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Consecration of Samuel Seabury, First American Bishop

Samuel Seabury was born in North Groton, CT, in 1729. His father (also named Samuel) was a Congregationalist minister who was later ordained deacon and priest in the Church of England in 1720. Samuel the younger was graduated from Yale in 1748, and then travelled to Edinburgh, Scotland, where he studied medicine. In 1753, he was ordained deacon by the Bishop of Lincoln on December 21st, and then ordained priest two days later by the Bishop of Carlisle. He returned to the colonies, where he held rectorships in New Brunswick, NJ, Jamaica, NY, and Westchester, NY.

November from Les Petites Heures d'Anne de Bretagne

“November”, kalendar page from Les Petites Heures d’Anne de Bretagne (The Little Hours of Queen Anne of Bretagne), by the Maître des Triomphes de Pétrarque. From Bibliothèque nationale de France, Paris (France).

During the American Revolution, Seabury was decidedly a loyalist. He engaged in a dialogue of tracts with no less than Alexander Hamilton. Seabury wrote under the pen name A. W. Farmer (for “a Westchester farmer”), and his letters have been described as “forceful presentations of the Loyalist claim, written in a plain, hard-headed style”. After the war, however, Seabury remained in the United States and was loyal to the new government.

The Farmer letters were originally anonymous, but Seabury laid claim to them when he went to England in 1783, seeking episcopal consecration. A meeting of ten Episcopal clergy in Connecticut had elected Seabury as bishop (he was actually the second choice; the first declined for health reasons), but there remained the question of who would consecrate him. Arriving in London, he found that no bishop would consecrate him, because, as an American citizen, he could no longer take the oath of allegiance to the King. (The Church of England is, to this day, a state religion, and the ruling monarch is the head of the church.)

As an alternative, Seabury turned to the Scottish Episcopal Church. At the time, Episcopalians in Scotland were not the established church, because they had refused to recognize the Hanoverian kings: they were “non-jurors”. The non-juring Scots were perfectly happy to consecrate Seabury, on the condition that he work for the adoption in the U.S. of the Scottish rite of Holy Communion. Seabury was consecrated in Aberdeen on November 14th, 1784.

Seabury did, indeed, succeed in realigning the 1789 American Book of Common Prayer with the Scottish rite. It restored the structure of the canon of the Mass along the lines of the Roman rite, restoring items cut by Archbishop Thomas Cranmer in the Prayer Books of 1549 and 1552, and persisting in the 1662 BCP. Seabury’s restorations persist in the 1928 American BCP; you can see the changes by comparing the text in the prayer book with the way Saint Stephen’s celebrates communion using the 1662 version.

Although Seabury was the first ordained bishop in the U.S., he was the second Presiding Bishop. That office was first held by William White for all of 67 days. (White took up the position again in 1795 as the fourth Presiding Bishop.)

Seabury was also a proponent of the weekly celebration of Holy Communion on Sunday. (In most Protestant churches after the Reformation, the norm was to celebrate communion publicly only on major feast days, like Christmas and Easter.)

Seabury died in New London on February 25th, 1796.

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