Bishop William White: Anglican Patriot

Piety, Freedom, and the American Revolution in the Ecclesiology of Bishop William White

Often, for American Anglicans, there is an awkward disjuncture between their faith and history. Despite the fact that the Episcopal Church has had a strong presence in American history, the rationale to become or remain an Anglican has increasingly evaporated. Often the reasoning is from High Church sympathy. Whether it is the desire for an improved (and normative) liturgy, an emphasis on the sacraments (over the word-centered piety of many other Reformed churches), or the “beauty of holiness” found in the English choral tradition, many Anglican converts (myself included) tend towards High-Flyers. They are apt to celebrate the martyrdom of Charles Stuart and relish the Anglo-Catholic historiography which connects the Edwardian Reformation to Laudianism to the Tractarians. They tie together a kind of Protestant, or Reformed, theology and worship outside of both Confessionalism (whether Lutheran or Presbyterian) and the temptation to swim the Tiber or Bosporus.

Anglican Hostility to the American Founding

But what were the opinions of these kinds of Anglicans on the foundation of the United States? The answer is fairly obvious: hostile. There is a trend among some Anglicans, especially those disposed toward role-play, to sneer at the “liberal” founding of the United States. It would have been better to remain under the authority of the King, which would preserve the pseudo-tie that British America had to the Ancien Regime of Throne and Altar. Samuel Seabury, future bishop of the separated Protestant Episcopal Church, was (in)famous for his Loyalism. As a Tory loyal to the English crown, he disputed Alexander Hamilton’s arguments about the need for national independence. Obviously, through cannon and quill, Seabury had lost the argument. Confronted with an independent America, and an independent Anglican Church, Seabury took drastic measures to secure an American episcopate. Since the English church would not offer ordination (yet), Seabury went to the bishops (and Non-Jurors) of the Scottish Episcopal Church. A high-flyer himself, Seabury had a rich sacramental theology, which translated into the American adaptation of the Scottish (and very Laudian) Book of Common Prayer. For Seabury, the loss of the episcopacy meant the American church was in peril of losing its priesthood as well.

Seabury, as a paragon of High Church Anglican thought and practice, appears to leave many Anglican Americans in an awkward position. Like Seabury, they accepted the results of independence and made do in a new nation. Yet the Tory sentiment will often sneer at the Patriot movement, looking longingly at Canada, and offering tongue-in-cheek jokes about a retvrn to British royalism. There is often a silly American celebrity worship of the British royal family, but with a more refined approach. Valorizing the order and decorum of conformity, many Anglicans like to put themselves forward as model respecters of authority. The chaotic nature of American Independence and the later Jeffersonian tradition of separating church & state stick in their craw. Yet despite fanciful attempts to “reclaim” American history, with inclusion of the colonial period, there is no way to really maintain the generic foundations of American patriotism with an ardent Anglicanism. Perhaps that does not really matter. Yes, George Washington was an Anglican (along with most of Virginia’s politicians), but he was more so a Deist and a Freemason (which, interestingly, Samuel Seabury was also). It seems Anglicans must choose between their temporal history/citizenship with their spiritual discipleship and worship.

William White’s Case for Anglican Patriotism

However, I would like to contend against this supposition. I believe it is possible to be both a zealous Anglican and admire the American Independence movement. The way forward is through the thought of Bishop William White.

In Nuce, William White was a Pennsylvanian and Anglican priest. He was an early supporter of Independence, offered chaplaincy for the Congress, and would later serve as one of the first bishops of the Protestant Episcopal church. He would also preside over the parish which George and Martha Washington frequently attended (noting the president would rarely receive communion, whether out of piety or indifference, it was not known). White serves as a clerical exemplar, alongside lay examples such as Patrick Henry, of a Patriot Anglican.

After Seabury’s unusual and irregular ordination, William White put forth an alternative plan in 1782 (The Case of the Episcopal Churches in the United States Considered), when independence was clear to both sides of the Atlantic. The core issue was the continued survival, and independence, of the American church. There was nothing contradictory between American Independence and the tradition of the Church. As White explains:

On whatever principles the independence of the United States may be supposed to rest; whether merely on establishments which have very probable appearances of being permanent, or on withdrawing the protection of the former sovereign, or (as the author of these sheets believes) on the inherent right of the community to resist and effectually to exclude unconstitutional and oppressive claims, there result from it the reciprocal duties of protection and allegiance, enforced by the most powerful sanctions of natural and revealed religion. (36)

In contrast to claims of rebellion, the American church had every right to join with the patriot cause. In a way that dovetails with the resourcement of “Christian Nationalism” from the Reformational and early modern era, independence from an unjust (and distant) authority was contained within both nature and scripture. Many Virginian faithful had served to defend their homeland, along with the other Southern colonies, which overwhelmingly belonged to the Church of England. It was also the case that, according to the 39 Articles (number 34), a foreign church should not, and does not, hold jurisdiction. Thus the American church is free both of civil, and spiritual, authority from the former Metropole.

