First American Book of Common Prayer

Omissions in the BCP During the War

American Anglicans used the 1662 English Book of Common Prayer in their services until the Revolutionary War.  With the outbreak of hospitality, American Anglican Revolutionaries resisted repeating the Prayer for the Royal Family as it implicitly pledged fealty to the English King:

“Almighty God, the fountain of all wisdom, the author of peace and lover of concord, vouchsafe to Thy servant our King/Queen Charles, and all the Royal Family, the spirit of wisdom and government; that with justice, equity, and clemency they may rule over us.”

Specifically, colonist objected to the phrases:

  • vouchsafe to Thy servant our King/Queen Charles”: This directly acknowledges the monarch’s position and authority.
  • that with justice, equity, and clemency they may rule over us“: This expresses a desire for the monarch to rule effectively and fairly, highlighting the importance of their role.
  • “Royal Family”: While broader than just the monarch, the inclusion of the family still signifies support for the institution of monarchy and its continuity.

American priests were conflicted. Since they did not have the ecclesiastical authority to change the language, they had to recant their vow of loyalty or leave their parish and return to England. Many did the latter, but some developed options to eliminate the passage while maintaining their parish responsibilities:

The Maryland Convention voted on May 25, 1776, “that every Prayer and Petition for the King’s Majesty, in the book of Common Prayer . . . be henceforth omitted in all Churches and Chapels in this Province.” The rector of Christ Church (then called Chaptico Church) in St. Mary’s County, Maryland, placed over the offending passages strips of paper showing prayers composed for the Continental Congress. The petition that God “keep and strengthen in the true worshipping of thee, in righteousness and holiness of life, thy servant GEORGE, our most gracious King and Governour” was changed to a plea that “it might please thee to bless the honorable Congress with Wisdom to discern and Integrity to pursue the true Interest of the United States.”

The rector, the Reverend Jacob Duché of Philadelphia’s Christ Church, called a special vestry meeting on July 4, 1776, to ask to continue the service, without using the prayers for the Royal Family.” The vestry decided to replace the prayers for the King with a prayer for Congress: “That is may please thee to endue the Congress of the United States & all others in Authority, legislative, executive, & judicial with grace, wisdom & understanding, to execute Justice and to maintain Truth.”

The previously mentioned Rev. Peter Muhlenberg concluded a prayer in January 1776 at his Woodstock, Virginia Anglican church, then threw off his clerical robes to reveal his Virginia military uniform. During the struggle for independence, a number of ministers left their congregations to work as chaplains or take up arms, At the end of the War, he was At the end of the war (1783), he was promoted to major general.

American Book of Common Prayer 1789

In 1785. the First General Convention of Episcopal Church was held, with clergy and lay representatives from Delaware, New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, and Virginia. The General Convention authorizes the preparation of an American Prayer Book and names itself the Protestant Episcopal Church in the United States of America. Prior to this book, Anglicans/Episcopalians in this country were “on their own” concerning what to do about the English Book of Common Prayer they had been using, in light of the Revolution. Most churches would simply alter the prayers for the King and Royal Family.  A proposed version was presented to the Convention in 1786.

The Proposed Book was at once the object of bitter attack. The Rev. Mr. Samuel Provoost writing from New York shortly after its appearance, says, “Such a strong party has been raised against the alterations that I am afraid we should not be able to adopt the book at present without danger of a schism—the ostensible object is that they were made without the sanction of a Bishop, but the Thanksgiving for the Fourth of July in all probability is one principal cause of the opposition. The sale of the books has been very dull—only thirteen have been disposed of.”

The first official Book of Common Prayer was ratified by the Philadelphia Episcopal Convention in 1789.  The differences between the 1662 English Book of Common Prayer and the first Episcopal version in 1789 reflected the changing political and theological landscape of the time, including Seabury’s agreement to use the Scottish version of Holy Communion rather than its English counterpart. Other changes in the initial American BCP were:

  • the establishment of the independence of the Protestant Episcopal Church from the Church of England.
  • the use of more streamlined and direct language, influenced by Puritan ideals and aiming for clarity and accessibility.
  • the replacement of the hierarchical English structure of the church with a democratic version of clergy and laity together. 
  • the omission of the Thirty-Nine Articles – a separate doctrinal statement in the English Church. – and the Ordinal (service for ordaining clergy) and other sections. (They were returned in the 1792 version of the BCP).
  • the introduction of a few new prayers and services tailored to the American context.

The 1789 American version of BCP remained faithful to the core Anglican principles of the 1662 edition of scripture, tradition, and reason. However, it reflected a distinct American identity, with republican ideals, simpler language, and a less sacramental interpretation of the Eucharist. These differences, while subtle, hold historical and theological significance, marking the evolution of Anglicanism both in England and its newly independent American branch.

There were several “Standard Editions” of the 1789 Book of Common Prayer published between 1793 and 1871, which incorporated minor corrections and changes.  There have been four official revisions since 1789 (1892, 1928, 1946, 1979.