The Broad Churchmanship of William Reed Huntington


by Jonathan Warren

Huntington’s “Church-Idea”


Moving across the Atlantic, this week we turn our attention to a prominent priest in the Protestant Episcopal Church in the United States [1], William Reed Huntington (1838-1909). In the great age of “church parties” or factions in Anglicanism that was the nineteenth century, Huntington was one of the leading advocates of church reunion, not only in his own Episcopal church, but among all the fractures of Christendom, particularly as they found expression in the American context.

Like many others in the nineteenth century, Huntington was equal parts hope and despair about the configuration of the church in the United States. He was hostile to the comfy denominational system in the United States, in which the divisions that rent the one body of Christ were accepted as normative as the church was reconfigured into a series of private “voluntary societies,”[2] but he was also cautiously hopeful that the lack of an established church might remove external obstacles to the “union of hearts” necessary to reconciliation (Huntington, Peace, 18).

Huntington was committed to what he called the “principle” of Anglicanism, but he would devote most of his adult life to casting a vision for the “Church of the Reconciliation” (Suter, Life and Letters, 502) in the American context, and he had hopes that Anglicanism might be the site of this reunion. Huntington’s proposed basis for this reunion is now known as the “Chicago-Lambeth Quadrilateral,” because it was first accepted as a paradigm for ecumenical discussions by the House of Bishops of the PECUSA in 1886 and then by the Lambeth Council (in a slightly different formulation, closer to Huntington’s original 1870 wording) in 1888. The points of the quadrilateral (in Huntington’s own words) were:

1st. The Holy Scriptures as the Word of God.

2nd. The Primitive Creeds as the Rule of Faith.

3rd. The Two Sacraments ordained by Christ himself.

4th. The Episcopate as the key-stone of Governmental Unity (Huntington, Church-Idea, 125).

The Quadrilateral has weathered a great deal of criticism over the almost century and a half of its existence, especially from those who object to its minimalistic statement of “the basic characteristics of a truly catholic or universal church” (Macquarrie, 31) and its “bizarre view” that the elements have meaning in themselves outside a “common experience within the community” (Kelly, 29). Nonetheless, despite its limitations, it had an important role in ecumenical discussions between Anglicans and Methodists, Lutherans, Catholics, and Orthodox over the course of the 20th century. Its role as an ecumenical symbol for Anglicans remains undiminished to date, despite its detractors.


Huntington was born in Lowell, Massachusetts on 20 September 1838 to Episcopalian parents of high church persuasion. The family attended St. Anne’s, the rector of which was the high church Dr. Theodore Edson, whose influence evidently had a negative impact on Huntington. He later wrote that “Had no other religious influence…come into my life than that of St. Anne’s, I fear that long ago I should have gone off into Agnosticism or Pessimism” (Suter, Life and Letters, 13). He matriculated at Harvard in 1855, where he made the acquaintance of the Unitarian chaplain Frederic Huntington, who eventually took Episcopalian orders, and the chemist Joseph Cook, both of whom were decisive influences for him intellectually. In his senior year, Huntington decided to enter the ministry of the Episcopal church, and he was ordained to priestly orders in 1862. He took the rectorship of All Saints Church, Worcester, MA from 1862-1883 and then moved to Grace Church, New York, from 1883 until his death in 1909.

As has already been mentioned, Huntington’s ministry was largely devoted to the reunion of the Christian churches in America, and the development of the quadrilateral was a great flowering of that emphasis in his ministry. Huntington was also devoted to revision of the Book of Common Prayer. Influenced by the importance of religious devotion in uniting a people around national identity in the thought of FD Maurice and Ignaz von Döllinger and hopeful that Anglicanism might be the site of Christian reunion in the American context,Huntington focused in his revisions on the crafting of a common language of prayer for the whole American people. One can thus immediately see the close connection of his work on the quadrilateral to his push for prayer book revision.

Another emphasis in his ministry, which has not received sufficient attention in the evaluation of his thought, was his interest in reviving the permanent diaconate. By the middle part of the 19th century, the diaconate had largely died out in the Episcopal church. The transitional diaconate was principally a stepping stone on the path to ordination to the priesthood, and Huntington saw this as a great loss. In his rectorship at Grace Church, he often said that he would like to see as many as seven deacons and deaconesses deployed from his church in service to the community (Suter, 232, 235).