Proposed: Lay Involvement to Prevent Clerisy

What will the American church look like? White advocated that dedicated laymen be involved in church councils. This novelty was justified to mirror the role Parliament played within the Church of England:

In the parent church, though whatever regards religion may be enacted by the clergy in convocation, it must afterwards have the sanction of all other orders of men, comprehended in the parliament. It will be necessary to deviate from the practice (though not from the principles) of that church, by convening the clergy and laity in one body. (89)

White’s concern, which is desperately needed among traditional clerical romantics, prevented the growth of any clerisy. Unlike Parliament, which could easily politicize ecclesiastical questions, lay involvement allowed serious Christians to prevent heresy or immorality. As clear from the corruption of many seminaries over the course of the modern era, a governing body formed in the same educational institutions may move the church into increasingly vile terrain. Oftentimes godly kings had restrained wicked bishops or priests from abusing their flock. The saintly titan, Richard Hooker, also recommended lay involvement to prevent clerisy from spreading.

Proposed: Popular Elections to Avoid Tyranny

Thus church councils. But what of the more pressing matter: ordination? How will there be more priests available if no bishops are present to ordain them? White offered a fairly extreme solution, Popular elections:

In England, the bishops are appointed by the civil authority; which was an usurpation of the crown at the Norman conquest, but since confirmed by acts of parliament. The primitive churches were generally supplied by popular elections; even in the city of Rome, the privilege of electing the bishop continued with the people to the tenth or eleventh century; and near those times there are resolves of councils, that none should be promoted to ecclesiastical dignities, but by election of the clergy and people. (910)

In contrast to highly contrived theories of ordination, which depend on a tactile definition of grace, ordination belonged to the Church Catholic. It was, in fact, normative for bishops to offer the ordination, but the choice of candidate almost always existed in lay hands. White’s history is correct on this matter, as anyone familiar with the early medieval period (“Dark Ages”) can attest. Sometimes kings and emperors chose priestly successors, sometimes local nobility or gentry, sometimes (as was the case in the early Irish church) it was nearly clannish. White was not disputing the role of the bishop, but the process of election. The American church, in councils of both clergy and laity, may decide among themselves who should succeed to an office. In English history, this process had both stopped the Roman appointees of Queen Mary, as well as the Jacobite partisans after the Glorious Revolution. In contrast to the nose-bleed defenses of Passive Obedience, where one must simply submit to tyranny, White defended a popular theory of resistance. Rather than liberalism, it was more akin to a feudal contract theory. When the ties that bind were severed, the injured party had the right to seek redress (from Heaven, through combat, if necessary). Laity do not have to submit themselves to heretics, if they have lawful means to resist.

However, the purpose of these reforms was not to do away with church authority or spiritual power. Rather, to help it to better defend it. White believed that regular convocation was necessary to constantly and consistently address church matters. Unlike the English church, which had silenced convocation since the Bangorian Controversy, a well-functioning council of both lay and clerical voices allowed problems to be solved. What good is High Flying church which plunged further into the darkness? Reformers within the Roman Catholic Church, such as Leon Podles, have argued that greater lay involvement with bishops would have helped check the sprawl of clerical sex abuse. A more representative and effective instrument of government would allow the American church to thrive.

So far, White had set the table. He was not ignorant that many Americans, especially Anglicans, were tepid (at best) about the idea of an American bishop. Why? Because there was fear of clerical corruption and abuse. Right or wrong, there was a hesitancy to place authority in the clergy because this authority was not defined. Would bishops have been agents of the crown? Was their power strictly spiritual? Would they try to tyrannize the faithful? It is true that today, perhaps a little more clerical muscle could whip sagging laity into shape. However, it’s also the case that a parish priest-pastor may harass the faithful according to the Current Thing. Ordained ministers often reflect certain class dispositions, more similar to the graduate professional or manager, against the blue-collared or wage slave. As a current American example, support for Donald Trump surges much more among non-college whites than college or graduate whites. This kind of distance can breed suspicion, the same kind of suspicion that American laity (ranging from the small farmer or mechanic to the quasi-gentry of a tobacco plantation) felt towards any bishop. White was no enemy of episcopacy, but he also recognized this reality. Many Anglican clergy (more so than not) were Tories. Such was probably due to their associations, having to travel to England for ordination and being connected to British missionary societies. Nevertheless, White was sensitive to this ambiguity.

