The Other Separation of Church and State: Anglican Ecclesiologies in the Revolutionary Atlantic

This post is a part of our “Faith in Revolution” series, which explores the ways that religious ideologies and communities shaped the revolutionary era. Check out the entire series.

By Brent S. Sirota

On 14 November 1784, in the upper-floor chapel of a private residence at Longacre in Aberdeen, the American-born Samuel Seabury was consecrated bishop of the diocese of Connecticut by three bishops of the Scottish Episcopal Church. The century-old dream of an Anglican episcopate in the New World had finally been realized. But it had been realized in circumstances utterly transformed by revolution.

Portrait of Samuel Seabury holding a book.
Ralph Eleaser Whiteside Earl, Samuel Seabury, 1785.

The long-cherished imperial ideal of Anglican communion expanding overseas inextricably with English sovereignty—first effectuated by the doomed Archbishop William Laud before the British civil wars—was far from the minds of the men at the consecration in Longacre. Quite the contrary, there was a palpable sense of antipathy toward the claims of government over ecclesial life.  The consecrators, Robert Kilgour, Arthur Petrie, and John Skinner, were bishops of a disestablished, semi-legal church which had, since the Revolution of 1688-89, subsisted in defiance of the political order that Revolution had inaugurated. The consecrated, meanwhile, was the reluctant citizen of a now foreign republic, the United States of America, where the federal and many state governments had utterly disavowed the notion of ecclesiastical establishment. Moreover, he had only been brought to Aberdeen due to the unwillingness of the British ministry to permit consecration in the Church of England as they felt it unwise or unlawful to upset the American peace by entrenching upon the religious life of an independent republic. This shameful inertia on the part of the British government had exacerbated among Seabury’s clerical friends and advocates in London their already mounting resentment of the political captivity of the established Church. It was almost certainly these circles, the avant-garde of Anglican high churchmanship, who had directed Seabury to the humble bishops of the proscribed and persecuted Scottish Episcopal Church, so “that a free, valid and purely Ecclesiastical Episcopacy may, from them, pass into the Western world.”[1] The ceremony—“the glorious work of the 14th,” as it was memorialized—was a transatlantic confluence of disparate religious alienations from the state.[2]

The various figures involved in Seabury’s consecration spoke a formidable language of the separation of church and state. But it was genealogically and intellectually distinct from the more familiar discourses of religious liberty produced at the early modern nexus of Protestant nonconformist and Enlightenment thought. Seabury’s circle extolled ecclesiastical autonomy from political power, to be sure, but not out of any acquiescence to what have been called the bedrock principles of religious liberty in the eighteenth-century Atlantic world: the inviolable interiority of religious belief and the inevitability of theological dissensus.[3] On the contrary, the Church’s repudiation of political establishment in no way mitigated its claims to preeminence, its obligatory character, or the exclusivity of its sacramental authority. At the heart of this illiberal ecclesiology was the refusal to consign the Church to either of the two spheres which had increasingly come to demarcate public life in enlightenment social and political thought: the remit of the state, defined by its coercive authority, or the commercial and associational zone of what was coming to be known as civil society.[4]

This ecclesiology was forged in the crucible of acute political crisis. Anglican identification with the pre-Constantinian Church of Christianity’s first four centuries had long fostered a due sense of ecclesial autonomy from government.[5] But it was, above all, the dynastic and confessional shocks of the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries—the civil wars, the Glorious Revolution, the Hanoverian Succession—that impelled the development of an Anglican ecclesiology not strictly organized around the Reformation doctrine of royal supremacy—that is, the crown’s headship of the Church.[6] The series of political and religious crises that delivered the English state into the hands successively of Puritans, Roman Catholics, continental Calvinists, and Lutherans, catalyzed within Anglicanism a real skepticism about the reliability of government as the guarantor of orthodoxy, and a concomitant need to locate the being of the Church of England beyond the impermanent fact of its political establishment. “The independency of church power,” as it was called in this tradition, was needed to insulate the Church not simply from political revolution and dynastic alteration, but, more broadly, from the competing party and material interests that traversed civic life in later Stuart Britain.[7]

Title page of A discourse of Church Government by John Potter.

