Evangelical Episcopalians in Nineteen Century America

Published 11 May 2017

The real problematic of this book is the response to the American Revolution. Here, the stage is set for revival and development. The Anglican and Episcopal Churches were identified, in their high church, that is, liturgical form, with England, and the famed oath to the king that all bishops and their clergy needed to take (7-8). This is the central issue: how was Anglicanism to overcome its pro-royalist and hence, loyalist background and baggage?history is the history of schism: the development of positions, enthusiasm and their rejection (or over-enthusiastic acceptance). The work seeks to be a history of the actual response to the American revolution: evangelism. But it is also a biography of a single bishop, likely the leader of ths response, Bishop McIlvaine, eventually of Ohio.

The response to the American revolution and the loyalist heritage was evangelism. This is not a well defined movement, but that’s just the point: the struggle of McIlvaine was to take this movement and provide it with both an episcopal and liturgical basis, hence avoiding the anarchy of evangelism as a matter of course (cf McIlvaine’s defense of bishops on pps 78-83). But in order to do some justice to this work, the best way to proceed is to see the schisms develop and the means by which they came to define this movement.

The evangelical movement, at its roots, owes much to Calvin, itself a tremendous liability to the more or less anti-Calvinist high church divines. The basic structure looks like this (cf pps 29ff): God is all sovereign and all powerful, man is precisely the opposite: enslaved to sin and incapable of good action under any circumstances. Now, if these two propositions are true, then it follows that man’s works mean little, and hence, the Grace of God is given only to an elect, seemingly arbitrarily by God, based on his sovereign will, not the merit of the people involved. This reception of Grace is called being “born again,” one is not the same person that existed before the transformation.

Now this is boilerplate Protestantism. What people like Whitefield and McIlvaine tried to do is to take this concept, and the charismatic enthusiasm that goes with it, and graft it onto the liturgical base deriving from High Church thought. This way, Anglicanism can retain its liturgical structure and identity, but, at the same time, take advantage of the tremendous revival that many more extreme Protestants were making use of: the charismatic, Spirit centered movement of the Baptists, etc.

But this approach had many pitfalls. First, there was the question of social radicalism. The real reaction to Whitefield and his followers was that this movement was socially disruptive: it was extraordinarily democratic and anti-episcopal, and, as a result, was an attack on the American order. A little later in American life, the more radical wing of this charismatic movement will be the basis of the radical abolitionist campaign. Since there really was no use for priests or bishops to ordain them, the Spirit was available to all who truly believed (and this was judged by God alone), the sense of powerful democracy came to the forefront, and this was the real schism that people like McIlvaine was not able to hold together (cf. His defense of the episcopacy on pps 78-83). But the more radical wing of the movement will eventually split (after McIlvaine’s death) to form the Reformed Episcopal Church on more explicitly evangelical lines in 1873.

Now, ths is getting slightly ahead of the issues. Though by the end of the 18th century only a handful accepted new “new enthusiasm,” by the middle of the 19th century it had taken over (24). There were several issues: first, there was the question of ritualism. Most of the Episcopal movement saw the rituals (i.e. the mass itself, confession and the other sacraments) as useful, but not good in themselves. This movement was anti-Hobart and anti-High Church. That much should be clear (45-46; 57). At the same time, the real purpose of McIlvaine was to maintain the rituals, but adding to them the charismatic quest for the spirit and the rebirth of His penetration. This led to the real schism: between those who accepted the rituals and those who rejected them. This also was correlated to the response to slavery, with the liturgists accepting slavery (through with reservations). Even more, the development of the Oxford movement was central, in that it was the advance of a theologically sophisticated Anglo-Catholicism and sought the suppression of the anarchic tendencies of evangelism. The significance of Newman and the Oxford movement was that it made the fault lines clearer and clearer: the radicals saw this moment as merely a form of “popery,” and hence, saw their anti-ritualism (and hence, anti-episcopalianism) justified (cf esp 103-119, also see 66).

Another issue was the centrality of social reform. The more radical wing of evangelicalism can be treated in one of two (mutually exclusive ways), on the one hand, many see that the evangelical approach is on internal transformation primarily, and hence, a quietist attitude towards social issues. But it can also be seen that this movement, being primarily a layman’s idea and based around collective action, to approach the fringes of social radicalism. Making matters more complicated, by the Civil War, this movement was confronted by two mutually exclusive ideas: first the religious radicalism of the unitarians, who attempted to use a naked reason to make religion “reasonable” (119ff), and the high church movement that was invigorated by the Oxfordians. The evangelical movement sought to hold a middle ground between those two extremes, and hence, by the Civil War, its specific calling had been found (103-114).

But speaking more broadly, the work deals with a religious movement that derives from the separation from the Bishop of London and the English Crown. Without these central buttresses to Anglicanism, the question of identity became central. With this came the experimentation with evangelism and “born-again-ism” of both Whitefield and McIlvaine. This solved several puzzles: first, the question of identity in the new American environment, second, the domination of the lay over the episcopal form of control (9) and lastly, the renewal of Anglicanism in relation to the more radical Baptists, etc. It might even be hinted that there was a class bias here, as the wealthy were targets of these forms of liturgy, in that the internal (as opposed to the more dangerous external) elements were stressed in terms of renewal. In other words, the internal transformation assumed by evangelism was something that appealed to those who wanted a “spiritual life” without the radical social transformation of the more radical Protestants. In other words, one could have one’s cake and eat it too, but this is being unduly cynical.

This book is highly individual, in that it treats of a movement, but a movement that is led and largely the brainchild of one man. The focus on the one man, McIlvaine is interesting in that he is able to give a focus to a movement that became very large by the 1850s, but is also limiting in that it does not give the detail necessary to see how these new ideas were absorbed by other leaders and the person in the pew. But this is a quibble. The argument is a powerful, if not original, one. Evangelism is a long standing staple in studies of American Christianity, but in this case, one is treated to a different look, a look of evangelism in a church that always saw such movements under the filter of suspicion at best, violent hostility at worst. What McIlvaine did is completely recast Anglicanism. He was not successful in that more schisms than ever came from his endeavors, and ultimately, the church was not able to contain the “new enthusiasm,” something that, by its very definition, cannot be contained.

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