Anglican Watch

The Episcopal church’s lost causism

Ed.: The following was written and published by Tom Ferguson aka Crusty Old Dean, for his blog located here. Reprinted with permission.

With just 4 percent of Episcopalians being black, versus 13.4 percent of the US population as a whole, the church’s dismal track record on race warrants closer scrutiny. And while the church talks a good game, my experience is it does little to affect change.

The Episcopal church’s lost causism

Though I’m a full time parish priest, I still do some teaching at Episcopal seminaries, have taught a little bit of everything on the history front but most of my teaching has been in Anglican & Episcopal Church History.  About 20 years ago I became concerned with how the Episcopal Church generally told its history around race and racism, which I summarize to my classes like this:

“We usually skip from slavery to the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s, and skip over everything in between.  We talk about Absalom Jones then slip to Jonathan Myrick Daniels because we don’t want to talk about how the church’s complicity with racism and slavery and want to pat ourselves on the back and only tell what we think are the good parts.”

This at times willful refusal to look at our own history of race and racism has shaped some of the received historical narrative of the Episcopal Church.

Here’s one:  “The Episcopal Church is the only/one of the few denominations that didn’t split over slavery.”

My response to this is usually something like, “Blithely asserting the Episcopal Church did not split over slavery, when, in fact, it did, has been our own version of the Lost Cause: a whitewashing and rewriting of the past by those in power to avoid confronting systemic racism.”

There are a number of problems with asserting the Episcopal Church did not split over slavery.

Problem 1)  Yes, on one level, the Episcopal Church did not split in the 1840s or 1850s like Baptist, Presbyterian, Methodist, and other denominations.  But that’s largely because the Episcopal Church did not take a stand, at times viewing slavery as a “political” issue and not one the church should come down on.  When Kansas Territory was being torn apart by armed conflict between pro- and anti-slavery factions in 1856, the General Convention refused to say anything about the violence or about how slavery was tearing the country apart.  It issued the following statement: the Church has “nothing to do [with] party politics, with sectional disputes, with earthly distinctions, with the wealth, the splendor, and the ambition of the world.”

So while perhaps technically true at best this statement should reveal deep shame: that unlike many Protestant denominations, the Episcopal Church did not split because it did not take a stand.

Problem 2) But there’s another problem: this statement simply isn’t true.  The Episcopal Church did split, the Protestant Episcopal Church in the Confederate States was created, issued its own Prayer Book, approved a Constitution, chose Presiding Bishop, reorganized some its missionary districts, and elected a bishop, among other things.

See, it’s the parsing that “splitting over secession” does not equal “splitting over slavery” that is the tell that reveals something.  Secession WAS over slavery.  We know this because lots of people said so at the time.  Southern senators and representatives resigned from Congress, and, in their resignation speeches, cited the legal and God-given right to own their slaves as the reason for secession.  We know this because the Confederate Constitution permitted amendments, except in one place: the right to own slaves could never be changed or amended.  Also, regarding the question of extending slavery to any territories acquired by the Confederacy:  the Confederate constitution automatically extended slavery to any new states or territory acquired, even if the people resident there did not want it (so much for states rights!).  So, you see, “States Rights” really means “the right to own slaves.” We also know this because Confederate politicians on more than one occasion propounded the “correction” theory: that with the Confederacy, the mistakes of the Declaration of Independence and U.S. Constitution could be corrected.  And that mistake? That African Americans could ever be considered people and not an inferior race whose proper status was servitude.

This is parsing to avoid saying the separation in the Episcopal Church is our own piece of the broader revisionist history of the Lost Cause movement: an effort for over 100 years to rewrite the history of the Civil War to be about “states rights” and downplay slavery.  Even when most historians had already been debunking this for decades, Ken Burns helped to give this continued life by making Shelby Foote’s half-baked drawling Lost Cause nostalgia somehow the centerpiece of his epic Civil War television documentary in the 1990s.  You know, Shelby Foote — the guy who had a picture of Nathan Bedford Forrest, first Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan, on his wall.

