Monday, March 31, 2008
Washington on Episcopal Bishop Samuel Seabury
For those of you who think the mixture of politics and religion is somewhat recent in American history, you might find the story of Bishop Samuel Seabury to be of interest.
The established church in several colonies, including Virginia, prior to the American Revolution was the Church of England (aka the Anglican Church). With the American Revolution, the status and structure of the Church of England was thrown into disarray. To simplify history a bit, the Anglican Church in the United States became the Episcopal Church, USA, and one of the central figures in this transition was the Right Reverend Samuel Seabury.
Seabury had been opposed to the American Revolution - a fact that was not lost on General and later President George Washington, who pointedly avoided any communication with Seabury. Imprisoned briefly in 1775, Seabury took refuge in New York for most of the war - even serving as chaplain to a Loyalist regiment.
By 1783, it was clear that Britain would not reclaim her thirteen American colonies. In March of that year, Seabury was elected by ten of his New England Episcopal peers to serve as bishop over the Episcopal church in America.
Seabury sailed for England for his consecration, but the London-based Anglican Church refused, citing Seabury's citizenship in America. Seabury then turned to the Scottish Church, which granted his request. Seabury then returned to America to reestablish the Anglican (now Episcopal) Church in the newly recognized United States of America.
In 1785, a young Episcopal minister approached retired General George Washington for a recommendation. The man was on his way to see Bishop Seabury, and thought General Washington, a well-known and highly regarded Anglican, would serve as a suitable reference. Washington's account of the meeting is as follows:
A Mr. Jno. Lowe, on his way to Bishop Seabury for Ordination, called & dined here. Could not give him more than a general certificate, founded on information, respecting his character; having no acquaintance with him, nor any desire to open a Correspondence with the new ordained Bishop.
In George Washington's Sacred Fire, Peter Lillback provides two reasons for Washington's feelings toward Seabury:
Why would Washington not have wanted to correspond with the newly ordained Bishop Samuel Seabury? In part, it was due to the differences they had over the cause of liberty. As a New England Anglican, Seabury had been a keen Loyalist and stinging critic of the American revolutionary cause. Furthermore, Bishop Seabury was also an adherent to the High Church doctrine of apostolic succession, a view that was deemphasized by the Anglican Low Church.
Lillback reveals another dimension to the politics surrounding Seabury's Anglicanism. High Church Anglicanism was philosophically in agreement with the doctrine of apostolic succession, as embraced by the Roman Catholic Church. The difference, of course, being that the King of England and the Archbishop of Canterbury spoke with apostolic authority for the day -- as opposed to the Vatican in Rome.
The influence of the Protestant Reformation in England, however, had divided the Anglican Communion into two groups over this doctrine. High Church Anglicans favored strict apostolic succession, whereas Low Church Anglicans adhered more toward scriptural authority.
Not surprisingly, High Church Anglicans like Seabury sided with King George III during the American Revolution, whereas Low Church Anglicans like George Washington were more open to the Patriot cause.
Washington's Low Church Anglicanism also made him more open to other denominations, as seen in a letter to the Marquis de Lafayette, in which he wrote: "Being no bigot myself to any mode of worship, I am disposed to indulge the professors of Christianity in the church, that road to Heaven, which to them shall seem the most direct plainest easiest and least liable to exception."
Seabury's consecration as the American Episcopal Bishop was seen as an affront to many Low Church Anglicans, like Washington. Lillback explains:
[Seabury] had sought ordination independent of the concerns of Anglicans in the Low Church tradition, and he did so from the hands of Scottish bishops, who were more sympathetic to the Catholic side of the royal family, not the normal bishop of London, who had Protestant sympathies. This ecclesiastical maneuvering left the Low Church patriotic laymen in America feeling uncomfortable with Bishop Seabury and with little incentive or enthusiasm to embrace his leadership.
When one of Seabury's allies, the Reverend John C. Ogden, sent several appeals to Washington for help in a dispute between Seabury's Episcopalians and the New England Congregationalists, Washington declined to respond. One can see why. George Washington had nothing to say to Samuel Seabury and nothing to offer in support for his cause.