charleston, SC which was established in 1680. St. Philip's Church is the Mother Church of Anglicanism south of Virginia and the Mother Church of the Diocese of South Carolina.
After the Revolutionary War, the Church of England in the various colonies was in a state of confusion and disarray. This situation left members and clergy of the Church of England wondering what independence from England would mean for them. The various state legislatures had abolished the taxes which had supported the Church and left many clergy to survive on their own or from the giving of their parishioners. Hundreds Church of England clergy being loyalists to the King left the colonies for England or Nova Scotia. However, in South Carolina, fifteen out of the twenty clergy in the colony were patriots! The church needed to develop a plan for unity of the church in the various colonies and to provide an episcopate. These two goals took a decade, the 1780s, to achieve. First, I will discuss how the church in the colonies established an episcopate in this country and then how the various churches in the colonies/newly formed states became to be one entity called the Protestant Episcopal Church in the United States of America.
Even though the church in the colonies was supposed to be overseen by the Bishop of the Diocese of London, the reality was very different for the nearly two hundred years (from 1607 until the 1780s). The Bishop of London was typically a very distant figure during most of this time and as such the churches in the colonies had become accustomed to to existing largely on their own with very little oversight. Even with this much neglect, churchmen in the colonies had requested a bishop not once but three times starting in 1701 and continuing until the start of the Revolutionary War. After the war, in 1783, Samuel Seabury was elected the first Bishop by the church in Connecticut. Seabury went to England for consecration but the bishops there would not consecrate him because consecration in the Church of England required (and still requires) clergy and bishops to swear an oath of loyalty to the Crown. He waited a year for the English Parliament to change the laws requiring an oath of loyalty but it became clear that parliament would not do it, so he decided to travel to Scotland where he was consecrated by three bishops of the Scottish Episcopal Church. There were bishops in Scotland who had refused to take an oath of loyalty to the king in 1688 who were called "non-juring" bishops. These bishops did not require a loyalty oath to the crown for those they consecrated as bishops. In 1784, Samuel Seabury was consecrated a bishop in Aberdeen, Scotland by three of these "non-juring" bishops- the Bishop and Coadjutor Bishop of Aberdeen and the Bishop of Ross and Moray. In 1785, he returned to this country as a bishop and presided at the first convention of the church in Connecticut in August of that year.
The second half of the story as to how the church became to be one entity starts in September 1785 when elected representatives (16 clergy and 24 laity) from Virginia, Maryland, South Carolina, Delaware, Pennsylvania, New Jersey and New York met as the first General Convention of the Protestant Episcopal Church in the United States of America. Because of the established nature of some of the state churches (South Carolina being an example), their representatives did not have the authority to agree to anything. However, they met again in 1786 and adopted a tentative Constitution which they proposed for final approval at the next triennial General Convention scheduled for 1789 in Philadelphia, PA. The three years between General Conventions had seen the development of a constitution for the nation. In fact, the constitution for the church was drafted by lawyers who also took part in drafting the Constitution of the United States. The Constitution for the newly formed Church was deliberately worded to maintain the independence and autonomy of each diocese organized within the colonies. To quote Mark McCall, "It was the explicit intention of TEC’s founders to create a
decentralized structure with primary authority reserved to the diocese". The Convention of 1789 not only adopted a Constitution and Canons for the church but also authorized a Book of Common Prayer (BCP) which was used for more than a century until the 1928 BCP was authorized. For a more comprehensive look at the formation of TEC's Constitution and Canons and the early history of the Episcopal Church, the Anglican Curmudgeon's blog is an excellent place to start. Hope you have enjoyed this rather brief look at the beginnings of the Episcopal Church.
Addison, James Thayer. The Episcopal Church in the United States 1789-1931. Charles Scribner's Sons, New York, NY. 1951.
Anglican Communion Institute- http://anglicancommunioninstitute.com
Anglican Curmudgeon- http://accurmudgeon.blogspot.com/
St. Philip's Church- http://www.stphilipschurchsc.org/