Pilgrimages, Relics, & the American Church

“I think that pilgrimages may be well done, I never said otherwise; but I have said often and now I will say again ‘do your duty and then your devotion.’”

–Rev. Dr. Edward Crome, English Reformer

“Epiphanius being yet alive did work miracles, and that after his death devils, being expelled at his grave or tomb, did roar.”

–Homily Against the Peril of Idolatry

I have been often surprised by the tidbits of Anglican history which cut against the grain of the popular narratives. Fortunately, the strange – often forgotten – aspects of Christianity are my bread and butter. One such study of mine has been the Anglican understanding of relics and particularly the practice of translating relics post-Reformation. This study has led me to three discoveries. The first – and perhaps most surprising for the reader – is that there does seem to be an Anglican opinion on the subject. The second – albeit less surprising – is that the opinion offered by at least several of our Divines is more nuanced than simply full endorsement or complete abolition. And lastly, the American Church in particular has no less than four translations in its history. It is this last point which really interests me the most, but there are a few preliminaries to get out of the way as I can already hear the cries: “Article XXII! Popery! Tract 90! Tract 90!” Those who have no interest in my pedantic retelling of the history may feel free to skip to the end.


Relics in General


Those familiar with the formularies are well aware that the Articles of Religion treat relics explicitly in Article XXII. What many do not realize is that there is a very important and enlightening difference between the English and Latin renditions of this article which is pertinent to our topic. I have cited them in parallel for the sake of ease of comparison:

The Romish Doctrine concerning Purgatory, Pardons, Worshipping and Adoration, as well of Images as of Relics, and also Invocation of Saints, is a fond thing, vainly invented, and grounded upon no warranty of Scripture, but rather repugnant to the Word of God. Doctrina Romanensium de Purgatorio, de Indulgentiis, de veneratione tum Imaginum tum Reliquiarum, nec non de Invocatione Sanctorum, res est futilis, inaniter conflicta, et nullis Scripturarum testimoniis innititur; imo verbo Dei contradicit.

For those whose Latin may not be up to snuff, what the English lists as “Worshipping” (sic) and “Adoration” the official Latin text – which is just as authoritative – expresses as “veneration.” This is important because were we like some to only look to the English rendering, we may argue that some kind of “veneration” or dulia (à la Nicæa II) was permissible so long as we were not to worship or adore (latria) the relics in question. There is a kind of truth in this but – as shall be seen – only a half-truth. To be intellectually and historically honest, we must take into account what the Latin text has declared: veneration is a “fond thing, vainly invented.” Yet, (speaking of half-truths) this also does not indicate what many readers of the 21st Century may take it to mean.

So what does the Article mean and how was it used by our Divines? Well, first we must determine what “veneration” means here. Now, lest anyone think that I am quick to play word games, I hope to show that this is a genuine and necessary aspect of the investigation. To do this right, we must define our terms as best we can according to the definitions used when the Articles were written if we are to avoid anachronisms: Robert Cawdry’s 1604 dictionary defines “venerable” as “worshipful” or “reverend.”[1] The much more well-known 1768 English Dictionary of the Rev. Samuel Johnson defines “venerate” as “to reverence; to venerate; to treat with awe.”[2] And just in case anyone thinks that there is a large semantic gap between the Early Modern English “Veneration” and the Latin “Venerabilis,” Sir Thomas Elyot (1490-1546) defines the term in his Latin Dictionary as “worthy to be honoured.”[3] It is then clear that to “venerate” – in either English or Latin – is to honor.

