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William White was born April 4, 1748 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. White received his B.A. from the College of Philadelphia in 1765 under the tutelage of Provost William Smith. Following additional study in England, he was ordained a priest at St. James’ Palace, London, in 1770.

During the years of the American Revolution, White was appointed assistant to the rector at Christ Church and St. Peter’s Church in Philadelphia. He was a supporter of the revolution while his rector, Jacob Duché, turned his allegiance to Great Britain after Philadelphia was occupied in 1777. By 1779, the British had left Philadelphia, and White was made rector and appointed chaplain to the Continental Congress (both positions previously held by Duché).

Influenced by William Smith’s organizational example in Maryland, White established himself as a leader in the Diocese of Pennsylvania. He published his landmark pamphlet, The Case of the Episcopal Churches in the United States Considered, within which contained his suggestion that all regions of colonial churches create a small, elected body (or a “general vestry”) consisting of representatives from several parishes, both clergy and laity, in order to establish a frame of church government. Similarly, representatives from these vestries were suggested to meet every three years in order discuss “faith, worship, and government.” Written in 1782, White’s vision for organizing the Episcopal Church was written as an “obligation [for] adopting speedy and decisive measures” in orders to prevent Episcopalians from “being scattered ‘like sheep without a shepherd.’” Many of the pamphlet’s suggestions were discussed and implemented at the first General Convention of the Episcopal Church, held in Philadelphia in 1785. This model continues in the current canons of the Episcopal Church, as individual dioceses continue to meet annually for diocesan conventions, and representatives from the entire church meet every three years for a General Convention.

Returning to England in 1787, White was consecrated as the first Bishop of Pennsylvania. His consecration was the second for an American bishop within the Anglican tradition but first involving the Archbishop of Canterbury. As the office of Presiding Bishop was originally a rotating office according to the location of each convention. White was appointed as the first Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church for the General Convention of 1789 in Philadelphia. By 1795, the role of Presiding Bishop was granted according to seniority of consecration, leading him once again to become Presiding Bishop, a position he would hold for the remainder of his life.

Noteworthy accomplishments during White’s tenure as Presiding Bishop were the establishment of an American, Episcopal Book of Common Prayer and creation of the House of Bishops in 1789, the first consecration of an American bishop by fellow American bishops in 1792, the adoption of a revised edition of the Thirty-nine Articles to the 1801, the ordination of Absalom Jones, the first black American to be ordained in a mainline denomination, in 1804, the legislative approval to form the Episcopal Church’s first seminary, the General Theological Seminary, in 1817, and the founding of the Bishop White Prayer Book Society in 1833. The Episcopal Church grew nationally during his tenure, as White participated in the consecration of twenty-seven bishops between 1792 and 1835, twelve of whom became the first bishops of newly-formed dioceses.

The bishop was influential in educational and philanthropic ventures in Philadelphia. His many charitable endeavors were the result of his recognition of the importance of offering religious ministry to a secular society, once preaching:

Our Savior, from the very beginning of his ministry, spoke of the establishment of his religion, as a spiritual kingdom to be begun on earth: A kingdom, not indeed conducted on the maxims of worldly policy, yet necessarily involving dominion on the one part, with obedience and communion on the other.*

White helped found the Episcopal Academy in 1785, the First Day Society in 1790, the Magdalen Society of Philadelphia in 1800, and provided funding for the Pennsylvania Institution for the Deaf and Dumb in 1820. He remained active in the leadership of the College of Philadelphia, becoming a trustee in 1774, serving as its treasurer from 1775 to 1778, and serving as president of the board from 1790 to 1791. When the College of Philadelphia became the University of Pennsylvania in 1791, White remained a trustee of the university until his death.

William White died on July 17, 1836 and was buried in his family’s vault at Christ Church. The bishop’s steadfast faith and devotion to the Church were remembered fondly in a local obituary:

His piety was deep and unfeigned; his walking humble yet dignified; his acquirements profound; in his mind the welfare of the Christian church was always the prominent consideration.

His remains now lie beneath the chancel of the church, having been re-interred in 1870. The Bishop White House, located at 309 Walnut Street, may be toured by visitorsas part of Independence National Historical Park. He is venerated in the Episcopal Church with a minor feast on July 17.

Contributed by
Dennis J. Reid

*Excerpt from June 21, 1786 sermon to General Convention at Christ Church, Philadelphia
Let it then be understood, that we disclaim all idea of adding to the word of God, or of its being infallibly interpreted by any authority on earth. Still, it lies on the Ministers of the Church to open to their flocks the truths of Scripture, and to guard them against interfering errors.
Excerpt from a pastoral letter by Bishop William White to the members of the Protestant Episcopal Church, assembled in General Convention
at Baltimore,
May 1808.