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.


Brad Hart said...

Very good post! I had never considered that there was a division between the Episcopalians in America.

I enjoyed the part where you wrote of Washington having attended numerous churches. I think this is very indicative of how most Americans felt. Historian Whitney Cross, an expert in early American history, wrote that Americans in the late 18th and early 19th centuries regularly attended a mix of religions. Strict denominationalism was not as dividing of an issue in those days.

Great insight!

By the way, did you read Steve's posting on the discovery of the new Washington journal? Fascinating!

Brian Tubbs said...

Thanks, Brad. This is the aspect of religion in the 18th century that I enjoy studying. It's a lot more complex (and interesting) than the shallow Left v. Right rhetorical wars over a "Christian America" versus a "Secular America" - as your article pointed out.

Hercules Mulligan said...

This is an interesting post. I have read a little bit about Mr. Seabury myself, after having read the two pamphlets ("A Full Vindication of the Measures of Congress," 1774, and "The Farmer Refuted," 1775) written by the then collegiate Alexander Hamilton, in response to Seabury's (albeit, outlandish and irrational -- not even founded upon Christian principles) attacks on the American patriots.

I don't think that Washington's or Hamilton's discomfort with Seabury indicates their discomfort with Christian principles. If one reads Hamilton's pamphlet (he wrote one of them with the help of Christian minister John M. Mason, Jr.), one sees that the beliefs of Hamilton & Washington were more consistent with the spirit of Christianity.

This is a good blog. I am glad to see so many Americans engaging in this important part of our national history.

God bless you.

Brad Hart said...

By the way, what is this book you mention in your posting? You quote it on a couple occasions. Is it worth reading?

Brian Tubbs said...

Hercules, thank you.

Brad, yes, I highly recommend George Washington's Sacred Fire by Peter Lillback. It is the most comprehensive and thoroughly footnoted analysis of a Founder's faith that is on the market today.

Jonathan Rowe said...

Hi Brian,

I think it's a little bit self-serving for Lillback to "properly understand" low-Church Anglicanism ONLY as committed to the "scripture over ritual" or Calvinistic Christianity. (Certainly that was one form of low-Church Anglicanism). He rightly notes latitudinarianism as part of the low-church movement, but refuses to consider seriously that latitudinarianism often slipped into such creedal indifference that it became deistic or unitarian. In short, many of those "low-church" Anglicans were not orthodox Trinitarians committed to scripture or Calvinist view of Christianity, but nominal Anglicans whose beliefs were deistic-unitarian like Jefferson, Madison, G. Morris, Franklin (and I'd argue Washington as well).

David L. Holmes
is a much more distinguished scholar of American religious history and writes about this in detail.

Roman Catholics have long noted (correctly in my opinion) that by putting the Bible or the Christian religion in the hands of ordinary folks, Protestants risk not just jettisoning those elements of RC with which they disagree but Trinitarian orthodoxy itself. And this is exactly what happened with many of the "leading light" theologians during America's Founding era who disproportionately influenced America's Founders and were committed to the American Revolution.

Indeed, many of these "Protestants" like Ben Franklin associated orthodox Trinitarianism with Roman Catholic creedalism itself. Those traditional Protestants committed to Trinitarian orthodoxy were thought of as too "Popish." For instance here Ben Franklin dismisses "original sin" as too Popish and associates Presbyterianism/Calvinism with Popishness (this reminds me of how in Philip Pulman's world, John Calvin was "Pope" of Geneva).

But lest they shou’d imagine that one of their strongest Objections hinted at here, and elsewhere, is designedly overlook’d, as being unanswerable, viz. our lost and undone State by Nature, as it is commonly call’d, proceeding undoubtedly from the Imputation of old Father Adam’s first Guilt. To this I answer once for all, that I look upon this Opinion every whit as ridiculous as that of Imputed Righteousness. ’Tis a Notion invented, a Bugbear set up by Priests (whether Popish or Presbyterian I know not) to fright and scare an unthinking Populace out of their Senses, and inspire them with Terror, to answer the little selfish Ends of the Inventors and Propagators.

-- 1735, A Defense of Mr. Hemphill’s Observations.

Lillback does not, in my opinion, give good reason why "latitudinarianism" must remain true to orthodox Trinitarianism when we many cases of notable "Protestants" using their freedom from hierarchy to think for themselves and reject Trinitarian orthodoxy.

Lillback's only smoking gun is GW took "oaths" when becoming a Godfather and Vestryman. But, correct me if I am wrong, from my reading of those oaths, GW took an oath not simply to orthodox Trinitarianism, but HIGH CHURCH Anglicanism. And both his avoidance of communion and arguably his act of rebellion against England itself violated those oaths.

Our Founding Truth said...

Lillback does not, in my opinion, give good reason why "latitudinarianism" must remain true to orthodox Trinitarianism when we many cases of notable "Protestants" using their freedom from hierarchy to think for themselves and reject Trinitarian orthodoxy.>

"Think for themselves" that's it, right there. It's always been the problem, and always will. Those low church anglicans knew the scripture was supreme, Adams, Franklin, and Jefferson knew the trinity was in the bible, you can't miss it.

But, they wanted to "think for themselves" just like Jonathon said. They couldn't have faith in the scripture, regarding Jesus, they had to think for themselves.

If the low church anglicans read their bibles, the Triune nature of God would have smacked them between the eyes:

John 8:58 I say unto you, Before Abraham was, I AM." Jesus using the words He used when He spoke with Moses at the Burning Bush.
Acts 20:28
Jn 1:1
Tit 1:3
I Jn 3:16
Rev 4:11
Isa 48:16
Acts 5:3-4
Phil 2:6
Col 1:16-17
Col 2:9
I Tim 3:16, etc.

Brad Hart said...


I hope you get this comment. I think you should post this on American Creation. This has always been my favorite posting of yours. I would love to hear what others think of it.