The Virginia Bishops and Classical American Anglicanism

In January of 1800 Rev. Dr. James Madison, Bishop of Virginia, wrote his cousin, James Madison Jr. The former hailed the congressman and “Father of the Constitution” for his past work on the basic law of the still-new American republic. “You have really swept the Augean Stable; at least, you have cleansed the Constitution from that Filth which Ambition Avarice & Ignorance was heaping up around it.” The Right Reverend Bishop saw ambition and lust for power as ills that must be guarded against. He anticipated the cancer of imperialism and warned about the maintenance of a standing army or navy. His cautions remained well within the mainstream of political thought during the Federalist Era. Bishop Madison desired the United States maintain the force necessary to keep an ordered civil society and to protect the North American republic’s commerce from powerful European navies. Nonetheless, he warned about ideologically driven yearning for empire and en masse social control. “To avoid those Evils,” cautioned the Bishop, “certainly the only Method is to keep the federal Govt. strictly within the Limits of the original Compact.”[1]

Bishop James Madison and his two successors, Richard Channing Moore and William Meade, deserve the attention of serious Protestant thinkers in 2020 for several reasons. They defended Christian orthodoxy, a liberal-conservative political order, and constitutional liberty. They also offer an historical alternative to integralist romanticism. The Episcopal bishops of Virginia give proof that conservative religious thinkers in the Twenty-First Century do not need to accept a binary that would have them reject the constitutional settlement of the United States and historic Anglican churchmanship in favor of ne0-medievalist fantasies or moral libertarianism and presentist “Evangelicalism.”

Bishop Madison’s concern for federal overreach stemmed from a desire for ordered republican liberty and for civil liberties such as freedom of the press, association, and for free exercise of religion. He believed in the American republic because it declared its legal willingness “to promote public & private Happiness, & to secure that greatest possible Portion of Liberty which we have so successfully contended for, as human sagacity could possibly devise.” Madison and priests in the Diocese of Virginia supported, or at least tolerated, religious disestablishment not out of religious self-loathing, but out of a belief that a return to religious authoritarianism in North America inevitably would trigger disorder. They did not waver from historic Protestant commitments in acquiescing to disestablishment, but believed they were supporting the Protestant commitment to remove coercive ecclesiastical power from the political order. As Bradford Littlejohn rightly notes, Anglican two-kingdoms thinkers like Richard Hooker put much of their energy into ensuring that “neither the Pope nor any of his henchmen could claim coercive temporal authority within Christendom, nor any exemption from the appropriate temporal authority exercised by magistrates.” Carl Esbeck noted that supporters of new religious laws promulgated by Virginia in the 1780s specifically mentioned that “the medieval church was at times so powerful as to ‘erect a spiritual tyranny’ by way of co-opting civil government.” Neither of these dispositions created a libertarian order, and both remained well within the norms of conservative Protestant thought. Bishop Madison affirmed what Yoram Hazony has called Protestantism’s moral minimum, “the minimum requirements for a life of personal freedom and dignity for all.” [2]

Madison and his successors’ embrace of constitutional liberty existed alongside their consistent adherence to Anglican churchmanship. As Mark David Hall noted, Anglicanism continued to play an important role in Virginia even after disestablishment. “Virginia remained in the business of mixing church and state.” Support for the constitution never entailed an embrace of anabaptist spiritualized religion removed from the civil sphere or Puritan liturgical asceticism. Anglicans in Virginia did not even desire to weaken strict observance of the formularies of the Church of England and its successor communion in North America, The Episcopal Church. In the late Eighteenth Century, the Evangelical and Methodist parties ignored the Thirty-Nine articles and the liturgical formularies. After 1830, Tractarians—many of whom were previously members of the Evangelical Party—became the chief dissenters. Richard Channing Moore, Bishop of Virginia from 1814 to 1841, inherited a diocese weakened by the growth of Baptist and Methodist Churches in Virginia during the first two decades of the Eighteenth Century. He did not pine for a return to a Late Medieval establishment or romanticize the Church of England’s first century when Anglicans exercised complete legal control over dissenters. He did not accede to demands to turn divine service into Evangelical style revival meetings popularized by growing populations of Baptists and Methodists. He accepted disestablishment and sought to make conformity with the formularies a hallmark of his diocese. Religious freedom, he believed, did not weaken serious churchmanship. “Regard for the Prayer-book has not, in any degree, been diminished but the contrary.” He noted that “in no one of the United States are the Rubrics and canons of the Church better observed than in Rhode Island,” a state known for its history of broad religious toleration. New England’s Episcopalians tended to strictly adhere to the Formularies —undoubtedly because they were surrounded by a Congregationalists establishment—and vigorously support religious freedom. [3]

