Episcopalians are generally raised on the myth the original Protestant Episcopal Church (PECUSA or PEC) never formally adopted the Articles of Religion as a standard for doctrine. More critical observers may qualify this claim by mentioning the later adoption of the 39-Articles, amended to American circumstances, at the General Convention of 1801 and their ultimate insertion into the American Prayer Book. More skeptical persons insist the Articles never made their way into PECUSA’s subscription formula when compared to the English. Indeed, if contrasting the terms of subscription between American and English forms, the matter evidently boils down to what early-PECUSA meant by its “doctrine and discipline”. However, the Articles were part of a larger theological settlement and had import for making a national church.
The Problem: Since our complaint or consternation begins with the alleged weakness of subscription in the American church, we ought to compare the same form with that of the Mother (or Sister) Church. Below you can see the two subscription forms juxtaposed. The first form belongs to PECUSA and was adopted in our Constitution (as Article 7) in 1789– though there’s a slightly older form going back to the 1786 Convention that adds “the Book of Common Prayer” as an element but in provisional fashion. The second form belongs to the Church of England (its 36th canon), obviously adding three formula “royal supremacy, prayer book, and 39-Articles”. The difference is the supposed failure of the American rule to specify what constitutes true doctrine.
Some Background: Upon its earliest days, the Protestant Episcopal Church was a loose collection of state conventions. The Articles were a single piece in a larger framework intended to meet American conditions. Contrary to popular opinion, the need for Articles of Religion was recognized along with the want of a prescribed Prayer Book– intended as a means to wed a disparate church and state conventions together. William Perry, drawing from Bp. White’s memoirs, describes the tenuous situation that existed throughout the 1780’s,
“The Convention of 1786 ‘assembled’, as Bishop White tells us, ‘under the circumstances which bore strong appearances of a dissolution of the union in the early state of it’. The untoward ‘circumstances’ are state by the Bishop as these: ‘The interfering instructions from the churches in different states, — the embarrassment that had arisen from the rejection of the proposed book in some States, and the use of it in others, — some dissatisfaction on account of the Scottish episcopacy, and, added to these, the demur expressed in the letter from the English bishops.’ To these, as appears from the correspondence of the period, should be added, dissension arising from the Arian tendencies of some of the leading spirits in the infant church. It required the singular prudence of White, and the pressure notably arising in view of the English ultimatum, to allay ‘apprehension,’ and prevent the newly organized church from ‘falling into pieces’. History of the American Episcopal Church, p. 65
Alongside a liturgy, the proposed Articles belonged to a larger revision, or new Settlement, taking advantage the occasion (as mentioned in our preface) for ‘further alteration’. Often this implied the removal of scruple among American dissenters (e.g. Presbyterian) regarding Episcopalian doctrine and discipline. The take-away was that even the comprehending (or latitudinarian)-Party acknowledged a need for a doctrinal Settlement that was greater than merely Prayer Book. The problem was agreeing upon the reach of latitude. So, in 1784 a committee undertook work for a new Book of Homilies, Hymnal, Constitution, Canons, and new Articles alongside the better known Prayer Book. The components were to be recommended and ratified by individual Conventions. In 1789 the Constitution, Canons, and BCP was finally adopted. And, by 1792, the other projects began winding up, adding to the list a course of study for candidates to ministry (compiled by Presiding bishop William White). Thus, early-Episcopalians were indeed cognizant of wanting many doctrinal reinforcements and a comprehensive Settlement.
