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Friday July 6 2018

Looking Back: First Bishop Overseas Was a Presbyterian

Appropriately for the week of Independence Day, this feature from July 1958 recounts how the first overseas Anglican bishop had to come to Scotland for his consecration.


WHILE the American Colonies were still under the British Crown the many Episcopalians in that part of the world were regarded as being under the pastoral jurisdiction of the Bishop of London. This arrangement came to an end with the Declaration of Independence.

Here were the first President of the new Republic, General George Washington himself, two-thirds o the men who had just designed the Constitution and many more Episcopalians marooned, as it were, on the American continent with never a Bishop amongst them.

Very wisely they decided to send Samuel Seabury, a respected Presbyter of their Church, to Britain with a request to the English Archbishops that he might be duly consecrated as Bishop for service in the new Republic.

Their Graces were quite willing but, unfortunately, owing to their State connection, they had first to obtain permission from the Government in London.

The Government, being highly peeved with the “Yanks” for having “cast off the painter,” decided to take it out on the Church, and refused permission.

Fortunately the Archbishops remembered that the Bishops of the Scottish Episcopal Church had no connection with the State, and suggested that Samuel Seabury should journey Northwards. This he gladly did – having already received part of his education at Edinburgh University.

On this occasion, however, he had to proceed to Aberdeen, where he interviewed the Primus, as the Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church is called.

The Scottish Bishops might be gloriously disestablished, but they had every reason for wishing to keep on the right side of the Government in London. Severe Penal Laws, passed mainly after the ’45, had reduced their Church from a power in the land to “the shadow of a shade,” as Sir Walter Scott described it at that period.

Nevertheless, to their credit, they decided to pay more attention to the Acts of The Holy Apostles than to any Act of Parliament. And on 14th November, 1784, in an “Upper Roomer” at Longacre, Aberdeen, Samuel Seabury was duly raised to the Episcopate by the Primus Kilgour and Bishops Petrie and John Skinner. The simple Scottish arm-chair in which the Primus sat on that historic occasion has been preserved.

Thus under truly Apostolic circumstances the first Anglican Bishop for service overseas was consecrated. He was also, I believe, the first to be consecrated without a Royal Mandate either from a sovereign in London or a King “over the water.”

In so acting the Scottish Bishops risked severe penalties – heavy fines, imprisonment, perhaps even transportation for life. Their courage has been amply justified. There are now Anglican Bishops in almost every part of the world, and more Diocesan Bishops in the U.S.A. than there are in England.

Those three poor men in their black gowns at Aberdeen certainly started something! By their action they shamed the English Church authorities out of their apathy. Not many years afterwards other Bishops were consecrated in the South for service in America and other parts of the world – but it all started in Scotland.


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