Moore’s biographer noted that the Bishop had little use for Tractarian innovations and their nascent fixation on being a “high” or “low” churchman. If high churchmanship designated:

One who believes the divine origin and perpetual obligation of the Christian ministry under the Episcopal form, who has a strong attachment to the Liturgy of the Church, as admirably adapted to all the purposes of public worship, and feels bound to use it before all sermons and lectures according to the prescriptions of the canons and rubrics: one who believes, ex animo, the doctrines taught in the Creeds, the Articles, and the Homilies, as being agreeable to the word of God, and the faith of the Catholic Church: who loves those “old ways” which were marked by the footsteps of Apostles and Fathers, and stained by the blood of the holy martyrs, and has no sympathy with the novel inventions of heresy and schism under their Protean forms; if these things constitute a High Churchman, then was Bishop Moore one.

Moore, however, rejected the Tractarians articulation of high churchmanship. He scorned “union with an Apostolic ministry, and the reception of Sacraments duly administered, as the ground of a hope of salvation.” He did not “reverence tradition and the opinions of the Fathers as constituting in combination with Scripture the foundation and rule of faith.” He did not “oppose associations, lecture-room services and revivals, as more dangerous than meetings for worldly amusement and pleasure.” He was not “content with an ecclesiastical union to Christ without a spiritual union with him by faith and love.” He rejected satisfaction with baptismal regeneration if the believer did not have an accompanying “renovation of heart.”[4]

From the outset of the Tractarian movement, conservatives in Great Britain and in the United States rightly understood the movements appeal to thinkers and writers interested in progress and romanticism. It did not surprise Bishop William Mead, Moore’s assistant bishop and eventual successor in 1841, that prominent Unitarians like George Bancroft flocked to Tractarian parishes in New England during the 1850s. Irish immigrants flooded Boston and other cities in New England and New Englanders—already accustomed to Romanticism from Unitarians and subsequently Transcendentalists—embraced a new form of Anglophilic romanticism in the form of the Tractarian movement to distinguish themselves from the impoverished Irish. New Englanders found the romanticism of Roman Catholicism fascinating, but actual conversion and social identification with the sons and daughters of Erin remained unthinkable for all but the boldest citizens of Massachusetts and its hinterland. [5]

Bishop Moore understood the romanticist attraction to Tractarian innovation well before en masse Irish immigration. In 1839 he wrote a fellow bishop that he was “really grieved to see so great a disposition manifested by some of our brethren, both in England and this country, to unsettle the religious opinions of the members of the Church.” Tractarianism would “cut them loose from those principles we have always held sacred, and to set them adrift from that safe anchorage, secured to them by our articles and formularies, without either compass to steer by, or helm to direct them, in their passage to eternity.” Nonetheless Moore rejoiced to find most of his fellow prelates—especially the bishop of the rapidly growing diocese of Ohi0—”disposed to oppose the current of heterodoxy, and to plead in behalf of that atonement made for poor sinners, and their justification by faith in the Lord Jesus Christ.”

The truth is, that should those solemn doctrines meet with any formidable opposition in this country, and the integrity of the Church be invaded and endangered, I do believe its unity will be destroyed—its prosperity be broken up—and Ichabod be written on the walls of our hitherto united Zion.

Moore’s clear-sighted understanding of the inevitable religious consequences seem nearly prophetic. “The Church at large,” he foresaw “will separate between the wheat and the chaff. He lamented that “some young and unfledged theologians will be carried away to Rome.” He nonetheless believed that “the great body of our ministers and people will have a more thorough understanding of the real principles of the Church, be more firm in their attachment to the fundamental doctrine of justification by faith, and be better armed for their conflict with the emissaries of the Pope, than they ever were before.” He expressed thankfulness “that few of our clergy, and none of our bishops, advocate the views of the Tractarians without exception.” Even “the mitred dignitaries of the Mother Church”—an allusion to the Church of England’s bishops—”have spoken out in terms of strong and decided reproof of those peculiarities which distinguish the ‘Oxford Theology’ from that of the Primitive Fathers, and of the Reformers of our Church.” [6]

