Thus far Anglican Rose has assumed the English Church a template for the American, but we have yet to consider how far England’s example reaches. The Preface to the American Prayer Book says when the books of each church are compared, ” it will also appear that this Church is far from intending to depart from the Church of England in any essential point of doctrine, discipline, or worship; or further than local circumstance require.” The ‘local circumstance’ clause is often understood as alterations in the prayer book by consequence of the Revolution, namely the amending or omission of certain state prayers. But the Preface seems to indicate further possible changes according to “the exigency of times and occasions”, and this leaves quite a large door open.
The Fourth Principle:
The principles expressed in the preface evidently were drafted in May 1784 at Dr. William White’s house in New Jersey. For some time these principles had been circulating through pamphlets, particularly one written by White, The Case of the Episcopal Churches in the United States Considered (1782). Esteemed men from across the Middle Colonies were invited to discuss the reorganization of the Missionary Diocese of London (as the colonial church was called) as well as securing CofE property under the independent American government. A schedule was drawn for a convention of several mid-atlantic states in New York, Oct. 1784 where seven fundamental principles were adopted. Largely written by Dr. White, the fundamentals dealt mainly with three objects: First. They widened the role of laity in church government, proposing a bicameral system; Second. They set forth the idea of a national church based on a weak federal system; and, Third. They proposed liturgical revision of 1662 to better suit American circumstances. Known as the “fourth principle”, it is of peculiar interest:
“Fourth, That the said Church shall maintain the doctrines of the Gospel as now held by the Church of England, and shall adhere to the Liturgy of the said Church, as far as shall be consistent with the American Revolution, and the Constitution of the respective States.” (McConnell, p. 239)
Churchmanship in America possessed the same party spirit as in England. America’s ‘low church’ party was the majority while ‘high churchmen’ from New England were a substantial minority. According to McConnell, the distrust between these parties provoked rival solicitations for the consecration of an episcopate in Britain. New England secured Dr. Samuel Seabury into the episcopate through Scotland’s bishopric while Middle and Southern states sent White and Provoost to England for consecration. Neither region wanted to be under the other’s bishop. Southerners feared the ‘ecclesiasticism’ of New England, and Northerners feared the ‘latitudinarianism’ of the other states (p. 273). This competition led to different outcomes for prayer book revision. Northerners, represented by Dr. Seabury, preferred minimal changes (e.g., only removing the state prayers) while mid-Atlantic states were apt to be very radical in their liturgical proposals. Southerners not only sought to ‘modernize’ bcp language but also wished to amend creeds, shorten daily prayer, and eliminate ceremonial that had been historically aggravating with English dissenters. At the first 1785 General Convention in Philadelphia these revisions were compiled by Smith, White, and Wharton. Otherwise known as the ‘proposed book’, this revision was similar to the 1689 ‘blue book’ that Archbishop Tollitson composed for comprehension in England during the regency of William III.
The rationale for such wide-ranging amendments was explained in a sermon by Dr. Smith at the 1785 Philadelphia convention. Smith adds meat to the bone, interpreting White’s “Fourth Principle”, instructing upon the true consequences of Revolution, justifying a revision according to cultural not so much civil circumstances:
“These alterations being once made, an occasion was offered (such as few Churches before us have ever enjoyed) of taking up our Liturgy or public service, for a Review, where our former venerable reformers had been obliged to leave it; and of proposing to the church at large, such further alterations and improvements, as the length of time, the progress of manners and civilization, the increase and diffusion of charity and toleration among all Christian denominations, and other circumstances (some of them peculiar to our situation among the highways and hedges of this new world) seem to have rendered absolutely necessary. ” (Works, p. 538)
Smith’s sermon is a longer version of the 1786 BCP Preface. It begins with an outline of the Reformation’s history, equating it to Enlightenment. Smith apparently believed England’s progress in matters ecclesiastical found their apex expression in the 1689 book, “But the greatest and most important alterations and amendments were proposed at the Revolution, that great era of liberty, when in 1689, commissioners were appointed to revise points of decency, order, government and edification” (Works, p.540). Although the blue book commissioners actually failed their appointed task, Smith believed the blessing of America was to resume their work.
