I wrote in another place that Anglicans in America are like something out of a fairy tale, or perhaps more accurately, like something magical within a fairy tale. Nearly every Protestant, regardless of denomination, owes the Anglican Church something, but if questioned on it they would be unable to name anyone specific, as though their good fortune is the result of some magical power behind the scenes. For instance, if you’ve ever attended a wedding in a Baptist Church and heard the invocation “Dearly Beloved” and the vows to “love and to cherish,” you can thank Archbishop Thomas Cranmer.
As an anglophile, many of my intellectual and literary heroes are English, and it is through their influence that I found my way to the Anglican Church. However, as an American Southerner, there was also the touch of a coming home experience in embracing Anglicanism. “The end of our exploring,” if you will. Many of my Southern sensibilities, and much of our American history, can be traced back to the Anglican Church or its notable members. I discovered the man behind the curtain and the magical and unnamed power in the fairy tale was revealed.
Legend has it that the first Anglican service on American shores occurred in 1579, when Sir Francis Drake took a Sunday break from plundering the Spanish to observe a service in San Francisco Bay. The first service of verifiable record, however, was conducted on the other side of the continent in 1607, in the colony of Jamestown, Virginia. The Southern colonies had a unique history separate from those of the North and New England. It is part of the American historical narrative that our ancestors came here searching for religious freedom. For the Congregationalists, Separatists, and Puritans in New England, this is certainly true. But for the farmers and planters in the South, often the second or third sons of aristocratic families, it was much less the case. Religious non-conformists were a strong presence, to be sure, yet each of the Southern Colonies eventually established the Anglican Church.
In South Carolina the history of establishment is especially unique. Around the year 1700, non-Anglicans represented a slight majority; however, South Carolina was home to a concentration of French Huguenot refugees. One would expect the French Calvinists to join with the English dissenters in opposing establishment, but it turned out the French were equally divided between a faction that wanted to preserve a unique form of French Protestantism, and a faction that believed they could bring their beliefs with them into the Anglican Church. An alliance between English and French Establishmentarians quickly formed, while the British and French dissenters failed to find enough common ground to form any coherent opposition. The Anglo-French alliance in religion yielded two important results for South Carolina. First, the coalition passed an establishment Act in 1706 which made the Anglican Church the official religion. Second, the influence of the French Calvinists kept the South Carolina Anglicans relatively low-church. They largely remains so today.
Other states established Churches as well. Connecticut, New Hampshire, and Massachusetts established Congregationalism. Georgia, Maryland, North Carolina, Virginia, and East and West Florida (which changed hands frequently), and certain counties in New York all established the Church of England. The greatest concentration of Anglicans grew in Virginia and Maryland, but so little was their influence in puritan New England that the few parishes there were considered missionary parishes.
As revolutionary sentiments became stronger the Church of England became more controversial. The hierarchical nature of the Church, and the fact of its establishment, inevitably led to a clash with many revolutionary ideals. Without doubt, the largest part of Loyalists came from the pews of the Anglican Church. Particular controversy involved the Prayers for the King and the Royal family found in the Book of Common Prayer. It soon became a test of patriotism whether a rector chose to recite or omit these particular lines from the order of service. Some wholeheartedly embraced the revolution, others flip-flopped with the changing winds, and others still remained adamantly loyal to the Church and King. For the Anglican clergymen, the decision to support independance was a particularly personal and emotional one. Prior to the war, ordination required each would-be-priest to travel to London and remain there for at least a few months. This time formed special friendships and bonds with the mother-country that many priests would find difficult to sever.
Regional circumstances also contributed to the various local Anglican reactions. The most vocal Loyalists did not come from the large Anglican populations of the South or the Middle colonies, where Anglicans lived rather comfortably, but from the missionary parishes in New England, where they were often outright persecuted. As events escalated, the elderly Reverend John Beach, a missionary in Newton, Connecticut, was imprisoned for praying for the King. He confessed he would continue to do so until the rebels cut out his tongue.
Due to death, exile, or financial hardship, the war years cut the number of Anglican parishes in half.
While it is true the Anglican Church produced its fair share of Loyalists during the war, it is also produced an outsized share of patriots. Thirty-two of the fifty-six people who signed the Declaration of Independence and thirty-one of the fifty-five people who signed the Constitution were Anglicans. This stark division between adamant patriots and adamant loyalists may in part be attributed to the ironic fact that Anglicanism was one of the least centralized churches in America. Because they still received their orders from Canterbury, there was no Synod of the Anglican Church in America like that of the Presbyterians and others. Perhaps in not so uncustomary Anglican fashion, they never developed a uniform opinion on the Revolution.
In a letter condemning those who still had attachments to England, the Episcopalian Patrick Henry scathingly reminded them that “the flesh pots of Egypt are still savory to degenerate palates.” However, unable to shake all the vestiges of the Church’s heritage, Henry advocated for state-funded religious schooling in Virginia, which he saw as a compromise between establishment and toleration. It took fellow Episcopalian George Mason to defeat the measure, and it was Mason who went on to draft the Virginia Declaration of Rights, which contained the first guarantee of free exercise in the United States.
Like Anglicans throughout history, the denominational affiliation of the founding Anglicans remained in the background of their public persona. George Washington’s faith has been debated for centuries, but it is established he was a vestryman in his Episcopal Parish. In our contemporary religious culture, where leaders are expected to wear all the details of their faith on their sleeve, Washington’s silence is puzzling. But in the context of Anglicanism, a quiet faith where few Anglicans are known for being Anglicans, is Washington’s secrecy really so out of character?
The founding Anglicans were particularly influential in one more regard. While Thomas Jefferson may have been a Deist, his dream of the agrarian gentleman is largely an inheritance from England, and it would be the landed gentleman Anglicans in the South, like John Taylor of Caroline and John Randolph of Roanoke, who would live out that dream and make it a reality. But the history of Anglican influence on Southern Culture is another story.