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Bishop McIlvaine and the evangelical heritage of the Episcopal Church

This post is adapted from a sermon delivered at Evening Prayer on April 29 during the conference Evangelion II: Expressing Evangelical Identity in the Episcopal Church, held at Trinity School for Ministry. The service commemorated Bishop Charles Pettit McIlvaine of Ohio (1799–1873).

Grace and peace to you in the name of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.

I was honored to be invited to preach at this conference. As we have gathered from near and far to focus on the expression of evangelical identity in the Episcopal Church, it is appropriate to pause for a moment this afternoon to honor, and to be inspired and encouraged by the memory of, one of the great evangelical leaders of the Episcopal Church in the 19th century, Charles Pettit McIlvaine. And it is fitting that we would do so in this service of Evening Prayer from the 1789 Book of Common Prayer. It was his close companion: during his days of theological education, at the beginning of his ordained ministry when he served congregations and chaplaincies, and when he was consecrated as a bishop, moving on horseback and by buckboard and carriage from congregation to congregation across the rural roads and unpaved byways of 19th-century Ohio.

I learned from Tom Isham just about everything I know regarding the life and ministry of Charles McIlvaine. I commend his book A Born Again Episcopalian: The Evangelical Witness of Charles P. McIlvaine (Birmingham: Solid Ground Christian Books, 2011). It is a wonderfully written, carefully researched, and warmly affectionate profile of this great leader of the Episcopal Church. If our evangelical friends in the Church of England can point to 19th-century spiritual grandfathers and forerunners like Charles Simeon or J.C. Ryle, we evangelical Episcopalians can with enthusiasm claim in McIlvaine an equally compelling ancestry. There were giants in those days on both sides of the Atlantic.

To answer in the affirmative a question frequently asked here in Pennsylvania — Can anything good come from New Jersey? — I note that Charles Pettit McIlvaine was born in Burlington in 1799, scion of a prominent political family: his father served in the United States Senate, his grandfather was New Jersey’s Secretary of State, and his great-uncle was a member of the Continental Congress and Governor of Pennsylvania. McIlvaine was educated at the College of New Jersey (which became Princeton College), and trained for ministry in the institution that became Princeton Seminary.

McIlvaine’s time at Princeton came in an era of high-profile revivals and awakenings. At the tender age of 16 during a significant campus revival, McIlvaine, along with a number of his fellow students, experienced a dramatic and convincing conversion and renewal of Christian faith that would take hold of his life forever. In the years that followed, his vocational discernment was shaped by the rigors and character of an educational institution that was a center for scholarship in the great tradition of Reformed theology and churchmanship.

McIlvaine’s ministerial career had an amazing trajectory. I’m sure it was given a boost by the prominence of his family, but soon it was driven by his reputation for excellence as a preacher, teacher, author, and gifted controversialist. He served Christ Church, Georgetown, and was chaplain to the United States Senate. He took on successive roles as chaplain and professor of ethics at West Point, rector of St. Ann’s in Brooklyn, and professor of religion at the University of the City of New York. All this, mind you, happened before he turned 30. At 31 he became Bishop of Ohio and simultaneously President of Kenyon College.

Through the middle years of the 19th century McIlvaine engaged the movements of his time with a robust and eager spirit and with profound theological and biblical acuity. He countered the influences of the High Church party of John Henry Hobart, as well as rising Ritualistic parties within the Episcopal Church. He also countered the descendants of the 18th-century Latitudinarians and Deists who were asserting the authority of philosophical rationalism and scientism above God’s revealed Word.

At the same time, he was among evangelicals an energetic defender of the Episcopal Church and Anglicanism and most of all of the deep theological coherence of the Book of Common Prayer. McIlvaine was consistent in his insistence on the truth of Scripture and of its authority in matters of doctrine and conduct. To quote Tom Isham, he was “convinced of the sufficiency of imputed righteousness received from Christ, by faith alone,” and he believed that this central teaching of Scripture was effectively presented in the Book of Common Prayer. An evangelical and a churchman, he refused to join in the exodus of those who departed from the Episcopal Church to form the Reformed Episcopal Church.

It’s a great story, and for those of us who have lived and served in the Episcopal Church through the last decades of the 20th century and now into the 21st, it is an eerily familiar one. Catholic sacramentalism on one side, dedicated theological liberalism and progressive social agendas on the other, and then a wave of well-meaning friends leaping over the fence to found a new Anglican denomination: the more things change, the more they stay the same.

The fabric of McIlvaine’s life was richly textured, marked by joys and sorrows, strengths and weaknesses; it included a fascinating appearance on the public stage in the form of a critical diplomatic mission on behalf of President Lincoln and the United States during the Civil War. He was also acquainted with the Church of England and leaders of British society and government. When McIlvaine died during one of his many journeys abroad it was decided that before the final journey home his body would lie in state for four days in Westminster Abbey: to this day he is the only American to be accorded that honor.

Again, read Tom Isham’s book! I’m just scratching the surface, and I don’t bring these things up simply to encourage us in our own evangelical identity, but also to provide a reminder. Members of the Episcopal Church so often deny the deep roots of evangelical life in the church: in a kind of revisionism some seem to maintain that the presence of evangelicals is simply the result of a few Presbyterians who followed Robert Webber down the Canterbury Trail in the 1980s.

Instead, McIlvaine’s life serves as a compelling and encouraging reminder of the continuing story, our continuing story, as Anglicans and as preachers, teachers, and leaders in the Episcopal Church, from the early days of the Reformation on into our American church. We find in McIlvaine a compelling witness to the truth and authority of the Bible in matters of faith and conduct, the sufficiency of the Cross, God’s graceful and perfect initiative of renewal, and a new form of life for those in Christ, converted and refreshed in the way of holiness. We find here a motivating word and agenda for the 19th century and the 21st.

The readings from Scripture appointed for McIlvaine’s observance get right to the heart of the story; we should keep them before our eyes. From Psalm 119: “Thy testimonies are wonderful: therefore doth my soul keep them. The entrance of thy words giveth light; it giveth understanding unto the simple. I opened my mouth, and panted: for I longed for thy commandments.”

From Proverbs 4: “My son, attend to my words; incline thine ear unto my sayings. Let them not depart from thine eyes; keep them in the midst of thine heart. For they are life unto those that find them, and health to all their flesh.”

And then our Lord in Mark 8: “Whosoever therefore shall be ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation; of him also shall the Son of man be ashamed, when he cometh in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.”

Our calling as evangelicals in the Episcopal Church is this: to be bold and clear, attending carefully to the Word; to take the initiative to speak out fearlessly, not seeking our own advancement, but simply being what the Lord calls us to be where we are, here and now; and to work from within, to build up the Church, to persuade, and to influence, not in a tribal or partisan spirit, but with a winsome effort, for the love of our Lord and in the continuing stewardship of his gospel.

We must go out to do the work God has prepared for us to walk in, with thanks for the witness of Charles Pettit McIlvaine and with thanks above all for the opportunity to be witnesses of Christ in our own day.

The Rev. Bruce Robison is rector of St. Andrew’s Church, Highland Park. His other Covenant posts are here

The featured image of Bishop Charles McIlvaine is in the public domain.


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