Do the Articles then forbid honoring things and bodies? Apparently not. The Solemnization of Matrimony in the 1662 Book of Common Prayer includes in its marriage vows, “with my body I thee worship” – “worshipping” being the Articles’ English rendering of “veneratione.” In 1672 the Rt. Rev. Anthony Sparrow writes that the Athanasian Creed has been “received with great Veneration.”[4] In 1673 the Rev. Richard Allestree said that a Holy Virgin “may be holy both in body and in Spirit, [and therefore] deserves a great deal of veneration.”[5] In 1779, the Rev. Dr. Samuel Magaw commended his hearers for commemorating the Feast of St. John the Evangelist, “for, doth it not imply, that you venerate the temper of the Disciple, and of the Disciple’s Master?”[6] Finally, The Rt. Rev. John Henry Hobart – an American member of the Old High Church Party – even refers to the “venerated corpse” of Saintly Bishop Benjamin Moore during his 1816 funeral address.[7] These are only a few selections spanning a little over a century from many many instances where the term is used approvingly for the honoring of things, doctrines, people, and – especially in funerary addresses – corpses. Whatsmore, if the many mausoleums and church monuments for the dead are also taken into account and coupled with the post-Reformation practice of collecting grave dirt[8] (as it contained the decomposed holy dead), or the legends of Archbishop Cranmer’s unburnable martyr’s heart – then it becomes clear that veneration of the remains of the faithful departed never ceased in England.

This little historical investigation demonstrates that the Articles are not utilizing the terms according to their Early Modern usage but rather in some other more precise way. So what exactly are the Articles doing? It is important to note that Article XXII does not equivocate the Latin “veneratione” with “worshiping and honoring” – two interchangeable terms in the day as shown by the rite of matrimony – but with “Worshipping and Adoration.” Why? Clearly it can be shown that everyday speakers knew what the word meant and that it was understood to be merely creaturely “honour.” As evidenced, even theologians continued to employ the term in a religious context without fear of violating the Article. So again, why? Because the Articles are doing what all of the Reformers did at the time: they equivocate “adoration” and “veneration” not because the definitions are identical, but because the actions were perceived to be. Calvin’s complaint is that if you look at the definition offered for “veneration” or “dulia,” and then examine the action, it becomes clear that the two do not coincide. Here is what he has to say about it:

The distinction of what is called dulia and latria was invented for the very purpose of permitting divine honors to be paid to angels and dead men with apparent impunity. For it is plain that the worship which Papists pay to saints differs in no respect from the worship of God: for this worship is paid without distinction; only when they are pressed they have recourse to the evasion, that what belongs to God is kept unimpaired, because they leave him latria.[9]

This inconsistency is also the complaint of the Book of Homilies. Likewise, the 17th Century Anglican Divine, William Clagett, defines the Roman Catholic use of the term “hyperdulia” by writing: “[it is ] a word which our people cannot understand better, than by knowing the practice which it is a name for.” The Reformational witness indicates that the terms “dulia” and “veneration” were being used duplicitously. The Article is tossing out the dulia (veneration) / latria (adoration) distinction as used by Rome (especially by the time of St. Thomas Aquinas), not because it is a false distinction, but because in Roman practice it was a distinction without a difference. There then were practices at the time which went under the heading of “veneration” which the Articles teach are inappropriate for use in conjunction with relics and images.[10]

So then, is there a conception of “veneration” within Anglicanism stripped of its medieval abuses? There is! Because of the association of “veneration” with Roman practice, there arises within English Theology another term: “reverence.” The Canons of 1604 required that “when in time of Divine Service the Lord Jesus shall be mentioned, due and lowly Reverence shall be done by all Persons present.” The 17th Century Anglican Divine Jeremy Taylor – titled a “Reformed Ethicist” by Bavinck – wrote a well-known treatise titled On the Reverence due to the Altar. The reverencing of the altar was not simply a High Church idiosyncrasy but later became a canon for some Sees such as in Canon 7 of the Canons of 1640 adopted by the Sees of Canterbury and York. Likewise, the Rev. Mark Frank preached how absurd it is to believe that “man [must] be reverenced with the body” but that God is not.[11] The Rev. John Adamson preached in his day that there must be “a greater Reverence for the Houses of Prayer.”[12] In 1766 the Rev. Dr. Samuel Auchmuty preached that “If outward Marks of Reverence be not paid to things belonging unto God… we shall fail in that inward Veneration we yet pretend to have for the Divine Majesty Himself.”[13] Once again these are only several of many instances provided for the sake of brevity. What is clear is that within the Anglican Tradition, there was an accepted practice of religious reverence due to things. As has been shown, some reverencing was even commanded by Canon Law. To do “reverence” is a specific kind of veneration – typically bowing – to which no fear of misunderstanding was attached, likely due to its use within the secular courts. This is important for understanding the specific reverence due to relics.

