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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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CONCLUSION Disputes over plans to establish an American bishopric highlight how the conflict between the colonies and England manifested itself on many levels over a long period. The first thing to note is how colonial institutions evolved in new ways without an overall plan compared to the long-established and well organized institutions of England. This disparity made it almost impossible to bring an existing institution such as a bishop and establish it in the colonies without conflict. Secondly, political conflict in England was just as important, if not more so, than colonial disputes for undermining plans for an American bishopric. Next, maneuverings by the Anglican leadership to advance the Church and establish a colonial bishop revived the colonists’ seventeenth century fear of ecclesiastical tyranny and heightened concerns over the loss of political and religious liberties. Fourth, the arguments over the establishment of bishops in the colonies, particularly between Secker and Mayhew, highlight the incompatible premises of each group. Fifth, the Anglican view of liberty under the established church with a recognized legal toleration conflicted with the multi-denominational character of the colonies, which promoted liberty of conscience. In spite of the good intentions of the Anglicans, this divergence created an environment for conflict over the introduction of bishops into the colonies. Finally, urgent attempts by the church to install resident bishops in the years before the American Revolution created unintended consequences: First, as tensions increased the government became more hesitant to implement the plan in spite of Churchmen’s continual pursuance otherwise,...

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