Samuel Seabury

The American theologian Samuel Seabury (1729-1796) was an important figure in the establishment of the Episcopal Church in the United States.

Samuel Seabury was born in Groton, Conn., on Nov. 30, 1729, a son of Samuel Seabury, a minister of the Congregational Church who became a convert to the Church of England and was ordained in its ministry in 1730. Young Seabury graduated from Yale College in 1748, went to England in 1751, studied medicine in Edinburgh, and was ordained in 1753. A year later he returned to America under the auspices of the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel and became rector of Christ Church, New Brunswick, N.J. Later he served churches in Jamaica and Westchester, N.Y.

Conflict characterized Seabury's life. He was a High Churchman and a royalist. He believed that the establishment of a strong episcopate in America should take precedence over the organization of a national church. An early controversy left a mark on him. Dissenters, who were in the majority in the Jamaica vestry, opposed the governor's action in making Seabury, rather than the man they had chosen, the town minister. Later, in Westchester, using a pseudonym, he wrote pamphlets in defense of the Church of England and of British rule in America. In November 1775 he was arrested but was permitted to return to Westchester 2 months later. He sought refuge behind the British lines in September 1776 and in 1778 was appointed chaplain to a British regiment. After the war he received a pension from the British government.

In 1783 Seabury was chosen by the Connecticut clergy to obtain consecration as a bishop. The lack of bishops in America had been an obstacle to the growth of the Church, for ordination could be effected only in England. But the English authorities would not agree to Seabury's candidacy, and he was consecrated in the Episcopal Church of Scotland in November 1784. The following year he returned to America as rector of St. James Church, New London, Conn., and bishop of Connecticut, the first bishop of the Episcopal Church in the country.

Efforts to establish a national Episcopal Church had begun during Seabury's absence. His position as bishop caused some opposition to unification; some clergymen condemned him because of his actions in support of the British; others doubted the validity of his consecration. He was strongly supported by most of the New England clergy, however, and Church unity was achieved at the General Convention of 1789 in Philadelphia. Seabury died on Feb. 25, 1796, in New London.


Further Reading on Samuel Seabury

James Thayer Addison, The Episcopal Church in the United States, 1789-1931 (1951), gives an account of Seabury's activities. Raymond W. Albright, A History of the Protestant Episcopal Church (1964), contains more detail and documentation. The classic biographical sketch of Seabury is in The Episcopate in America by William Stevens Perry (1895).

Additional Biography Sources

Mitgang, Herbert, The man who rode the tiger: the life of Judge Samuel Seabury and the story of the greatest investigation of city corruption in this century, New York: Norton, 1979, 1963.

Seabury, Samuel, Moneygripe's apprentice: the personal narrative of Samuel Seabury III, New Haven: Yale University Press, 1989.