Episcopacy and the Reformation

“The changing attitude of those who left the Historic Church, toward the Apostolic Ministry is, to say the least, remarkableand instructive.

(a.) First they revered the Episcopate, longed to retain it, and when they found they had lost the Apostolic Succesison, sought earnestly to recover it. It is well known how Luther and Melancthon believed in Episcopacy. Their confession of faith [Augs. pt. 1, art. 22], speaking of bishops, says: ‘The Churches ought necessarily and jure divino to obey them.’ Melancthon wrote : ‘I would to God it lay in me to restore the government of bishops. For I see what manner of Church we shall have, the ecclesiastical polity being dissolved.’  Beza protested [in his treatise against Saravia] : ‘If there be any (which you shall hardly persuade me to believe) who reject the whole order of Episcopacy, God forbid that any man of sound mind should assent to the madness of such men.’   Calvin, in his commentay on Titus (I.5), admits that there was no such thing as ‘the parity of ministry.’ Again he says: ‘If the bishops so hold their dignity, that they refuse not to submit to Christ, no anathama is too great for those who do not regard such a hierarchy with reverence and the most implicity obedience.’

Says Blondel,a learned Presbyterian: “By all we have said to assert the rights of the Presbytery, we do not intended to invalidate the ancient and apostolical constitutions of Episcoapl pre-eminence, but that wheresoever it has been put down or violated, it ought to be reveretly restored.’ … And there is something touching and pathetic in the reply of Dr. Bogermann, President of the ‘Synod of Dort,’  to the English visitors (sent over by King James I.) when they reminded him that the Reformed Christians in Holland had not retained the Episcopate. ‘It is not permitted us,’ said he, ‘to be so blessed’-‘Nobis non licet esse toem beatis.’  It is also well known that Calvin, Bulliner, and other Protestant leaders wrote to King Edward VI, in 1549, with a view to securing the Episcopal succession from England.  The letter fell into the hands of some Roman Catholics, who forged a haughty and contemptuous reply.

Such testimony might be multiplied to any extent. Grotius, Blondel, Chamier, DeuMouline, Cessaubon, Beza, Bucer, Le Clerc, Baxter, Doddridge, and many more, yielded to the unanswerable argument for the universality of Episcopacy in the early days, and used to place its origin either with the Apostles, or at least as far back as A.D. 150. And it has been shown that if Episcopacy prevailed then it must have prevailed from the begining, for no such stupendous revolution could have taken place within fifty years of St. John’s death.

(b.) Then came a period of blind self-vindication, when the Protestant organizations having (as a temporary expedient) set up a non-Episcopal ministry, seemed bound to give it a sort of ex post facto justification and validity by boldly asserting that it was, forsooth, the primitive order, and that Episcopacy or prelacy ( as they preferred to call it) was a corrupt and tyrannous ursurpation. This assumption had to be backed by the most arbitrary exegesis of Holy Scripture, and the most amazing handling of the Fathers imaginable-it was indeed translating them ‘by the hair of the head over to the side of Presbyterianism.’  This process reached its climax in the early part of this century when Dr. Miller (for example) blindly and recklessly proclaimed that ‘for the first two hundred years after Christ’ Episcopacy was unknown to the Church, but that ‘toward the close of the third century’ (Hear it, ye that have sat with me at the feet of St. Paul and St. John, Ignatius, Ireneaus, Tertullian, Cyprian!!)-‘toward the close of the third century prelacy was gradually and insidiously introduced.’ (!)

Again he says: ‘We find no evidence whatever within the first four (!) centuries that the Christian Church considered diocesan Episcopacy the Apostolic and primitive form….It is not true that any one of the fathers within the first four centuries does assert the Apostolic institution of prelacy.’  Dr. McLeod, of New York, even claimed that the sin of Episcopacy was so great that no bishop could be a minister of Christ, and that all ordinations by bishops were null and void.

(c.) The extreme anti-historical, anti-catholic, anti-scriptural position of Dr. Miller and his school has no given way to a sounder scholarship among the Dissenters, and a better, though not yet perfect, appreciation of the overwhelming evidence on the side of primitive Episcopacy.

