The Americanisation of the English Church in the nineteenth-century United States

By Joe Hardwick

Nineteenth-century white Americans appear to have had an ambiguous and changeable attitude towards England and the English. On the one hand nineteenth-century America showed signs of being an Anglophobic society founded on the idea that monarchical England was everything that the young republic was not. More than one nineteenth-century English traveller complained about the vitriolic anti-Englishness that seemed to pervade American society.[1] But on the 217px-Shield_of_the_US_Episcopal_Church_svgother hand we have examples of nineteenth-century Americans consuming, appropriating and then naturalising symbols and institutions that, in origin at least, were English. Perhaps the most notable symbol – certainly it is the one that has attracted the most modern scholarship – was William Shakespeare. Early nineteenth-century Americans, so the argument goes, saw Shakespeare as familiar, local and relevant: Americans apparently spoke the ‘pure’ form of English found in Shakespeare, and the bard’s plays carried themes about the fate of tyrants that took easy root in republican America.[2]

It is not surprising that Shakespeare should have flourished in a society that spoke English and in which notions of ‘Anglo-Saxonism’ were important building-blocks of a nativist identity. What is more surprising is that the Anglican Church – perhaps the most ‘English’ of all English institutions – should have, like Shakespeare, survived and prospered in post-Revolution America. This is not to say that the institution that became known as the Episcopal Church of the United States was massively popular or of great social or political significance. It was not. Later American Episcopal bishops recognised that their Church struggled to keep its head above ‘nonconformist’ evangelicalism, and the proportion of Episcopalians in America as a whole declined as Irish and German immigration took hold from the 1840s onwards (by the twentieth century Episcopalians were not even in the ascendancy in its old Virginia stronghold).[3]

But the very fact that the Episcopal Church had survived in the United States would have been remarkable to those Anglican clergymen who were among the tens of thousands of loyalists who were evacuated from American ports during the American Revolution (around 60,000 left for new lives in Nova Scotia, Quebec, Florida, the West Indies and Britain itself).[4] For loyalist clergymen like Charles Inglis, the future bishop of Nova Scotia, the Church of England seemed to have little future in an America that had always been resistant to Anglican claims. It was true that not every loyalist was an Anglican, and it was also true that revolutionaries could be churchmen; but undoubtedly it was the case that the Church was widely associated in the popular mind with the forces of imperial control. The fact that the America lost roughly half its Anglican clergy between 1774 and 1785 (some died, but most of those who left were loyalist refugees) could only further damage the Church’s image as a conservative, loyalist and anti-republican institution.

The drain of clergy from Revolutionary America was just one element in the wider Anglican crisis: prominent lay people joined the loyalist exodus; the Church lost its established status in five southern states; in Virginia its property was sold off; and, perhaps most damagingly of all, the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel – a British institution that had funded new churches and clergy in the American colonies – refused to send any money to the newly independent, post-Revolutionary Church in America. In spite of these hammer blows, Episcopalians bounced back; within less than a decade America’s remaining Anglicans showed that an apparently conservative and reactionary institution was able to acculturate itself to the new environment of republican America. Native-born clergy were recruited and ordained by newly-elected American bishops; individual congregations turned themselves into self-funding voluntary associations; and, most importantly of all, Episcopalians put together a system of Church government that seemed to pull off the impossible – reconciling a hierarchical and ostensibly non-democratic institution, episcopacy, to the climate and temper of a modern, democratic, republic.

This reorganisation and adaptation of the American Church began before formal independence came in 1783. In 1782 William White, the future bishop of Pennsylvania, penned a treatise – The Case of the Protestant Episcopal Churches in the United States Considered – that laid out a model of a unified and independent American Church governed by a ‘General Convention’ in which representatives of the clergy and laity elected ministers and voted on measures effecting the administration of the Church. This republican model of Episcopal government – a model that owed a considerable amount to the systems of secular government that were being developed contemporaneously at the level of the state and nation – was the one that was adopted when two bishops and twenty clergy ratified a constitution at the General Convention in October 1789.[5]

Yet Episcopalianism’s American transformation did not mean that the old metropolitan heritage was completely lost sight of – though there were those like John Henry Hobart, the third bishop of New York, who wanted to push the American Church as far away as possible from any association with an English past.[6] One problem, however, was that there were different British Anglican traditions on which American clergymen could draw. While White’s Pennsylvania followers maintained that the Church had to maintain the liturgy of the English Church, other Anglicans – a particularly important grouping were in Connecticut – looked to the more catholic and high church Episcopal Church in Scotland for inspiration. These connections between Scottish and American Anglicans were ancient (many of the clergy of the colonial period had Scottish backgrounds), but they also became more important after the Connecticut clergyman Samuel Seabury was consecrated as America’s first bishop in November 1784. Seabury would ordain a small number of men from Scotland into his diocese, and in 1789 he was successful in including a communion service that closely followed the communion service in the Scottish Church’s prayer book (the so-called ‘Scottish Office’), as opposed to that contained in the 1662 English prayer book.