Nonetheless, differences in methodology between convention-parties remained. These differences mostly revolved around the extent an American Settlement should follow English example, seeking further alterations than required by the Revolution’s mere change in civil government. The initial set Articles was a case in point. They were prepared by the comprehending or latitudinarian men yet are noticeably different from the 1562 English originals. Not only were the Articles reduced– merely twenty in number– but many abbreviated with new, oftentimes, broad language. An Arminian flavor can be detected in a few as well as caution with bolder ecclesiastical pronouncements. An excellent example of such revised forumlae is Article 11, On Predestination, from the 20-Articles (which correspond to the seventeen article in the original 1562):
Complications: Until White’s olive-branch to the High Church Party (recognizing the legitimacy of the New England Bishopric), Samuel Seabury’s 1784 consecration in Scotland threatened to dissolve the the emerging Union between Conventions. Many southerly churchmen felt Seabury had circumvented London, clandestinely seeking the Jacobite Bishops in Aberdeen. This tended to aggravate sharp divisions inherited from the recent War for Independence. Seabury was accused of being a chaplain to British Regiments. The allegedly ‘Jacobite’ brand of Anglicanism was seen as promoting prelacy or anti-Republican values in the Church. Allen Geulzo’s For the Union of Evangelical Christendom describes the low-view many American churchmen had with Seabury’s stiffer views on episcopacy:
“The fatal flaw in this logic [Seabury’s strong view of Bishops] was that it reeked of divine-right monarchy, and monarchy was precisely what the Americans had fought in the Revolution to overthrow. On the other hand, White’s plan for electing bishops had a republican flavor that appealed to American tastes. The notion of church government by convention, with the bishops as executives and administrators rather than monarchs, fit neatly with the ideas of a representative legislature and limited government for which the American Revolution had been fought.” p. 26
Even more polarizing was Seabury’s numerous ordination of ministers thusly sent to several states, infringing not only on the alleged territorial rights of particular state convention but creating a perceived column of Jacobites or pro-monarchists in the Church (see Perry, p. 46). In knee-jerk fashion, Patriots often challenged the regularity of such ministers, further straining relations by rumors and threats of deprivation.
Perhaps Bishop Samuel Provoost was Seabury’s foremost opponent. Provoost was the Bishop of New York and a leader of the comprehending/ latitudinarian Party. As late as 1792, he refused to acknowledge Seabury’s episcopate. For example, at the consecration of the reverend Thomas Claggett, Provoost demanded a presbyter, the Rev. James Madison, to assist with laying-hands– likely a wink to non-episcopal churches as well as complaint about Seabury’s debt to non-juroring Scots. However, by 1800 the comprehending-Party was apparently weakened by the loss of key-men like the Rev. Uzal Ogden as well as the steady decline of Provoost’s health.
Though New England’s debut into the Church likely delayed and perhaps slowed the process to Unification, the high-church party ultimately succeeded in aligning Protestant Episcopalianism closer to England rather than America (which was mostly a nation of Dissenters). In general, the High Churchmen desired a more explicit Settlement. The quid pro quo mindset is illustrated in a letter from Seabury to Dr. Smith:
“The wish of my heart, and the wish of the clergy and of the church people of this state, would certainly have carried me and some of the clergy to your General Convention, had we conceived we could have attended with propriety. The necessity of an union of all the churches, and the disadvantages of our present dis-union, we feel and lament equally with you; and I agree with you, that there may be strong and efficacious union between churches, where the usages are different. I see not why it may not be so in the present case, as soon as you have removed those obstructions, which, while they remain, must prevent the possibility of uniting.”
Moderate-Party Arises: Despite polarization among Conventions, Unionism progressed by the rise of a moderate-party in New Jersey. Led by Abraham Beach, Joseph Pilmore, and Thomas Bradbury, the moderates had roots in the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel (SPG), many of whom accommodated the Patriotic cause. But some, like Bradbury, were also ordained by Seabury with obvious affections or debt to New England. They further identified with England as nursing parent, seeking little alteration of standards as possible, i.e., “in no way did they intend to depart in any point of essential doctrine”. Their main worry was the proposed book of 1785 strayed too far, complaining it jeopardized nigh consecrations in England. Consequently, they refused to support further revision until these matters were sorted out. In 1786 they submitted their memorial to GC:
The concern for unity with “every Protestant Church in the Universe” illustrates the moderate tendency of the north mid-Atlantic. In his narrative history, Perry describes the importance of the New Jersey Memorialists who managed to push Unionism over the hump:
“Bishop White, in referring to it [the memorial], expresses his conviction that this paper ‘written on the present occasion, was among the causes which prevented the disorganizing of the American Church.’ It aided in this important work by convincing the convention, as Bishop White further assures us, ‘that the result of considerable changes would have been the disunion of the Church.’ And it was this impression thus enforced, proceeds the good bishop, ‘which contributed to render the proceedings temperate’.”
