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THE IMPERIAL ORIGINS OF THE KING’S CHURCH IN EARLY AMERICA, 1607-1783


Palgrave £55; (1-4039-3219-0) Church Times Bookshop £49.50

Reviewed by Alec Ryrie

WE ANGLICANS like to congratulate ourselves on our pragmatism and flexibility. But Anglican history is more often shaped by ecclesiastical rigidity and unresponsiveness. From the beginning of the English colonisation of America, many people in England and in the colonies were keen to establish the English Church in the New World. However, it was ill-structured for missionary activity, and was institutionally paralysed in the face of the challenge.

Astonishingly, there was no Anglican bishop in the New World until American independence in the 1780s. For nearly two centuries, the "King’s Church" in the American colonies existed in a political and administrative limbo, a nebulous extension of the diocese of London. James B. Bell’s book asks how the Church survived under these circumstances. The answer is, by improvisation.

The English Church was unable to support its American offshoot financially. Initially, the English Treasury met most of the bills. In the 18th century, the burden was taken by English donors to the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel. The Church’s political status was equally uncertain: one early ruling imposed a week’s enslavement on those who failed to attend divine service on a Sunday.

Latterly, the King’s Church enjoyed varying degrees of semi-establishment. But despite repeated pleas from the American clergy for a bishop, British political inertia and American Puritan fear of episcopal tyranny prevailed. Hundreds of Americans seeking ordination had to make the long, expensive and dangerous journey to England.

Bell takes the view that these problems crippled the King’s Church, but much of his account suggests otherwise. Americans remained remarkably obedient to the mother Church, but distinctively American practices filled the administrative vacuum. Informal synods, greatly empowered vestries, and the absence of effective episcopacy made the King’s Church almost Congregationalist (indeed, it won some prominent Congregationalist converts). If the clergy wanted local bishops, many lay Anglicans did not.

Bell sees the damage that the Church suffered during American independence as evidence of its weakness. Yet it seems likely that the Church might have been wiped out entirely had it not had such an arm’s-length relationship with royal and episcopal authority.

This is a fascinating and little-known subject. This book does not really do it justice. Bell’s command of the detail is impressive, but it is often ill-digested and under-interpreted. And the prose is more tortuous than in most works of academic history. A well-researched account, but not a good read.

Dr Ryrie is a Lecturer in Modern History at the University of Birmingham.

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