J.S.J. Gardiner, Early National Letters, and the Perseverance of British-American Culture

By Milford, T. A. | Anglican and Episcopal History, December 2001 | Go to article overview

J.S.J. Gardiner, Early National Letters, and the Perseverance of British-American Culture


Milford, T. A., Anglican and Episcopal History


Historians of the eighteenth century have, in the last decade or so, shown a renewed appreciation for Atlantic frames of reference. In the American field, imperial history and "anglicization"-and now "Britonization"-are once again fashionable approaches.1 Readers of this journal and other students of the colonial Church of England should rejoice in these conditions, for such approaches invite serious interest in the contributions of Anglican missionaries and provincial laity, whose own interests were necessarily transatlantic. The work of Frank Klingberg-and his description of the S.PG. as an "agent of Empire"-seems quite fresh in this historiographical climate.2 Fresh, yes, but how promising? Scholars of the colonial church, emboldened by the Anglican revival of the early eighteenth century, usually find themselves, by mid-century, falling back into a tale of disappointment and negative influence, as in the many retellings of the episcopal controversy.

This articles hopes to relate a more positive story, even as it recognizes the retrenchments forced on the church and indeed on many Americans of various political and religious persuasions by the imperial crisis and its aftermath. One of the chief virtues of Atlantic history and its antecedents is that they encourage us to explore the continuities that span the Revolutionary divide between the provincial era and nationhood. After studying a truly British America, one cannot accept that the world was remade or even turned upside down in 1783. America's aspirant elites were nurtured in an imperial and often very cosmopolitan environment. The histories of early national ideas, politics, professions, religions, and letters are colored by this fact.

The subject of this article, John Sylvester John Gardiner (or J.SJ. Gardiner henceforth), demonstrates by his example the persistence and adaptive capability of British-American culture. The assistant rector (1792-1805) and rector (1805-30) of Boston's Trinity Church, he was also a citizen and commentator who witnessed the slow explosion of the eighteenth century's tighter social and political matrices. The first British Empire had split: the old "home" half would recover and achieve even greater glories than its predecessor; the United States, after some insecure passages-St. Glair's defeat in the western woods, abuse on the high seas, the burning of the capital-would establish their own expansive but intranational empire. In American politics, the broadbottom formed of revolutionary success and Washingtonian calm would give way, by century's end, to an often violent spirit of partisanship. In the world of business, traditional maritime capital began to find industrial outlets, provoking further elaborations of the American social fabric. The professions were becoming more specialized, and young men of ambition and learning were finding it more and more difficult to move between them. Lawyers were clearly in the ascendant-the Revolution and the era of constitutional reform had confirmed this-but many lawyers were dissatisfied by the increasingly narrow, if increasingly lucrative, labors their profession demanded.3 Last but not least, the religious latitude that characterized the upper echelons of the revolutionary generation snapped under the cross-pressures of evangelical fervor and an openly heterodox liberalism.

J.SJ. Gardiner and his peers experienced these pressures, even as their country did. It was an upsetting, divisive period, and Gardiner's disposition was too well attuned to the moment. He relished conflict, both as a voluble spectator in the political arena and as a controversialist in the pulpit. His personality was strong, sometimes bordering on the rebarbative. His words could be venomous or bitter when mustered in defence. And there was much to defend. Late colonial Americans were convinced that British civilization was the most advanced, the most productive of goods as well as liberties. The revolutionaries saw themselves as the guardians of that civilization. …

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