The Seekers and the Sought

The Seekers and the Sought May 1, 2015

I have been writing about the English Non-Juror movement. About 1710, these dissident High Church figures were looking around for a major institution in which to ground themselves, and they tried to affiliate with the Orthodox Churches of the East. That effort came to nothing, but it did have an ironic aftermath. In the early eighteenth century, the Non-Jurors were looking for orthodox and catholic (small-o, small-c) allies beyond the seas. At the end of the century, though, Britain’s Non-Jurors themselves became the church to which other foreign Christians resorted in quest of episcopal continuity and the apostolic succession. The seekers became the sought. This marked an important moment in American religious history.

During the eighteenth century, the Anglican/Episcopal Church had boomed in the American colonies, much to the horror of older Protestant denominations. At the time of the revolution, though, the church faced what looked like a terminal crisis. Because the church was so closely connected with the Crown and the English establishment, it was automatically tarred with Tory loyalties, and some Anglicans became fierce loyalists. When the new nation became independent in 1783, many fled to England or to other parts of the British Empire. Many others joined the revolutionary cause. Liberal and progressive Anglicans defected to form the emerging Unitarian denomination: Boston’s King’s Chapel became Unitarian in 1785. Methodists steadily detached themselves until they too formed a new denomination: the Methodist Episcopal Church dates from 1784.

In a short space, then, the Anglican church fragmented, and had lost (or was in the process of losing) its Unitarians, Methodists and Loyalists. In modern terms, it is as if all the conservatives, liberals and evangelicals bailed out more or less simultaneously….  So what would be left?

In fact, some faithful clergy remained, scattered across the new country, and they tried to reorganize as the Protestant Episcopal Church. They had no option but to abandon even the “Anglican” name, ie English, which in the context of the time sounded downright treasonous. But could they not survive in these reduced circumstances?

But there was still one enormous flaw. How could you have an “Episcopal” church without bishops? There had been no bishop in colonial America, and that whole issue had been fiercely controversial. But in order to have new clergy, they had to be ordained by a bishop holding valid episcopal orders, who stood in the episcopal succession dating back through the early and medieval church, and ultimately back to the apostles. An American episcopate was desperately needed. Clergy could go over to England to seek consecration from the English bishops, but that meant taking all the required oaths, including the oath of loyalty to the Crown, which no American could do while remaining faithful to the new nation.


If only there were true bishops somewhere, rooted in the Anglican tradition, but not demanding that oath… but of course there were, in the form of the Scottish Non-Jurors. As in England, clergy who resisted the 1689 settlement formed a dissident church, but the Scottish revolutionary regime went further and rejected episcopacy altogether. The Episcopal Church survived in Scotland as a dissident minority, despised and occasionally persecuted – but still holding valid episcopal orders, and the apostolic succession.

In 1783, a gathering of Episcopal clergy in Connecticut chose Samuel Seabury as their bishop, and he sailed to England to seek consecration. He eventually received it in Scotland, in Aberdeen, in 1784, where he was duly consecrated by three Non-Juror bishops. On his return to the USA, he began ordaining new clergy. In 1785, the new Episcopal Church of the United States held its first general Convention, with a constitutional structure modeled on the new United States.

The British government was alarmed by the new development, seeing the danger of a Jacobite and pro-Stuart presence in the US, and the English church was soon allowed to consecrate foreign bishops without demanding the oath of allegiance. Other American bishops followed over the next decade. By 1792, the Episcopal church had four, more than enough to consecrate a new bishop of Maryland without seeking aid from either England or Scotland.

I will not discuss this in any detail here, but Seabury also followed the Non-Jurors in preserving and developing ancient liturgical traditions, which had largely died out in England itself, but which were maintained in Scotland. He also struggled against the extreme liberalism of some of his fellow-church leaders, who wanted to reform the liturgy and creeds to accord with Enlightenment and Unitarian criticisms. The clause about Christ descending to Hell was a particular bugbear. For Enlightened believers at the time, the notion of a literal Hell was an absurd medieval superstition. Seabury thus fought heroically to maintain historic orthodoxy within the emerging Episcopal Church. (I will describe his struggles further in a future post).

Yet another reason why historians of American religion need to know something about the Non-Jurors.


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