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Bestowal of the American Episcopate

The English Colonists who settled in Virginia brought with them priests to minister in the new land, and from this beginning the ministrations of the Church spread somewhat throughout all the original thirteen colonies. But the Revolutionary War drove many of the faithful and their priests from the said Colonies, and caused the Church to be hated because of its connection with the English Crown, and its buildings and estates to be confiscated or stolen. In which time of need there was no bishop to shepherd the scattered flock, because no diocesan organization had been set up in the new land; and the bestowal of the episcopate thereto seemed more unlikely than ever before, since it involved an oath of allegiance to the British Crown which no American could take. But, lest the Church become extinct through loss of Catholic order, in Connecticut ten priests, out of the fourteen who still remained after the war, gathered secretly at Woodbury on Lady Day, 1783, and took counsel as to the election and consecration of a bishop. Which same, they determined, must needs be not only a man of godliness and learning, but ready to suffer humiliations in England and persecutions on his return home. And the choice fell on Samuel Seabury, priest of the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel, and a man of strong convictions as to Catholic order.

Some sixty years before this, namely, in 1722, the Puritan Colony of Connecticut had been unbelievably stirred up by an event of great import. For it was then that the Rector of Yale College, the chief seat of learning in that Colony, and other Puritan ministers, in the presence of George Pigot, priest of the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel, whose presence had been procured to represent the church, did publicly, according to the latter's report to his superiors of that venerable Society, declare themselves in this wise, namely, that they no longer could keep out of the Communion of the Catholic Church. These men, after they had been ordained priests in England, returned to foster the Church in New England, and their self-sacrifice and courage was blessed with many converts. Of these was one Samuel Seabury, father of the aforesaid Samuel Seabury who was elected in 1783, by priests brought up in this great tradition, to be the first bishop of the American Church. The same, when he finally arrived in England, found many difficulties. For one thing, an Act of Parliament was required to dispense with the oath to the Crown; but at last, after twelve months of waiting, there was introduced into Parliament an Act to empower the Archbishops to consecrate as bishops persons being subjects or citizens of countries out of his Majesty's Dominions. Later, when this Act was finally passed: it led to the extension of the English Church throughout the world.

Meanwhile, poverty of resources, and the prospect of interminable delay, moved the Bishop-Elect of Connecticut to seek consecration at the hands of the Catholic remainder of the Church of Scotland (as certain of the faithful there called themselves), for this course had been previously agreed upon in case his consecration was blocked in England. In Aberdeen, therefore, on November 14th, 1784, he was consecrated by the Primus, Robert Kilgour, Bishop of Aberdeen assisted by two other bishops, in the sight alone, as they said, of those known to be supporters of the old and persecuted Faith. With them he signed a concordant, the tenour of which was: that they would maintain the Common Faith once delivered to the Saints; and that they believed the Church to be the Mystical Body of Christ; and that they held the Eucharist to be the principal Bond of Union among Christians, as well as the most solemn Act of Worship, for which reason there should be as little variance in this matter as possible. And hence the newly consecrated bishop was asked to endeavour to have the Rite of the Scottish Church used as the basis of the new American liturgy. On his return to America he suffered many trials, but from his example the clergy of the Middle and Southern States took courage, and in 1786 sent two of their number, William White, Bishop-Elect of Pennsylvania, and Samuel Provoost, Bishop-Elect of New York, to be consecrated under the new Act of Parliament. In the Convention of 1789, Bishop Seabury united with them to authorize the General Ecclesiastical Constitution of the American Church; and after the Archbishop of Canterbury had consecrated a third bishop, James Madison of Virginia, he joined with these three other bishops in the consecration of John Claggett as Bishop of Maryland. Thus by the bestowal of the episcopate on Samuel Seabury was finally founded the Church in the United States of America.


ALMIGHTY GOD, who by thy Son Jesus Christ didst give to thy holy Apostles many excellent gifts, and didst charge them to feed thy flock: give grace, we beseech they, to all Bishops, the Pastors of thy Church, that they may diligently preach thy Word, and duly administer the godly discipline thereof; and grant to the people, that they may obediently follow the same, that all may receive the crown of everlasting glory. Through the same our Lord Jesus Christ, who liveth and reigneth with thee and the same Spirit ever, one God, world without end. Amen.

The Anglican Breviary, Frank Gavin Liturgical Foundation, Inc., New York, 1955, pages 1910-1912

Additional Information:

The Anglican Breviary is available at the Anglican Breviary website.

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