top of page

in the United States

Most published histories of Anglo-Catholicism concentrate on the Church of England, and pay little attention to the movement’s progress in the United States. The story of American Anglo-Catholicism is, however, our story.

The High-Church Tradition

Before the Oxford Movement began in the 1830s, there was already a vigorous "high-church" party active across the Atlantic in the Episcopal Church in the United States.

During the American Revolution, the future of Anglicanism in the new nation had been in doubt. To many, the desire for worship according to the Book of Common Prayer in a church governed by bishops seemed inseparable from loyalty to the British Crown. Bishops in particular were regarded as part of the old system of aristocracy that had no place in the new American Republic.

In the Thirteen Colonies, Anglicans had simply been those who remained loyal to the Church of England. Once forced to go their own way, however, American Episcopalians found it necessary to articulate the theological and doctrinal reasons for their distinctive system of worship and church order.

In the newly formed Episcopal Church, "high-church" and "low-church" parties emerged, each emphasizing different elements of the Anglican heritage. The low-church party emphasized evangelical preaching aimed at producing adult conversions. The high-church party emphasized the sacraments and the apostolic succession. Where the low-church party stressed the similarities between the Episcopal Church and Protestant denominations, the high-church party stressed the differences.


Many Episcopalians found the high-church position attractive because it offered the most persuasive justification for the continued existence of a separate Episcopal Church in America after the Revolution had severed ties with the Church of England. Early American high-church bishops included Samuel Seabury of Connecticut and John Henry Hobart of New York.

American Influence on the Tractarians

In 1823, John Henry Hobart visited Oxford, where he made a positive impression on the future Tractarian leaders John Keble and John Henry Newman. Years later, Newman pointed to the Episcopal Church as vindicating the Oxford Movement’s principles.

Unlike the Church of England, the Episcopal Church was prospering and growing in America without any official connection to or support from the state. So, Newman argued, the very existence of the Episcopal Church proved the Oxford Movement’s main point: the Church of England, reflected in her American daughter, was not a department of state, but a true branch of the One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church. And bishops, as seen in America, were not civic officials deriving their authority from the Crown, but true successors of the apostles deriving their authority from Christ himself.

Anglo-Catholicism in America

During the 1830s the Tracts for the Times were republished in the United States, winning cautious approval from the high-church party, and vigorous denunciation from the low-church party. Then, in the 1840s, a new generation of Anglo-Catholics began to emerge. Under the influence of the Oxford Movement, they went much further on many points than the older high-churchmen, whom they called "high and dry."

For all their emphasis on the apostolic succession, the old high-churchmen still regarded themselves as Protestants, and were staunchly anti-Roman in their attitudes. But the younger generation of Anglo-Catholics came to regard the Protestant Reformation as a destructive aberration—a "de-formation" as they called it—that had obscured Anglicanism’s essential continuity with early and medieval Christianity. In order to restore this continuity to plain view, they began to revive many pre-Reformation practices such as private confession, invocation of the Saints, prayers for the dead, and monastic celibacy.

General Seminary in New York City became an early center of such Anglo-Catholic influence. In 1844 the Episcopal Church's General Convention initiated an investigation into allegations of "Romish" practices among students and faculty there.

Also, in the 1840’s, James Lloyd Breck and several companions founded a semi-monastic community in the  Wisconsin Territory. Their aim was to establish a base for missions and a school for training locally-recruited candidates for the priesthood. The community evolved into Nashotah House, which eventually became the seminary most closely associated with the Catholic movement in the Episcopal Church.

This emerging Anglo-Catholicism provoked fierce opposition which intensified when, after the Civil War, Ritualist practices—genuflections, signs of the cross, vestments, incense, bells, etc.—came more and more into use. Repeated attempts were made in the General Convention to pass legislation aimed at curbing these "excesses." A  majority of Episcopal Church dioceses refused to ratify the election of the Anglo-Catholic leader James DeKoven as Bishop of Wisconsin in 1874, and as Bishop of Illinois in 1875.

But such setbacks proved temporary. In 1888, Charles Grafton was elected Bishop of Fond du Lac in Wisconsin. In 1866, during an extended stay in England, Grafton had been one of the founding members of the Society of Saint John the Evangelist, also known as the Cowley Fathers, the first Anglican religious order for men since the Reformation. Later, from 1872 until 1888, he was Rector of the Church of the Advent in Boston. Grafton’s consecration in 1889 as the second Bishop of Fond du Lac brought an Anglo-Catholic of impeccable credentials into the ranks of the American episcopate.

In 1900, Grafton found himself at the center of controversy when he presided at the consecration of R. H. Weller as his Bishop Coadjutor. A number of bishops from neighboring dioceses took part in the service. Also in attendance, at Grafton’s invitation, was Tikhon, the Russian Orthodox Bishop of the Aleutian Islands and North America (who later became Patriarch of Moscow and died as a martyr under the Bolsheviks). After the service, the bishops went outside to pose for a picture. For the first time ever, bishops of the Episcopal Church were photographed wearing copes and mitres. The picture, which became known as "the Fond du Lac Circus," was widely published, causing heated controversy.

Nonetheless, it was clear by this time that Anglo-Catholicism had gained a secure foothold in the cluster of midwestern dioceses which became known as the "biretta belt," as well as in hundreds of parishes all over the country. Prominent Anglo-Catholic parishes on the East Coast included the Church of the Advent, Boston; St. Stephen’s, Providence; Saint Mary the Virgin, New York City; St. Mark’s, Philadelphia; Mount Calvary, Baltimore; and St. Paul’s, K Street, Washington D.C.

Return to Previous Page

bottom of page