Episcopal Church Is Established Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

In the wake of the American Revolution, a group of former Anglicans created a church based upon Anglicanism but no longer associated with Great Britain. The general convention of the Protestant Episcopal Church adopted a church constitution, canons, and liturgy that shaped a uniquely American Episcopal church, independent of its mother Church of England.

Summary of Event

Although the Episcopal Church in the United States was officially established by the General Convention of 1789, circumstances prior to that event were crucial in laying its foundation. Before the American Revolution, the Anglican Church in America (the Church of England) was in a tenuous position. Early in the eighteenth century, the English Society for the Propagation of the Gospel sent out missionaries to establish parishes in the American colonies. The parishes were under state jurisdiction. Each royal governor supported the Church financially by taxing all community members, regardless of whether they belonged to the Church of England Church of England. Because the majority did not belong to the Church of England, this practice caused resentment among the general population. Also, the Church in America had no bishops and was governed by the bishop of London. The close ties between church and state produced mistrust in many colonists. [kw]Episcopal Church Is Established (July 28-Oct. 16, 1789) [kw]Church Is Established, Episcopal (July 28-Oct. 16, 1789) Episcopal Church [g]United States;July 28-Oct. 16, 1789: Episcopal Church Is Established[2840] [c]Organizations and institutions;July 28-Oct. 16, 1789: Episcopal Church Is Established[2840] [c]Religion and theology;July 28-Oct. 16, 1789: Episcopal Church Is Established[2840] Provoost, Samuel Seabury, Samuel White, William

During the American Revolution (1775-1783);Anglican Church in America American Revolution, the Anglican Church was almost destroyed. Because of their religious practices, Episcopalians were rebel targets. For example, upon ordination, the clergy were required to take a loyalty oath to the king. They also used the English Book of Common Prayer, which contained prayers for the welfare of the monarch. In spite of these customs, many clergy, such as William White, a leading Episcopal priest in Philadelphia and later chaplain to the Continental Congress, sided with the rebels. In New York, all the clergy were loyal to the king except Samuel Provoost. In contrast to White and Provoost, Samuel Seabury from Connecticut, a high churchman and a Tory, represented the sentiments of the majority of the people of his state.

When the revolution ended in 1783, the Episcopal Church in America was disestablished and seeking a new direction. The English church no longer provided either economic or spiritual support. Where there had been a unity of sorts with the king as the focal point, there was no single tie to bind the parishes in the various states together. There were no bishops to oversee the Church. In order to survive, the Church in the United States had to reorganize, address the issue of unity, and establish a U.S. episcopate.

Some efforts were made toward these goals even before the Revolutionary War ended. A conference of clergy and laity met in Maryland in 1780 and adopted the name Protestant Episcopal Church Protestant Episcopal Church. At a larger convention in Annapolis in 1783, the name was officially embraced and the vision of a United States identity began to be realized. The question of a national church was addressed by William White in his essay “The Case of the Episcopal Churches in the United States Considered,” written in 1782. In this document, White proposed a democratic church organized along lines similar to those of the federal Constitution.

The quest for a United States episcopate proved elusive. Because a bishop was considered a state official in England, the Church in the United States was ambivalent concerning an American bishop. Because of the separation between church and state mandated by the federal Constitution, U.S. Anglicans were unsure of how the office of bishop would function in their church.

The first step in establishing an American episcopate was taken when the Church in Connecticut sent Samuel Seabury to England to be consecrated by English bishops. To retain episcopal succession, it was important that Seabury be consecrated by bishops whose orders were valid. He left America for England in 1783 and attempted to persuade the English church to consecrate him. The English bishops refused, because Seabury was no longer loyal to the king and because he was not a state official approved by the Connecticut legislature. Seabury then went to Scotland and, in 1784, was consecrated by three nonjuring bishops.

Three important events further shaped the Church in America before the general convention of 1789. First, on May 24, 1784, William White led a convention of clergy and laity in Philadelphia that established a set of basic principles that were later incorporated into the final constitution. These precepts dictated that the American church would remain independent of all foreign authority, that its liturgy would conform to that of the Church of England, and that there would be three orders of ministers: bishops, priests, and deacons.

Second, the first general convention of the Protestant Episcopal Church in the United States of America met on September 27, 1785. This convention addressed the issues of the episcopate, the liturgy, and the church constitution. The delegates decided that they would appeal to the Church of England to reconsider the consecration of U.S. bishops.

Third, in 1786, Parliament passed an act that allowed the English church to consecrate bishops who did not take an oath of loyalty to the king. White and Provoost were elected by their states to travel to England and were consecrated bishops in 1787. The church in the United States then had three bishops, a proposed liturgy, and a constitution, but was not yet unified. Each state (later known as a diocese) was an independent entity. Disagreement resulting from political differences continued to exist between the bishops. There was ill will between Seabury, a former Tory, and Provoost, a former revolutionary. Also, Seabury believed that bishops should control all aspects of church government, while White and Provoost believed that the clergy and laity should have a voice in church affairs.

