With the threat of denominational schism looming, the theologically conservative American Anglican Council recently gathered in Dallas to discuss a possible realignment of the global Anglican Communion. Earlier this year when the Episcopal Church U.S.A. confirmed the appointment of Rev. Canon V. Gene Robinson as bishop of the New Hampshire diocese, conservatives were outvoted by liberals, who control many of the denomination's leadership positions.
In the constellation of American denominations, the Episcopalians are far from alone in facing this doctrinal controversy. Similar questions about biblical authority and interpretation threaten the unity of the United Methodist Church, Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), and Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, each of which harbors frequently antagonistic conservative and liberal factions.
Nor are Episcopalians alone in the annals of history, especially in the "Land of the Free." In America's open marketplace of religion, church splits are a frequent reality. In fact, the vigor of denominational debate today is reminiscent of the contentious mid-nineteenth century schisms, when the Baptists, Presbyterians, and Methodists split over slavery along predominantly regional lines.
Yet the starkest historic precedent for Episcopalians may lie with New England's Congregational-Unitarian divide during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. From radically different theological stances, the Congregationalists and Unitarians engaged in vitriolic fights over the legacy and inheritance of their predecessor—New England Puritanism.
Post-1776, Congregationalism suffered the social, political and economic aftereffects of the war. Political frenzy supplanted religious fervor as New Englanders ...1