Carolina - The Church of England (Anglican)

Anglicans made up over 50% of all settlers in Carolina during the Lords Proprietors' rule.


St. James Church, built in South Carolina's oldest Anglican Parish outside of Charleston, is thought to have been constructed between 1711 and 1719 during the rectorate of the Reverend Francis le Jau, a missionary of the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts. 

One of the handicaps faced by the Church of England in Carolina was its lack of authority to ordain priests. To receive holy orders, candidates were obliged to travel to England. This was an obstacle some were unwilling to confront. As a result, the Church of England often experienced a shortage of priests in America.

Although the Church of England (also known as the Anglican Church, and, today in America, as the Protestant Episcopal Church) commanded the loyalties of a great many churchgoers in early America, its history has received relatively little treatment from historians -- especially compared with the attention lavished on the Puritans that landed in Massachusetts.

True, the Church of England in the colonies suffered from a sluggish rate of growth and a shortage of clergymen throughout much of the seventeenth century. But, in the century before the American Revolution, that communion's fortunes prospered. Anglican churches spread along the length of the Atlantic seaboard, the largest concentration being in the coastal South. In these colonies, Anglicanism also enjoyed the advantage of being the established, state-supported church, as it had been in England since the sixteenth century.

The founder of the Church of England was Henry VIII, who broke with the Roman Catholic Church when the Pope refused to annul his marriage to Catherine of Aragon. Henry VIII aimed merely to supplant the Pope as the head of the English church -- not to remodel it along the lines approved by Protestant reformers.

But under his Protestant successors, especially his daughter Elizabeth I, that was what happened -- although not at all to the extent desired by English Puritans like the Presbyterians and Congregationalists. Indeed, the Church of England continued to bear a close resemblance the Roman Catholic Church, as it does down to the present day.

Like Roman Catholicism, Anglicanism is, historically, a liturgical religious tradition, meaning that great emphasis is placed on observing a formal devotional regimen -- the celebration of saints' days and other holy days, the performance of elaborate, dramatic ceremonies, the conduct of worship by reciting set prayers -- all accompanied by sublime organ music and choral singing and led by priests wearing vestments.

And, like Roman Catholics, Anglicans have always favored elegantly constructed churches with ornately decorated interiors. The purpose of all this outward show is to instill those attending worship with a sense of awe and piety. Finally, like Roman Catholics, most (if not all) Anglicans reject Calvinism, with its emphasis on predestination and conversion, and the evangelical ethos often associated with that theology. Anglicans instead stress the capacity of humankind, enlightened by reason, to earn salvation by leading upright, moral lives.

The Church of England also retains Roman Catholicism's hierarchical form of government - rule of its churches today rests in ascending bodies of clergy, headed by bishops and archbishops. This mode of organization also prevailed in early modern Britain, but the American colonies, lacking a bishop, entrusted enormous authority to local church vestries composed of the most eminent laymen. This was especially true in the South, which led to frequent contests for control and influence between parsons and the vestry.

Until recently, colonial Anglicanism has not received even-handed, dispassionate treatment from most American historians -- and for several reasons. Part of the difficulty is that some supporters of the Church of England emerged as outspoken Loyalists during the Revolutionary struggle, which led the ardently Patriotic historians of the nineteenth century to portray all Anglicans as traitors to the cause of liberty.

Then, too, in the wake of the American Revolution and the disestablishment of all ties with England, popular support for Anglicanism all but collapsed - as most of their clergy fled to England, former communicants deserted in droves to other Protestant churches. So it fell to the lot of those victorious evangelical denominations in the nineteenth century -- Congregationalists, Presbyterians, and Baptists -- to write the first histories of American religious life.

Not surprisingly, they gave their former competitors short shrift, portraying Anglican parsons as a despicable lot of incompetents, timeservers, and wastrels, who neglected the spiritual needs of the colonial laity while indulging themselves in drink, dance, and other unmentionable forms of dissipation. As for the Anglican laity, they were merely "nominal" Christians who, when they bothered to attend worship, did so out of duty or fear rather than any real spiritual conviction.

Such negative stereotypes persisted well into the twentieth century, even those historians with no denominational axe to grind routinely depicted Anglicanism as a lackluster religious tradition that drew adherents mainly from the ranks of the colonial elite -- and only because the Church of England so staunchly upheld their privileged position.

Fortunately, the scholarship of the last two decades has restored greater balance to our understanding of colonial Anglicanism. This research has demonstrated that the link between membership in the Church of England and Loyalist affinities was tenuous at best -- and in the South, the stronghold of Anglicanism, virtually non-existent. On the contrary, many of our so-called Founding Fathers accounted themselves members of the Church of England.

The same studies have established that nowhere in the American colonies was membership in the Church of England restricted to a narrow elite of well-to-do merchants, planters, and lawyers. Instead, Anglican communicants were drawn from the entire cross section of colonial society. And while it is true that Anglican clergymen were less than zealous in carrying their message into western backcountry districts, most preferring the comforts of their settled parsonages along the coast, they were not, as a group, notorious for incompetence or immorality.

As for the Anglican laity -- the ordinary men and women who were communicants in that church -- they appear to have been no less committed than other Protestants to regimens of frequent family prayer, Bible reading, and moral exhortation. And they took as much solace in Anglican forms of worship as members of the Reformed tradition did in their religious practices.

On the other hand, most contemporary scholars would agree that colonial Anglicanism was unwavering in its support of the status quo -- the prevailing hierarchies of class, race, and gender that at least some early evangelicals were more inclined to challenge. In short, the current consensus is that Anglicanism was a socially conservative tradition that nonetheless commanded a broad base of support by virtue of its spiritual appeal to the laity.


© 2007 - J.D. Lewis - PO Box 1188 - Little River, SC 29566 - All Rights Reserved