This memorialist sentiment carried-over into a letter sent by White to the Archbishop of Canterbury the same year, urging consecration. The sense of common heritage, even a degree of express ethnic solidarity, seemed to facilitate the desire for Union. This sentiment is compacted into our Preface where it says rather blandly, “this Church is far from intending to depart from the Church of England in any essential point of doctrine, discipline, or worship”. The phrase unpacked by the same letter of gratitude shows something of the high regard American-moderates had for England’s ecclesiastical system as shown (a “sentiment of love”) in White’s letter:
“WE, the Bishops, Clergy and Laity of the Protestant Episcopal Church in the States of New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Delaware, Maryland, Virginia and South Carolina, impressed with every sentiment of love and veneration, beg leave to embrace this earliest occasion, in General Convention, to offer our warmest, most sincere and grateful acknowledgements to you, and (by your means) to all the venerable Bishops of the church over which you preside, for the manifold instances of your former condescension to us, and solicitude for our spiritual welfare. But we are more especially called to express our thankfulness, for that particular act of your fatherly goodness, whereby we derive, under you, a pure Episcopacy and succession of the ancient order of Bishops, and are now assembled, through the blessings of God, as a church duly constituted and organized, with the happy prospect before us of a future full and undisturbed exercise of our holy religion, and its extension to the utmost bounds of this continent, under an ecclesiastical constitution, and a form of worship, which we believe to be truly apostolical.”
Nor did the response from Canterbury miss the opportunity to press the Americans to closer to their ‘sister’ or ‘mother church’. Archbishop John Moore’s primary concern was correcting enormities in the 1785 Book, mainly its suspected Unitarianism. In answering the request of the Americans, Moore provides an example of the pressure he’d constantly bear:
“We should be inexcusable too, if at the same time when you are requesting the establishment of bishops in your Church, we did not strongly represent to you that the eighth article of your ecclesiastical constitution appears to us to be a degradation of the clerical, and still more of the Episcopal character. We persuade ourselves, that in your ensuing convention, some alteration will be thought necessary in this article, before this reaches you; or, if not, that due attention will be given to it in consequence of our representation.”
The eighth canon asserted the clergy, including Bishops, were answerable to the Conventions of their state. It also expressed a desire to further amend the Liturgy and doctrine of the American Church. England sought to halt such tendencies and, together with Seabury and the memorialists, pressured the low-churchmen like Provoost inside and out to adopt the bulk of English formula.
At this point, Seabury’s change of attitude, which eventually led to a fuller adoption of the 39-Articles, is interesting. Seabury’s initial opinion was the Prayer Book adequately contained the doctrine of the church (a Scot non-juroring view perhaps). But, in order to check the growing influence of laics, the Bishop concluded a more explicit Settlement was useful. Curiously, Seabury’s change of attitude toward the Articles roughly coincided the Scottish Episcopalians who were likewise approving the Thirty-Nine Articles at their 1804 Laurencekirk Synod.
The project of the Articles thus moved forward, and by 1799 the 20-Articles were ’27’, and in almost every point kept close to the original language. Again, Perry sums this rising view which likely merged New Englanders together with northern mid-Atlantic moderates.
