History of the Episcopal Church

The settlers of Jamestown, Virginia brought the Anglican tradition to America and it became the official church of Virginia in 1607.   The Church of England was designated the established church in the lower part of New York in 1693, in Maryland in 1702, in South Carolina in 1706, in North Carolina in 1730, and in Georgia in 1758.   Throughout the colonial period the Anglican church remained weak in New England and the South, but strong in New York and Pennsylvania.

More than any other denomination, the War of Independence internally divided both clergy and laity of the Church of England in America.   The majority of its northern clergy favored Great Britain while the majority of the southern clergy favored independence.   About three-quarters of the signers of the Declaration of Independence were Anglican laymen, including Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, Patrick Henry, Alexander Hamilton, and John Jay.

Anglican congregations ties to the Church of England were severed when political independence was achieved.   About 80,000 loyalists left the 13 American colonies, many for Canada including Charles Inglis, who would become the first colonial bishop.   By 1790, in a nation of four million, Anglicans were reduced to about ten thousand.   In order to survive, the church needed a national organization and a native episcopate.

In September 1785 a convention of delegates from the various Anglican congregations, most of which had adopted by this time the name Protestant Episcopal, petitioned the archbishop of Canterbury to obtain parliamentary permission to consecrate American bishops.   This permission was finally granted, and on February 4, 1787, bishops of the Church of England consecrated Samuel Provoost the first Episcopal bishop of New York, and William White the first of Pennsylvania.   At the same time, a noted clergyman from Connecticut, Samuel Seabury, had accepted consecration from nonjuring bishops of Scotland (1784), thus becoming the first bishop of Connecticut.   Although the method of his consecration was at first a cause of friction with church leaders outside Connecticut, Seabury was eventually recognized as the first Episcopal bishop in the United States.

In 1789 all the congregations sent delegates to the first general convention, which was held in Philadelphia. At this convention the Episcopal Church formally separated from the Church of England becoming an independent denomination but with the explicit statement that the new church did not intend to depart 'in any essential point of doctrine, discipline, or worship' from the Church of England.   The convention also ratified a constitution and adopted, with minor variations, the Anglican Book of Common Prayer.   In 1801 the church approved a version of the Thirty-nine Articles of Religion modified to conform with the political changes in the new nation.

The Oxford movement, which began in Great Britain in 1833, had a strong impact on the Episcopal Church in the 1840s.   As in the Church of England, the movement resulted in the formation of a High Church party favoring Roman Catholic traditions and elaborate ceremonial, as opposed to a Low Church party leaning toward evangelical traditions and a minimum of ceremonial.

The Episcopal Church avoided a permanent schism over slavery by maintaining an official position of neutrality.   During the American Civil War, the Protestant Episcopal Church in the Confederate States of America was temporarily formed from the dioceses within the seceded states.

In the 1870s the movement known as ritualism, which grew out of the earlier Oxford movement, gave rise to bitter differences of opinion among Episcopal congregations.   As a result in 1873, the Reformed Episcopal Church broke away from the Episcopal Church over what its members saw as the loss of Protestant and evangelical witness.   A later movement, known as Modernism, influenced the formation of a strong party that favored a broad, or liberal, interpretation of the Bible in opposition to the literalism of Fundamentalists.

In 1885, Samuel David Ferguson was the first black bishop consecrated by The Episcopal Church.   The Book of Common Prayer was revised in 1892 and 1928.   The Episcopal Shield, adopted in 1940, is based on the St George's Cross, a symbol of England (mother of world Anglicanism), with a saltire reminiscent of the Cross of St Andrew in the canton in reference to the historical origins of the American episcopate in the Scottish Episcopal Church.

The first women were canonically ordained to the priesthood in 1976.   The first woman bishop, Barbara Harris, was consecrated on February 11, 1989.   In 2006, Katherine Jefferts-Schori was elected the Church's first woman presiding bishop.   She is the only national leader of a church in the Anglican Communion who is a woman.