The Nature of Salvation: Theological Consensus in the Episcopal Church, 1807-73

Article excerpt

The Nature of Salvation: Theological Consensus in the Episcopal Church, 1807-73. By Robert W. Prichard. Studies in Anglican History. Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press,1997. 216 pp. $29.95 (cloth).

Robert Prichard's The Nature of Salvation (a volume in the Studies in Anglican History series, sponsored by the Historical Society of the Episcopal Church) is a welcome and thought-provoking examination of the theological principles that bound Episcopalians together at the beginning of the nineteenth century. Thanks to the efforts of Bishop William White of Pennsylvania, Prichard claims, Episcopalians adopted a common view of the process by which believers attain salvation-a theological stance that distinguished them from revivalist Protestants (Methodists, Baptists, and New School Presbyterians), orthodox Calvinists (Old School Presbyterians, and members of the Dutch and German Reformed churches), and Roman Catholics. Although historians have traditionally focused on the differences between high-church and evangelical Episcopalians, Prichard thinks this "party approach" (p. 2) obscures the fundamental agreement that existed among leaders of the denomination prior to the Civil War. Despite both modern popular and scholarly assertions that pluralism has long been a distinctive feature of Anglican thought, Prichard argues that the first Episcopalians enjoyed a strong consensus about their beliefs that was not finally dissolved until the 1870s.

Prichard's narrative begins in the aftermath of the War for Independence, as White sought to give organizational and intellectual shape to the demoralized remnants of the Church of England in America. Although the original cohort of Episcopal bishops (Samuel Seabury, Samuel Provoost, James Madison, and White himself) was unable to agree on a single statement of faith for the new denomination, the second generation of church leaders was strongly influenced by White and followed his guidance in adopting the Thirty-nine Articles at the 1801 General Convention. At the same time, he designed a Course of Ecclesiastical Studies, which provided the standard interpretation of the Thirty-nine Articles until the late nineteenth century. Because "the nature of salvation" was the principal religious issue about which his contemporaries were concerned, White provided a basic theological and ethical framework for Episcopalians, emphasizing that a person could be assured of salvation if s/he lived in a responsible fashion, was baptized, and participated in the church. Although the evangelical and highchurch parties stressed different aspects of this formula, each side accepted the essential features of the model White presented.

Prichard also carefully analyzes the four main themes comprising the consensus White sought to fashion: rejection of a rigid doctrine of predestination; acceptance of baptisms as the basis for spiritual assurance; a rationalistic outlook on moral renewal; and belief in an intermediate state between heaven and hell where the faithful awaited Christ's final judgment. …