Two Cheers for Samuel Seabury

A few days ago, it was the turn of the Bexley Hall students to organize and lead the community Eucharist at Trinity Lutheran Seminary.  Susan Smith, the rector of the local parish, would preside, and I was asked to preach.

It was the feast of the consecration of Samuel Seabury, not an auspicious theme for an Episcopal preacher in a Lutheran institution. For all we owe to him as Episcopalians, the Rev. Mr. Seabury was not a very attractive character. In saying this, I am in pretty good company.  Alexander Hamilton didn’t think much of him either. In the run-up to the American Revolution, Seabury was fiercely loyal to the British crown.  From the safety of Westchester Country, in 1775 he launched a series of pamphlets (signed only “The Farmer”) defending the Tory position against those clamoring for independence.  Hamilton—a master polemicist—launched a brilliant if venomous response.

The spirit that breathes throughout is so rancorous, illiberal, and imperious; the argumentative part of it is so puerile and fallacious; the misrepresentation of facts so palpable and flagrant; the criticisms so illiterate, trifling, and absurd; the conceits so low, sterile, and splenetic, that I will venture to pronounce it one of the most ludicrous performances which has been exhibited to public view during all the present controversy.

The criticism stuck. A year later, after a short time in an insurrectionist jail, Seabury took refuge in British-occupied New York City, where he served throughout the war as chaplain to a British regiment. With the British withdrawal, Seabury sensibly if rather ignobly changed sides, moving to Connecticut in the hope of reorganizing an Anglican church that was pretty much in shambles. A small group of like-minded clergy gathered in Woodbury to elect him as the first American bishop, sending him off to England for consecration. Even with Seabury’s Tory history, the English bishops had no stomach for  ordaining an American who would not swear allegiance to George III as head of the church.  So Seabury made his way to Scotland, where he was ordained at the hands of Scottish bishops who were equally hostile to English hegemony. And thus, the American church—and for that matter, the Anglican Communion—was launched.  There’s a postscript to the story. Both Seabury’s son and grandson entered the Episcopal ministry, and both held distinguished faculty positions at the General Seminary. But the grandson inherited the grandfather’s gift for championing the wrong cause at the wrong time.  In 1861, as important a year in our history as 1775, Samuel Seabury III published a small tract entitled “American Slavery, Defended.”

So you see what I was up against talking about Samuel Seabury the First to a crowd of Lutherans.  In a time of crisis, they had Martin Luther and we had (sigh)—Samuel Seabury.  Preaching in that venue made me realize how complicated our history is. I stressed that this was not the feast of Samuel Seabury himself, but the feast of his consecration. So, in a way, it was a feast about an institution rather than a person.  That distinction helped clarify matters a bit, I think, because as an institution the Episcopal Church is once again trying to find its center, just as it was forced to do in Samuel Seabury’s day.

Samuel Seabury at BexleyThere’s a portrait of Samuel Seabury looming over the upstairs conference room at Bexley House, the same painting that used to hang in the Seabury-Western refectory.  As icons go, this one’s not very attractive, but it is in fact rather useful.  It reminds us of the layered complications of our histories, not just the checkered histories of our Episcopal seminaries, but also our own checkered histories as citizens of a republic that has never quite figured out its relationship to religion, especially in these days when the old mainline protestant establishment (the one that could produce a Samuel Seabury III, or erect a “National” Cathedral on St. Albans hill) is only a distant memory.

So two cheers for Samuel Seabury the First.  His checkered story tells us more about ourselves than we might have expected, in this time of dramatic—even traumatic—change in North American religious life.

About the author: Jaime