Dr. Schaff, a scholarly Presbyterian divine, and a profound student of Church History, in speaking of the Angels of the Seven Churches, frankly remarks: ‘The impartial reader must allow that this phraeseology of the Apocalypse already looks towards the idea of Episcopacy in its primitive form; that is, to a monarchial concentration of governmental power in one person, bearing a patriarchal realtion to the congregation, and responsible in an eminent sense for the spiritual condition of the whole. This view is confirmed by the fact that among the immediate disciplies of John we find at least one-Polycarp-who, according to the unanimous tradition of Irenaeus (his own discipline, himself a bishop), of Tertullian, Eusebius, and Jerome, was, byApostolical appointment, actually bishop of Smyerna, one of the seven churches of the Apocalypse. Add to this statement of Clement of Alexandria, that John, after his return from Patmos, appointed bishops; the epistles of Ignatius at the begining of the second century,  which already distinguished the bishop from the prebytery at the head of the congregation, and  the three orders pyramdically culminated in a regular hiearchy;…and we assuredly have much in favor of the hypothesis, so ingeniously and learnedly set forth of late by Dr. Rothe, that the germs of Episcopacy are to be found as early as the close of the first century, and particularly in the sphere of the later labors of St. John…In addition to this, however, the Episcopal system was simultaneously making its way also in other parts of the Church…

If now we consider the fact,that in the second century the Episcopal system existed as an historical fact  whole Church, East and West, and was unresisitingly acknowledged, nay, universally regarded, as at least indirectly of divine appointment, we can hardly escape the conclusion that this form of government grew out of the circumstances and wants of the CHurch at the end of the Apostolic period, and could not have been so quickly and so generally introduced without the sancitn or at least the acquiescence of the surviving Apostles, especially John who labored on the very threshold of the second century, and left behind him a number of venerable disciples. At all events it needs a strong infusion of skepticism, or of traditional prejudice, to enable one in the face of these facts and witnesses to pronounce the Episcopal government of the ancient Church a sheer apostacy from the Apostolic form, and a radical revolution.’ [Schaff, Apostolic Church, 539-541]

Again Dr. Schaff says: ‘It is a matter of fact that the Episcopal form of government was universally established in the Eastern and Western Churches as early as the middle of the second century.'” Rev. Arthur Wilde Little,  Reasons for Being a Churchman, (1890), pp.177-182


  1. This all rings rather hollowly, when one considers a few undoubted facts:

    1. About 12 Catholic bishops in Germany joined the Lutherans between 1525 and 1565 (and one more, Gerhard Truchsess of Cologne, did around 1582). Most of these were prince-bishops, rulers of ecclesiastical territories, who were no more zealous in fulfilling their episcopal ministry as Lutherans than they had been as Catholics — this is true even of the two Archbishops of Cologne, Hermann von Wied in the late 40s and Truchsess in the early 80s, who tries to turn their principalities Protestant before being excommunicated by the pope and driven out. However, Matthias von Jagow, Bishop of Brandenburg from 1526 to his death in 1544, became a zealous Lutheran in 1539 and aided in the introduction of a Lutheran reformation in to the electorate of Brandenburg in 1540. No attempt was made, even in Brandenburg, however, to perpetuate the episcopate, and when an “evangelical bishop” was imposed by the Saxon elector on neighboring Naumburg in 1542, Luther served as the man’s “consecrator,” and von Jagow was not even asked to participate (Luther served as “consecrator” again in 1545 when the same elector imposed an “evangelical bishop” on Merseberg). And when the Italian Bishop of Capodistria, Pierpaulo Vergerio (1498-1565) became a Protestant in 1549 and subsequently held various church positions in Switzerland, Poland and finally Wurttemberg, nobody ever thought of making use of his episcopal orders in a Protestant context.

    2. When East Prussia became the first territorial state to embrace Lutheranism in 1525, both of its Catholic bishops went along with the process. One of them died in 1528, the other in 1550. The one who died in 1550 had consecrated a successor in 1528 to the one who died in that year; he died in 1551. The gov’t did not appoint any replacements until 1565, who were merely appointed, not consecrated, and finally abolished the episcopate altogether in 1587.

