EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the second in a series of articles on the different denominations in North America, written by Robert W. Caldwell III, who is professor of church history at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary.
Sometimes if you want to understand something, you have to dig deep to get to the root. In order to understand the complexity of today’s American denominations, we must dig deep into the history of the roots in search of a solid starting point. Long before the American Revolution, the Great Awakening and even the Pilgrims, the Church of Englandotherwise known as Anglican Church, emerged in the wake of the English Reformation. This denomination will serve as an entry into our survey of the American religious landscape simply because the origins of many denominations we know today – Presbyterianism, Congregationalism, Baptists, Methodism – partly began as movements that rejected originally the key characteristics of the Anglican Church. What is Anglicanism and where does it come from?
Anglicanism (anglo simply means “English”) emerged during England’s tumultuous Reformation in the 16th century. In the 1530s, King Henry VIII’s quest for a male heir, along with many other factors, led him to sever ties between the English Church and Roman Catholicism. This separation, however, was not a complete success and over the following decades the Church of England went through a remarkably turbulent power struggle where its allegiances at times veered sharply towards Reformed Protestantism (under Edward VI) then strongly towards Roman Catholicism (under Queen Mary). Ultimately, it was the long and steady reign of Queen Elizabeth I (r. 1588-1603) that helped establish Anglicanism in a form that proved both successful and enduring.
From a Baptist perspective, perhaps the most striking feature of Anglicanism is the way it combines the two elements of Catholicism and Protestantism. On the one hand, the Anglican Church took a strong stance on central Protestant concerns. We see it in his confession, The thirty-nine articles (1563). There we see a strong affirmation of the sufficiency of Scripture and the doctrine of justification by faith alone. There is also the explicit denial of certain Roman Catholic teachings, including purgatory, transubstantiation, invocation of saints, and adoration of images and relics. These points placed the Church of England clearly in alignment with the Protestant Reformation.
On the other hand, pre-Reformation patterns of worship and religious regime remained prominent features within the Church of England. First, Anglicans insist on the centrality of the episcopal office. Similar to Roman Catholicism, Anglican bishops assert that the lines of apostolic authority run through the historical chain of its bishops (a doctrine known as apostolic succession). Second, Anglicans emphasize the sacraments. Many Anglicans understand that baptism is closely associated with regeneration, and the Lord’s Supper is the culmination of weekly worship where participants receive the bread and cup from the hand of an ordained priest as he kneels before The sanctuary. Third, Anglican worship follows a structured liturgical guide known as the The Book of Common Prayer, a manual that prescribes the order of weekly church services as well as baptism, marriage, ordination, and funeral services. This “prayer book”, as it is often called, follows the ancient calendar of the liturgical year, prescribes specific prayers to be read during weekly services, as well as Bible readings for each day of the year. the common prayer book has influenced the English language since several well-known phrases associated with marriage services have their origins in its pages (see sidebar).
Many Baptists might find Anglicanism and its American counterpart Episcopalism a confusing mix. They may resonate with his Protestant concerns, but they also find his pre-Reformation sympathies to be somewhat out of step with the ethos that permeates much of modern evangelicalism.
Anglicanism was an important denomination in the American colonial period. Many of America’s Founding Fathers, such as George Washington, James Madison, and Alexander Hamilton, were associated with the Church of England in varying degrees before the American Revolution. After the Revolution, when American Anglicans could no longer support the English monarchy, American churches severed official ties with the Church of England and formed the Episcopal Church in America in the 1780s. Today, although Although the American Episcopal Church is still a self-governing entity, it considers itself a happy participant in the worldwide Anglican Communion which currently numbers approximately 85 million members.
Around the world, not all Anglicans are the same. Various identifiable subgroups have been identified in the history of Anglicanism. First, there were the “High Church” Anglicans who cherished the historical roots of Anglicanism: its episcopal system, its connection with the ancient Church Fathers, its creeds, its liturgy and its affirmation of the ‘orthodoxy. Second, there was a large group of evangelical Anglicans who appreciated the Protestant characteristics of his heritage. These “Low Church” Anglicans, as they are sometimes called, cherish sound biblical preaching, evangelistic piety, evangelism and missions and include several well-known evangelists, ministers and writers that Baptists might know, such as the First Great Awakening evangelist, George Whitefield and famous medievalist and fantasy writer, CS Lewis. Third, a ‘Broad Church’ movement emerged in Anglicanism which sought to align Anglican thought with current intellectual and social trends. The openness that American Episcopalians have recently shown towards the ordination of women and homosexuals stems in part from the continued influence of this group. More recently, a group of charismatic Anglicans, a subset of the evangelical group, has emerged for whom the blessings of Spirit-filled worship are of primary concern. Together, these diverse groupings demonstrate the great diversity inherent in modern Anglicanism.
Today, the worldwide Anglican Communion has approximately eighty-five million members, two million of whom are American Episcopalians. Obviously, its unique mixture of Catholicism and Protestantism has seduced more than one. Yet historically this mixture may have repelled as many individuals as it attracted, for as we will see in future articles, several major denominations emerged when many Christians could not accept what many saw as the Catholic remnants of Anglicanism. . We will begin this story in the next essay when we turn our attention to Presbyterianism.
- Well-known phrases that come from The Book of Common Prayer:
- “Speak now or be silent forever” from the liturgy of marriage.
- “Till death do us part” from the wedding liturgy.
- “Earth to Earth, Ashes to Ashes, Dust to Dust”, from the funeral service.
- Anglicans you may know:
- George Whitefield (1715-1770) – preacher and revivalist of the First Great Awakening.
- John Newton (1725-1807) – hymn writer, former slave trader and author of “Amazing Grace”
- John & Charles Wesley – founders of Methodism
- C.S. Lewis (1898-1963) – Christian apologist, essayist and creator of The Chronicles of Narnia
- John Stott (1921-2011) – international Bible teacher and writer.
- I. Packer (born 1926-2020) – bestselling book author, Knowing God.