Evaluating Huntington

As Brooks Holifield as written, the Episcopal Church at the time Huntington entered it “inherited an Anglican theological tradition that had been divided into party alignments ever since the seventeenth century, and like their English predecessors, the Americans fell into a grouping of latitudinarians [or broad church liberals], evangelicals, and high-church theologians.” By the 1840s, there were also Anglo-Catholic partisans distinct from the high church theologians, although some high church theologians like John Henry Hopkins sympathized with the Tractarians without joining their ranks (Holifield, 234, 238, 244-5).

Although Huntington has been characterized by many as a doctrinal minimalist and broad churchman, Huntington himself did not like to be characterized in this way, and his churchmanship was dynamic and complex. Although he probably deserves to be classed with the broad church party, he was also decisively influenced by Anglo-Catholicism and actually sought out John Keble in England in 1861 (Woolverton, 201).

In a letter to Rev. R. Heber Newton in 1874, Huntington wrote that “if you do map our four distinct parties, and name them ritualistic [Anglo-Catholic], high, low, and broad, I am a good deal in doubt where I properly belong, and therefore I question whether…I could properly stand as an advocate for any one of the four divisions. Whatever I may have been called by others, I have never called myself a Broad Churchman, pure and simple, for the reason that there are several features of what is common known as Broad Church theology, e.g. the contempt for the dogmatic principles and the unconcern for visible unity in the Church, with which I have no sympathy whatever” (Suter, Life and Letters, 127). Furthermore, one of his friends wrote that “he was Broad in the sense of inclusive, not in the sense of Liberal. He cared a great deal for dogma” (Suter, Life and Letters, 530). In 1903, Huntington expressed his discomfort with certain trends among the broad churchmen of his day in a letter to a family friend: “the other night I attended a meeting of the alumni of the Cambridge Theological School resident in this city….The theology talked was a little too ‘Broad’ even for me, and I can stand a good deal in that direction. When it came my turn to speak, I told the story of the old lady in England who remarked that there were two sorts of Broad, the Broad with unction and the Broad without unction, and I ventured to express the hope that the School would make a point of graduating the Broad with unction” (Suter, Life and Letters, 358).

Huntington’s creedal faith was what Charles Taylor has called a “take,” or a position on the way things are that recognizes its vulnerability and contestedness, rather than a “spin,” “an overconfident ‘picture’ within which we can’t imagine it being otherwise, and thus smugly dismiss those who disagree” (see Smith, 94-6). He was aware of the attraction and power of other “takes” on reality, but he remained convinced by the Christianity of the creeds. By no means did Huntington’s sympathy with opposing points of view mean that he lacked conviction or was relativistic – he was certainly capable of plain dealing with Christians he thought had departed orthodoxy, and his friendship with Harvard classmate Frank Abbott was damaged when Huntington challenged the latter’s deistic tendencies in a series of letters in the 1860s.

Still, Huntington was profoundly concerned to exercise charity and sympathy in his speech to others. In a sermon entitled “The Scorn of Scorn,” Huntington reflected that “’We all have our choice between ridiculing the weak points of those around us, and being sorry for them; between doing what we can to make the faults and the misfortunes of others conspicuous, and doing what we can to hide them out of sight; in a word, between mercilessness and mercy, between contempt and pity” (Huntington, Causes, 79).

This sympathy with those he disagreed with also made his theology more intensively practical and devotional. In an important sermon entitled “The Devotional Aspects of the Trinity,” Huntington simultaneously pushed back on the rejection of the Trinity in theological liberalism and made the argument that without the Trinity the atonement makes no sense:

 A single sinless creature chosen out from among his fellow-creatures to bear the penalty which the others, and the others only, have deserved – could anything possibly be suggested more repugnant to our natural sense of what is right fair and just than that? But only once recognize in the lamb of sacrifice, only discern in the person of the sufferer a God-man, see in Him one who has consciously, out of the depths of an infinite compassion, taken our nature upon Him and endured the humiliation of the cross, that we might be lifted up—once view the matter in this light, and while there may still remain much in the doctrine of the Atonement mysterious and difficult to grasp, it will yet stand free from that opprobrium, which must inevitably attach to it so long as we hold Christ to have been a holy man, a saint, a prophet, a martyr, and nothing more (Huntington, Causes, 387) [3]

Huntington’s broad churchmanship thus did not indicate a lack of conviction but rather a commitment to charitable and devotional discourse and a capacious form of Christianity devoted to the ecumenical creeds. Would that more Christians today took seriously Huntington’s broad churchmanship “with unction”!

