Cummins’ Lost Evangelicals

george cummins

Bp. George D. Cummins

The Rev. George D. Cummins (former assisting-bishop of Kentucky for the Protestant Episcopal Church [from 1866-73], then, first Bishop of the Reformed Episcopal Church in New York [until his death in 1876]) gives something of a retrospect of the Book of Common Prayer respecting the ‘germs of Romanism’ or sacerdotalism therein. In the midst of this letter, Cummins interestingly reflects upon those conditions that might have kept the Evangelical clergy in the Episcopal Church, at least prior to his own departure.

 Evidently, the middle of the 19th century stirred further prospects for ecumenicism among Protestant churches, partly due to reunion movements after the Civil War. From this stir obviously came the famed Quadrilateral (and related importance of a historical episcopate). But a liturgy suitable to Protestant christendom was also a variable in the equation of church unity, so the Common Prayer Book had certain attractions. In an 1861 lecture on The Claims of the Prayer Book, Cummins notes the growing interest of Common Prayer among denominations like the German Reformed Church in America and persistence of the Prayer Book among English Wesleyans.

“Have we not good reason, then, to commend it as worthy of the love and the reverence of all Christians; as fitted to be the Common Book of Prayer of all the denominations of Protestant Christendom–nay, more, to bind them together in one great Christian Family?”

Unfortunately, by early part of the next decade, largely due to inroads forged by the Oxford Movement, what elements of the BCP which were previously treated generously had become acutely pointed between parties, with both sides clamoring for some revision.  Cummins describes the period as he knew it before party-strife,

“I was not of the number of those who advocated Prayer-Book revision, for I did not see the necessity for it. I accepted the teachings of the Prayer-Book on baptismal regeneration, a human priesthood, the real presence and apostolic succession, in the sense in which Evangelical men received them, denying the plain literal meaning of the words, and giving to them an interpretation utterly unwarranted. I had watched the rise and spread of the Oxford tract movement until it had leavened, to a vast extent, the whole English-American Episcopal Churches, but I firmly believed that this school was not a growth developing from seeds within the system, but a parasite fastening upon it from without and threatening its very life.”

Perhaps during this period, a certain latitude was extant due to various rooted customs among Americans Evangelicals. Hence, this is what Cummin’s refers. However, as these customary treatments were scrutinized (on either side), tensions increased and Evangelicals desired certain practices thereafter adopted as larger church reforms. So, the theory was spread (Cummins credits Rev. Franklin S. Rising’s pamphlet) that following the Edwardian revision, amendments to the Prayer Book had been moving in the sacerdotal direction.

“That the most prominent and essential difference between the Christianity of the New Testament and the Christianity of Church tradition, and therefore, between the Christianity of the great Reformers and the Christianity of Romanism, is to be seen in the rejection or recognition of sacerdotalism,” and yet in each revision of the Prayer-Book since 1549, the changes have all been in favor of sacerdotalism, and not against.”

Cummins then delineates the historical measures that were arguably ‘sacerdotal’. Included in his list is the Elizabethan omission of the black rubric, the Stuarts’ additions of certain saints to the kalendar, Bishop Overall’s very modest expansion of the church catechism, the Savoy Conference’s restoration of the term ‘priest’ and manual acts, and the similar instituted practice of re-ordaining dissenting clergy.

Perchance this a rather wide, even wanton, interpretation of ‘sacredotalism’, less proper to Rome than some Lutheran or continental Protestantism? Nonetheless, assuming such particulars are likely long complaints of non-conformity, it seems reasonable to weigh the accusation of sacerdotalism by the particulars of such revisions. Needless to say, Cummins finally admits the American revision did much to correct the trend, although compromise with New England episcopals naturally produced a ‘mixed’ Prayer Book.

“The American Revision of the Prayer-book, in 1785, by the General Convention of the Protestant Episcopal Church, purified the book from sacerdotalism, but that good work failed to receive the approval of the subsequent Convention of 1789, which restored the word “Priest” instead of “Minister,” the thanksgiving for the regeneration of the infant in the baptismal office, and substituted the Scotch communion office with “the Oblation,” in place of that of the English Church.”

