After the Revolution

By Greg Jones

I have been enjoying the new HBO miniseries John Adams. As a history buff with an interest in the Revolutionary War period, I am relishing this historically erudite dramatic presentation. My own Jones ancestors were also patriots, and I am grateful for their courage and willingness to do the right thing.

John Adams was not religiously unusual in his class and time — but it might surprise folks now to learn that he was a Unitarian. Like many highly-educated persons of his time, swept up with the ideals of the Enlightenment and the Age of Reason, Adams rejected the basic tenets of Christian faith.

As I understand his theology Adams rejected the doctrines of the Trinity or the divinity of Jesus. Indeed, many of the leaders of the American Revolution shared in such modernist beliefs, preferring in the place of creedal Christianity something we might call secular humanism — with a hint of divinity sprinkled about it. Like many other leading citizens, patriots and zealots for the cause of liberty and the pursuit of happiness — Adams would not have been able to hold dear the Nicene and Apostles Creeds, acknowledge the gracious power of the sacraments, or declare the Holy Scriptures to contain all things necessary for salvation. Almost without doubt, I believe Mr. Adams would have denied any value in the office of the episcopacy, especially as understood by Anglicans, to be an office with special divinely given authority down through the ages.

And Adams, while a ‘liberal’ in many ways for these religious beliefs, shared them with many others who we might call ‘conservative’ for their religion. In his day, American evangelical Protestantism was on the rise, thanks to the revivals of the period preceding the Revolution. Yet, while adherents to Calvinistic Protestantism would have confessed belief in the Trinity and divinity of Christ, they would also have done away with the more ancient and catholic marks of the faith, such as the creedal formulas, sacramental theology, and episcopacy. The last decades of the 18th century, and the first decades of the 19th century, were good for this kind of Christianity, but they were not boom times for Anglicanism in the United States of America.

After the Revolution, former colonists, fired by the notion that they had thrown off the chains of monarchy, struggled to figure out how to remain Anglican, wondering whether they had thrown off the Church of England and its lordly episcopacy as well. Indeed, many Anglican clergy remained loyalist, and left these United States.

The challenge for those remaining, who yearned to be Anglican still, was to figure out how to preserve the essential marks of the ‘one, holy, catholic and apostolic’ faith, the essential elements of Anglican identity as they existed unto that point, while also separating out other bits: like the divine right of kings theology which fueled so much of Establishment theology in the Church of England.

We owe a great debt of gratitude to those founders of the Episcopal Church who managed to work out these questions in rather short order, and without coming to pieces. For even then, as now, there were different parties within American Anglicanism. Some were basically straight-up Calvinists or evangelical Protestants. Others were the High Churchmen of New York and Connecticut — others something little different than a Methodist, a Congregationalist, or even a Unitarian in some places.

But, continuing to use the Prayer Book as a guide, and allowing only for moderate and often minimal changes, the founders of the Episcopal Church managed the birthing process pretty well. William White was a leader in that cause. As a ‘moderate revolutionary,’ he was committed to the harmony of the American expression of Anglicanism, and also to continued relationship with the Church of England.

Frankly, it is remarkable that White, the second bishop of the Episcopal Church (after Samuel Seabury), could have become a bishop when he did, where he did, and the way he did. White was consecrated as Bishop of Pennsylvania in 1787 by the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Archbishop of York, and the Bishop of Bath just a few years after the end of the American Revolution. He didn’t even have to go up to Scotland to be consecrated irregularly there by bishops willing to do without an allegiance oath to the British Crown.

White, an American, a patriot, and a man ordained to the priesthood in the Church of England before the Revolution, found himself elected by his peers (not appointed by the crown), and consecrated by the hierarchy of the Church of England to serve as a bishop in an altogether new entity — an independent, autonomous, and free ‘Anglican’ church, in communion relationship but not fealty to the Sees of Canterbury and York, etc.

White — a creature of his time though not beholden to it — was able to do both a new thing (i.e. help to launch a new ‘church’ with a revised ecclesiology and self-understanding) while not destroying an old thing (i.e. the essential doctrine and practice of the apostolic Christian faith.)

I believe we need more folks like Bishop White in the Episcopal Church. Not radical revolutionaries, but faithful evolutionaries.

We do not create ex nihilo — only God does. We shape ground we’ve been given — do we not? We do not work from the annihilation of what we receive, but rather by the faithful and often slight re-translation to suit evolving contexts. Only from time to time are we called to dissolve those long established bonds between old and new iterations — but not normally on every day or even in every age.

It seems not so unimaginable to me that we could manage to preserve and uphold the faith once delivered (the Nicene faith, the Baptismal covenant, the sacraments, the Scriptures, the historic episcopate) — while also cherishing our particular liturgical tradition (the Book of Common Prayer and Hymnal) — while also continuing to stand for the teaching of Christ in the face of a world which is unjust and ungodly — while also continuing to do that prophetic work of trying to bring real justice to fruition by the upbuilding of the Kingdom of God on Earth today — while also being open to the occasional revision of certain liturgical practices, moral teachings, and other matters which of necessity are often limited by time and space and are not perhaps eternal.

I’m just thinking that instead of following the trajectory of the radical reformers of Protestantism who between the time of Luther and John Adams managed to toss out in one place or another nearly the whole of the faith and practice of the Church of England — we might be a bit more like old William White.

In other words — passionate about the Gospel, cherishing the bonds of baptismal, eucharistic and ecclesiastical unity, and walking humbly and mercifully with a Lord who teaches us to love all, heal all, feed all, liberate all, and welcome all to relationship in the name of Christ.

Can I get an amen?

The Rev. Samuel Gregory Jones (“Greg”) became a member of Christ’s Body at St. Columba’s in Washington, D.C., and he was educated at the University of North Carolina and the General Theological Seminary, where he is on the Board. Rector of St. Michael’s Raleigh, and author of Beyond Da Vinci, he blogs at

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