By Eugene R. Schlesinger
Recently the Episcopal Church has been riding a tidal wave of fame and good will as our first bishop, Samuel Seabury, rocketed into public consciousness through his depiction in Lin-Manuel Miranda’s brilliant Hamilton. Okay, nearly all that is an exaggeration, but people have heard of Seabury now, even if they don’t know much about him, except that he once lost a rap battle with the “ten-dollar founding father without a father.”
Miranda’s version of Seabury is little more than a walking punch line, a simpering, scolding, insufficiently woke foil for Hamilton’s unimpeachable powers of speech. Seabury ineptly advocates for loyalism, admonishing that “chaos and bloodshed are not a solution.” He could well stand in for the “white moderates” of Martin Luther King Jr.’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail, or contemporary opponents of Black Lives Matter or any other cause célèbre urging patience rather than confronting and dismantling injustice. Even with all my admiration for Seabury, I cannot help but cheer the stage version of Alexander Hamilton on as he “tear[s] this dude apart” with his “top-notch brain.”
As a result, when I explain to my children that the figure in the large stained-glass window at the back of our church’s sanctuary is Samuel Seabury, they gape in stunned disbelief that such a stooge would be commemorated by anyone.
I don’t begrudge Miranda his depiction of Seabury as a dupe. First of all, it makes sense that, in the telling of a Hamilton-centric story, he would come off that way. Surely that’s how he appeared to Hamilton, who always assumed he was the smartest in the room. Further, there’s no law that clergy, even clergy of historical significance, be portrayed in a sympathetic light. Indeed, I don’t actually know much about Seabury’s personality. Perhaps he was a simpering dupe. It would not really matter if he were.
There is more to the story, of course. (Spoiler Alert.) As Hamilton lay dying after his duel with Aaron Burr, Benjamin Moore, the Episcopal Bishop of New York, attended him. Despite some initial hesitation, Moore eventually communed Hamilton, being assured of his repentance for his part in the duel — and this although Hamilton was not an Episcopalian in a time of less welcoming Anglican altars.
As Mark Michael has recently reminded us, Seabury’s model patience led eventually to the initial transmission of episcopal succession to American Anglicanism, and it turns out Seabury was one of the links in Bishop Moore’s succession. So, while Hamilton may have gotten the better of Samuel Seabury in The Farmer Refuted, it is in large part thanks to Seabury that there was a Bishop of New York to administer Christ’s body and blood to Hamilton on his deathbed. In some ways this is a vindication of Seabury.
In other, more important, ways, though, Seabury needs no vindication.
It is a common trope to opine that certain people and groups are on the “wrong side” of history. While this is most often the darling of progressives, Vice President Pence recently trotted it out in a denunciation of the Assad regime in Syria. The problem with judgments like this, of course, is that we can’t know in advance what the “right side” of history will be. All too often what looks like progress is alloyed with decline. The imperialist pretensions of the United States in the 19th century are a good example. Our doctrine of Manifest Destiny involved plenty of racist ideology, and the mistreatment and displacement of non-white peoples. On the other hand, it is good that states like Oregon, Texas, and California are members of our Union. The legacy of our expansionism is ambiguous in character.
Other cases are more straightforward. The National Socialists were sure they were on the right side of history, putting their scientific acumen and industrial efficiency to work to purify the master race and usher in a thousand-year Reich. Nazism was and is wrong — not because of historical developments, but because authoritarianism, racism, and genocide are always wrong, regardless of whether the tide of public opinion shifts against them.
The Syrian genocide is wrong, and would be even if it were universally acclaimed in perpetuity, rather than opposed. It might be nice to have history on your side, but in reality history has no sides, only events. Its outcomes are only provisional. Oceans rise, empires fall, and when push comes to shove the Enlightenment myth of inevitable progress has brought as many horrors as it has wonders.
Was Samuel Seabury on the right side of history?
Perhaps that depends: as a loyalist, his cause lost the day. As a churchman, many Episcopalians have access to the sacraments because of him. (Not every bishop’s succession comes through Seabury. In fact, the majority do not.) He is currently best known as the butt of a joke in a popular musical. He also played an indirect role in a particular jester’s dying in the peace of Christ.
But outcomes do not determine the righteousness of a cause. At one point the Assyrians were on the right side of history, then the Babylonians, the Medes and Persians, the Greeks, the Romans, the Barbarians. Despite our evaluative frameworks, history remains radically contingent. Christ alone is the Lord of history, which unfolds under his providence, and is not subject to our control. History is not our judge; Christ will be.
When we worry about who is on the right and wrong side of history, we attempt to wrest mastery away from history’s true Lord, Christ. Our concern should be to do right, regardless of history’s outcomes and judgments, regardless of which way the wind will blow, without fear of backing the wrong horse.
You have no control who lives, who dies, who tells your story. In the end all shall give an account to Christ. History may have its eyes on us, but it does not determine our fates. And the merciful judge will, to the chagrin of many, welcome into his kingdom many who were on the wrong side of history. For we are saved not by aligning ourselves with the right causes, nor by our prophetic witness and wokeness, not by doing good nor by being on the right side of history, but by the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
Many who are on the wrong side of history may find themselves on the right side of eternity.