- This Far by Faith: Tradition and Change in the Episcopal Diocese of Pennsylvania edited by David R. Contosta
At their worst, local histories of religious organizations can be obsessive in their fascination with minutiae of interest to nobody outside the particular congregation—in the popular sense of the word, they are lamentably parochial. The Episcopal Diocese of Pennsylvania, though, offers a completely different set of opportunities and challenges. In fact, it is impossible to understand the state’s religious history without understanding that denomination. Episcopalians (with Quakers) comprised a large proportion of Philadelphia’s traditional ruling class. Episcopalians also contributed mightily to the region’s cultural and architectural achievements, and built many of its educational and charitable institutions. The University of Pennsylvania itself has Anglican origins.
It is a pleasure, then, to read this impressive and accessible diocesan history. The book is organized in nine chronological chapters, each by an experienced and able scholar. One useful feature of the book is a series of “boxes” in each chapter, which allows for detailed accounts of illustrative individuals, cases, or documents. These focused studies give human faces to the broader narrative in the main text.
The book’s geographical scope demands explanation, as the diocese has over time shifted its boundaries very substantially. Originally covering the [End Page 129] whole state, it was reduced in 1865 by the establishment of the diocese of Pittsburgh, and further partitions followed in later years. Today, the diocese of Pennsylvania covers just Philadelphia and four neighboring counties. I stress this because the different authors vary in the coverage they offer of events and conditions outside that Greater Philadelphia core, and unless readers already know that wider history, they would have little reason to suspect that the diocese once ranged much further afield. The index has no entries (for instance) for Pittsburgh, Erie, Harrisburg, or Bethlehem, seats of the state’s other present-day Episcopal dioceses, and all heirs of that bygone Pennsylvania diocese ruled by Bishop William White in the 1830s. Strictly, then, the present book is a history not of the diocese of Pennsylvania but rather of those regions that the modern-day entity happens to incorporate.
The book is so rich in its content that it is almost impossible to summarize. It begins with the vigorous growth in the colonial epoch. This would be critically important because of the church’s role as a nursery for other very powerful denominations, especially the Methodists and (ultimately) the African Methodist Episcopal. (The Episcopal Church is at least as important in its successors as in its faithful continuing members.) As editor David Contosta justly remarks, the diocese’s history in the early national period is indistinguishable from that of the wider Episcopal Church, which came perilously close to annihilation in those years.
The diocese’s story in the nineteenth century is inextricably linked to that of the Philadelphia region at large, and especially the emergence of its commercial and industrial elites. In the mid-twentieth century, the church was transformed by suburbanization and the growth of the “Church on Wheels,” which coincided with the absolute numerical peak of this and other mainline denominations.
The contributors have done an excellent job of pursuing common themes through their different eras. Race, naturally, is one, given Philadelphia’s early role as the capital of Black America. Women’s activities in the church receive full and proper acknowledgment throughout.
Another enduring theme is the conflict between high and low church traditions, between what would become known as Ritualist and evangelical wings. (The English aptly label these groups as “High and Crazy, Low and Lazy” respectively, not neglecting the sizable faction of the Broad and Hazy.) During the nineteenth century, high-low splits approached the dimensions of an ecclesiastical civil war, with persistent threats of schism. [End Page 130]
Thrice happy the church that has no history, that plods along quietly as bishop succeeds bishop, far removed from the glare of publicity or scandal. Such has...