THE American Episcopal church is a self-governing branch of the Anglican Communion. At the 1930 Lambeth Conference it was declared as a "Fellowship within the one, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church ... in communion with the See of Canterbury." This fellowship is a voluntary allegiance to a faith set forth in the Book of Common Prayer. The American Episcopal Church was the first autonomous Anglican Church to be recognized outside of the British Isles. It was the first to demonstrate that the church could exist without state support and with a representation of the laity.
Christianity came to Britain in about the third century. Celtic monks from the Iona monastery, founded by Columba in 563, were followed by Augustine and forty monks in a.d. 597. These were sent to Britain by Pope Gregory I and arrived in Kent. The See of Canterbury then became the mother church of the Anglican Communion. The Magna Charta (1215) declared that the Ecclesia Angelicana was not to be dominated by Rome. Likewise it was made evident in the seventeenth century that it would not be dominated by Calvinism. Again in the eighteenth century, outside of England, Wales, and Ireland, it declared that domination would not come from the state.
The Reformation in England, contrasted with that on the Continent, was a revolution rather than a doctrinal reformation. It also came half a century later. Progress toward religious freedom was decidedly evolutionary in England, and not without persecution and bloodshed.
Anglicanism in Colonial America
William Warren Sweet states that the people of Anglican attachment lacked the strong emotional urge manifested by the Puritans, Quakers, Germans, and Scotch-Irish who emigrated to America. Though the Church of England was favored and greatly advantaged in colonization, she lacked aggression. It may be that she did not feel the persecution and economic pressures these other groups experienced. However, when Anglicanism finally caught up, it turned southward. In the Carolinas, the Virginias, and in Georgia the Church threw out roots; but in Georgia this did not happen until after the Colonial period.
New England, with few exceptions, was not the most fertile ground for Anglicanism, perhaps owing to Puritan and Separatist bias. Here Congregationalism and later Unitarianism gained advantages. Robert Ratcliffe was the first permanent Anglican pastor in Massachusetts. Connecticut also accepted Anglicanism. Called to the presidency of Yale College in 1719, Timothy Cutler, formerly a Congrega-tionalist minister, accepted Anglicanism. He and several other Congregational ministers were convinced that the Church of England and not Congregationalism was the lineal descendant of the church of the apostles.
By the opening of the eighteenth century the Anglicans took special interest in the evangelization of the Indians under the auspices of the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts.
Growth and Expansion
Beginning with the year 1800 the Episcopalians indicated a recovery of their spiritual heritage. The first forty years of this century is marked as the era of great bishops and important educational institutions. Sunday schools, Bible and tract societies, periodicals, seminaries, colleges, boarding schools for boys and girls, and missionary organizations began to flourish. Women also came into leadership. Two schools of thought—high churchmanship and evangelicalism existed together, while Puritan prejudice against the Church of England was becoming outmoded.
During 1830-1840 the Anglican Church sent its first missionaries abroad—to the Near East, China, and Liberia. Soon other lands felt her missionary influence. In 1887 the Holy Catholic Church (Anglican) in Japan was organized with native ministers: similar progress followed in China.
During this period the pressing problem of bishops in church leadership continued in the colonies until after the American Revolution. Then the Church as well as the nation was pressed into an American rather than a European pattern. The Book of Common Prayer also underwent necessary changes. These were days of duress, politically and ecclesiastically. Out of the birth pangs of American freedom the Anglican Church eventually survived as the Protestant Episcopal Church. The day dawned when the mother church severed her American offspring abroad from parental apron strings. Both lands recognized that American expansion provided mutual blessings. An over-croivded Europe found relief in the westward march of civilization. During the formative years of Anglicanism in America the Church might well have been rent in twain. It is the student of prophecy who best recognizes the hand of God in history. Revelation 12 and 13, properly presented to our Episcopalian friends, has tremendous appeal to the Bible searcher.
Although the Oxford Movement beginning in 1833 made little stir in America, during the next decade it profoundly influenced the Episcopal Church. About this time William Augustus Muhlenberg (1796-1877), a convert from Lutheranism, led out in reforms for liturgical freedom and the breaking down of social snobbery. The Civil War brought a great test to the Episcopal Church when the Southern States seceded and planned separation from the North. This church exhibited greater unity than the Methodists, Presbyterians, and Baptists.
In 1859 the publication of Darwin's Origin of Species upset the entire Christian church. Biblical criticism asserted the Bible was not infallible and raised questions on the person of Christ. In Episcopalian ranks theological seminaries became conscious of the findings of science. During the last quarter of the nineteenth century the social gospel received increasing emphasis. The building of parish houses, orphanages, church hospitals, homes for the aged, and settlement houses indicated rapidly changing religious trends. General conventions, the National Council, and then the World Council of Churches were organized, and discussions of unity and reunion of the factions became the order of the times. Episcopalians emphasized four points for the basis of unity—the Holy Scriptures as the Word of God; the Apostles' and Nicene creeds as the rule of faith; the two sacraments of baptism and holy communion; and the episcopate as the central principle of church government.
The Protestant Episcopal Church in 1955 had a world membership of 40 million. In the United States the figures were then nearing 3 million. The church has been termed The Church of Beauty. Its great cathedrals, its Book of Common Prayer, the King James Version of the Bible, are works of art. Again it has been called The Bridge Church. The diversity of the Protestant Episcopal Church is expressed in the "high," "low," and "broad" distinctions. When given this name the word "Protestant" connoted that all was not papal Rome. "High" emphasizes sacramental worship; "low" suggests a simpler gospel with more personal experience; "broad" signifies the Church's rationalistic and liberal bents.
Further Trends and Approaches
Christians must recognize that the Anglican Church with its Episcopalian branch has made noble and lasting contributions to the Church at large. It has produced great preachers and statesmen. Its sacerdotalism appears to many Christians to be too elaborate for the simple faith of Jesus. Liberal theology has too often endangered orthodoxy. New and deep trends toward spiritism suggest confusions regarding the life hereafter and the state of the dead. It is on these doctrines that Adventists should seek to share their Bible faith with their Episcopalian friends. Many sincerely desire to return to the Scriptures. Our literature should be enlightening to devout believers in this faith who are anticipating the return of Christ to this world in the not-too-distant future. Because of the inroads of liberalism we should seek fellowship with these Christians to raise a high standard for Bible temperance. Episcopalians are less biased and bigoted than some evangelical Christians; but here, too, the truth of God's Word will set men free from error. Argument does not appeal to Episcopalians, but consistent religious living will appeal to many. There is always a strong point of appeal as the unique place of the Scriptures is discussed. Like Roman Catholics, Episcopalians believe not only in the Bible but also in tradition, reason, and experience. Too many will be exceedingly "broad" in interpreting the Word traditionally, but God's Spirit will lead the honest in heart to find "the faith which was once delivered unto the saints." Many Episcopalians have become devoted Seventh-day Adventists as they recognize through the prophecies of the Bible that God has special light for His children in these last days of history.
Ferm, Vergilius. The American Church. New York: Philosophical Library. 1953.
Mead, Frank S. Handbook of Denominations, New York: Abingdon Press. 1951.
Rosten, Leo (Ed.). A Guide to Religions of America. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1955.
Sweet, William Warren. Religion in Colonial America. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1942.