The Episcopal Diocese of Pennsylvania: A Brief History
Quakers may have founded Pennsylvania, but Anglicans were present from the beginning. They established nine congregations, including Christ Church, Philadelphia (1695), Trinity Church, Oxford (1698), St David’s, Radnor (1700), and St. Thomas, Whitemarsh (1702), in the colony’s first twenty years.
After the American Revolution, Anglicans became Episcopalians. Led by the Reverend William White, they organized the Episcopal Diocese of Pennsylvania in 1784. White became its first bishop three years later, and the Diocese grew rapidly during his episcopacy (1787-1836).
In the beginning the Diocese spanned a vast area, extending from Philadelphia to Pittsburgh. Essentially, it encompassed the whole of Pennsylvania. But the rigors of travel and the growth of the church necessitated reorganization. In 1865 a new Diocese of Pittsburgh took responsibility for every parish west of the Alleghenies. By 1910 there were five Episcopal dioceses in Pennsylvania, and the Diocese of Pennsylvania covered only the southeastern corner of the commonwealth. But the bulk of Pennsylvania’s Episcopalians lived there – in Philadelphia, Bucks, Montgomery, Chester, and Delaware counties.
Throughout its history, the Diocese of Pennsylvania has been subject to what some might call countervailing forces. On such important matters as governance, worship, and doctrine, it has struggled to resolve differences. The Episcopal Church itself emerged from a series of compromises that were made in England and America. Bishop White favored the “middle way” – a balance between individual piety and shared ritual, between parish autonomy and centralized leadership. Some of his successors (e.g. Henry Ustick Onderdonk, 1836-1844) tried to reconcile those committed to “high” and “low” church beliefs and practices. The emergence of “liberal” theology at the end of the nineteenth century heightened tensions. Its emphasis on social responsibility did not appeal to all Episcopalians.
In the twentieth century the diocese came to grips, if not for all time, with its own dispersal and diversity. But long before 1900 it acknowledged the importance of these centrifugal forces by establishing a divinity school (1858) and consecrating many churches. Both clerks from Spring Garden (St. Jude’s, 1848) and their bosses in Chestnut Hill (St. Paul’s, 1856) could worship at an Episcopal church. It took account of the sick and the poor, sponsoring such organizations as Episcopal Hospital (1852) and the City Mission (1870), the forerunner of today’s Episcopal Community Services.
Beginning in the 1920s and accelerating two decades later, many Episcopalians left Philadelphia altogether. New congregations appeared almost overnight in suburbs like Newtown Square (St. Alban’s, 1922), Gladwyne (St. Christopher’s, 1949), Levittown (St. Paul’s, 1953), and Maple Glen (St. Matthews, 1967). Others experienced unprecedented growth in the 1950s (Redeemer, Bryn Mawr, 1851). Bishop Oliver J. Hart (1943-1963) wrestled with the implications of suburbanization. Growth was good, he believed, but its benefits were not unmitigated. It stretched the resources of the diocese. Congregations outside the city did not always empathize with the social and economic problems of their urban brethren.
African Americans have worshipped in the Diocese of Pennsylvania since its inception. As slaves and freemen, they attended services at some of its most venerable congregations. When Bishop White made Absalom Jones their leader in 1794, he acknowledged their importance. But all-black congregations were not common until the city’s African American population expanded in the first half of the twentieth century. By 1980 the parish Jones once led (the African Episcopal Church of Saint Thomas, 1794) had become one of the largest (black or white) in the Diocese. Many black Episcopalians now worshiped by themselves in parishes that had once been all white or integrated (Church of the Advocate, Philadelphia, 1886).
Until Robert L. DeWitt (1964-1973) became its twelfth bishop in 1964, the Diocese of Pennsylvania largely ignored the civil rights movement. During his nine years at the helm DeWitt insisted that the diocese acknowledge and respond to the racism and discrimination in its midst. Troubled by riots in Philadelphia and Chester, he supported an ecumenical effort to desegregate Girard College, a boarding school for orphan boys that bore the name of its nineteenth century benefactor. He even lent his support to the idea that the best way to atone for slavery was through “reparations.”
DeWitt’s successor, Lyman L. Ogilby (1974-1988), inherited a diocese that was certainly more attuned to issues of inequality and social justice than it once had been. This new sensitivity manifested itself in July 1974 when the first women to become Episcopal priests were ordained in Philadelphia. The ceremony took place at the Church of the Advocate whose rector, the Reverend Paul M. Washington, was also an important civil rights leader. Ogilby did not participate, but neither did he stand in the way. By then, lay women had begun to play a significant role in the church, serving on vestries and as delegates to diocesan convention. In 1986 St. Giles, Upper Darby became the first parish in the Diocese to call a woman – the Reverend Michealla Keener – to be its rector.
The place of gays and lesbians in the Diocese remained unresolved until the episcopacy of Allen L. Bartlett, Jr. (1988-1998). After prayerful consideration, he opened the door to the diaconate and the priesthood for openly gay men and women. But such reforms did not come without recrimination. Some priests and parishes withdrew from the Diocese or invited bishops from outside its borders to make pastoral visits. Bartlett tolerated these so-called “flying bishops,” but his successor, Charles L. Bennison, Jr. (1998-2012), did not.
Following Bishop Bennison’s departure, the Diocese turned for leadership to Clifton Daniel, 3rd (2013-2016). The bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of East Carolina, beginning in 1997, he came to Pennsylvania on a provisional basis and kept the Diocese on a steady course while it made plans to search for a permanent successor. Completed in 2016, that search led to the selection of Daniel G. P. Gutierrez, canon to the ordinary in the Episcopal Diocese of the Rio Grande, as the sixteenth bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Pennsylvania.
In the past fifty years there has been a significant decline in church membership and even religious observance in America. This has had an impact on the Episcopal Church and the Diocese of Pennsylvania. But many vibrant congregations – large and small – remain, and the diocese looks to build on its long and eventful history as it moves forward.
William W. Cutler, III
Historiographer, Episcopal Diocese of Pennsylvania
The Episcopal Diocese of Pennsylvania’s Archives are home to a vast array of material relating to the people and parishes comprising the Diocese as well as the Diocese itself. Within its stacks are material relating to parishes that have closed, the registers, the vestry minutes as well as documents making up the life of these churches which are no longer with us. We also hold a large volume of histories, both at the parish level comprising both active and closed parishes, as well as histories of the diocese and its various organizations.
The Archives also holds a large volume of material related to those committed to running the Diocese. There are records from the various Bishops, Standing Committee and General Conventions, to better understand the direction we have come from. There are also various print runs of the publications the Diocese has put out as well including a long run of the Church News.
The Archives is open to the public by appointment only. Small amounts of research can be conducted by the staff for a nominal fee. For more information please contact the archivist, Peter Moak by email or at the following address: Episcopal Diocese of Pennsylvania Archives, Lutheran Theological Seminary, 7301 Germantown Avenue, Philadelphia, PA 19119-1794. By Phone: 267-575-8958.
Video of the Symposium on Slavery, Race and Discrimination at Grace Epiphany Church, October 17, 2015 sponsored by the History Committee.
To see the Symposium’s agenda, transcripts of presentations, and resolutions from General Convention, please click here.
To learn more read This Far by Faith: Tradition and Change in the Episcopal Diocese of Pennsylvania edited by David Contosta (University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2012). Copies can be purchased from the press. The Diocese has a limited number of complimentary copies available. To obtain one contact J.D. Lafrance.