Academic journal article Anglican and Episcopal History

The Rt. Rev. Thomas Atkinson (1807-1881): Advocate for an Apostolic and Catholic Church

Academic journal article Anglican and Episcopal History

The Rt. Rev. Thomas Atkinson (1807-1881): Advocate for an Apostolic and Catholic Church

Article excerpt

In May 1853, the Episcopal Diocese of North Carolina met in annual convention to acknowledge the defection of their bishop, Levi Silliman Ives, to Roman Catholicism. Ives and the diocese had been locked in a five-year tug-of-war over the bishop's growing affinity for the teachings and practices of the Oxford Movement. In the fall of 1852, Bishop Ives had asked for and received permission from the diocese to travel to Europe, pleading the need for rest and recuperation. But while in Rome in December, Ives instead renounced his position as a bishop of the Episcopal Church and declared his submission to the pope. Now the convention gathered in the wake of that defection to elect his successor. The present question was this: What to look for in a new bishop?

One might surmise that the diocese would turn to an evangelical, or low church bishop, desiring to repudiate in unmistakable terms the now-discredited high church views of Bishop Ives.2 But that was not the call which came forth from the convention's preacher, the Rev. F. A. Olmsted, a priest of the diocese serving at Pittsboro. Olmsted was in fact quite measured in his criticisms of the former bishop and the views he had embraced. Olmsted found much to praise in the Oxford Movement, though he conceded that it had led some to seek undue affinity with Romanism. But Olmsted insisted that Ives' defection came about because the bishop had strayed from the principles upon which the diocese was founded, and that what the diocese needed was not to repudiate, but to return to the high church teachings articulated by its first bishop, John Stark Ravenscroft. "Let us not then lose our hold upon those principles which, as Churchmen, we have hitherto cherished," Olmsted declared. He concluded:

This Diocese has occupied heretofore, in the American Church, an elevated position for true, sound, and high-toned Churchmanship. Let us not be willing that she should, in any way, fall back from it. Let us abide steadfast by those principles upon which alone it has ever flourished, turning aside from them neither to the right hand nor to the left. Let us hope that the impress stamped upon it by its first Bishop, the lamented Ravenscroft, will remain ineffaceable. Ever blessed be the memory of that true-hearted man and noble Bishop! And may God raise up to sit in his See, one worthy to be his successor; one who shall be to us "the repairer of the breach, the restorer of paths to dwell in."3

The clergy decided upon the Rev. Thomas Atkinson, D.D., of Baltimore. The laity quickly acceded to the clergy's choice.4

What kind of man had the diocese chosen? Had they, in fact, chosen a worthy successor to Ravenscroft? Born in 1807, Thomas Atkinson was a Virginia native who practiced law before entering the ministry. From 1837 to 1843 he served parishes in Norfolk and Lynchburg, Virginia, and for the next decade he served parishes in Baltimore, Maryland.

Maryland in the 1840s had a high church bishop, William Whittingham, though the diocese itself drew from both the low and high church parties. During Atkinson's tenure in Baltimore, there were several notable clashes between Bishop Whittingham and some of the more evangelical clergy who resisted his leadership. One of the clergy of the diocese went so far as to refuse to let Bishop Whittingham celebrate Holy Communion when he came for his parish visitation. This issue was finally resolved in the bishop's favor by action of the 1850 General Convention, which established the bishop's canonical right to celebrate in any parish of his diocese as part of his visitation. Another member of the clergy ran afoul of Bishop Whittingham by conducting an abbreviated prayer book service in a Methodist Church after the bishop had specifically prohibited him from doing so. In both these cases, Atkinson was among those who stood with his bishop and helped to craft the written defense of the bishop's positions before diocesan convention.5 Indeed, Atkinson's 1843 decision to leave Virginia for Maryland was, in part at least, prompted by the fact that Atkinson did not see eye-to-eye with the decidedly low church Bishop Meade of Virginia and found Maryland more congenial. …

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