Samuel Seabury: America’s First Bishop

Samuel Seabury, America’s First Bishop

By the Revd Canon Chuck Collins

Given the oddball personalities responsible for founding the Episcopal Church in the USA, it is a miracle that there are any Anglicans in America today! A leader of the motley crew was Samuel Seabury. He was consecrated in Aberdeen, Scotland as the first Bishop for what was still known in America as the Church of England on November 14, 1784. Seabury was a loyalist who served as a chaplain with the British forces in New York, preached against the patriotic vision of the Continental Congress, and was horrified at the prospect of war with Great Britain. But after the Revolutionary War, and after almost 200 years without a resident bishop in America, the Protestant Episcopal Church in the United States (the official title of the newly formed Episcopal Church) had its first bishop.

At his own expense Seabury sailed to London hoping to be consecrated there, but when he was refused, he went to Aberdeen where he was consecrated bishop by the Scottish Episcopal Church. In exchange for his consecration, Seabury agreed to include certain elements of the Scottish Prayer Book in the Episcopal Church’s first Prayer Book (1789). He liked the dignity of his office a lot, signing his first letter to the Connecticut clergy, “Samuel, by divine permission, Bishop of Connecticut.” He at first opposed any “lay” involvement in church leadership (General Conventions) until he finally conceded this point for the sake of church unity. 

Seabury was a high church Anglican who introduced into the American Prayer Book an “epiclesis” (prayer invoking the Holy Spirit to make the bread and wine of Communion to be the body and blood of Christ) from the Prayer Book of the Scottish Church. This contradicted the theology and practice of the 1662 Book of Common Prayer. The epiclesis was not in any Book of Common Prayer after 1549 (including 1662) because it directly implies a Roman Catholic view of “real presence” and a sacrificing priesthood that the historic Anglican formularies oppose. Seabury and other early high churchmen still believed that Christ is spiritually present in the eucharist and that his real presence is in the hearts of those who receive the grace of the sacrament by faith as Article 29 says. (It wasn’t until the Tractarian movement of the 1830s-40s that the church was introduced to the idea again that Christ is corporeally present in the bread and wine of Holy Communion, and an epiclesis didn’t show up in Anglicanism until the Scottish Episcopal rite and the Episcopal Church Prayer Book.)

Seabury stood for strong, autocratic episcopal (bishops) control, and for the diocese as the main unit of ministry rather than local congregations. Like many who followed in the steps of William Laud, Samuel Seabury was a convinced Arminian who urged the Episcopal Church to simply drop the Calvinist-inclined historic Anglican formularies (the Thirty-nine Articles) as the American church’s confessional standard. After Seabury died in 1796, in 1801 the newly formed Protestant Episcopal Church officially adopted the Articles as its theological standard.


The author is the Director of the Center for Reformation Anglicanism: