For some of us one day stands out in our spiritual and religious life above all others; when after a long struggle with ourselves we knelt down to tell the story of our sins to the merciful and compassionate Father, Son and Holy Ghost who declarest almighty power chiefly in showing mercy and pity, while vividly realizing that His priest too would hear, whose words of human sympathy would help our efforts to repent. Later, he gave us absolution in the form printed in the English service for the Visitation of the Sick. We heard them; “and there was a great calm.” Others can say: “I owe the victory over my habitual faults, under God, to the steady, persistent pressure of my confessor.” To whom are we indebted for this privilege? Each recalls different names; but all can mention one, who sleeps now in Grove Street Cemetery in the heart of New Haven, Oliver Sherman Prescott. The younger readers never saw him; the middle aged only when he was growing old and failing in powers; the older remember him in his prime; but few recall the years 1850 to 1853, when he faced in Boston four Church courts eager to punish him for the crime of willingness to hear confessions and give absolution; since no sworn testimony was presented that he had actually done so in a single instance. As there was then no court of error, appeal or review (call it what you please) he risked a sentence of “displacement” or “degradation”—which we now call “deposition.” Yet he and his proctor bravely fought it through, forcing even that court to hold that to teach confession and absolution was no “heresy”; at most a mere “irregularity.” The court had been ruled in some respects by general canons, in others by diocesan; therefore it was not strange that Bishop Eastburn and Dr. Slater held it to be essentially general and unlimited, in certain ways; while such an authority as Bishop Whittingham, doubtless upheld by Judge Chambers and Hugh Davey Evans, pronounced its sentence to be “irregular, illegal and of no force” outside Massachusetts. His letter is in the library of the General Theological Seminary.
The assertions of the Memorial can all be corroborated from other documents as accurate, except one, possibly two. Even the letters between Father Prescott and the diocesan authorities proposing a different certificate are bound up with pamphlets in vol. III of “Episcopal Tracts” in the Massachusetts Diocesan Library. The Memorial says four trials. Only three have come down. The fourth was not printed, probably. In the first, the court quashed the presentment as clearly insufficient; the Bishop named the second court, whose unfairness to the accused and discourtesy to his proctor, Mr. R. H. Dana, Jr. (author of “Two Years before the Mast”) was such as to make the reader angry, or send him into convulsions of laughter at its caricatures of justice and what a court should be or do. The last is the only trial upon the merits or in which any sworn evidence appears. The quashed presentment is amusing now; they proposed to try him for making his own voluntary confession, and gravely assumed that his faith in transubstantiation was shown by his turning his back to the people when pronouncing the usual ascription after the sermon! But the President of the Standing Committee had the grace to withdraw these at the trial. By the time the matter got to the General Convention all the fun was drained off, only bitter dregs remained. Here is the memorial never hitherto printed.
To the Right Reverend Fathers in God, the Bishops of the Protestant Episcopal Church in the United States of America: The humble petition of Oliver Sherman Prescott, Presbyter, canonically resident in the Diocese of Massachusetts, showeth that he, your son and servant in Christ desiring to approach your venerable Body does acknowledge with a glad mind and ready will his duty of obedience to you as the representatives of the Church of God whose voice he is to hear and whose faith he is to teach in order to his own salvation and the salvation of those who may be committed to his charge.
That he does acknowledge in accordance with the constitution and canons of the Protestant Episcopal Church his amenability to the Bishop of the Diocese in which he is canonically resident.
That he entreats your consideration of the following statement:
That your petitioner has been presented for trial by the Standing Committee of the Diocese of Massachusetts to the Right Reverend Dr. Eastburn, Bishop thereof on charge of heresy and has been tried by a Court appointed for that purpose and has been found “not guilty of any offence for which he was presented, that notwithstanding this by a strange proceeding he has been suspended from all exercise of his clerical function until such time as he shall furnish to the Right Reverend Manton Eastburn, D.D., a certificate in the form following:
“I, the Reverend Oliver Sherman Prescott, Presbyter of the Protestant Episcopal Church in the Diocese of Massachusetts do hereby, ex animo, promise hereafter to refrain from teaching and inculcating that a Presbyter of this Church has authority to pronounce private absolution upon private confession, and from the practice of the same, except as it may be necessary in the Office for the
Visitation of Prisoners in which a prescribed form is provided or in the emergency which might arise in the administration of the Communion to one sick with a contagious disease.”
II. That this certificate is given wholly upon the differences between the Prayer Book of the Church of England and that of the Protestant Episcopal Church; and is a construction of those differences in direct contradiction of the Records of your House and dangerous to the peace and unity which so happily exists between those Churches.
III. That your petitioner is now bound by all the vows which the wisdom of the Church has imposed upon her ministers and therefore ought not to be required to take any others upon him.
IV. That the sentence is one not known to the Church. The canons provide but three sentences; viz., degradation, suspension and admonition, while this sentence is to sign a certain certificate unauthorized by canon, and without warrant of precedent. For refusing such illegal signature your petitioner is sentenced to a suspension so severe that it lacketh but in name the force of degradation.
V. That more than six months ago your petitioner offered to the Bishop, Right Reverend Manton Eastburn, D.D., a certificate mostly in the wording of that required by him, substituting in the place of “hereafter” the sentence “while I am under the actual and canonical jurisdiction of the Right Reverend Manton Eastburn, D.D.,” and for the expression “this Church” “the Church in this diocese,” which certificate was rejected by the Right Reverend Manton Eastburn, D.D., on the ground that it was limited in its terms, which fact proves that according to the mind of the imposer the vow required is intended to bind your petitioner to the Bishop of Massachusetts when he may have passed under the jurisdiction of another of your honorable body.
