Politics and the Prayer Book Revisions of 1785 and 1789

In the aftermath of the American Revolution the newly Americanized Protestant Episcopal Church in the United States—the successor to the colonial Church of England, revised the Book of Common Prayer for American usage in 1785 and in 1789. The reasons given were to make Anglican worship in the new American republic “conformable to the principles of the American Revolution and the constitutions of the several States.” William White, the second American bishop and the first presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church, led the charge to Americanize Anglican liturgy. In his book The American Prayer-Book Revisions of 1785 and 1789, William Stevens Perry (1832-1898), bishop of Iowa, proposed that it was William White’s patriotism that drove him to amend an Anglican liturgy largely unchanged since 1662. “It is certainly characteristic of the patriotic White,” noted Perry, “as well as thoroughly consonant with the environment of the revisers of 1785, that this first American liturgical document should begin with words such as these: ‘That in the suffrages, after the Creed, instead of O Lord, save the King, be said, O Lord, bless and preserve these United States.’”

Perry emphasized that pastoral concerns were symbiotic with patriotic expression in the preparations of the Prayer Book revisions in the 1780s. The laity, and lay political concerns, pushed churchmen to change the liturgy. Perry called the liturgical changes in the aftermath of  the American victory in the War for Independence “a necessity.” At the outbreak of the war, “clergy who continued to use the state prayers in the service were subjected to interruption and insult, and often to personal peril.” As independence gained support and “took shape in the minds of the people, the clergy were forced to face the problem of ceasing their public ministrations, or of omitting these obnoxious prayers.” In Philadelphia’s Christ Church, “the first formal and authoritative change in the services took place, even before its chimes had sounded far and wide, ringing in-responsive to the pealing of the State House bell – the proclamation of liberty to the world.” When independence was declared on July 4, 1776, the vestry of Christ Church, “from among whose worshippers and pew-holders fully half a dozen of the ‘signers’ were furnished, met, and ordered the omission of the prayers for the king and royal family.”

The Prayer Book revisions illustrated how churchmen in the new Protestant Episcopal Church in the United States conceived of the relationship between the church and the political order. “The Churchmen of 1785,” Bishop Perry declared, “were patriots.” They shaped Episcopal services for the century that succeeded the American Revolution. Prayer Book revision was “done by the very men who, in the halls of congress or on the field of battle, won for us our independence.” The American Book of Common Prayer after its revisions in 1785 and 1789 “was the first expression of the autonomy of the American Church this breathing, to the God Who had given us our nationality, of the Church’s prayer for the benediction and preservation of the United States!”[1]


[1] William Stevens Perry, The American Prayer-book Revisions of 1785 and 1789: A Sermon Preached in Philadelphia, On the Eighteenth Sunday after Trinity, October 16, 1892 (Davenport, IA: Edward Borcherdt, 1892), 1-6.

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