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Justus D. Doenecke

From Episcopacy to Sectarianism

The story of evangelical Episcopalians is one of near success followed by near suicide.

To outsiders, Anglicanism must appear a bit eclectic. Not for nothing has a pundit described it as Lutheran in origin, Catholic in polity, Reformed in its Articles of Religion, Pelagian in preaching, and Augustinian in liturgy. But there is one phrase that such commentators would never add: evangelical in ethos. The popular mind has identified Anglicanism with restrained emotions, a cultured clergy, an affluent laity, sumptuous sanctuaries, and rites drafted in Shakespearean prose. As a youth, this reviewer mentioned the possibility of receiving a superb education at Trinity College, Hartford, an Episcopal institution. His Baptist Sunday school teacher snapped, "I'd think you'd prefer an evangelical institution!"

Yet, thanks to the labors of Diana Hochstedt Butler and Allen C. Guelzo, we can establish how strong the evangelical movement was in American Anglicanism. Both books are well written, intensively researched (and indeed have both received prizes from the American Society of Church History); both tell a story that resonates with late twentieth-century developments.

One must begin by noting that by the end of the American Revolution, New World churches in general were in what historian Sidney Ahlstrom calls religious depression. In 1790, there were only 200 Anglican clergy in all the American colonies, while hardly more than one out of 400 people was a communicant. A decade later, the grand total of Episcopalians was about 12,000. Membership was largely limited to the privileged, or as a rector in Boston put the issue, "The Episcopal Church is a place for ladies and gentlemen." Moreover, the newly formed Protestant Episcopal Church was forced to rely upon voluntary contributions rather than the traditional subsidies from England. Despite the introduction of bishops, for many Americans a symbol of alien rule, the church acted as a loose confederation of dioceses, not as a single body.

This very slump, however, opened the door for a movement based upon deep conviction ...

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