It should first be stated for those who are unaware that several feasts of translation were retained in the Book of Common Prayer as “Black Letter” Days – this ought to indicate that the translation and keeping of relics is not a grave evil. Neither was the journeying to the graves of holy men without precedent. Peter Hampson Ditchfield writes that under the Long Parliament, “Hooker died and was buried at Borne, and many people used to visit his monument”[14] with many men and women paying the man who served as Richard Hooker’s clerk to lead them to his gravesite – whether or not this constitutes a “pilgrimage” I will leave to the reader to decide. Whatever the case it still constitutes doing reverence to the holy dead. So then what was wrong with the whole relics business? The Rt. Rev. Joseph Hall provides an answer:

But to dig up their hold bones, that I may borrow Luther’s word, out of their quiet graves and to fall down before these worm-eaten monuments of the Saints, to expect from them a divine power, whether of cure or of satisfaction, equally to respect Francis’ cowl, Anna’s comb, Joseph’s breeches, Thomas’ shoe, as Erasmus complains, with the Son of God Himself, can seem no better to us than horrible impiety.

The removal of the holy dead from their “quiet graves” in order to cut them up and prop them up was a desecration and not veneration. This fear on the part of the Reformers was not ill-grounded either as stealing pieces of Saints was a medieval pastime. Interestingly, the desecration of corpses for the sake of obtaining relics continued even within Protestant circles well after the Reformation. For example, the Finnish Lutheran Priest Nicholaus Rungius’s arm was stolen after 1875 when his relics were discovered to be incorruptible.

Is there then a form of reverence due to relics having set aside these problematic practices? The Most Rev. William Wake (1657 – 1737), Archbishop of Canterbury, taught that there is. Supposing that the impiety already mentioned is not what is in question, he writes: “We will honor the Relics of the Saints as the Primitive Church did. We will respect the images of Our Saviour and the Blessed Virgin. And, as some of us now bow towards the Altar, and all of us are enjoined to do so at the name of the Lord Jesus, so will we not fail to testify all due respect to His representation.” In conclusion, according to Archbishop Wake, the same reverence due to things such as the altar may be applied to the relics of the saints and their monuments and is not a violation of the Articles; we may be their admirers, but not their butchers. The faithful may bow according to the good Archbishop, and so it seems that the keeping, translating, and reverencing of relics is consistent with post-Reformation Anglicanism.


Translation of Relics in the American Church


The American Church in particular has a long history of post-Reformation translations. In the Anglican Tradition, the solemn translation of a Saint’s relics is often associated with our pre-Reformation history, but not so for the American Tradition. In the American Church there have been no less than four translations of our venerable dead. Surprisingly, these translations – as far as I can tell – are not on any Provincial Kalendars, nor are they commemorated by even the spikiest of Anglo-Catholics. To remedy this somewhat, I’ve gone ahead and provided a general Collect for a Feast of Translation adapted from the Westminster Missal. Alongside this Collect, my hope is that by providing the histories and dates, some parishes may feel inclined to commemorate the solemn translation of our own native saints:

September 3rd – Translation of Charles Grafton: The Rt. Rev. Charles C. Grafton was the second Bishop of Fond du Lac, Wisconsin, and the leading American proponent of the Oxford Movement. He was a Monk, a prolific writer, and a man of considerable learning and piety with several miracles attributed to him. He died at the age of 82 and was buried in the local Fond du Lac cemetery and remained there for a single year. After his death, however, the Cathedral was gifted a lovely tomb to serve as the beloved bishop’s abode until the day of judgment. Once the tomb and chapel surrounding it had been made ready, the casket was unearthed for the translation to the shock of onlookers:

The casket, taken from the cemetery, was opened, with only the glass slab over the remains, and it was found, to the surprise of the observers, that the Bishop’s features and hands were as natural as on the day he died. The mitre was somewhat discolored and the chalice which he grasped in his hand was tarnished, but the body itself showed no indications of decay.[15]

Bishop Grafton’s body was incorrupt. For those unaware, within Catholic Traditions such as Orthodoxy or Roman Catholicism, incorrupt relics are a sign of sainthood – what this implies regarding the saintliness of the good bishop is for the reader to decide. The casket was then carried to the cathedral where it was met with the solemn processional party. The choir, clergy, and bishop escorted the relics of their beloved pastor through billows of incense to his final resting place within the newly furnished chapel. The Great Litany was chanted throughout the procession and concluded with the lowering of the holy bishop into his tomb and covered with a marble slab bearing his likeness. The services concluded with the celebration of Holy Communion in thanksgiving for Bishop Grafton’s life and his shrine exists to this day.

September 12th – Translation of Samuel Seabury: The first and most fitting figure to be translated in the history of our church is the Rt. Rev. Samuel Seabury, the North American Protoepiscopus. As the reader likely knows, Bishop Seabury was the first North American Bishop and it is through him that the Apostolic Succession was first secured for the American Church. He was also a devout man and staunch High Churchman. His “venerable relics”[16] were translated on September 12th, 1849 to St. James’ Church. The exhumation and procession was accompanied by a number of priests who “felt in common the obligations of children, and the deeper reverence of spiritual sons for a patriarch of the Church, and a sore-tried confessor of the truth of God.” To these faithful presbyters, collecting his precious bones “was like finding the heart of Cranmer in the ashes of his martyrdom.” Once the relics had been gathered for transportation, without prompting “a considerable number of the parishioners of St. James’ had arrived at the grave, and an opportunity was afforded them of looking at the relics of their former Pastor.” The coffin containing the bones was then covered with a pall, and atop it was laid a Bible and a Prayer Book. The beloved bishop was then processed to the parish church, “the procession taking naturally the form of an ordinary funeral, but marked by more than ordinary solemnity.” The coffin was received at the door of the church by the Rev. Dr. Jarvis, the then-current rector, and thus the burial service was begun. Wisdom 5:1-17 was read and the coffin was devoutly lowered into the sepulcher by the hands of two priests. This was followed by the singing of Psalm 68: Exurgat Deus, and closed with the recitation of the Creed and a benediction. The event was concluded with the celebration of divine service. Later, Bishop Coxe composed a poem in Bishop Seabury’s honor which has since been set to music by the Seabury Society. Although more fitting for Bishop Seabury’s feast day on September 12, it may likewise be used for the commemoration of his translation. It can be found here.

October 21st – Translation of James Lloyd Breck: The Rev. Dr. James Lloy Breck is the founder of Nashotah House and the “Apostle of the Wilderness. He was a devout High Churchman and a lifelong missionary who spread the Gospel far and wide all across North America. Several of our States – then merely territories – had never experienced the sacraments before his ministry, and none of them have since gone without them. He died in Benicia, California on April 2, 1876. His funeral was attended by many of his students and friends – about a hundred communicants in all. “Clad in surplice and stole,” described the Rev. Charles Breck, “the appearance of his face in death, as in life, was calm, peaceful, at rest – the same sweet smile that he habitually wore resting upon it.”[17] Bishop Coxe wrote that: “In his priestly robes he lies, As he at the Altar stood.” It was in this solemn state that his holy body was then placed in the hallowed ground beneath the chancel of his Mission just near the altar – although this was always intended to be temporary. Twenty years after his death, it came time to move his remains and all agreed that it should be to Nashotah House. In the words of Helen Holcombe Denten:

Apostle of the wilderness,

     With reverence we bring

Thee home unto thy Kingdom,

     As one would bear a king.