The “Spiritual Authority” of Bishops

First of all, White advocated a position that had become common among both High and Low Churchman: spiritual authority. Bishops would merely have power over the conscience through communion and excommunication, and unlike the early church (when Christians were threatened through a much more vicious and tempting pagan world) these penalties would be administered lightly. Odes and encouragement to virtue conquered corruption much more than threats and punishments. There was no need to fear episcopacy, for “this government will not be attended with the danger of tyranny, either temporal or spiritual” (1516). The limits on the power of bishops, and other ministers of the gospel, were more important than any particular form. Whether it was a one-man government, a government by a few, or a many, any could become tyrannous. The imperious ambitions of the pope would have been no less if the Vatican was a council of presbyters (1718). This point is very important for many Patriots like White and Washington. The problem was not a monarchic authority, which would be later enshrined in the federal presidency. Rather it was whether this power could be stopped if abused. As much as “critics of liberalism” may salute authority, with cringe-inducing dreams of the new Charles III restoring a Christian kingdom, they have failed to see its exercise before their eyes. If the Congress, or the executive state, had unlimited authority, the compulsion of European states or the PRC over COVID lockdowns and vaccines may have been even more vicious. The justice of government came from the mutual bonds which held together the differing parties, including whether they were colonies in relation to the Imperial Parliament or Crown.

A Solution Out of Necessity In Extremis

Given that episcopacy, or government by one man, was in no way an invitation to tyranny, then it was immediately necessary for the American church. But if they cannot receive ordination from English bishops, what should they do? White’s answer was out of necessity in extremis: have the convocation of presbyters ordain a bishop among them and begin exercising their office. Once the English bishops will offer ordination, the American bishops may be ordained conditionally (1920). Succession would be maintained and the validity of these orders would be preserved. Against criticism that this move was novel, White pointed out that neither the Articles nor the Canons of the church prohibited contingency ordination. The preface of the Book of Common Prayer (1662) stated that there had been three offices from the Apostles at the beginning of the Church. However, it did not say that these orders were themselves jure divino, even if they were part of the health and well-being of the Church. It was for this reason that the Church of England never unchurched Continental Presbyterians, for they had made their choice out of necessity (2324). And while High Churchman have waxed strongly about the divine origin of the episcopacy, this doctrine must not be made more important than the law of God or the Gospel. (2526).

White’s argument here is still very useful. Traditionalists of all stripes will sometimes sneer at Evangelicals, or non-episcopal Protestants in general, for their lack of authority. They do not possess the Apostolic Succession, and therefore they are invalid. Perhaps, and these arguments should make thoughtful Evangelicals consider their arrangements. However, the romantic beau ideal of submission and prostration assumes a worthy priest. Would you like reprieve from an episcopal bench which has surrendered doctrine and ethics to the rainbow flag? Is this submission more important than the truth? Of course not, as traditionalists criticize their pope and bishops when they deviate from the norms they believe are essential to their communion. However, the question that remains is “how does one deal with the loss of this authority?” What can you do in an extreme situation? There was a story (if I recall correctly) from Richard Wurmbrand’s Tortured for Christ, where he recounted how several Russian Christians congregated around the grave of a saintly bishop. They had no means to ordain further priests and no bishop among them, hunted as they were by Soviet laicizers. These men offered a conditional prayer and received one of their own to the priesthood. Such is not normative, but in a time of need, the work of God should not be cast aside for propriety. Thus, White defended his proposal:

Now if even those who hold episcopacy to be of divine right, conceive the obligation to it to be not binding when that idea would be destructive of public worship, much more must they think so, who indeed venerate and prefer that form as the most ancient and eligible, but without any idea of divine right in the case. This the author believes to be the sentiment of the great body of episcopalians in America; in which respect they have in their favour unquestionably the sense of the church of England, and, as he believes, the opinions of her most distinguished prelates for piety, virtue and abilities. (2728)

Once again, White called upon the titanic authority of the righteous Richard Hooker. He had recognized that there could be times, and had been in the Old Testament, where regular succession was not possible. Necessity and emergency should not put the health of the People of God at stake. However, William White has a surprise witness, who was popular among some Patriots but not regarded well among many Anglicans (then or today):

The name of Bishop Hoadly will probably be as long remembered, as any on the list of british worthies; and will never be mentioned without veneration of the strength of his abilities, the liberality of his sentiments, and his enlightened zeal for civil liberty. (2829)

In brief: Benjamin Hoadly was a firm & more republican supporter of the Glorious Revolution. He stirred notoriety when he preached a sermon which called the spiritual authority of the ministry into question. The inability of Convocation to determine his guilt (with the upper house of bishops and government in support of Hoadly) led to its dissolution. Another convocation was not called until the middle of the 19th century.