The general convention of 1789, convened on July 28 at Christ Church in Philadelphia, was vital in organizing and redefining the Anglican Church in the United States. Representatives from New England did not attend the first session, because delegates from other states questioned the validity of Bishop Seabury’s Episcopal orders. In order to achieve union with the churches in New England, the delegates voted unanimously to accept Bishop Seabury as equal to Bishops Provoost and White. The absence of Bishop Provoost due to illness was fortuitous. Provoost resented Seabury’s political views and would have prevented a decision in Seabury’s favor. Another issue addressed during the summer session was the creation of a House of Bishops and a House of Deputies. This structure mirrored the House of Representatives and Senate of the United States government.

The second session of the 1789 General Convention began September 30 and ended October 16. Bishop Seabury, with two clerical deputies plus representatives from Massachusetts and New Hampshire, joined the delegates who had attended the previous session. The House of Bishops, consisting of White and Seabury, met separately without Bishop Provoost. Although he attended the convention, Provoost refused to participate because of Seabury’s presence.

Three concerns were addressed during the fall session: the constitution, the prayer book, and canonical law. The church constitution was formally adopted and echoed the democratic principles recently presented in the federal Constitution. The Church would consist of a collection of independent dioceses, each headed by a bishop; church policy would be formulated at a triennial general convention made up of laity and clergy. The central canon of the Church was, and still is, that bishops, priests, and deacons make up the three orders of ministry. The constitution also made the use of the American Book of Common Prayer compulsory.

The revision of the prayer book was an important task, which also conveyed a political message. The liturgical committee decided to retain the text of the English Book of Common Prayer with some revisions. The most important change was the deletion of any reference to the king. The preface to the U.S. prayer book made it clear that the intent of the U.S. church was to remain in communion with the English church but retain its independence to govern its own affairs.


The establishment of an American version of the Anglican Church was both practically and symbolically significant. After all, it was not solely the association of Anglicanism with the tyrannical behavior of the British Empire that caused problems for American Episcopalians: Many of the first English immigrants to the Americas came specifically to escape the Anglican Church and to find a place where they could practice Puritanism in peace. With the establishment of the Protestant Episcopal Church, Episcopal Church Anglicanism was officially Americanized. It was transformed from the state religion of an imperial power into one form of Protestantism among many and incorporated into what would become arguably the most religiously diverse society on Earth.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Addison, James Thayer. The Episcopal Church in the United States, 1789-1931. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1951. A narrative of the search of the Episcopal church in the United States for a new identity during the convention of 1789. Addison credits both Seabury and White with strong leadership during the proceedings but calls White “the Madison of the Church’s constitution.”
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Chorley, E. Clowes. Men and Movements in the American Episcopal Church. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1950. A brief profile of Bishop Samuel Seabury, capturing the essence of his personality and exploring his career as a priest, his consecration by the Scottish Church, and his influence on the early Episcopal Church in the United States.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hatchett, Marion J. The Making of the First American Book of Common Prayer, 1776-1789. New York: Seabury Press, 1982. Examines the evolution of the American Book of Common Prayer and details the various editions that eventually led to the revised book of 1789.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Holmes, David L. A Brief History of the Episcopal Church. Valley Forge, Pa.: Trinity Press, 1993. A concise account of the sociological, economic, and political factors that shaped the young Episcopal Church in the United States.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Marshall, Paul Victor. One Catholic, and Apostolic: Samuel Seabury and the Early Episcopal Church. New York: Church, 2004. An academic biography describing how Seabury adapted Anglicanism for American congregants. Includes a compact disc with Seabury’s correspondence, historic documents, and primary sources.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Rhoden, Nancy L. Revolutionary Anglicanism: The Colonial Church of England Clergy During the American Revolution. New York: New York University Press, 1999. Examines the experiences of more than three hundred Anglican ministers in America during the Revolutionary War. These ministers faced the dilemma of remaining loyal to the church or repudiating their oaths and altering the liturgy. Rhoden describes how this conflict facilitated creation of an American Episcopal church.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">White, William. “The Case of the Episcopal Churches in the United States Considered.” In Readings from the History of the Episcopal Church, edited by Robert W. Prichard. Wilton, Conn.: Morehouse-Barlow, 1986. This 1782 document explores the democratic concepts eventually incorporated into the U.S. Episcopal Church constitution of 1789. Among its chief ideas is that the laity be given a voice in church government.

First Great Awakening

Methodist Church Is Established in Colonial America

African American Baptist Church Is Founded

Virginia Statute of Religious Liberty

Second Great Awakening

Related Articles in <i>Great Lives from History: The Eighteenth Century</i>

Patrick Henry; James Madison; Charles Wesley; John Wesley. Episcopal Church

Categories: History