As one would bear a king we lay

     Thee on Nashotah’s breast

A king returning from afar

     To her who loved him best.

The body was safely transported to the House guarded all the way by Breck’s son, the Rev. William Augustus Muhlenberg Breck. “The occasion was honored by the presence of fourteen Bishops of the Church.”[18] Many friends and former students flooded the Nashotah grounds for the solemn procession of Saintly Dr. Breck’s remains from the chapel to his final resting place. “It was a long procession with Bishops, priests and people. A strange procession, winding its way among the trees, with mingled emotions of grief and rejoicings, until all had gathered on the solitary spot of vantage ground from which the institution itself — and the lake beyond are visible, and there when the sun was low, and the gray October day was closing, Dr. Breck found, we trust, his lasting grave.” The site of Breck’s resting place is marked by a very large cross, and it is still a Nashotah Tradition to take the “Trek to Breck” to visit him. All who have made the Trek cannot help but feel the holiness of the place. Two poems were composed for Holy Dr. Breck, the first by Bishop Coxe for his funeral and the second by Denten for his Nashotah homecoming; both of which have been set to music by the Seabury Society for his feasts. The second by Denten can be found here and is especially appropriate for the commemoration of his translation.

November 10th – Translation of Absalom Jones: The Rev. Absalom Jones was the first Black Priest in North America. He was ordained in 1802 – nearly a hundred years before the Rev. Augustus Tolton by the Roman Catholics and the Rev. Robert Josias “Raphael” Morgan by the Eastern Orthodox. This is to say that he is a figure of monumental importance in the history of American Christianity. That said, he was a man of supreme piety and skillful oration; it is unfortunate that an otherwise holy man is known solely for being the first Black Priest. To highlight his holiness, a brief event from his ministry is worth mentioning: in 1793, North America was struck by a Yellow Fever outbreak, and Fr. Absalom spent his time ministering to the sick and dying throughout Philadelphia. This is a significant incident because later in 1878, there was another Yellow Fever outbreak in the city of Memphis. Those familiar with the American Tradition may immediately think of holy Sr. Constance and her Companions – the Martyrs of Memphis. It was for their service to the sick and dying at great risk to themselves that the Martyrs of Memphis have become enshrined within both the Church and the hearts of the people of Memphis. Fr. Absalom – however – is seldom credited for performing the same holy work in his own city. Yet, despite this, the Church has continued to reverence Fr. Absalom as an important forefather of the Faith. He passed into glory in 1818 and was interred in the St. Thomas Churchyard in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. In 1901,[19] his relics were exhumed, cremated, placed in a reliquary, and stored within the altar of St. Thomas’ Absalom Jones Chapel. Visitors may still visit the chapel and pray before the altar and a lovely icon of Fr. Absalom.

These are only a few of many prestigious names within the American Tradition. Whether or not there are more translations that have taken place, I do not know. What I do know is that God has graced our continent with holy men and women who lived lives infused with the Gospel and worthy of our reverence; we are obligated – I am convinced – to recall the work that God has wrought with their lives. Our forebears have reckoned these names as worthy of particular honor, and have provided their sacred remains with monuments fitting their legacy. Surely we have the duty and privilege to continue to revere them as they have! Lord willing, this little essay will spurn on others to love the names which God has providentially preserved within our branch of the Church for the sake of following their good example. Let us keep their commemorations – even multiplying them! – all the while recalling that the greatest honor we can pay to the saints is to follow them as they follow Christ – let us do so!


A Collect for Feasts of Translation


O God, who has adorned this happy day with the transferal of N.’s holy remains into the earthly glory of a sepulcher: grant that we may be transferred with him into the heavenly glory prepared for your saints. Through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.



