The Historical Journal


Whigs, bishops and America: the politics of church reform in mid-eighteenth-century England*

Stephen Taylora1

a1 University of Reading


The eighteenth century is traditionally seen as an interlude between two vigorous movements of church reform. This article explores the problems and attitudes which underlay the absence of major structural reform of the Church in this period. To do so, it examines the failure of attempts, especially those of the 1740s and 1750s, to create an anglican episcopate in the American colonies. The leaders of the Church of England were agreed that the need for American bishops was pressing, on both pastoral and administrative grounds, and the 1740s and 1750s witnessed two proposals for their creation which were supported by virtually the whole bench of bishops. Both failed. The whig ministry resolutely opposed these initiatives, largely out of fear that any debate of church reform would revive the political divisions of Queen Anne's reign. The bishops, moreover, were prepared to submit to this ministerial veto, despite their belief in the necessity of reform, not through political subservience, but because they too feared renewed controversy about religion and the Church, believing that such controversy would revive both anti-clerical attacks from without and bitter divisions within.


* For their comments and criticisms of earlier versions of this article I would like to thank Professor Derek Beales, Dr Richard Brent, Professor Linda Colley, Dr Mark Kaplanoff, Dr John Morrill, Dr J. P. Parry and Dr John Walsh.