Episcopalian Debates on Calvinism and the Articles, ca 1801

In 1820 Dr. William White, Episcopal bishop of Pennsylvania, published Memoirs of the Protestant Episcopal Church in the United States of America. The work catalogued and narrated the history of the Episcopal Church from its advent in 1789. White enlarged the work in a second edition published in 1836. Episcopalians remained substantively unified theologically until the 1840s, when the Tractarian controversy occurred. That unity lay in an understanding that the Thirty-Nine Articles of the Church of England were explicitly Calvinist. The disagreements that did occur among presbyters and lay intellectuals was not over whether the Episcopal Church was Calvinistic or not. The controversies revolved around how Calvinism was defined.

At the Episcopal Church’s 1801 convention a debate over the place of the Articles occurred between Calvinists and those who refused to self-describe as Calvinist. The debate was not, as it might seem to modern readers, a question of whether or not the Episcopal Church was a Protestant or even Reformed church. White argued that the Church of England’s theological dispositions remained Reformed and he put the Articles of Religion in the milieu of Reformed confessions. What the bishops particularly questioned was whether or not the Articles should be amended to clarify their theological commitments in light of the Arminian controversy that had been resurrected by the rise of Methodism in Britain in the late Eighteenth Century.

Calvinism, the Bishop noted, “came in greater authority from Geneva” during the reign of Elizabeth I. The “constant complaint” about the Articles from the Puritans, White proposed, lay not in the fact that the Articles weren’t Reformed, but that they were not “sufficiently evangelical” in the matter of particular commitments regarding the controversy between Calvinist and the followers of Jacobus Arminius. The Puritans’ mistake, said White, was not their commitments to Calvinism but in asking the Articles to do something they were not designed to do: speak to a controversy that began a generation after they were written and promulgated. “It may be proved,” the bishop noted, “that in the reign of Edward VI when the articles were framed, there was a diversity of sentiments” within Reformed churches on what he called “those points” particularly certain questions over the limits of atonement and the nature of perseverance.

White proposed that at the time of the Elizabethan settlement none of the disputants committed to various positions within broader Reformed churches “complained” that narrow theological pronouncements on the controversial issues had been excluded. The Church of England’s mission had been to create a Reformed Catholic church, and had seen fit to not exclude certain positions. The Articles defined Reformed religiosity for the Church of England and later the Episcopal Church, but they were older than Westminster and did not speak to the same controversies, nor did they speak as narrowly on certain controversies within Reformed Protestantism. “It is but to compare the thirty-nine Articles with the Westminster confession, or with the decrees of the synod of Dort,” White wrote, “to perceive how general and guarded the first were, on the topics on which the others are very particular and express.”

The bishops decided not to amend the articles. “A new code of articles” would split “the Church into no one knows how many different communions, very much to the hinderance of true piety.” White supposed that the explicitly Reformed Articles still approached “nearer than others, to the standard of the best ages.” Debates over the Articles and Calvinism before the Tractarian controversy were not ever debates over the Protestant or Reformed nature of the Episcopal Church and its predecessors, but debates over theological controversies within Reformed Protestantism.

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