March 25: The First American Bishop Led a Politically Problematic Faith

 

At a meeting held in Woodbury, Connecticut on March 25, 1783, 10 clergymen concerned with providing for the future of the Episcopal Church named Samuel Seabury to be the first bishop of the new United States of America. Seabury was born near New London on November 30, 1729 and had lived in Connecticut for most of his life — except for several turbulent years during the American Revolution when he fled to a more Loyalist-friendly part of New York because of his outspoken opposition to American independence.

Samuel Seabury, as painted by Ralph Earl, c. 1785. (National Portrait Gallery)

Seabury had been ordained as a minister of the Anglican Church, which still had ties to the Episcopal church. And since there had never been an Anglican bishop in America, and a bishop was needed to consecrate Seabury as a bishop, Seabury sailed for England. There, he ran headfirst into a politically problematic technicality: the Church of England determined that it could not proceed with the consecration because the ceremony required taking an oath of allegiance to King George III. For Seabury, as a citizen of the new United States, such an oath was simply out of the question.

The Glebe House in Woodbury, site of Seabury’s selection as the United States’ first Episcopal bishop. (Glebe House Museum)

To resolve the dilemma, Seabury headed north and appealed to the Scottish Episcopal Church, which, despite its links to the Anglican Church, did not demand the same loyalty oath. The Scottish Episcopal Church performed Seabury’s consecration ceremony on November 14, 1784, after which Seabury returned to Connecticut and became rector of St. James’ Church in New London. He traveled throughout New England and New York extensively during his time as bishop, and was buried in New London after his death in 1796.

 

Further Reading:

Shirley Carter Hughson, “Samuel Seabury, the First American Bishop,” AnglicanHistory.org

Margaret Smith and Nelson Rollin Burr, “Samuel Seabury,” Episcopal Church of Connecticut