Search

Race and Episcopal Church History

By Gabrie’l J. Atchison

Sankofa, a Ghanaian symbol often depicted as a bird with its head turned backward, means “go back and fetch it.” Sankofa denotes the importance of learning from the past in order to make positive progress. Understanding the role of racism in the foundation of the Episcopal Church in America will facilitate the evolution of our institutions and our theology and set us on the right path towards racial reconciliation.

White Anglicans and, later, Episcopalians were an integral part of the social and economic system of slavery in America. The southern, slave-owning class formed the financial foundation of the church; and, northern Episcopal churches remained neutral during the Civil War to keep the peace. Throughout our history, white Episcopalians desired the inclusion of blacks, and debated– mostly among themselves – about how best to make it happen.

Enslaved Africans were baptized into the Anglican Church as early as the 1600’s. They were relegated to segregated worship spaces in slave galleries and met at separate worship times.  In order to adhere to Christian values while justifying slavery, Christian theology and biblical interpretation of the time had to be infused with messages of black inferiority and the spiritual benefits of servitude.

Even as others tried to use the Bible in their subjugation, black Christians internalized what Kelly Brown Douglas calls a “canon within a canon” – an early, black liberation theology in which they found courage, dignity and spiritual connection in those parts of the Bible not often emphasized in church. Further, Black Episcopalians believed in the Episcopal church as “one, holy, catholic and apostolic” – universal and available to all. They remained committed to this vision even as white religious leaders openly debated their humanity.

The commitment to an expanded vision of Episcopal worship and a need for autonomy inspired the formation of the first black Episcopal churches among the free black community. The African Episcopal Church of St. Thomas opened in Philadelphia in 1794, and in 1804, Absalom Jones became the first African American to be ordained as a priest. Several other black congregations and organizations formed before the Civil War, most of which were located in the south. The larger church body was indifferent to these black congregations.

After the Civil War, there was a mass exodus of African Americans from southern Episcopal churches. Caught off guard, southern church leaders blamed the negative influence of black clergy and northern radicals for convincing black Episcopalians to leave. There was little awareness of the damaging impact of segregation on these parishioners. For black Episcopalians, the move meant independence and the ability to nurture black leadership. They were also critical of the church for not condemning slavery.

Historian Gardiner Shattuck argues that the racial segregation and paternalism of the post-Civil War era has set the stage for troubled race relations throughout the 20th and 21st centuries. White southerners fervently desired connection with African Americans but could not bear the idea of social equality with them. Nor were they comfortable with black autonomy. Northern congregations helped to educate newly freed people and provided food and clothes; however, most of these interracial relationships were based on pity and charity and not on mutual respect.

The debate about black Episcopalians came to a head when in 1882, a group of white clergy and lay leaders met in Sewanee, Tennessee for a conference. With the rise of black Episcopal churches, white southerners began to fear that a black clergyperson or bishop might lead white parishioners one day. After different efforts to block black churches from being full members in southern diocese, the group at Sewanee decided that black people should worship separately and permanently remain under the authority of a white bishop. Black Episcopal leaders immediately resisted this measure and it did not pass at convention; however, southern diocese moved independently to create ‘separate but equal’ Colored Conventions where black congregations had limited power.

Long before Sewanee, there existed a tension between the Episcopal Church and black Episcopalians. Throughout our history, black Episcopalians have been perceived as a separate group, marginal, or a “problem.” However, black Episcopalians have sought to be understood as an integral part of the church not as a special group. From early in our history, black Episcopalians have seen themselves as a corrective, working to help the church live up to its mission.

Although there is so much more to the story of the racial history of the Episcopal Church, the attitudes that were forged in slavery and institutionalized during Reconstruction remain a challenge today. To move forward with our work of racial reconciliation we have to ‘go back and fetch’ this part of our history. We must find out what attitudes remain – subtle or explicit – about black inferiority. And we must purge those practices that promote racial segregation and paternalism.

Below are suggestions to get started:

  • The Church Awakens: African Americans and the Struggle for Justice – The Archives of the Episcopal Church –
  • The March 1994, Pastoral Letter on Racism from the House of Bishops, which definitively stated that, “Racism is totally inconsistent with the Gospel and, therefore, must be confronted and eradicated.”
  • Yet with a Steady Beat: The African American Struggle for Recognition in the Episcopal Church by Harold T. Lewis Episcopalians & Race: Civil War to Civil Rights by Gardiner H. Shattuck, Jr
  • Having Our Say: The Delaney Sisters’ First 100 Years by Sarah L Delany, A. Elizabeth Delany with Amy Hill Hearth

So in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith, for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise.

Galatians 3: 26-29

Gabrie’l J. Atchison  is missioner for administration in the Episcopal Dioceses of WNY and NWPA and congregational development director at Trinity Episcopal Church. She is a Black Feminist theologian and contributor to the Anti-Racist Devotional: Sacred Text through an Anti-Racist Lens.  

Image:  “Iron ‘sankofa’ symbol on a memorial to the enslaved workers who ‘helped’ build the Unitarian Church in Charleston, SC” by Spencer Means is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 )