The future Archbishop of Canterbury John Potter provided an enduring formulation of this ecclesiology in his massively influential 1707 work A Discourse of Church-Government. The Church, he claimed, was an “outward and visible society,” founded immediately by Christ, and “by design of its Foundation, to be distinct from all earthly kingdoms.” And because this society had been assured by Christ of its persistence “to the world’s end,” it followed that “an uninterrupted succession of officers” must also endure until that time. Episcopacy, then, as established by Christ and his Apostles, with its exclusive prerogative of ordination, was the mechanism by which that succession was maintained. As such, episcopacy was no mere matter of ecclesiastical polity. The apostolic succession of bishops was the only reliable sanction for Christian ministry; and hence, the only available guarantor of sacramental efficacy. Through it were conveyed “all the Powers, which belong to the Church . . . distinct from those of Civil Magistrates.”[8]

Potter was sufficiently conscientious of the configuration of public life to realize that a Church thus separated from the state was effectively relegated to the associational world of civil society. Yet here he protested. Independence from the state did not, Potter insisted, render the Church a mere sect or denomination. He explicitly rejected the comparison, made famous by John Locke’s Letter concerning toleration, of churches to clubs or joint-stock companies, to be adhered to only as long as interest dictated.[9] The Church, he wrote, “is not a mere voluntary Society.” He rejected emphatically the similitude of the Church to “a Society of Philosophers, where many useful and excellent Truths are taught,” but where, once its wisdom had been gleaned, one could withdraw without penalty. “In mere voluntary Societies,” Potter wrote, “Men are permitted to come in, and to go out when they please. But here the command of God for our continuance in the Church is as full and express, as for our Admission into it.” The double-sidedness of this Anglican ecclesiology, its dual distantiation of the Church from both the sovereign state, on the one hand, and the pluralistic and associational world of civil society on the other, sets it apart from contemporaneous discourses of religious liberty. Protestant ecclesiologies in a more liberal idiom arrayed the freedom of society against the coercion of the state. But this ecclesiological tendency in Anglican and Episcopalian thought was able to conceive of state and society as a continuous zone of secular contamination. In this, it anticipated much of the broader anti-bourgeois sentiment that would come to characterize romanticism.[10]

Let us return to Longacre. Before Seabury’s arrival in Aberdeen, the Scottish bishops had drawn up a concordat, outlining the terms of the consecration and what they hoped would be a “Bond of Union, between the Catholic remainder of the ancient Church of Scotland, and the now rising Church in the State of Connecticut.” The concordat committed Seabury to an especially ‘high’ view of the Church as “the mystical Body of Christ,” governed by Christ and “under him, the chief ministers, or Managers of the affairs of this spiritual society, are those called Bishops.” It is especially noteworthy, in light of Seabury’s own frustrations in England, not to mention the precarious existence of the Scottish Episcopal Church since the Revolution of 1688-89, that the compact explicitly declared the sacred function of episcopacy “independent on all Lay powers.”[11]

At the consecration, Bishop John Skinner of Aberdeen preached a sermon on Christ’s “great commission” to the apostles described in the twenty-eighth chapter of the gospel of Matthew. The sermon was an extraordinary distillation of the ecclesiological principles on which the consecration proceeded. The commission to the apostles, go therefore and teach all nations, transformed what had been only a group of Christ’s “personal attendants” into officers of “a regular, well-formed society,” entrusted exclusively with distinct powers of preaching, administering the sacraments, and governance. The Church, then, was divinely founded, as a distinct “spiritual society,” which must be sharply differentiated from both the state, on the one hand, and the mere sect or club, “distinguished only by their adherence to some particular system,” on the other. Mindful, no doubt, of the events which had brought Seabury to Aberdeen, Skinner expostulated at some length on the evils of ecclesiastical establishment and its negligence of what he called the “manifest distinction established by our holy religion, between the spiritual kingdom of our Redeemer, and the temporal sovereignties of this world.” Indeed, Skinner conceived of British establishmentarianism and American denominationalism as reciprocal heterodoxies. The establishmentarian premise of “making the exercise of all spiritual authority, to depend entirely on the will and pleasure of temporal governors,” creates the conditions for “endless schisms and divisions” proliferating beyond the ambit of the state. Lay encroachments from above bred lay encroachments from below.[12]

The ecclesiological principles voiced at Bishop Skinner’s chapel in Aberdeen had been forged in moments of intense, often revolutionary, political crisis throughout the long eighteenth-century Atlantic world. The English and Scottish nonjuring movements produced the foundational theological work in this tradition in the shadow of the Glorious Revolution of 1688-89 and the Hanoverian Succession of 1714. Seabury and his allies rethought the alliance of church and state amidst the wreckage of the neo-tory imperial project in America.[13] Hackney Phalanx high churchmanship crystallized in response to the French Revolution and, more immediately, in opposition to the British evangelicalism that posed as the true antidote to Jacobinism. The Tractarian and ritualist movements emerged in response to the mid-nineteenth century stirrings of democratic reform and Chartist agitation. As a Scottish Episcopal priest lamented to Seabury some months after the consecration, “The Incorporation of the Church with the state necessarily involves the Church in the revolutions of the State.”[14] The development of ecclesiological thought across the long eighteenth century was inseparable from this fact. The recognition of revolution as a fact of modern politics in the Atlantic world required a new sense of ecclesiastical immunity from a world now ever liable to be turned upside down.

