Encyclopedia of Religion
and Society

William H. Swatos, Jr. Editor

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The Christian denomination in the United States that formally traces its heritage to the Church of England and is recognized by the Church of England as being its legitimate associate in the United States as a part of the worldwide "Anglican Communion."

Formally founded in 1789, there was a Church of England presence in North America from the earliest English merchant adventurers. The name "episcopal" is derived from the NT Greek episkopos , normally translated "bishop." At the time of its founding in the United States, the church took the title Protestant Episcopal, although in recent decades the modifier has been dropped to an alternate title in everything but legal documents. Strictly speaking, however, only the "General Convention" of the church exists as a body, since the Episcopal Church is actually a confederation of approximately 100 local judicatories (dioceses), each of which remains technically independent and legally capable of withdrawing from the confederation, which is modeled structurally on the Articles of Confederation of the United States. The first bishop consecrated for the United States was Samuel Seabury, in 1784, through the Scottish Nonjuror succession; two additional bishops, Provoost and White, were consecrated in the English succession in 1785.

Episcopalian expansion was slow relative to other denominational traditions. In the 1820s, for example, when U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice John Marshall was approached for a subscription for the Virginia Theological Seminary, he replied that it was "almost unkind to induce young Virginians to enter the Episcopal ministry," because he thought the church "too far gone ever to be revived." Church growth was hindered by lack of experience with the church as a voluntary society, insistence on a classically trained ministry, and adherence to fixed liturgical forms all based on a model of parish life from sixteenth-century England. The church grew fastest in New England and the Mid-Atlantic states, where it had already had to face the consequences of disestablishment, but growth was much slower in the South. Westward expansion was spotty, especially outside of major urban areas. On the other hand, the Episcopal Church was among the least fractured denominations during the Civil War, and the "high church" or Anglo-Catholic movement that budded in England in the 1830s gradually had a strengthening effect, particularly in westward mission development. As the nineteenth century wore on, some Episcopalians became leaders in progressive social movements, even though the denomination as a whole was identified with commercial-industrial leaders.

The Episcopal Church benefitted numerically from the churchgoing "revival" in the 1950s but in the 1980s experienced a significant loss of membership and now stands at about 2 million. The Episcopal Church was a leading force in the civil rights movement of the 1960s and in other causes of social justice, but in recent years the church has been wracked by controversies surrounding the ordination of women, gay/lesbian issues, clergy sexual misconduct, and fiscal mismanagement.

The Episcopal Church has not directly been the subject of extensive social scientific investigation (see Swatos 1979), but its major American offshoot, Methodism, has been. Additionally, the extensive body of research on puritanism and the Protestant ethic is largely to be juxtaposed with the Anglican worldview (see Little 1969). Recent research has focused primarily on the ordination of women controversy (see, e.g., Nesbitt 1997).

More general sociological research on social status has consistently found Episcopalians to be significantly overrepresented among American elites (see Davidson et al., 1995). This finding occurs whether the measures are relatively "hard" data such as income and wealth or such things as proportionate numbers of members of Congress or listees in volumes such as Who's Who . Although the Episcopal Church is often considered part of the U.S. "Protestant establishment," a study of moral valuing across a national sample (Wood and Hughes 1984) found that Episcopalians formed a constellation with Unitarians and Reform Jews that stood separate from any other group of Christians. Because these two groups share with Episcopalians significant overrepresentation among elites today, this strongly suggests that the social status component operates in shaping life values.

William H. Swatos, Jr .


J. D. Davidson et al., "Persistence and Change in the Protestant Establishment," Social Forces 74 (1995):157-175

D. Little, Religion, Order, and Law (New York: Harper, 1969)

P. D. Nesbitt, The Femininization of the Clergy (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997)

W. H. Swatos, Jr., Into Denominationalism (Storrs, Conn.: Society for the Scientific Study of Religion, 1979)

M. Wood and M. Hughes, "The Moral Basis of Moral Reform," American Sociological Review 49 (1984):86-99.

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