    3. When Reformed Protestantism became precariously legal in France in 1561, some five French Catholic bishops declared themselves Protestants. Some of these were noblemen in episcopal orders, who displayed little more interest in their episcopal orders after their conversions than they did prior to them; these included Odet de Chatillon, the cardinal-bishop of Beauvais, who was promptly removed as cardinal by the pope, and excommunicated. But some were more “sincere.” These included Antonio de Carraciolo, the Bishop of Troyes, who when the Huguenot clergy emerged from hiding in 1561 and began to organize their church, presented himself to their clergy, announced that he was one with them in faith, and asked them to recognize him as bishop. The response: he was told that he would have to satisfy them concerning his orthodoxy, then renounce his “popish anti-Christian orders,” and then, if deemed suitable for the task, be reordained by them to “the Gospel ministry,” in which he would be their equal, no more.

    I need not rehearse here the cases of Denmark (where the Catholic bishops, who with one or two exceptions were a bad lot, and most of them unconsecrated bishops-elect, were thrown in jail in 1536 and replaced by Lutheran superintendents [later termed “bishops”] who were then “consecrated” in 1537 by Luther’a aide-kick Johannes Bugenhagen [who as a Catholic had been a priest] who was brought from Germany to crown the new Lutheran Danish king and aid in the imposition of a Lutheran church system) or Sweden (which, alone of all Lutheran churches, claims to have retained the “apostolic succession” of its bishops, but this claim, even on a merely physical and “tactile” basis, is not without its difficulties, with likely “gaps” in both 1554 and 1575, and even if accepted, rests on deeming two “superintendents” who were given an undefined “blessing” to carry out the duties of their “office” in 1554, as the equivalent of bishops).

    I leave the case of England to our mutual friend Gary Jenkins, who can discuss whether and to what extent the first generation of Elizabeth I’s bishops, including the subject of his doctoral dissertation, John Jewel, actually believed in bishops as a distinctive order in the Church. Anglicans from Lancelot Andrewes onwards have tried to palliate, if not excuse, the Protestant abandonment of episcopacy by what has been called “the defense of necessity,” the idea that since the Protestant Reformers were faced with a conflict between the demands of the truth and their desire for “real bishops,” when no Catholic bishops would join them, they had to put aside the episcopate; but even some Anglicans of that time, like Andrewes’ disciple Richard Montague (1579-1641), Bishop of Chichester and the famous theologian Jeremy Taylor (1613-1667), who died as Bishop of Down, recognized the inaccuracy and futility of such arguments, and incurred much odium for drawing the conclusion that Protestant churches were, in fact, “no churches.”


  2. Dr. Tighe,

    I am not clear on your meaning. I can’t see how your remarks undermine the thrust of the post, namely that the Reformers wanted to retain the episcopate, but failed to do so. When it became apparent that they could not do so, they altered their ecclesiology. Their more settled views were the requirement of necessity, not biblical exegesis or a starting principled position.


  3. I suppose what I meant was that if they wanted to retain episcopacy, but failed to avail themselves of the numerous opportunities they had to do so, then their desire couldn’t have been all that strong.


  4. A very interesting and informative post. I would agree that the Protestant Reformation opened a wide door, and if many of the first generation reformers were in accord with the episcopal system, their new ecclesiology paved the way for major change in later generations. I see in the Anglican Church an episcopal system but in the evangelical “free” churches there are strong feelings against it. And sadly, in the evangelical church of today it seems that anything goes, as far as the church form and worship is concerned. And there are no solid, historic foundations they are willing to follow.


  5. It seems to me that the case of Sweden in this regard is interesting. In 1524, Pope Clement VII, in Rome, consecrated Petrus Magni bishop. Petrus Magni returned to Sweden as bishop of Västerås. In his turn, Petrus Magni, who was one of the last Catholic bishops in Sweden, consecrated Laurentius Petri bishop in 1531 and Laurentius Petri became the first Swedish Lutheran archbishop. As I understand it this succession continues on through the present day.

    The division in the 1880s that happened with Waldenstrom and led to the formation of the Free Church in Sweden was over the understanding of the atonement. Waldenstrom took a view, similar to the Eastern Church view, and his followers were booted out of the state church of Sweden which held the Anselmian view.

    I am sure I am oversimplifying.


  6. I side-stepped Sweden. Petrus Magni of Vasteras consecrated bishops in 1528 and 1530 at the command of the king, without authority from Rome; both Manson and those whom he was about to consecrate signed secret protestations beforehand that they were undertaking the acts only out of fear of the king, and professed their continuing allegiance to Rome. Some of these bishops, including Manson, consecrated Laurentius Petri in September 1531, and they (not including Petri) made a similar protestation beforehand. One might argue that such coerced sacramental acts were invalid.