William Meade succeeded Bishop Moore in 1841. Like Moore, he abhorred the effect of the Tractarians in the United States. Meade’s spartan personality and commitment to orthodoxy led him to hawkishly watch his rectors and even his fellow bishops lest they stray into heterodoxy. He saw the life of the Christian as one of patriotic duty and believed liberty existed so that every citizen might fulfill their human and natural duties to the fullest extent. Although committed to the American constitutional regime and a relatively low churchmanship, he was neither a Reaganite libertarian or even a modern Evangelical in any meaningful sense. “I propose not to exclude from the Episcopate either Calvinists or Arminians, High or Low Churchmen.” Meade’s conservatism and broad churchmanship made him a reflexive Anglophilic Protestant of the old school. “During his childhood,” he wrote, “infidelity was then rife,” and William and Mary was a “hot-bed of French politics and religion.” “I can truly say that then, and for some years after, in every educated young man whom I met, I expected to find a sceptic, if not an avowed unbeliever.” Meade’s veiled swipe at Jefferson displayed a deeper socio-intellectual conservatism than his two immediate predecessors. It also showed the innate conservatism of even low church Anglicans. Although Tractarians are associated with (a largely contrived) traditionalism today, that was hardly the case in the Nineteenth Century.[7]

The Virginia bishops offer a vital historical example of healthy Anglican churchmanship untouched by the cartoonish internet traditionalism or progressivism that typifies much of Anglican discourse in North America. Anglicanism in the 19th Century gave their successors a viable alternative to the Tractarian romanticism that leads to “traditionalism” or the vapid Evangelicalism that often leads to liturgical anarchy, and subsequently clerical or lay tyranny via unlicensed claims of authority via charismata. North American Anglicans can look to the Virginians and reclaim not simply a durable vision of what it is to be an orthodox Anglican, but more broadly they may reclaim a healthy understanding of what it is to be an American Christian.

  1. Rt Revd James Madison to James Madison Jr., 9 Jan 1800 in David B. Mattern, J. C. A. Stagg, Jeanne K. Cross, and Susan Holbrook Perdue eds., The Papers of James Madison, vol. 17, 31 March 1797–3 March 1801 and supplement 22 January 1778–9 August 1795 (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1991), 352–354.
  2. W. Bradford Littlejohn, The Two Kingdoms: A Guide for the Perplexed (The Davenant Trust, 2017); Carl H. Esbeck “Disestablishment in Virginia, 1776-1802” in Carl H. Esbeck and Joinathan J. Den Hartog eds., Disestablishment and Religious Dissent: Church-State Relations in the New American States 1776-1833 (Columbia, MO: University of Missouri Press, 2019), 159; Yoram Hazony, The Virtue of Nationalism (New York: Basic Books, 2018), 24.
  3. Mark David Hall, Did America Have a Christian Founding?: Separating Modern Myth from Historical Truth (Nashville: Nelson Books, 2019), 67-68; J.P.K. Kenshaw, Memoir of the Life of the Rt. Rev. Richard Channing Moore, D. D., Bishop of the Protestant Episcopal Church in the Diocese of Virginia (Philadelphia: William Stavely and Co., 1843),
  4. Henshaw, 290-291.
  5. Edward George Kirwan Browne, History of the Tractarian Movement (Dublin: Duffy and O’Daly, 1856), 180-1; Jack Morgan, “Among Cromwell’s Children: The Irish and Yankee New England,” New Hibernia Review 13 (Autumn 2009): 89-107.
  6. Henshaw, 287-88.
  7. John Johns, A Memoir of the Life of the Right Rev. William Meade, D.D., Bishop of the Protestant Episcopal Church in the Diocese of Virginia (Baltimore: Innes and Co., 1967), 178; William Stevens Perry, The History of the American Episcopal Church, 1587-1883 Vol. II (Boston: James R. Osgood and Co., 1885), 144..

Miles Smith IV

Miles Smith is a historian of the American South and the Atlantic World. He has taught at Hillsdale College, Regent University, and Texas Christian University. His research interests and his writing focus on intellectual life and religion in the Nineteenth Century United States and Europe. He lives in Hillsdale, Michigan.

'The Virginia Bishops and Classical American Anglicanism' has 1 comment

  1. June 30, 2020 @ 10:35 am John

    Ignoring the assumptions that Evangelicalism is necessarily vapid and “Tractarianism” is necessarily contrived, neo-medievalist romanticism, why should we view these bishops as models of “healthy Anglican churchmanship” when they (especially Meade) participated in and defended the enslavement and dehumanizing of Africans?


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