The (Anglican) Church Aggressive

By the 1850s significant theological and ecclesiastical battle lines had been drawn the between sympathizers of the Tractarian Movement and the Low Church party in the Episcopal Church in the United States. Although not every devotee of the Tractarians could qualify as what modern Anglicanism might call an Angl0-Catholic, a significant High Church Party developed and flourished in the Mid-Atlantic states and New England at midcentury. Although modern Evangelical historiography often treats the High Church party as mere formalists and ritualists disinterested in evangelism, High Churchmen shared with their Low Church c0-religionists a commitment to personal evangelism and to furthering Christian cultural, devotional, and social aims in the American republic.

In the Fall of 1853 Bishop George Washington Doane of New Jersey spoke to the alumni of General Theological Seminary. He entitled his address “The Church Aggressive,” and he articulated four propositions for the gathered clergymen; The Church was and is aggressive; it had numerous and powerful enemies; it needed an army, trained and organized, as well as fearless and devoted; and this army’s weapons were not base or carnal.

Doane used his address to admonish Christians in the United States, who he believed had become complacent. The scriptures, he declared, were full of warlike imagery. St Michael’s ancient angelic battle with the Satanic dragon showed that spiritual warfare predated human history. The very vows of Baptism committed the Christian “to be a soldier,” whether he liked it or not.

The bishop warned his listeners that a properly belligerent “stern and searching” view of “Christian duty and responsibility” was sadly far from the minds of most American Christians. Christening had degenerated in to “a decent ceremony; with many, but the occasion for a domestic feast.” The Cross was nothing but “an ornament; almost, a toy.” Christianity without its appropriate aggressive mature merely “a better sort of worldliness.” Doane feared that the “banner of the Cross” could do nothing but mock the “soft and silken warfare” that passed for Christianity in the United States.” What a phantasmagoria, to modern eyes, the whole array of knights and squires, that ever bled in holy wars! And what a mockery has martyrdom become, in modern estimation.”

Aggressive Christianity had to exist because the church had very real enemies. Baptism launched the believer in to battle. Doane preached that “at the baptismal entrance on the Christian life, the vow is made and registered in Heaven, ‘to confess the faith of Christ crucified, and manfully to fight under His banner.’” Manful fighting—according to Doane—had to be the constant posture for Christians. “Never, for a single moment, is the Christian soldier free from the stern pressure of” spiritual warfare. Doane, like many high churchmen saw Roman Catholicism as a chief spiritual and temporal enemy contending for souls against the truth: Protestantism and more particularly the Episcopal Church.

Christian soldiers had tools and weapons at their disposal to fight the Church’s battle for the Kingdom of Heaven, and Doane perceived Christianity’s civilizational and educational mission to be essential for Christian warfare. “We must lay deep and strong, the broad foundations of our Christian schools; multiply them, in all our dioceses; and throw them open to the children of the land, that they be trained for Christ” and “made the heirs of his eternal kingdom.” Christians also “must wield the press, too, for the Lord; and consecrate its giant energies in the high service of His Gospel.”

High Church Anglicans’ use of belligerent rhetoric and commitment to the civilizational aspects of Christianity deserve more historiographic coverage, especially when dispositions like Doane’s are wrongly seen by some historians as particular creations of so-called Evangelical culture in the late Twentieth and early Twenty-First Century.


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