    Laurentius Petri himself consecrated only two bishops in his whole archiepiscopal career (which extended from 1531 to his death in 1573), both of them in the 1530s; one of them died in 1555 and the other in 1563. Starting in 1540 the king decided to abolish the episcopate, and as bishops died or were removed they were replaced by unconsecrated “Ordinarii” or “Superintendents” who received authority *from the king* to conduct ordinations and oversee the clergy as bishops had done in the past. In 1554 the Bishop of Abo in Finland died, one of the bishops whom Peder Mansson had consecrated in 1528. The king decided to divide Finalnd into two “superintendencies,” and the two men who the king appointed received “a blessing after the Lutheran fashion” (as a contemporary chronicler recorded) by one of the two surviving bishops whom Petri had consecrated in the 1530s. One of these men died in 1563, the other in 1579. After Johan III became king in 1568, those superintendents who held old bishoprice resumed the title of “bishops,” withiout undergoing any form of episcopal consecration. When Archbishop Petri of Uppsala died in 1573, his son-in-law Laurentius Petri Gothus, was appointed his successor. The king insisted on an elaborate consecration of the new archbishop, which happened on July 14, 1575. Four bishops participated in the act of consecration: three Swedish bishops who themselves had received no “consecration” when appointed to their positions, and the one surviving Finn who had in 1554 received the ambiguous “blessing after the Lutheran fashion” when he had been appointed a “superintendent” in 1554 (his title had later been ungraded to “bishop”).

    All later Swedish Lutheran bishops derive their “Orders” from the 1575 event. It is a pretty weak thread to rely upon.


  7. On the Reformation and the episcopacy, this is an intramural debate within the Reformed community. For us Presbyterians, the existence of a separate class of officers called bishops is something not supported by Scripture and the early history of the Church is rather nebulous. But it’s no big deal and when I’m in London I worship at an Anglican congregation. We are all in communion and the peculiarities of our ecclesiology do not divide us in any fundamental way.


  8. Andrew,

    It may not be a big deal now, but Anglicanism, at least where and when I grew up would not commune schismatics like baptists and presbyterians. And I wasn’t aware that the Church of England was in open communion with the Presbyterians.


  9. The CofE has largely gone liberal and is communion with everyone. For the Evangelical Anglican churches, they often tend towards too low an ecclesiology and I cannot imagine that any of them would see themselves as distinct from other Evangelical Churches. I’m thinking of congregations like All Souls in London where John Stott is the Rector Emeritus (I worshiped here a few times but recently it’s worship style has gotten too loosey-goosey for me). And then you have the Anglican congregations that still look to the Thirty-nine Articles consistently. These are few and far between and I really don’t know their perspective on other denominations, but I would guess that would not want to separate over the issue of church polity.


  10. “And it has been shown that if Episcopacy prevailed then it must have prevailed from the beginning, for no such stupendous revolution could have taken place within fifty years of St. John’s death.”

    That sums it up for me, and the realization of same, on my part, led me to the Orthodox Church.

    Growing up in an evangelical restorationist church, we were assured that the Episcopacy was a man-made apostasy and digression from the “first-century” purity of the church. We were taught that this was a slow and incremental development, though gaining speed after Constantine. One of our preachers, however, did admit that this so-called apostasy happened much quicker than most of our people thought. And while we had our own particular slant on things, I understand now that this is a fairly standard evangelical (mis)interpretation of church history. (Actually, there is little interpretation involved, as it is more or less cut from whole cloth.)

    The scales fell from my eyes upon reading St. Ignatius. An old man in A.D. 107 was every bit a “first-century” Christian. If Apostolic Succession was an such an apostasy, then where was the outrage over this dangerous new teaching? Where were the letters penned to combat this new heresy? Certainly the early Church was not shy about addressing such subjects. In fact, what St. Ignatius had to say was presented rather matter-of-factly, as if this was known and accepted by all who would be reading it. (Recently, I brought this up with an evangelical acquaintance, to which he dismissively responded that “Ignatius was subject to many interpretations.”)


  11. The Moravians “invented” ther episcopacy in 1467, when a small group of Hussites, including 3 or 4 priests, “refounded” the Church by rebaptizing one another (including the priests), then the priests drew lots over which one would be their bishop, then the priests “consecrated” the one who had drawn the lot, and he, in turn, reordained them. Such is the origin of the Moravian episcopate. In addition, the succession of these bishops failed in both 1500 and 1565, and as a result the “presbyters” had to act on their own to consecrate new “bishops.”