  1. Robert Cawdry, A Table Alphabeticall of Hard Usual English Words, 127.
  2. Samuel Johnson, Dictionary of the English Language.
  3. Sir Thomas Elyot, The Dictionary of Sir Thomas Elyot Knight.
  4. Anthony Sparrow, A Rationale upon the Book of Common Prayer.
  5. Richard Allestree, The Ladies Calling.
  6. Samuel Magaw, A Sermon, Preached in Christ-Church, Dover.
  7. John Henry Hobart, A Funeral Address Delivered at the Interment of Benjamin Moore.
  8. Dr. Francis Young says that after 1604, it was a common belief that “a spirit could also be banished by throwing consecrated graveyard earth, which was believed to absorb the bodies of the dead and was therefore ‘doubly potent.’ (A History of Anglican Exorcisms, Ch. 2) See also T. Brown, The Fate of the Dead: A Study of Folk Eschatology in the West Country after the Reformation (London: Folklore Society, 1979).
  9. Institutes, 1:12:2, Beveridge Translation.
  10. Those who are familiar with the Homily against the Peril of Idolatry ought to be well aware of this as it lists the specific instances of abuse.
  11. Mark Frank, Sermon XX.
  12. John Adams, The Duty of Daily frequenting the Publick Service of the Church.
  13. Samuel Auchmuty, A sermon, preached at the opening of St. Paul’s Chapel.
  14. Peter Hampson Ditchfield, The Parish Clerk, 22.
  15. B. Talbot Rogers, The Journey Godward.
  16. The Colonial Church Chronicle and Missionary Journal, Vol. III (No. XXIX) (November, 1849), pages 197-199.
  17. Charles Breck, The Life of the Reverend James Lloyd Breck, D.D.
  18. Theodore I. Holcombe, An Apostle of the Wilderness.
  19. Thomas H. Keels, Philadelphia Graveyards and Cemeteries, 81.


Brandon LeTourneau

Brandon is your typical pseudo-intellectual who knows more than he should and less than he thinks. An Anglican Seminarian, known for his assertions of the Catholicity of the Reformation and his abiding love for the oddest bits of Church History. He hopes to one day serve the ACNA in an ecumenical capacity. Pray for him, a sinner.

'Pilgrimages, Relics, & the American Church' have 4 comments

  1. May 12, 2023 @ 2:42 pm PWH

    This is quite fascinating! Thank you for doing the research and sharing your findings and thoughts (and the Collect).

    One thing: if you insist on putting [sic} every time you encounter perfectly good British spelling in the Book of Common Prayer, you will be kept quite busy with non-essentials. The American spelling, “worshiping”, can lead one to suppose that it ought to be pronounced “wor-SHIPE-ing”. Thus some people think it should be avoided.


  2. Fr. Isaac J. Rehberg

    May 13, 2023 @ 11:08 am Fr. Isaac J. Rehberg

    This fascinating! Thanks for the always-excellent work! A bit of a local anecdote, when we were doing some repainting just after I became rector, we discovered the ashes of a saintly Bishop who helped found All Saints and served as a circuit-riding rector in the early Continuum days under our altar. Doing some research on him and talking with some folks who knew him (including some of his family), we discovered that this was supposed to be a temporary arrangement while the parish got a columbarium. Ultimately, that columbarium project didn’t happen… until about 2 years ago. We then translated his remains as the first “burial” service in our prayer garden’s columbarium.


  3. May 15, 2023 @ 9:11 pm Sudduth Cummings

    This article about relics reminded me of one of the most valuable private retreats I did in the past was a week at the DeKoven Center in Racine, WI. Originally founded as a school by an educator and high church leader of the Episcopal Church in the 19th century (See Lesser Feasts and Fasts), Dr. DeKoven was an exemplary priest and educator. I think I remember he is buried on the grounds of the Center right on the banks of the Great Lakes. A wonderful spot.


  4. March 22, 2024 @ 5:45 pm Christian

    This is a great article, and gave insights on the history of the relationship of relics and the Anglican tradition. I guess I feel better with the practice of relics now


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