Despite these introductions, Cummins says Evangelicals very well may have stayed within the Episcopal Church if the 1868/71 convention had provisioned certain reforms:

“I became, therefore, in 1868, an earnest advocate of revision, and co-operated heartily with all efforts to secure that great object by the legislative authorities of the Church. You are thoroughly familiar with all those efforts. We went before the General Conventions of 1868 and 1871 with petitions signed by hundreds of clergymen and laymen from all parts of the land, asking relief for Evangelical men. We asked but three things, the use of an alternate phrase in the baptismal office for infants, the repeal of the canon closing our pulpits against all non-Episcopal clergymen, and the insertion of a note in the Prayer-book, declaring the term “Priest” to be of equivalent meaning with the word Presbyter. We were met by an indignant and almost contemptuous refusal.”

Thoughts:  The clamor resulting in 1892 and 1928 revisions, need not be seen as favoring anglo-catholicism. However, the wooing of Evangelicals from the perspective of these eventual BCP revisions might consider these three reforms, not all of which belong to amendments in the prayer book. The early-REC prayer book can provide examples to what constitutes an ‘alternative phrase’ at baptism or where ‘presbyter’ rather than ‘priest’ is best explained in the BCP. As to what composes ‘sacerdotalism’, keep in mind Cummins” own admission that the American version corrected much, leaving only objections brought into the liturgy by Bp. Seabury– mostly to the larger epiclesis in the Communion office. This is not the tallest order for Anglican lovers of the Reformation to meet. Indeed, there are ways to reasonably understand the liturgy in relation to, say, the Articles of Religion which help assuage 19th-century Evangelical concerns. And, in this respect I value the confidence of Bp. Alfred Lee.

5 responses to “Cummins’ Lost Evangelicals

  1. I thought Cummins comments might be useful, treating his recollection of ‘three reforms’ as not to purge PEC of so-called sacerdotalism but to keep or retain a space for (evangelical) men of tender conscience. Here, Cummins sounds a lot more like he did in his 1861/67 sermon, praising the Anglican Church as ‘comprehensive’ in the sense it does not require (for salvation) anything beyond scripture. While the three reforms might be relatively minor under any optimistic take on canons, the problem is holding rigid-men to the fire regarding the words of their own ‘founder’ (in this case Cummins) who admitted the American prayer book improved much, and, then, advancing or developing that claim. This is where some remarks by Alfred Lee have bearing? Anyhow, I thought it was an interesting sort of admission by Cummins, and it’s a line of history I try to continue to understand, reminding others about it. Here’s the quote from Cummins’s above 1861 sermon, and I think still has some validity…,

    “Again, we claim this high position for the Prayer Book, because it is committed to no human system of theology, but is broad enough and comprehensive enough to embrace men who differ widely in their interpretations and definitions of Scriptural truth. It is indeed a peculiar glory of this Book that it is marked by “the elastic tenderness of a nurse who takes into account the varying temperaments and dispositions of children, and not by the rigid recklessness of an imperious taskmaster who would prostrate into a Procrustean bed all the varieties of human feeling and human conscience.” It bears upon the very forefront of its doctrinal teaching, Augustine’s motto; “In essentials unity, in non-essentials liberality, in all things charity.” They who framed the Liturgy recognized the truth that their work was not for a day but for all time, not for a nation or a denomination, but for a great Catholic Church, which in God’s good time might be coextensive with the earth. Hence they were careful that its doctrinal teachings should be set forth only as the Bible sets them forth, and as they were embodied in ancient Creeds and Liturgies, purified from all the errors which were the growth of a later and darker age. They called no man Master. They followed not Augustine, nor Jerome, nor Luther, nor Calvin, but Christ and His apostles. Hence the theology of the Prayer Book is not the confession of Augsburg, nor that of the synod of Dort, nor yet the Catechism of the Westminster Assembly. It is not Lutheranism nor Wesleyanism, Calvinism nor Arminianism. But it does embrace all that is precious and vital truth in each of these human systems, yet committing itself to none; and a disciple of each of these schools may find in it that which gives “rest to his soul.”


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