Huntington is open to criticism on a number of scores, however. Although it would false to call him a doctrinal minimalist, he did lead an effort to remove the 39 Articles from Prayer Book in the late 19th century. That effort was thwarted in the General Assembly, but Huntington never could reconcile himself to the authority of the Articles.

He can also be criticized for his excessive nationalism, something he shared with most nineteenth century Christians. Although Huntington’s patriotism is not always front and center, John Woolverton points out that despite its acceptance by Lambeth, “the Quadrilateral was designed to serve the purposes of reconciliation among Christians in America” and that Huntington’s trio of writings unpacking the Quadrilateral, The Church-Idea, The Peace of the Church, and The National Church were “all written with the American religious scene in mind” (Woolverton, 201). One can find occasional jingoisms in his writing as well, such as Huntington’s quip, “Would you be a good Catholic? Be a good nationalist first. The rest will come in time” (Huntington, National Church, 36). Like many other nineteenth century Christians, Huntington did not do enough to distinguish the Christian “we” from the American “we,” as Stanley Hauerwas has evocatively put it (Hauerwas, 266-7).

We can be grateful, however, for Huntington’s commitment to live out John 17 in his relations to other Christian communions, and we can learn from his sympathetic and charitable dealings with those he disagreed with. As Anglicans, we should be grateful for his revival of the diaconal office as central to the life of the church and for his attempts to craft a language of prayer that was recognizably Anglican but which could speak to the hearts of those formed by American culture.


Hauerwas, Stanley, Hannah’s Child: A Theologians Memoir (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans 2010).

Holifield, E. Brooks, Theology in America (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2003).

Huntington, William Reed, The Causes of the Soul: A Book of Sermons (1891).

Huntington, William Reed, The Church-Idea: An Essay Towards Unity (1870).

Huntington, William Reed, A National Church (1897).

Huntington, William Reed, The Peace of the Church (1891).

Kelley, Alden, “The Episcopal Church and Church Unity,” Approaches toward Unity (Nashville: Parthenon Press, 1952).

Macquarrie, John and Fuller, Reginald, Realistic Reflections on Church Union (Forward Movement Miniature Books, 1967).

Smith, James K.A., How (Not) to Be Secular: Reading Charles Taylor (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2014).

Woolverton, John, “Huntington’s Quadrilateral: A Critical Study,” Church History 39.2 (June 1970), 198-211.

[1] The PECUSA, which would ultimately become one of the provinces of the Anglican Communion as that reality was forged in the nineteenth century, was the first national church associated with the Church of England but not directly under its jurisdictional control. William White and Samuel Seabury were its first bishops. I hope to write about both of them here in the future.

[2] In The Peace of the Church, Huntington writes that “since denominationalism came in as a recognized state of things, all sorts of pleasant parables have been devised to make it appear lovely. Even the rainbow has been forced to lend its manifold beauty in aid of the exigencies of argument, and we are exhorted to discern in our wretched divisions a divinely ordered variety every shade of which is essential to the full chromatic effect” (Huntington, Peace, 19).

[3] Woolverton notes that Huntington’s theology of atonement was fairly similar to Horace Bushnell’s. Without denying the sacrificial dimension of Christ’s work, it was focused on the gradual renewal of the person and renovation of character for the purpose of friendship with God and neighbor, which was the application of Christ’s sacrifice: “Reconciliation meant the renovation man’s character and the restoration of fellowship with God and with other men….In the case of both men, it was the result of Christ’s person and act which was emphasized rather than the manner and work of amendment” (Woolverton, 205).

Published on

June 23, 2014


Jonathan Warren Pagán

Jonathan Warren Pagán is a priest currently living and serving in Austin, Texas. He is married to Tish, also a writer and priest in the ACNA, and they have three children.

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