The Usefulness of Bishop Hoadly

However, White’s use of Hoadly (who was admired by John Adams, alongside Sidney, Locke, Trenchard, and Gordon) was both for his politics and his ecclesiology. Hoadly’s defense of the Glorious Revolution was not simply the muted legal fiction that James had abandoned his throne (which was tenuous and mostly specious). Instead, he embraced the more radically Whiggish position that when a king breaks his bond with the nation (represented through the Lords and the Commons), these same forces have a right to resist. Hoadly did not form these ideas out of Locke (creating a false start for the liberal tradition), but Hoadly and Locke derived from the more medieval Thomistic tradition found in Richard Hooker. Whiggery (a name that Patriots adapted for themselves) refused any absolute authority, but property-holders had a right to not be trampled. Such fulfilled St. Paul’s imperative to obey the governing authorities, which only have a purchase to that authority as long as it is lawful. A king may not order a man to rape or pillage, for government was instituted to reward the just and punish the wicked. A king breaking his oath to defend the church and the nation was no longer acting as king.

However, more importantly for White, Hoadly also rebutted English Dissenters on reasonable grounds. Contrary to his many critics, Hoadly did not deny the need or necessity of episcopal authority. Only that it was not absolute and capable of hindering the ministry of the Gospel:

This amiable prelate expresses himself as follows, “as to the credit of the reformed churches abroad we think it no presumption, as we censure them not, who in a case of necessity went out of the ordinary method, so to expect they will not censure us for not approving such irregularities, where there is no such necessity for them.” [Reasonableness of conformity, part I.] In another place he says, “for my own part I cannot argue that episcopacy is essential to a christian church, because it is of apostolical institution; and on the other hand, I do argue, that we are obliged to the utmost of our knowledge, to conform ourselves to the Apostolical model, unless in such where the imitation is impracticable or would manifestly do more hurt than good to the church of Christ; neither of which can possibly be affirmed in the ordinary state of the church. [Defence of episcopal ordination, conclusion.] (2930)

In distinguishing divine from apostolic injunctions, there was flexibility in difficult times. While Scripture gave injunctions on the qualities of a bishop and a deacon, it was not explicit about this ordination. While it was right and venerable to make the sign of the cross, it was not to be done (or not done) on pain of damnation. If, as White noted in ages past, kings elected a bishop and allowed him to carry out his office in a time of need, then a convocation doing the same was not illicit (3031).

An Anglican Church Apart from King and Parliament?

White also contended against critics (who still exist) that shrugged their shoulders against the American Anglican Church. Had not the Church of England been a creature of the king and Parliament? How could this institution continue to exist? White rebutted that “the great majority of episcopalians, believing that their faith and worship are rational and scriptural, have no doubt of their being supported, independent of state establishments” (34). The catholic and reformed tradition of the Articles, the Canons, the Homilies, and the Book of Common Prayer could exist without state sponsorship because they were an expression of Scripture, reason, and venerable tradition. It was for this reason that the Protestant Episcopal Church should continue to exist. While recognizing the existence of various churches throughout the newly independent Union, White confessed that Anglican worship was “most agreeable to reason and scripture, and its most nearly resembling the pattern of the purest ages of the church” (3435). There was a divine mission for the best of the churches within the newly independent America.

White’s Vision: Not Realized but Still Useful

White’s program came under scrutiny and was never carried out. Eventually, the American convocation received news that the English bishops were ready to consecrate. White, along with Seabury and others, as bishops for the American church. As Bishop of Pennsylvania, White carried out his ministry to preach the gospel and instruct in virtue for the new, and increasingly turbulent, Nation.

This brief examination of the life and work of William White should open a new vantage for American Anglicans. One can both possess a reasonable and tempered patriotism for America as well as a strong and robust Anglican faith. There may be temptations away from a national appreciation, to consider regions or states (which have an older history than the Union) over and against a national idea. There may also be a tendency towards Anglophilia, which marked out quondam Loyalists and their spiritual successors. But as anyone who understands American history knows, Anglophobia was a much stronger current. Despite admiration for the greatness of the British “republic,” patriots like John Adams and George Washington were very wary of English pretensions. Hostility to Jacobinism was immediate, but that did not mean running into the arms of the British. Patrick Henry, another orthodox Anglican layman, offered his support to the Washington government against Jefferson. He may have feared the powers of this new national government, but he was even more hostile to the revolutionary fervor found amidst Jefferson’s Republicans. One can have a robust sense of ministerial order and authority, without lapsing into romantic clerisy. One can have a clear sense of order and tradition, without forgoing resistance to tyrants. One can love one’s nation, without forgoing obedience to the royal priesthood of Christ’s Church.


A man asking the questions. Interests in patristics, continental philosophy, early modern history (with a focus on Britain). Long live the Keswick Movement. Blog: Podcast:

'Bishop William White: Anglican Patriot' has 1 comment

  1. January 20, 2023 @ 3:42 pm Wesley Mcgranor

    King George was no tyrant and the Revolution was a swindle for Free Masons using Catholics against God and Protestantism.


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