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Anglican Church Policy, Eighteenth Century Conflict, and the American Episcopate

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Kenneth R. Elliott

Anglican Church Policy, Eighteenth Century Conflict, and the American Episcopate examines how leaders in the Church of England sought to reorganize the colonial church by installing one or two resident bishops at critical moments in the late 1740s, the early 1760s, and the mid 1770s when the British government moved to bring the colonies into closer economic and political alignment with England. Examining Anglican attempts to install bishops into the American colonies within the context of the Anglo-American world provides insight into the difficulties British political and ecclesiastical authorities had in organizing the management of the colonies more efficiently. Although the Church of England sustained wide influence over the population, the failure of the Anglicans’ proposal to install bishops into the colonies was symptomatic of the declining influence of the Church on eighteenth century politics. Differing views over political and ecclesiastical authority between the colonists and the Anglicans, and the possibility religious conflict might have on elections, concerned British authorities enough not to act on the Anglicans’ proposals for resident bishops for the colonies. The failure also highlights how eighteenth century British government increasingly focused on the political and economic administration of the expanded British Empire rather than its religious administration.

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2. Churchmen and Dissenters: Continuities and Discontinuities 53

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CHAPTER 2 Churchmen and Dissenters: Continuities and Discontinuities “This has been a Presbyterian war from the beginning as certainly as that in 1641.”1 William Jones of Nayland William Jones of Nayland’s statement that the War of Independence was from its inception a “Presbyterian War” reflected the frustration of many High Churchmen over the British government’s failure to establish a colonial bishopric before the outbreak of the war in 1776. It also described the underlying causes of the conflict simplistically, but the choice of words carries a very direct and frequented memory. “Presbyterian” refers here not to a particular religious denomination but rather the dissenters in general, often also called “Puritans” in the eighteenth century. 2 The phrase highlights the great divide both between the colonists and England, and between the dissenters and the established church. The clash between Anglican views of tolerance, the appropriate bounds of tolerance for religious nonconformity, and the insistence on liberty of conscience by Dissenters amounted to a confrontation between eighteenth and seventeenth century perspectives over the meaning of liberty that revived long-standing grievances and heightened tensions. The two sides viewed the idea of liberty, particularly religious liberty very differently. The Anglicans understood liberty as freedom within the constraints of the Church, which allowed for toleration of those who were Trinitarian but for conscience’ sake would not conform to its episcopal polity. The Dissenters, on the other hand, particularly in New England, came to define their freedom in relation to the existing religious pluralism, their...

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