American Revolution (1775-1783)
Embracing the symbols of the British presence in the American colonies, such as the monarchy, the episcopate, and even the language of the Book of Common Prayer, the Church of England almost drove itself to extinction during the upheaval of the American Revolution. Anglicans leaders realized, in the words of William Smith's 1762 report to the Bishop of London that, "The Church is the firmest Basis of Monarchy and the English Constitution." The danger he saw was that if dissenters of "more Republican ... Principles little affinity to the established Religion and manners" of England ever gained the upper hand, the colonists might begin to think of "Independency and separate Government". Thus "in a Political as well as religious view", Smith stated emphatically, the church should be strengthened by an American bishop and the appointment of "prudent Governors who are friends of our Establishment". However, republicanism was rapidly gaining strength and opposition to an Anglican bishop in America was fierce.
More than any other denomination, the American Revolution divided both clergy and laity of the Church of England in America, and opinions covered a wide spectrum of political views: Patriots, conciliators, and Loyalists. On one hand, Patriots saw the Church of England as synonymous with "Tory" and "redcoat". On the other hand, about three-quarters of the signers of the Declaration of Independence were nominally Anglican laymen, including Thomas Jefferson, William Paca, and George Wythe, not to mention commander-in-chief George Washington. A large fraction of prominent merchants and royal appointees were Anglicans and loyalists. About 27 percent of Anglican priests nationwide supported independence, especially in Virginia. Almost 40 percent (approaching 90 percent in New York and New England) were Loyalists. Out of 55 Anglican clergy in New York and New England, only three were Patriots, two of those being from Massachusetts. In Maryland, of the 54 clergy in 1775, only 16 remained to take oaths of allegiance to the new government.
Amongst the clergy, more or less, the northern clergy were Loyalist and the southern clergy were Patriot. Partly, their pocketbook can explain clergy sympathies, as the New England colonies did not establish the Church of England and clergy depended on their SPG stipend rather than their parishioners' gifts, so that when war broke out in 1775, these clergy looked to England for both their paycheck and their direction. Where the Church of England was established, mainly the southern colonies, financial support was local and loyalties were local. Of the approximately three hundred clergy in the Church of England in America between 1776 and 1783, over 80 percent in New England, New York, and New Jersey were Loyalists. This is in contrast to the less than 23 percent Loyalist clergy in the four southern colonies. In two northern colonies, only one priest was a Patriot—Samuel Provoost, who would become a bishop, in New York and Robert Blackwell, who would serve as a chaplain in the Continental Army, in New Jersey.
Many Church of England clergy remained Loyalists because they took their two ordination oaths very seriously. The first oath arises from the Church of England canons of 1604 where Anglican clergy must affirm that the king,within his realms of England Scotland, and Ireland, and all other his dominions and countries, is the highest power under God; to whom all men ...do by God's laws owe most loyalty and obedience, afore and above all other powers and potentates in earth".
Thus, all Anglican clergy were obliged to swear publicly allegiance to the king. The second oath arose out of the Act of Uniformity of 1662 where clergy were bound to use the official liturgy as found in the Book of Common Prayer and to read it verbatim. This included prayers for the king and the royal family and for the British Parliament. These two oaths and problems worried the consciences of clergy. Some were clever in their avoidance of these problems. Samuel Tingley, a priest in Delaware and Maryland, rather than praying "O Lord, save the King" opted for evasion and said "O Lord, save those whom thou hast made it our especial Duty to pray for."
In general, Loyalist clergy stayed by their oaths and prayed for the king or else suspended services. By the end of 1776, Anglican churches were closing. An SPG missionary would report that of the colonies of Pennsylvania, New Jersey, New York, and Connecticut which he had intelligence of, only the Anglican churches in Philadelphia, a couple in rural Pennsylvania, those in British-controlled New York, and two parishes in Connecticut were open. Anglican priests held services in private homes or lay readers who were not bound by the oaths held Morning and Evening Prayer.
Nevertheless, some Loyalist clergy were defiant. In Connecticut, John Beach conducted worship throughout the war and swore that he would continue praying for the king. In Maryland, Jonathan Boucher took two pistols into the pulpit and even pointed a pistol at the head of a group of Patriots while he preached on loyalism. Charles Inglis, rector of Trinity Church in New York, persisted in reading the royal prayers even when George Washington was seated in his congregation and a Patriot militia company stood by observing the service. The consequences of such bravado were very serious. During 1775 and 1776, the Continental Congress had issued decrees ordering churches to fast and pray on behalf of the Patriots. Starting July 4, 1776, Congress and several states passed laws making prayers for the king and British Parliament acts of treason.
The Patriot clergy in the south were quick to find reasons to transfer their oaths to the American cause and prayed for the success of the Revolution. One precedent was the transfer of oaths during the Glorious Revolution in England. Most of the Patriot clergy in the south were able to keep their churches open and services continued.
By the end of the Revolution, the Anglican Church was disestablished in all states where it had previously been a privileged religion. Thomas Buckley examines the debates in the Virginia legislature and local governments that culminated in the repeal of laws granting government property to the Episcopal Church (during the war Anglicans began using the terms "Episcopal" and "Episcopalian" to identify themselves). The Baptists took the lead in disestablishment, with support from Thomas Jefferson and, especially, James Madison. Virginia was the only state to seize property belonging to the established Episcopal Church. The fight over the sale of the glebes, or church lands, demonstrated the strength of certain Protestant groups in the political arena when united for a course of action.
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