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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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3. The Ecclesiastical Policy of Bishop Sherlock and Colonial Reaction 83

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CHAPTER 3 The Ecclesiastical Policy of Bishop Sherlock and Colonial Reaction 1740–1761 “The Business of the diocese and the Plantations sits heavy upon me.”1 Thomas Sherlock to Edward Weston Bishop Thomas Sherlock’s sustained efforts in the 1740s to persuade the government in London to appoint an American bishop failed because political authorities feared a backlash. The failure of Bishops Sherlock and Thomas Secker to appreciate colonial views on episcopacy proved Horace Walpole and other ministers correct in their predictions of the trouble approaching an American bishop would involve, and hence colonial resistance to it. Through the 1740s the ministers and the Crown favored Dissenters in Britain for their support of the Hanoverian succession and Robert Walpole’s “Whig Supremacy.” The Dissenters were small in comparison to the Anglicans but influential enough to keep the Whigs in power. Also their colonial connections made real the possibility of civil disruption in the colonies. The most assertive and hard-line churchmen were excluded from influence by their Tory connections and remaining high churchmen such as Thomas Sherlock found it difficult to gain the government’s cooperation for colonial bishops. From the 1720s through the 1740s the overriding preoccupation of the government under Robert Walpole was to avoid conflict or public controversy, which saw any agitation as highly dangerous. Government officials expressed concern that the establishment of bishops would infringe on the existing civil rights of the colonists and invite a backlash. In spite of Edmund Gibson’s great efforts, his project to establish episcopacy in...

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