The Transatlantic Controversy Over Creating an American Bishop

Mitred Minuet

The debate over the establishment of a Church of England bishop in and for the American colonies illustrates many salient features of eighteenth-century religious life and the relationship between faith and politics in the revolutionary Atlantic. The idea engendered a transatlantic discussion that flared at different times among different people in different places between 1741 and 1776 and has often been misinterpreted as a major contributing factor in escalating the imperial tensions that resulted in the War for Independence. Although it was never that, the controversy over an American episcopacy fueled traditional fears of Anglicans and dissenters across the British world about authority placed in the hands of any clergyman and, more generally, the connection between church and state.

Although first offered as a formal proposal in the 1720s, and discussed decades earlier, the notion of American bishops was most notably resurrected by the Rev. Dr. Thomas Secker in 1741, while he was Bishop of Oxford. Originally a dissenter, Secker later conformed to the Church of England. After abandoning the practice of medicine for a career as an Anglican clergyman, he steadily advanced through the ecclesiastical ranks during the height of the latitudinarian influence on Church theology and practice in the 1720s, 1730s, and 1740s. Concerned about the quality of the clergy in the colonies and their negative influence on the strength and spread of Anglican Christianity, Secker — in the midst of a long sermon delivered in February 1741 to the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts about their — work used the theme of "sheep not having a shepherd" (Mark 6:34) to stress the importance of ensuring that worthy men administered to the souls of colonials, slaves, and Native Americans, rather than those "of desperate Fortunes and Characters, who are or pretend to be in holy Orders," who appeared to fill more and more parishes. According to Secker, more colonials could be ordained "had they Bishops there" to save "Inconveniencies of a long voyage," more quickly fill vacancies, restore the practice of confirmation, and promote "an orderly Discipline exercised in the Churches." While the sermon generated much interest in the idea, it was opposed by others as an unwelcome imposition on colonial religious life. Moreover, argued some within the Church, America already had a bishop: Since the 1720s, the colonies formally fell under the Bishop of London's jurisdiction (and did so informally well before that).

For the next 20 years, the issue percolated more in English circles than in American ones. In 1749, Secker urged the Board of Trade to consider appointing bishops in the American colonies, while the Bishop of London himself, Thomas Sherlock, advocated the matter more directly with Whig leaders at the heart of George II's government, but to no effect. The Privy Council would not even hear of it. Shortly thereafter, in 1751, Horace Walpole, more or less on behalf of the ministry, wrote a lengthy letter to Sherlock that amounted to a pamphlet denigrating the entire plan as a political disaster waiting to happen. It was contrary to colonial wishes, an affront to dissenters in Britain and America (which might promote disloyalty to the Crown), and well outside the concern of any previous bishop of London. Secker replied to Walpole on Sherlock's behalf, sharpening his arguments of 1741 that bishops were needed in America to ordain new qualified ministers, confirm parishioners, and supervise the clergy as a body. He added that Walpole's political fears were ill-founded, as the plan would likely promote loyalty to Whigs and therefore to the constitution and the government. Despite the strength and sagacity of Secker's arguments, the ministry remained firm: there would never be bishops in America.

Secker's promotion to Archbishop of Canterbury in 1758 and George III's accession to the throne in 1760, boosted the chances of installing American bishops. Secker was especially close to the King, having baptized him, and the monarch's court was said to have "hoisted the standard of religion" in orthodox ways that neither of George III's predecessors would have tolerated. Still, Secker urged caution on supporters such as his American correspondent, Samuel Johnson, president of King's College in New York, while the Seven Years War yet raged. The end of the war, however, gave Secker hope that American bishops could be included along with other plans to place imperial governance of the colonies on more established lines, especially with the acquisition of the former French "lands belonging to the popish clergy." To that end, he drafted a plan to create colonial bishops that he laid before the Secretary of State for the Southern Department in 1763, George Montague Dunk, Earl of Halifax, whom Secker believed "a friend to the scheme."

Colonials, getting wind of the proposal, weighed in on both sides of the debate. Boston's Jonathan Mayhew, a Congregationalist, effectively lambasted it in his 1763 pamphlet, Observations on the Charter and Conduct of the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts, to which Secker responded in 1764 with his Answer. In 1766, an Anglican convocation in New Jersey petitioned Secker to establish an American episcopate. The next year, the Rev. Thomas Bradbury Chandler, an Anglican clergyman in New Jersey and later a prominent loyalist, weighed into the debate with his Appeal to the Public, in Behalf of the Church of England in America, published in New York in 1767, which vigorously pressed Secker's pro-episcopate arguments.

The hopes of Secker, Johnson, and Chandler and their compatriots were woefully ill-founded, however. Neither Halifax nor any of his successors had any intention of promoting, or even discussing, the plan. According to Secker, fear of American rebellion in the wake of the Stamp Act disputes fueled the government's desire to retain whatever transatlantic ties they had, among which was the Church's requirement that ministers be ordained in England. Secker's death in 1768 would seem to have ended the matter, especially since it was widely known that metropolitan opposition to American bishops was universal, being perhaps the one question about which the contending political parties "are most agreed."

Colonials refused to let the matter go. Chandler and others continued to press for an American bishop through the 1770s, long after it ceased to be a topic of serious conversation in London. In June 1771, the Bishop of London's representative in Virginia, the Rev. James Horrocks, held a meeting of the clergy in Williamsburg to attempt to go one better than New Jersey's clergy in 1766 with a petition to Parliament and the King calling for the creation of an American episcopate. Several clergymen stood in the way, including the Rev. Thomas Gwatkin, who had opposed some of Secker's views while still a student at Oxford in the late 1760s, earning the thanks of the Virginia House of Burgesses "for the wise and well timed Opposition they have made to the pernicious Project of a few mistaken Clergymen, for introducing an American Bishop." In an example of where the debate then stood in England, Gwatkin's brother explained to their mother that the "clergy in Virginia foolishly took it into their heads to want a Bishop." Gwatkin, who supported bishops in principle, stood against them in practice, because his "generous and liberal principles render him averse to such Slavish & foolish Schemes in religious [matters]."

The clergy of New York and New Jersey did not look so favorably in Gwatkin's action and published An Address from the clergy of New-York and New-Jersey, to the Episcopalians in Virginia, a pamphlet (attributed to Chandler, one of seven signers) that attacked Gwatkin and another minister, the Rev. Samuel Henley, for their opposition. The Address and Gwatkin's thoughtful yet forceful response to it, A letter to the clergy of New York and New Jersey (1772), rehearsed the basic terms of the debate, which had not changed essentially since the exchange of Secker and Walpole 20 years earlier. The proponents claimed that an episcopate was needed in America to strengthen the Church and spread the Christian faith, while opponents invoked the traditional constitutional enemies of popery and arbitrary government, the lingering potential of fostering disaffection among dissenters, and, as Gwatkin particularly pointed out, the threat of invading American constitutional rights with another expression of imperial authority, one not different in degree from the power to legislate for the colonies.

The Virginia House of Burgesses considered the matter for themselves in 1772 when, according to George Washington, "the expediency of an American Episcopate was long, & warmly debated, and at length rejected." A substitute "Ecclesiastical Jurisdiction" was considered but then dropped, never to be taken up again. In the other colonies in which the Church of England was in some measure established — Maryland, the Carolinas, and Georgia — the question was either a non-starter (given the declared opposition of Lord Baltimore, Maryland's proprietor) or does not appear to have ever been raised.

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