But while the Episcopal Church could claim a Scottish foundation, the following decades saw American churchmen develop much closer links with the English church. English-born clergymen started taking up posts in the American Church very quickly after 1783 (and would continue to do so throughout the nineteenth century); American bishops undertook fund-raising missions in England from the early 1820s; and from the 1830s onwards American churchmen would keep a close eye on ecclesiastical movements in the mother country, such as the high church Tractarianism that came out of Oxford colleges in the 1830s. American interest in the revival of the cathedral in the second half of the nineteenth century, was, for instance, closely linked to the earlier revival of dioceses and cathedrals in the English Church.[7] The growing accord between the English and American churches – something that benefited from more positive perceptions of England in America – was reflected in the fact that references to the Episcopal Church as an ‘Anglo-American Church’ began to appear from the 1860s.[8] From the 1840s we can find American clergy, some with English backgrounds, others not, playing very active roles in English cultural events and monarchical celebrations in American cities.

Therefore by mid-century American churchmen appeared to have found a way to reconcile a set of seemingly competing heritages and identities. An institution that was attuned to the American landscape had found a way to display and celebrate their attachments to both England past and present. That Bishop Doane of New Jersey chose to deliver a panegyric on the unity of American and British civilisation on the Fourth of July 1848 vividly demonstrated how the Episcopal Church was able to retain and celebrate both its Englishness and Americaness at one and the same time. But what is important to recognise, is that while the American Church was discovering, or rediscovering its English heritage, British churchmen were discovering and learning from the American Church.[9] Bishop White’s model of a self-governing Church – one in which ministers were elected and the clergy and laity shared a voice in the running of the Church – was one that would eventually be rolled out in Britain’s empire of white settlement in the decades after 1850. So while America’s Church came to celebrate its English roots, British clergymen were finding out that America’s Church offered models for how the Church could survive in modern democracies.

[1] I. Fidler, Observations on Professions, Literature, Manners and Emigration, in the United States and Canada (New York: J. And J. Harper, 1833), pp. 37-8.

[2] Kim Sturgess, Shakespeare and the American Nation (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004), chs 4 and 6.

[3] E. S. Gaustad, ‘The Geography of American Religion’, Journal of Bible and Religion, 30:1 (1962), p. 44.

[4] M. Jasanoff, Liberties Exiles: The Loss of America and the Remaking of the British Empire (London: Harper Press, 2011).

[5] For this adaptation, see Frederick V. Mills, ‘The Protestant Episcopal Churches in the United States 1783-1789: Suspended Animation or Remarkable Recovery?’, Historical Magazine of the Protestant Episcopal Church (1977), pp. 151-70.

[6] R. B. Mullin, Episcopal Vision / American Reality: High Church Theology and Social Thought in Evangelical America (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1986), p. 196.

[7] James M. Woolworth, The Cathedral in the American Church (New York: E. P. Dutton and Company, 1883).

[8] Recent Recollections of the Anglo-American Church in the United States: By an English Layman, 2 vols. (London: Rivingtons, 1861).

[9] George Washington Doane, America and Great Britain: The Address, at Burlington College, on the Seventy-First Anniversary of American Independence (Burlington: Edmund Morris, 1848).

‘Oh, the Roast Beef of Old England’

1907dinnerIn April 1907 the Royal Society of St George held its annual St George’s Day celebration in the Cecil Hotel in London. Situated between the Thames Embankment and the Strand, it was one of the city’s grand hotels. As had been the case at previous dinners, the Society chose a period to be associated with the festival, and invited soldiers to act as guards to the chairman, also escorting ‘the “National Dish” as it is paraded around the hall’. In 1907 this honour was bestowed upon the King’s Guard of the 1st Battalion English Grenadiers. ‘tall, stalwart Englishmen they were, of splendid physique, all considerably over six feet in height’.

