Revolutionaries faced a test of faith


Editor’s note: Mayor Scott Avedisian delivered the following remarks Saturday morning at the Gaspee Ecumenical Service held at Trinity Church.

Good morning.  We are sitting here in the interior of Trinity Episcopal Church celebrating the 241st anniversary of the first bloodshed of the American Revolution.  Think about that – the American version of the Church of England is hosting an ecumenical service to celebrate the war that would gain American independence from King George III and the British Crown. 

And in this church – right above my head – the Royal Naval ensign flies along with the flag of this country and the flag of the Pawtuxet Rangers.  

How should we feel about that?  Let me make it even more uncomfortable… 

If things had turned out differently, we might actually be saying the Litany in this building.   In doing so we would pray as follows: 

“That it may please thee to keep and strengthen in the true worshipping of thee, in righteousness and holiness of life, thy Servant Elizabeth, our most gracious Queen and Governor;  

            We beseech thee to hear us, good Lord.  

            That it may please thee to rule her heart in thy faith, fear, and love, and that she may evermore have affiance in thee, and ever seek thy honour and glory;  

            We beseech thee to hear us, good Lord. 

            That it may please thee to be her defender and keeper, giving her the victory over all her enemies;  

            We beseech thee to hear us, good Lord.  

            That it may please thee to bless and preserve Philip, Duke of Edinburgh, Charles, Prince of Wales, and all the Royal Family;  

            We beseech thee to hear us, good Lord. 

And while I have often joked that Episcopalians are probably the only group that still vouchsafe, beseech, and acknowledge manifold sins and wickedness, it is an interesting point to ponder. 

How does one stay loyal to the tenets of faith if that faith is deeply rooted in the Crown? 

Take, for example, the four colonial parishes right here in Rhode Island – Trinity Church, Newport, St. Paul’s in Wickford, St. Michael’s, Bristol, and King’s Church (Later renamed as the Cathedral of St. John the Divine) in Providence. Because bishops were seen as allies of the crown, Anglicans – whether patriot or not – faced accusations that they were disloyal to the cause, and there was considerable distrust in general. Many in fact did support the Revolution and were leading players in the formation of the new nation.  About three quarters of the signers of the Declaration of Independence were Episcopalians.  

Samuel Seabury, the first American Episcopal bishop, the second Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church and the first Bishop of Connecticut, was consecrated in Scotland so that he did not have to pledge allegiance to the Crown. 

The war had a devastating effect on our parishes. There was conflict between parishioners, who felt prayers for the king and royal family should be removed from Sunday services, and clergy, who refused to omit them. St. Paul’s and King’s Church closed as a result. Trinity survived, but as a smaller and deeply divided parish. The British, mistaking St. Michael’s for a Congregational Church, destroyed it. Sentiment against the rector at King’s Church – renamed St. John’s after the war – remained so strong that he was not able to return to his ministry. Often, lay leaders came together to lead worship themselves with prayers that omitted to the King. 

And yet, our Church and its people persevered in their quest for freedom and autonomy. In 1775, Patrick Henry looked out at a congregation at St. John’s Episcopal Church in Richmond, Virginia, and delivered his famous “give me liberty or give me death speech.” That rousing call to action, given before a congregation that included Washington and Jefferson, was delivered from the church – not the Capitol in Williamsburg – to avoid interference from Lt. Governor Dunmore and his Royal Marines, and helped to fan the flames of Revolution that were burning more brightly each day. 

The enduring fame of the Old North Church in Boston began on the evening of April 18, 1775, when the church sexton, Robert Newman, climbed the steeple and held high two lanterns as a signal from Paul Revere that the British were marching to Lexington and Concord by sea and not by land.  Pretty amazing for an Episcopal parish. 

And with George Washington attending the Episcopal Church in Philadelphia and Thomas Jefferson advocating for a strong and rigid separation of church and state while still being an Episcopalian. 

So here we are today, on the 241st anniversary of the burning of the Gaspee. We’re gathered here, in this time and place, to give thanks to all who have gone before us and those who founded this nation free and independent from the English Crown. Today we reflect on the many people who started the first spark for freedom from the Crown and stand in awe of their bravery and vision. 

It must have been extraordinarily difficult, for people of a faith so steeped in tradition, to sever ties with a monarchy that was so tightly interwoven with their religious beliefs, customs, and identity. 

But they did so with the ability to respect and abide even when they did not agree.  Perhaps in the divisive world that we live in, we can learn from their ability to disagree and aid in revolution while finding a place within their faith to do so. 

Today, here in this Church, which itself is so steeped in tradition, and in this village, let us remember the brave patriots who founded our country, and honor those who – despite the many difficulties it cause them – found the strength to stand up against the Crown, even as they ensured that the tradition of faith and service to God and country – the same we celebrate today – prevailed.  


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