    Moravian “bishops” have no juridical or governing authority, but they alone conduct all ordinations. Their seminary grads are ordained “deacons” (in which capacity they can both preach and conduct baptisms and the Lord’s Supper), and then, after a probationary period of some years, ordained as “elders.” Ony a few elders, those with reputations for learning and “wisdom” or a reputation as “spiritual guides,” are chosen as bishops, usually after many years of service in the ministry.


  12. If the presence of Archbishop Tikhon Belavin at the Consecration of PECUSA bishops at Nashotah House in 1905 is any indication, clearly, the traditionalist Anglican communions, who have kept their Episcopacy, means (and meant) a great deal to them, so much so, that, had St. Tikhon stayed in the USA, ECUSA might now have been Western Rite Orthodox, (instead of a nut-house) and the OCA and all the SCOBA-dox would be small ‘ethnic’ enclaves, instead of pretending to be the ‘voice of Orthodoxy’ in America….


  13. The last comment seems to overlook both the “broad church” and the “low church” parties or factions in (P)ECUSA, both of whom would have fought tooth and nail against (P)ECUSA having any meaningful reconciliation with Orthodoxy, and which were both far more influential within it than the Orthodoxophile portion of the highchurchmen.

    The subject is addressed, passingly, in that interesting book *Salve Mater* (1920) by Frederick Joseph Kinsman. Kinsman (1868-1944), an Oxford-educated, but American, Church Historian, became PECUSA Bishop of Delaware in 1908 and resigned to become a Catholic in 1919. He devotes some attention to Anglican-Orthodox conversations in the first two decades of the 20th century, in some of which he was involved. He mentions how the Orthodox were constantly under the misapprehension that the highchurchmen with whom they almost invariably dealt were the dominant group in PECUSA, and were invariably puzzled by how, after the Episcopalians with whom they were wont to converse expressed complete agreement with the Orthodox on such matters as prayer for the dead, petitioning the intercession of the saints, the transformation of the eucharistic elements etc., almost inevitably backed off when the Orthodox then suggested that in that case the Episcopalians should modify their catechism and prayer formularies the better to reflect that agreement. Kinsman also points out how willing some of the broadchurchmen were to play along these conversations, so long as there was no suggestion that the “liberty of interpretation” that Episcopalians, and particularly clergy, enjoyed be the least curtailed as a result.

    From a different prespective, the English Philosophy professor and Orthodoxophile highchurchman H. A. Hodges (1905-1976) addressed the issue of how desirable, but how very difficult, not least because of the party divisions within Anglican churches, but also because of the underlying Protestant presuppositions of many if not most Anglicans, a genuine Orthodoxizing of Anglican churches would be in his winsome tract *Anglicanism and Orthodoxy* (1955).

    Finally, Grafton of Fond du Lac and the other bishops involved in the 1905 consecrations at Nashotah House, were truly marginal figures in PECUSA, despite the veneration of their followers. Those hostile to what they represented circulated photographs of the event under the title of “the Fond du Lac Circus,” and these received wide circulation in PECUSA.


  14. Mr. Tighe- As far as PECUSA was concerned, I believe you are correct. Grafton et al. WERE in the minority, but they were there as late as the 1980’s fighting (as TEC now finds herself) a losing battle.

    But the traditionalist Anglicans saw the rot long before the recent ACNA, etc. They separated in 1976, and, had they had a sympathetic ear (much like the Gilquist faction did with Antioch) with ROCOR, say, who knows what could/would have happened?

    My comment was directed at the fact that I see Byzantinism as a FOREIGN ETHOS on the Body of American Orthodoxy, and find it telling that the WR is vilified by those, who once practiced it, while not understanding what it was, in the first place. – Fr. John


  15. “Finally, Grafton of Fond du Lac and the other bishops involved in the 1905 consecrations at Nashotah House, were truly marginal figures in PECUSA, despite the veneration of their followers.”

    Oh, and does not Orthodoxy say that even if there is only ONE Bishop left alive on the planet, ‘THERE is the WHOLE of the Church Catholic’?

    Just to remind us of what God can accomplish, you understand.


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