VI. That had the object of the Right Reverend Manton Eastburn, D.D., been to hinder in his diocese the giving of private absolution it could have been accomplished without public proceedings of any kind, since your petitioner acknowledged the full jurisdiction of any Bishop to hinder any priest in the exercise of that function and the word of a Bishop would be law to your petitioner, inasmuch as he believes that absolution given against the Episcopal command would be illegal.
VII. That though now more than three years since proceedings were commenced against your petitioner, during this time he has been subjected to four trials, and that through no offence of his own, but because of irregularities on the part of the ecclesiastical authority; that not only for three years has he been deprived of all manner of livelihood, but he has been involved in heavy expense, which he could not have borne but for the kindness of his father, and that he has submitted to these things and has abstained from the means of redress which were open to him because he desired above all things the good of the Church and had faith enough to believe that to her assemblies under the guidance of the Holy Ghost his grievances had but to be told to find redress.
Therefore, your petitioner, having this statement before him, believing himself to be unjustly condemned, uncanonically sentenced by the Right Reverend Manton Eastburn, D.D., Bishop of Massachusetts, and professing his entire and dutiful obedience to the Church of which you are the Right Reverend Fathers and Governors, and his confidence in the alacrity with which you will seek to do justice to an injury, your dutiful son and servant comes to your honorable body and humbly prays that you will be pleased to entertain this his petition and grant him relief from the disabilities under which he is illegally suffering. And your petitioner as in duty bound will ever pray.
(Signed) OLIVER SHERMAN PRESCOTT, Presbyter of the Diocese of Massachusetts.
New York City, October 10, 1853.
Had the memorial declared the accused to be “not guilty of any offence with which he was charged,” it would have been more accurate. The court held that certain specifications in the presentment were established as facts, but which they also held did not “sustain the charge.” For example, his sermon had styled St. Mary a “sinless mother,” thus holding the virgin birth; quite a different matter from making her an object of worship, the charge. He was guilty of the specification; not guilty of the charge. Mention of the “means of redress” open to him, refers to what he might have gained had he done as some of his friends and correspondents urged, ask a civil court for a writ of mandamus. In 1853 the suspended Bishop of New York was importuned to take that course, as in the opinion of such men as Horace Binney, Chief Justice Jones, of New York; Judge Redfield, of Vermont, and others, was sure to gain the desired end. But neither the Bishop nor the priest consented thus to “appeal to Cæsar.”
1853 may seem like ancient history, yet Dr. Muhlenberg and the others sent their memorial to that General Convention asking for a kind of concordat to unify American Protestant Christianity, which sounds not so very ancient after all. Party strife, more heated than today, made the discipline of the clergy the “burning question” of the time. The cases of Bishop Ives, of North Carolina, the suspended Bishops of Pennsylvania and New York, the failure to condemn the Bishop of New Jersey, brought Episcopal discipline to the fore. Father Prescott’s case brought a priest’s trial into the arena. It seemed like the attempt of Bishop Eastburn, assisted by his standing committee and many of his diocesan clergy, to meet the wish expressed by Bishop McIlvaine in his letter to Bishop Hopkins (see the latter’s “Life,” p. 235); “Go on, lead us all, dear brother, in faithfulness and boldness. We want boldness and unsparingness in these days. Be sure we must get to discipline, now that the truth is being undermined on every side; and then, when the hand of discipline is put out, and some Puseyite, distinctly for Puseyism, is disciplined, the real fire of our furnace will begin. But we must not fear! I see with you the necessity of a court of appeal in certain cases.” The partisan outburst of political methods over the Episcopal election in Pennsylvania in 1827 deepened in the General Convention of 1835, when a noble effort for missions was spoiled by a plan whereby party spirit was not only forseen but provided for, not provided against, was receiving its reward in the embittered trials of the decade. After 1853, the bitterness lessened. The astonishing sentence and decision in the Prescott case are summed up by a Maryland lawyer, a deputy to that convention in the True Catholic for March, 1852. “He has been convicted upon a charge, of which the court says he is not guilty, upon testimony which they suppose to have proved an offence not known to our ecclesiastical laws; but which did not, in fact, prove that offence, but only a willingness to do an act, which itself was not an offence known to our ecclesiastical laws.
Nor is the sentence less remarkable than the conviction. It sentences him neither to admonition, suspension or degradation, the only three punishments which our Church authorizes; but to sign a certain declaration, and if he does not, he is to be suspended, not for the offence, of which he has been so strangely convicted, but for not signing the document. The document is so worded as to require the unfortunate gentleman to declare by implication, that the Church of England teach false doctrine. We regret that the Bishop of Massachusetts has confirmed so extraordinary a decision. Mr. Prescott has refused compliance with this unauthorized sentence and has, in a respectful letter to his Bishop, as signed reasons which in our judgment are unanswerable.”
Without knowing the exact words in which Judge Chambers introduced the memorial into the House of Deputies and on request stated its object, the remarks in the discussion make it almost certain that he regarded it as a kind of petition for a court of appeal.
—Duncan Convers, “A Forgotten Memorial” in The New American Church Monthly, Vol. X, No. 4, (December, 1921) pp. 347-354.