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Did the Episcopal Church split in the manner that denominations such as the Baptists (American and Southern Baptist Conventions) and others have since the Civil War?

The Rev. Canon Francis C. Zanger, D.Min, priest associate and pastoral counselor of the Church of the Holy Communion in Charleston, S.C., responds:

I am always a bit bemused to hear that “Protestant Episcopal Church (PECUSA) was the only church that did not experience a formal schism on the issue of slavery during the Civil War.” First, the “only” would surprise the Society of Friends (Quakers), the Unitarians and even the Lutherans, among others. Second, the rest of the statement would surprise Episcopalians living in the South.

On July 3, 1861, Episcopal delegates from all the dioceses in states that had seceded from the United States met in Montgomery, Ala., where they voted unanimously to form a new national church. In October of that year, they met in convention in Columbia, S.C., and (under the guidance of Louisiana’s Bishop Polk) formally established the “Protestant Episcopal Church in the Confederate States.”

Just as the U.S. did not acknowledge that the southern states had the right to secede and form their own nation, so too did PECUSA’s General Conventions of 1862 and 1865 refuse to acknowledge the southern dioceses’ formation of a new church. Instead, they continued to carry them on the rolls at Convention, listed as “absent.”

After the Civil War, this made reunification much easier. Also making it easier is the fact that Bishop Polk (who had graduated from West Point before going to seminary and had risen to the rank of major general in the Confederate Army) was killed in battle shortly before the end of the war, as reseating him in the House of Bishops probably would have been uncomfortable for all concerned.

That said, I think it does history a disservice to deny the four years of division. Ignoring or glossing over a painful past only ensures that nothing can be learned from it.