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The Church of England in Early America

Christine Leigh Heyrman
Department of History, University of Delaware
©National Humanities Center

Anglican missionaries
are greeted by Native
Americans on this
bookplate from the
Anglican Society for the
Propagation of the
Gospel in Foreign Parts,
which also strove to
convert New England
Puritans. The banner
translates roughly as
“I go overseas to
give help”

Courtesy Billy Graham
Center Museum
Although the Church of England (also known as the Anglican Church, and, today, as the Protestant Episcopal Church) commanded the loyalties of a great many churchgoers in early America, its history has received relatively little treatment from historians—especially compared with the attention lavished on the Puritans. True, the Church of England in the colonies suffered from a sluggish rate of growth and a shortage of clergymen throughout much of the seventeenth century. But in the century before the American Revolution, that communion’s fortunes prospered: Anglican churches spread along the length of the Atlantic seaboard, the largest concentration being in the coastal South. In these colonies, Anglicanism also enjoyed the advantage of being the established, state-supported church, as it had been in England since the sixteenth century.

The founder of the Church of England was Henry VIII, who broke with the Roman Catholic Church when the pope refused to annul his marriage to Catherine of Aragon. Henry aimed merely to supplant the pope as the head of the English church—not to remodel it along the lines approved by Protestant reformers. But under his Protestant successors, especially Elizabeth I, that was what happened—although not at all to the extent desired by English Puritans like the Presbyterians and Congregationalists. Indeed, the Church of England continued to bear a close resemblance the Roman Catholic Church, as it does down to the present.

Like Roman Catholicism, Anglicanism is, historically, a liturgical religious tradition, meaning that great emphasis is placed on observing a formal devotional regimen—the celebration of saints’ days and other holy days, the performance of elaborate, dramatic ceremonies, the conduct of worship by reciting set prayers—all accompanied by sublime organ music and choral singing and led by priests wearing vestments. And, like Roman Catholics, Anglicans have always favored elegantly constructed churches with ornately decorated interiors. The purpose of all this outward show is to instill those attending worship with a sense of awe and piety. Finally, like Roman Catholics, most (if not all) Anglicans reject Calvinism, with its emphasis on predestination and conversion, and the evangelical ethos often associated with that theology. Anglicans instead stress the capacity of humankind, enlightened by reason, to earn salvation by leading upright, moral lives.

The Church of England also retains Roman Catholicism’s hierarchical form of government: rule of its churches today rests in ascending bodies of clergy, headed by bishops and archbishops. This mode of organization also prevailed in early modern Britain, but the American colonies, lacking a bishop, entrusted enormous authority to local church vestries composed of the most eminent laymen. This was especially true in the South, which led to frequent contests for control and influence between parsons and the vestry.

Guiding Student Discussion

So what your students really need to know is that there was more than one distinctive form of Protestantism in early America: put simply, not every colonial was a Puritan. On the contrary, there were many diverse groups of Protestants within the white population—Congregationalists, Presbyterians, Baptists, and Dutch Reformed as well as Anglicans, Quakers, and Lutherans, to mention only the most numerous. But, in historical terms, the MOST IMPORTANT (because they were the largest and most influential communions) were the Anglicans on the one hand and, on the other, the heirs of the Reformed tradition (i.e., Calvinists like the Congregationalists, Presbyterians, Baptists, Dutch Reformed, and a host of German “pietist sects” like the Moravians).

The division between these two groups marked the GREAT DIVIDE in the religious life of most white colonials. The culture of Reformed groups—the simplicity of their church structures, the emphasis upon the sermon rather than formal rituals and set prayers—contrasted sharply with that of Anglicanism.

Important as these points are, there is an even more telling contrast. While many Reformed churches embraced an evangelical ethos, especially in the mid-eighteenth century as the Great Awakening spread throughout British North America (and revivals simultaneously swept Protestant Europe), most Anglicans (the Methodists in their ranks being the great exception) rejected evangelical influences. Another way of saying this is that, compared to Reformed churches, Anglicans made less stringent demands on the inner resources of individuals. To wit: Belonging to the Church of England did not require individuals to testify to a conversion experience or to submit to an ascetic code of conduct enforced by the clergy and watchful lay members. Nor was any premium placed on strict doctrinal conformity, for, unlike the members of the Reformed tradition, Anglicans had little taste for dogmatism and tolerated differences of opinion on many points of theology. Instead, their clergy encouraged a temperate, practical piety among the laity through liturgical observance and moral admonition. And many colonials found great comfort in this form of Protestantism. Ordinary Anglican lay people found spiritual satisfaction in hearing intoned from the pulpit the familiar, stately cadences of the Book of Common Prayer, the basis of worship services in the Church of England. They were uplifted and sustained by participating in the yearly cycle of rituals commemorating holy days and by savoring the music supplied by choirs and organs. And they took consolation from carefully composed sermons emphasizing the reasonableness of Christianity, the benevolence of God, and the innate capacity of men and women to make proper moral judgments.

