Monday, February 20, 2023

Evangelicalism in the PECUSA

I think it would give a lot of American Anglicans a bad attack of the vapours if you told them that there was once a very influential Evangelical Movement in the Protestant Episcopal Church. Certainly, given that history tends to be written by the victors, its contribution to the life of the Church has been all but air-brushed out by the Anglo-Catholic, and Broad Church historians that have produced the standard works on the history of the Episcopal Church. Curiously, apart from the early chapters of Allen Guelzo's "For the Union of Evangelical Christendom" and Diana Hochstedt Butler's "Standing Against the Whirlwind" (OUP 1995), the subject has not been much studied, so much of what I have to say here is gleanings from either 19th century publications, such as "The Life of Alfred Lee, 1st Bishop of Delaware," or from books which focus on wider Evangelicalism.

Traditional church historians tend to date the start of the Evangelical Revival in the Episcopal Church to 1811 which saw both the consecration of Alexander Viets Griswold (1766-1843) as Bishop of the Eastern Diocese - a grab bag of New England States unable to support their own bishop - and the ordination of William Meade (1789-1862) to the diaconate. This is more of a matter of convenience than anything else, as there had been Evangelicals in previous generations starting with the Great Awakening of the 1740s and 50s. Perhaps the best known of these are Isaac Milnor, who had originally been a Methodist, but was ordained by Bishop White in 1789, and Richard Channing Moore (1762-1841), who was originally a doctor, but was converted in his early twenties and sought ordination in the Episcopal Church, achieving prominence, first as a New York Rector, then as Bishop of the Church in Virginia. Moore's ministry reflected the activist streak in Evangelicalism, as he spent the winters preaching at the Monumental Church, Richmond, and then rode circuit in the summer, confirming, and preaching in courthouses, lent churches, and in abandoned Anglican structures. Assisted by the like of William Meade, and W.H. Wilmer, the PEC in Virginia began to rise from its deathbed. However, Virginia was not the only beneficiary of Evangelical activism. After a spat with the High Church Bishop Hobart of New York, Philander Chase moved to Ohio and organized the Church there, serving as bishop for fifteen year, before resigning and moving on to Michaigan and Illinois. These pioneers saw their function as to found the basic institutions needed to sustain the Church - school, college, and seminary - and as a result Virginia Seminary, and Bexley Hall came into being to support the Evangelical cause in the Mid-Atlantic States and Ohio respectively.

If the 1810 and 1820s were seedtime, then the 1830s were a time of harvest. The consecration of William Meade as Assistant Bishop of Virginia, Charles McIllvaine as Bishop of Ohio, B.B. Smith as Bishop of Kentucky, Leonidas Polk as Bishop of the Southwest, and Stephen Elliott as Bishop of Georgia meant that third of the bishops consecrated in the 1829-41 were Evangelicals, and this trend was to continue through the 1840s, and into the 1850s. Predictably, the Evangelicals concentrated on the four Cs of Evangelicalism - Christ, the Cross, Conversion, and Causes - producing a version of Episcopalianism that accorded well with the sensibilities of the American middle class, and this in turn produced steady, even spectacular growth. However, it wasn't to last, not just because of the rise of Tractarianism, but because there was an incidious threat to Evangelicalism from within the Protestant tradition. Higher Criticism of the Bible.

Higher Criticism had developed in Germany around 1800, and it applied a whole battery of philolgical, historical, and literary techniques to the Bible. However, the dominant note was that of rationalism - a mindset where if it seemed improbable, it was improbable, and had to be either explained or explained away. American Evangelicals who had grown up in a pre-critical bubble were ill-equiped to face this. The usual response was to either accept the German theories about the origins of the Old Testament, and later, the New uncritically, or else to flee to fundamentalism, though Fundamentalism with the capital-F did not develop until the 1920s. The rot set in for the Episcopal Evangelicals in the 1860s when some of the next generation of leaders, such as Phillips Brooks, embraced Higher Criticism, and increasingly, the Social Gospel with the result that the old moderate Calvinism of Evangelical Episcopalianism was slowly eroded. Evangelical-leaning seminaries such as Episcopal Theology School, Bexley Hall, and Philadelphia Divinity School increasingly embrace the liberal stance on the Bible, with only Virginia Seminary lagging behind. The departure of some strong conservatives such as G. D. Cummins and James Latané to the Reformed Episcopal Church in the mid-1870s also did not help, but it was not decisive. Episcopal Evangelicals, assaulted by Tractarianism, Ritualism, Schism, and Higher Criticism, increasingly look like yesterday's news in a religious environment which increasingly valued form over content in line with the consumerism of urbanizing America.

However, Evangelicalism did not die out, though it was increasingly of the liberal sort having affinities with the less confessional sections of Lutheranism accepting, but not really embracing, the insights of Higher Biblical Criticism whilst still preaching Christ, the Cross, and Conversion, and retaining the same old commitment to causes. Perhaps the best known of these 'liberal' Evangelicals in the mid-twentieth century was the Rev. Samuel Shoemaker, whose landmark ministry at Calvary Episcopal Church, New York, has largely been forgotten in favour of his work with Alcohols Anonymous.

Unfortunately, what calls itself "Evangelicalism" in the Anglican/Episcopal Churches in the USA today is not really a linear descendent of the old Evangelicalism, or even of mid-century Liberal Evangelicalism, but rather it is the product of the interaction of Low Church Episcopalianism and the Charismatic Movement in the 1970s and 80s. This makes it 'wobbly' when compared the old Evangelicalism as exemplified by some of the 'conservative woke' elements in the ACNA and elsewhere.

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