As many other gatherings of this type, the annual St George’s Day dinner of the Royal Society of St George brought together many of the London elite for an evening of entertainment. At the heart of the event, however, was the dinner – a highlight of which undoubtedly was the arrival of ‘the roast beef of Old England’. As was reported in the Royal Society of St George’s journal, it

is always an inspiriting and impressive feature, and a little hit of pageantry very highly appreciated. First the “Old Flag,” then the drums, soldiers (two and two), the lordly baron upon a cradle embowered in red and white roses, ribbons, and bannerettes, borne upon the shoulders of four cooks correctly apparelled and beribboned, then more soldiers ; while the band, with thrilling drum accompaniment, plays the well-known air, “Oh, the Roast Beef of Old England,” amidst the plaudits of the assembled guests.

roastbeefDuring the dinner the string band of the Victoria and St. George’s Rifles rendered English airs, while, after dinner, a selection of English folk music and Morris dancing was provided for the illustrious round of guests that included, for example, Admiral Sir Cyprian Bridge and His Excellency Baron Komura, the Japanese Ambassador.

Of great importance too were the toasts and speeches delivered. Given the nature of the event they were, of course, of a celebratory nature, designed to appeal to the national sentiment of the English. This sentiment was certainly showing through in the toast of the evening delivered by the chairman of the fesitval, the Right Hon. Lord Redesdale, who noted that it was the aim of the Society ‘to instil in the minds of the youth of this country those principles of patriotism which are essential to the well-being of the Empire, without which, indeed, the Empire cannot exist.’ Lord Redesdale was of the view that the English could learn one or two things from the Celt: while ‘the Anglo-Saxon is a reserved creature, a rather shy creature … The Celt, on the contrary, is full and bubbling over with patriotism.’

Whether Lord Redesdale had a point with this assessment or not, there was certainly powerful evidence in 1907 of how Englishness was expressed by many around the world on St George’s Day. One way of measuring this activity is through the numerous greetings and cable messages sent on the day. Click here to see a map of where message were sent to; click on a location to read the message sent.

In the spirit of the global greetings dispensed in 1907: a happy St George’s Day from the English Diaspora Team!

Looking Forward to the Past

By Mike Sutton

image003Nostalgia for an idealized vision of the past has been a potent cultural force for centuries. It drives many communities to   celebrate their history (or an imaginative reconstruction of it) by re-enacting past events or ancient rituals. These performances often arouse intense passions locally – as happens with the Palio in Siena, or Bonfire Night in Lewes. Early settlers in the New World also felt this impulse. In Massachusetts, on May Day 1627, Thomas Morton organised “revels and merriment after the old English custom” to encourage solidarity among the colonists and promote better relations with local natives.

Having brewed “a barrel of excellent beer” and provided “a case of bottles to be spent, with other good cheer, for all comers of that day” the revellers erected their May Pole – “a goodly pine tree of 80 foot long … with a pair of buck’s horns nailed on somewhat near unto the top of it.” According to Morton’s account of the event in his New English Canaan (1637) a good time was had by all – except the local Puritans.

The setting up of this Maypole was a lamentable spectacle to the precise Separatists that lived at New Plimouth. They termed it an Idol; yea, they called it the Calf of Horeb and stood in defiance at the place, naming it Mount Dagon…

Morton later claimed that the colony’s ruling elite had used this incident as a pretext to shut down his business, and gain a monopoly of the lucrative beaver pelt trade. Till then, Morton had been prospering as an independent trader, possibly due to his amicable relations with the Native Americans. Whatever their real motives were, by September 1628 the Puritans had expelled him from the colony and destroyed his maypole.

Despite this inauspicious precedent, historical pageants, re-enactments and festivities have long remained popular recreational activities in the USA. Mediaeval tournaments, Renaissance fairs, May Day revels, Dickensian Christmas feasts and Jane Austen-themed formal balls are now a significant sector of the leisure industry. Meanwhile, persons of a belligerent disposition re-enact battles from a wide variety of historical periods – including conflicts from America’s own Revolutionary and Civil Wars, sometimes on their original sites.

Voluntary associations promote and co-ordinate historical re-enactment events all over the USA. One of the largest is the Society for Creative Anachronism, founded in Berkeley, California in 1966, which now has active groups in Europe, Asia, Australia and New Zealand, as well as in most regions of the US and Canada. The SCA boasts around 30,000 full members, and a similar number of non-members also participate in its activities. Their main focus is the celebration of Medieval and Renaissance European culture, though many individual members also venture into other periods.

While visiting Californian friends in April 2013, I met some SCA members who share a particular interest in historic dances – amongst numerous other enthusiasms. The introduction came through Karen, a long-time SCA member who specialises in traditional calligraphy. Her husband Chaz (a professional author, and a frequent guest speaker at science fiction and fantasy conventions) is also deeply interested in things historical. This is not an unusual combination – many American historical re-enactors are also SF and fantasy fans, with Doctor Who and Harry Potter pimage005articular favourites.