“With reference to the Thirty-nine Articles, the Bishop of Connecticut was of the opinion at first ‘that all necessary doctrine should be comprehended in the Liturgy’. But on further thought he saw so clearly the inconvenience likely to arise from the lack of an authoritative rule of faith in the hands of the people, and forming part of the authorized book of common devotions that he gave in his adhesion to the adoption of the Articles of the Church of England.” p. 125
Samuel Wilberforce in his Brief History of the Protestant Episcopal Church also gives an account of the Articles development unto ratification:
“In the conventions of 1792, 1799, and 1801, the question of articles was frequently discussed. Various opinions from time to time seemed to predominate. Some in leading station, and of great laxity as to the first truths of the faith, were, like Bishop Provoost, desirous to avoid entirely what they unhappily conceived to be a needless restriction on the right of private judgment. Wiser councils defeated this proposal; but what should be the aritcles adopted still remained an anxious question. The English articles had been first assumed to be the nucleus of the new collection; and into them such changes as appeared expedient were to be inserted. The result may easily be guessed; one party objected to one set of propositions, the retrenchment of a second was required by others, until absolute division seemed rapidly approaching. In this dilemma it was resolved, as a means of securing peace, that the English articles should be received, with such changes that would only make them suit Republican America” p. 68
President White’s Response: In 1801 the 39-Articles of Religion were approved in General Convention at the state house of New Jersey. The site of hosting should be no surprise. However, at the next General Convention (1804) introduced was a measure to improve the terms of subscription (making the American form resemble the 36th Canon belonging to the Church of England). This proposal was finally dismissed in the House of Bishops. Present-day students might believe such an outcome unfortunate. However, Bp. White defends the ‘negatived’ of the proposed canon by appealing to the process of the 1801 Articles’ adoption:
In other words, the very fact the General Convention of 1801 ratified the 39-Articles should be proof-positive the Articles are part of the doctrine of this Church. Moreover, the background history shows the Articles were always part-and-parcel to a larger American religious settlement. However, they took slightly longer to compile and adopt than the Liturgy and Constitution/Canons, and for that reason are sometimes neglected. Nonetheless, despite the later date of ratification, their formation was set in motion at the same time the proposed Prayer Book. So, where Article 7 says, ‘solemnly engage to conform to the doctrine and worship of the Protestant Episcopal Church’, the clause is speaking of PEC’s historical settlement, commissioned in 1785, with the Prayer Book being the first of three-revised symbols.
Indeed, White would probably agree they belong to a larger framework of standards, intended from the very beginning, called by Article 7 (as quoted above). We might also note, when White presented the American Church to England, the only scruple by the Archbishops was the tenth article in the Constitution where episcopacy was under the thumb of the state conventions and the Creeds were either modified or omitted in the Liturgy. They didn’t take a second look at the Articles’ absence. Why? Because, at the time of White’s request, only the Constitution and Prayer Book had been ‘finished’. The remainder, including a new Book of Homilies proposed in early GC as well as the Articles themselves, remained under a process of ‘further alteration’. Nevertheless, it should be clear the Articles were never jettisoned and always more or less expected to form part of the doctrine of the American church. Of course, the turning point was the pressure English prelates, combined with the rise of an American moderate party, had upon the southerly conventions.
Understanding all this requires a longer view of the “more perfect union” of the state Conventions within a basically Republican national church. Though the Settlement might have been slowed by a nascent democratic spirit, ultimately New Englanders and mid-Atlantic moderates became a ‘Federalist Party’ within the church which leveraged the letters from Canterbury to their cause, bringing the Settlement to a conclusion. Ignoring such neglects the Republican nature and history of PECUSA, thereby obscuring the uniqueness and particularity of the American Church.
A future article might conclude White’s view of PEC’s churchmanship through the lens of SPG (Society for the Promotion of the Gospel), aka. the Venerable Society. The network of SPG correspondents and employees among the colonies provided the basis of formation for early state conventions. They also provided a surprising number of parochial libraries by which White extracted his course of study for candidates to the ministry. White’s list of works are typical of SPG catalogues in this era, offering devotional and scholarly books from both high (even non-juror) to low (whig or latitude) perspectives. It was this kind of mixture which the union of state conventions emerged and slowly sorted through. Moreover, if we wish to truly appreciate the Americanization of Anglicanism (especially our own 1928 BCP), we need to know or be familiar with the old SPG/SPCK, its missionary struggles, and even certain nuances in the controversies of the 18th-century (as communicated or advertised by the Venerable Society) to better understand the ultimate success of the moderate section of Protestant Episcopacy.
Unfortunately the Articles get short shrift among continuing church bodies.
Not the fault of founding PECUSA. Not even Seabury.