Brent S. Sirota is associate professor of history at North Carolina State University. Among his publications are The Christian Monitors: The Church of England and the Age of Benevolence, 1680-1730 (Yale University Press, 2014) and the forthcoming edited volume, The Hanoverian Succession in Great Britain and its Empire (Boydell, 2019). He is currently working on a book about ecclesiology in the Atlantic world.

Title image: Window in St. James Episcopal Church, New London. The consecration of Samuel Seabury by Robert Kilgour (Primus), Arthur Petrie, and John Skinner.

Further Readings:

Doll, Peter. “The Idea of the Primitive Church in High Church Ecclesiology from Samuel Johnson to J.H. Hobart,” Anglican and Episcopal History 65, 1 (March 1996): 6-43.

Nockles, Peter B. The Oxford Movement in Context: Anglican High Churchmanship, 1760-1857. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994.

Sirota, Brent S. “The Occasional Conformity Controversy, Moderation and the Anglican Critique of Modernity, 1700-1714,” Historical Journal 57, 1 (Jan 2014): 81-105.

Steiner, Bruce E. Samuel Seabury, 1729-1796: A Study in High Church Tradition. Ohio University Press, 1971.


[1] Seabury to Myles Cooper, London, 31 Aug 1784, Seabury Copy-Book, Christoph Keller, Jr. Library, General Theological Seminary.

[2] Jolly to Skinner, 19 Dec. 1784, in The Scottish Church Review, 1 (1884), 597.

[3] See The First Prejudice: Religious Tolerance and Intolerance in Early America, ed. Chris Beneke and Christopher S. Grenda (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2011), 6.

[4] See James Livesey, Civil Society and Empire: Ireland and Scotland in the Eighteenth-century Atlantic World (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2009).

[5] G.V. Bennett, “Patristic Tradition in Anglican Thought, 1660-1900,” in Oecumenica: Jahrbuch für ökumenische Forschung 1971/2 (Centre d’études Oecumeniques Strasbourg, 1972), 63-85; Jean-Louis Quantin, The Church of England and Christian Antiquity (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009).

[6] On the problem the royal supremacy posed to later seventeenth century churchmanship, see Jacqueline Rose, Godly Kingship in Restoration England: The Politics of the Royal Supremacy, 1660-1688 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011).

[7] See, for instance, Jeremy Collier, A Brief essay concerning the independency of church-power (1692).

[8] John Potter, A Discourse of Church-Government: Wherein the Rights of the Church and of the Supremacy of Christian Princes are Vindicated and Adjusted. (London, 1707), 124-125, 212-213.

[9] [John Locke] A Letter Concerning Toleration, Humbly Submitted, &c. (London, 1689).

[10] See Michael Löwy and Robert Sayre, Romanticism Against the Tide of Modernity, trans. Catherine Porter (Durham: Duke University Press, 2001).

[11] “Concordat between Church in Scotland and Church in Connecticut, 15 Nov 1784 (copy),” Episcopal Diocese of Maryland Archives, Baltimore, Maryland; and see Alexander Jolly to Bishop Petrie, 23 Oct. 1784, in The Scottish Church Review, 1 (1884), 594.

[12] [John Skinner], The Nature and Extent of the Apostolical Commission. A Sermon Preached at the Consecration Of the Right Reverend Dr. Samuel Seabury, Bishop of the Episcopal Church in Connecticut (Aberdeen, J. Chalmers & Co., 1785), 9-11, 15-17, 20, 37-39.

[13] James M. Vaughn, The Politics of Empire at the Accession of George III: The East India Company and the Crisis and Transformation of Britain’s Imperial State (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2019).

[14] Andrew Macfarlane to Samuel Seabury, 21 Jan 1785, Bishop Samuel Seabury Papers, §78, Christoph Keller, Jr. Library, General Theological Seminary.

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