Early one Wednesday evening, we drove from Chaz and Karen’s home in Sunnyvale to the dance group’s weekly practice in San José. In a spacious suburban lounge they were put through their paces by Matt, their instructor, assisted by Elizabeth on the violin. The dances – mostly taken from John Playford’s English Dancing Master (1651) or the Orchésographie of Thonoit Arbeau (1589) – were performed energetically, but very tidily.

Cyn, our hostess for the evening, offered beverages and banter during breaks in the action, but although the atmosphere was light-hearted, the dances were clearly being taken seriously by all participants. They encouraged me to join in some of them, and as a thank-you I taught them a Northumbrian-style step-hop dance, which they picked rapidly. When the practice ended, everyone migrated to a nearby pizzeria and bar.

Some wanted a full meal, having come directly to the meeting from work, but the evening’s exertions had left the rest of us eager for drinks, snacks and gossip. Everyone around the table was keen to volunteer information about their engagement with the SCA. Several of them also had experience of re-enactments from outside the SCA’s chronological remit – including World War Two and American Civil War battles, and Dickens and Austen themed events.

They agreed that a minority treated these events simply as opportunities to dress up, fire off blank cartridges, and then socialise over a few drinks. But they also stressed that for most participants (and spectators) re-enactments are a valuable aid to understanding their own history – and other people’s too. I was assured that while many Asian-Americans attend Regency costume balls, quite a few Anglo-Americans enjoy dressing up as Samurai or Geishas, and a number of African-Americans participate enthusiastically in Viking battles.

There was a strong consensus that whatever else you hope to achieve in this activity, it ought to be fun – and general agreement that while striving for authenticity is a good thing, it can sometimes be overdone. On the one hand, they said, you shouldn’t turn up to a Regency assembly in tennis shoes. But on the other hand, infecting yourself with dysentery before re-enacting a Civil War battle takes ‘sharing the experience’ a little too far!

Nevertheless, when re-enactments are run as commercial enterprises, there is considerable pressure to maintain the illusion of a fully revived past. One female SCA member who had worked at the Williamsburg heritage site recalled that there “you don’t step out of period unless your hair is on fire”. But although they mocked fanatics who pursue authenticity to absurd extremes, all of them were committed to reproducing the relevant details of dress, deportment, music and dance as accurately as possible – within reason.

Most voices around the table were optimistic about the current state of the historical re-enactment movement. However, there were a few complaints about the excessive commercialisation of some events. Massive ‘craft fairs’ are often attached to them, and there is sometimes a rather heavy-handed emphasis on boosting local tourism. But throughout the evening the mood of the discussion seemed very positive, and the enthusiasm (and expertise) of the participants was obvious.

When Karen, Chaz and I had to leave for home, the party was still going on, and the reckoning as yet unpaid. As we exchaimage001nged farewells, I offered a contribution towards the bill, but was told “don’t worry about that – Karen will explain”. In the car, she told me: “They all have pretty good jobs, so every week one them just picks up the check – for them, it’s no big deal.” The cost of beer, wine, pizzas and snacks for the table (plus tax and tips) must have come to around 200 dollars. If that was no big deal for them, Silicon Valley’s re-enactors are clearly doing well.

Karen drove us back to Sunnyvale along El Camino Real, which follows the route of the Royal Highway established when California still belonged to Spain. Its significance as a transport artery has declined recently, as a nearby modern freeway now takes most of the through traffic. Instead, El Camino has become a monster strip-mall, with mile after mile of neon-lit bars, restaurants and stores – everything from massive car dealerships and furniture emporia to tiny fast-food outlets.

Several ethnic communities cluster along it, and Karen warned me to look out for ‘Little Korea’, and ‘Little India’. Spotting them was not difficult. Most of their shop and restaurant signs were bi-lingual – chunky Korean ideograms in one case, and curly Indian scripts in the other. I wondered idly if any of their staff (or customers) were interested in historical re-enactments, and if so, what kind they preferred.

At home, Karen used a tablet computer to show me a sample of her own craft work. It was a beautiful piece of calligraphy, done as a wedding gift for a couple of friends. She had prepared the ink and the parchment using traditional methods, and cut a suitable feather to make a quill pen for the job. After gazing admiringly but uncomprehendingly at the beautiful lettering, I confessed that the language and the script were unfamiliar to me. Karen replied: “It’s the Lord’s Prayer – in Klingon.”

California, I love you!


Further Information

Murphy, Edith, entry ‘Morton, Thomas’ in New Dictionary of National Biography, OUP, ongoing

Rubin, Rachel Lee, Well Met: Renaissance faires and the American counter-culture, New York University Press, 2013

Web Site: Society for Creative Anachronism