So here is the key difference to stress to your students: that Anglicans understood “being religious” more as a matter of doing rather than feeling, more as a matter of godly behavior and faithful ritual observance than as a dramatic, inward transformation. This is not to say that Anglicans disparaged profound religious emotion, nor is it to say that Reformed churches devalued the importance of leading a moral life. But it is to say that the religious messages of these two Protestant groups differed in their EMPHASIS—in what they told the laity was most essential in seeking God and attaining assurance of salvation. In general, it is accurate to say that Anglicans mistrusted sudden, strong, public expressions of religious emotion—the weeping, shrieking, and trembling that overcame some participants in evangelical revivals. Such behavior most Anglicans disdained as unseemly and disorderly.

Above all, what bears emphasizing in the classroom is that both the Anglican and Reformed versions of Protestantism were and are equally authentic modes of Christian spirituality. Put another way, the question that should never be asked in any historical discussion of early American religious life is: “Which group was most truly Christian—the Anglicans or the Reformed?” That is strictly a matter for private judgment; your job is to help students appreciate the historic diversity of American religious traditions—and impressing upon them the rich variety within colonial Protestantism is a good place to begin teaching that lesson.

To be sure, this advice is not easy to execute, but your efforts won’t go unrewarded. Most of the young people in my classes at a public university in the mid-Atlantic, no matter what their religious backgrounds, respond to such discussions with great enthusiasm and curiosity, if only because they know so little about the full range of spiritual options even within the Protestant tradition. As all veterans in the classroom know, most adolescents run deeper than they let on to adults, and teaching this material probably will confirm that observation.

Historians Debate

Until recently, colonial Anglicanism has not received evenhanded, dispassionate treatment from most American historians—and for several reasons. Part of the difficulty is that some supporters of the Church of England emerged as outspoken loyalists during the revolutionary struggle, which led the ardently patriotic historians of the nineteenth century to portray all Anglicans as traitors to the cause of liberty. Then, too, in the wake of the American Revolution and disestablishment, popular support for Anglicanism all but collapsed: as most of their clergy fled to England, former communicants deserted in droves to other Protestant churches. So it fell to the lot of those victorious evangelical denominations in the nineteenth century—Congregationalists, Presbyterians, and Baptists—to write the first histories of American religious life. Not surprisingly, they gave their former competitors short shrift, portraying Anglican parsons as a despicable lot of incompetents, timeservers, and wastrels, who neglected the spiritual needs of the colonial laity while indulging themselves in drink, dance, and other unmentionable forms of dissipation. As for the Anglican laity, they were merely “nominal” Christians who, when they bothered to attend worship, did so out of duty or fear rather than any real spiritual conviction. Such negative stereotypes persisted well into the twentieth century; even those historians with no denominational ax to grind routinely depicted Anglicanism as a lackluster religious tradition that drew adherents mainly from the ranks of the colonial elite—and only because the Church of England so staunchly upheld their privileged position.

Fortunately, the scholarship of the last two decades has restored greater balance to our understanding of colonial Anglicanism. This research has demonstrated that the link between membership in the Church of England and loyalist affinities was tenuous at best—and in the South, the stronghold of Anglicanism, virtually non-existent. On the contrary, many of the so-called Founding Fathers accounted themselves members of the Church of England. The same studies have established that nowhere in the American colonies was membership in the Church of England restricted to a narrow elite of well-to-do merchants, planters, and lawyers; instead, Anglican communicants were drawn from a cross section of colonial society. And while it is true that Anglican clergymen were less than zealous in carrying their message into western backcountry districts, most preferring the comforts of their settled parsonages along the coast, they were not, as a group, notorious for incompetence or immorality. As for the Anglican laity—the ordinary men and women who were communicants in that church—they appear to have been no less committed than other Protestants to regimens of frequent family prayer, Bible reading, and moral exhortation. And they took as much solace in Anglican forms of worship as members of the Reformed tradition did in their religious practices. On the other hand, most contemporary scholars would agree that colonial Anglicanism was unwavering in its support of the status quo—the prevailing hierarchies of class, race, and gender that at least some early evangelicals were more inclined to challenge. In short, the current consensus is that Anglicanism was a socially conservative tradition that nonetheless commanded a broad base of support by virtue of its spiritual appeal to the laity.

If you would like to explore the most recent scholarship on colonial Anglicanism, the best place to begin is with Patricia Bonomi’s Under the Cope of Heaven and Jon Butler’s Awash in a Sea of Faith. For an overview of the attractions of Anglicanism to the southern white laity, see Rhys Isaac, The Transformation of Virginia, 1740–1790 and the opening chapter of Christine Leigh Heyrman, Southern Cross.

Christine Leigh Heyrman was a Fellow at the National Humanities Center in 1986–87. She holds a Ph.D. from Yale University in American Studies and is currently Professor of History in the Department of History at the University of Delaware. Dr. Heyrman is the author of Commerce and Culture: The Maritime Communities of Colonial New England, 1690–1740 [1984], Southern Cross: The Beginning of the Bible Belt [1997], which won the Bancroft Prize in 1998, and Nation of Nations: A Narrative History of the Republic, with James West Davidson, William Gienapp, Mark Lytle, and Michael Stoff [3rd ed., 1997].

Address comments or questions to Professor Heyrman through TeacherServe “Comments and Questions.”

Links to online resources

To cite this essay:
Heyrman, Christine Leigh. “The Church of England in Early America.” Divining America, TeacherServe©. National Humanities Center. DATE YOU ACCESSED ESSAY. <>


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