“This great reformation was, however, lost through the heats and divisions which immediately followed, both in church and state, under King William; and such hath been the situation of things that it hath never since been resumed in the mother church, by any public authority. But singlularly to be admired and adored are the ways of providence! at the commencement of a new era in the civil and religious condition of mankind in this new world, and upon another great Revolution about an hundred years after the former, all those proposed alterations and amendments were in our hands; and we had it in our power to adopt and even to improve them, as might best suit our circumstances in that part of our church, whch the LOrd hath planted and permitted to flouish among the highways and hedges of this immense continent! ” (Works, p. 543)
Ironically, much like its 1689 counterpart, the 1786 proposed book died before returning to convocation. Frere describes it’s lack-luster popularity,
“though proposed in a way which might have carried much authority, it was used but in a few places and for a short time; it was, as will be seen presently, generally disapproved; and four years later, when a General Convention of the whole American Church entered upon the work of Prayer Book revision, it was not deemed necessary to mention the Proposed Book, much less to abolish its use. The book was very unfortunate and entirely unsuccessful experiment, and its publication was regretted by non more sincerely than by some who, with too little consideration, had given it an imprimatur...Not one of the Conventions in the States represented at Philadelphia in 1786 approved the Proposed Book.” (Procter, pp.238-9, 230)
Evidently, for some southern states the book did not go far enough. Amongst New England episcopalians the dislike for the proposed book hastened the adoption of the 1764 Scottish liturgy. Amongst objections, the greater weight came from the other side of the Atlantic. The English prelates disliked the book and conditioned the consecrations of Provoost and White at least upon restoring the Creeds (Procter, p. 241). The final 1789 prayer book ended up more modest in scope– replacing some canticles with psalms, omitting both the black & ornament rubrics, while shelving the Athanasian Creed. Repetition of certain prayers within morning services were also eliminated while Scottish Eucharistic prayer was adopted following slight modification (the 1549 phrase “bless and sanctify” replaced the non-juror’s “change these”. Other contested points of ceremony that hindered the 1786 book was finally solved by delegating contested usages, like the sign of the cross at baptism, to the discretion of state bishops, i.e., ‘local options’.
The 1789 American Book was a concession to both the “non-juror” and presbyterian parties in the states. The book’s rubrics allowed optional usages of liturgy capable of satisfying both ‘high’ and ‘low’ tendencies, leaving much for the discretion of rector and ordinary. And, though it was latitudinarian in nature, unlike the 1786 Book it was not a one way comprehension favoring presbyterian-leaning churchmen. Church rites could be longer, and combined with Seabury’s eucharistic canon, the ‘high church’ element received expression. In this way it proved a irenic book, the conclusion of a ‘bottom-up’ state-convention process rather than royal decree of various supremacy or uniformity acts. It really was the first of its kind. Later revisions of the American prayer book would somewhat tighten up this ‘broadness’, reinserting canticles, apocrypha readings, prayers for the departed, and expanding the propers in canon, taking a more distinct catholic identity.
However, the latitudinarian spirit of the book prevailed. The Rev. Dr. Smith’s radical interpretation of “local circumstance” implied not only new political arrangements but adjustment to the republican/evangelical culture in general as found at the time of the USA Revolution. Smith’s “exigency of times and occasions”.. “the progress of manners and civilization”…et al., summarizes this vector of revision, and though Smith’s first book failed reception, the idea of comprehension certainly carried forward into the final 1789 revision. Keeping with the state-by-state convention genesis of the prayer book, England’s uniformity therefore evaporated. Instead, the form of open prayer was given to the discretion the diocesan bishops. Thus, for the American church, ‘circumstance’ meant more than abrogating the British state prayers but transposing a federal principle to church order. This rule seemed to prevail until the 1920’s when: 1) PEC somewhat broke from the 1689 protestant model, canonizing aspects of the 1549 liturgy, moving PEC in a catholic direction; 2) changing Constitution and Canons in 1922 providing for the election of a Presiding Bishop and national council where before authority was centered in state/diocesan bishops.
- S.D. McConnell, History of the American Episcopal Church, Young Churchman. 1916
- Procter & Frere, A New History of the Book of Common Prayer, Macmillion. 1959
- The Works of William Smith DD, vol. II, William and Fry. 1803