We see the Episcopal Church’s version of Lost Causism reflected in another piece of folk history.  It’s often stated: “The Episcopal Church quickly and seamlessly reunited after the Civil War, denominations like Methodists and Presbyterians took decades to reunite, and some never did, like Northern and Southern Baptists.”

Guess what?  Same two problems!

Problem 1)  Perhaps technically true with some parsing.  Yes, several Southern bishops attended the 1865 General Convention.  Yes, the one Southern bishop elected in the Confederate Church was seated in the House of Bishops, even though that bishop’s election had not been consented to by the General Convention.

But:  Sure, three bishops attended the 1865 Convention.  The rest didn’t, and one Southern bishop had been under house arrest by occupying Federal troops because he told his clergy not to pray for the Union, since he considered the Confederate government to be the legitimate government in his state.  Several other bishops did not attend General Convention until they met as a rump group in late 1865 and 1866 and formally dissolved the Confederate Church.  They didn’t attend because they believed that since they had left the Episcopal Church and joined another body, they could not return to the Episcopal Church until that body had been formally dissolved.

Problem 2)  That reunion was at the expense of the marginalization and oppression of freed African American Episcopalians.  After the Civil War, Black Episcopalians exited the denomination in the South in massive numbers.  In some dioceses, there had been thousands of Black communicants, nearly 50% in the diocese of South Carolina, for instance.  We can wonder at how much these persons were “Episcopalians,” since many had no choice in the matter and were baptized Episcopalian because the slave chapel had been built by their Episcopal master.  Yet we do know of many Black Episcopalians who did want to remain Episcopalians, and asked for Black clergy to be ordained for those congregations.  And we know that, by and large, bishops did not comply: only about 20 African Americans in the entire church, north and south, were ordained between 1866-1876.  We know that six congregations were formed by freed African Americans in South Carolina alone.  These congregations chose to be received into the Reformed Episcopal Church in 1875, which ordained clergy and a bishop for them, because the Episcopal diocese refused to ordain Black clergy for those congregations.  The refusal to ordain Black clergy was rooted directly in white supremacy: the reasons given were that Blacks were barely removed from barbarism and savagery, and were not fit to serve in any kind of leadership.  They said it, plainly and clearly, in writing.

The Episcopal Church’s Freedmen’s Commission, set up in 1868, wound down its operations by and large in 1877 and 1878 — in part because Southern dioceses resented “national” church intrusion into their internal affairs, an echo of the resentment against Reconstruction.  In 1883, the southern bishops met at Sewanee and debated several different proposals to bring to General Convention to establish, by canon, segregation in the church.

While the so-called “Sewanee Proposal” of 1883 never did get passed and never did set up formal separate missionary districts for African Americans by canon, some version of it was introduced at every General Convention until 1940.  Southern dioceses pioneered the concept of “provinces”, introducing proposals in the 1890s and following that would, in essence, allow for a church-within-a-church, another blatant effort to find a mechanism to allow for legislated segregation.  One proposal put forward for provinces by Southerners would have created a Province which encompassed most southern dioceses, and each Province would have its own Archbishop/Presiding Bishop, and the General Convention would meet once every 10 years solely to deal with the Constitution and Prayer Book, with Provinces allowed wide leeway to manage their internal affairs.

Eventually the Episcopal Church, as a whole, acquiesced to this “unity,” after the Civil War but at the price of a segregated church.  “Colored” convocations were eventually established in the South, and, through the establishment of the office of Suffragan Bishop, two African Americans were ordained bishop to minister to African American Episcopalians.   Sometimes students ask, “Why were only two Black suffragans consecrated?”  The answer is, “Because when the bishop of South Carolina called for the consecration of a third Black Suffragan in his diocese, a white supremacist gunned him down and murdered him in his office, and no proposals for Black suffragans were made after that.  White supremacy had to be enforced by violence and murder to be most effective.”

Yet we should not assume this was solely a “Southern” phenomenon.  Blacks were routinely denied admission at Northern seminaries, northern dioceses were rigidly segregated and it would have been unthinkable to have African American members or clergy in a predominantly white church.  And not in the past, by the way.  An African American clergy person who was ordained in the 1970s  shared with me that he was told by his diocesan bishop that he would likely need to take a secular job for a few years because “there were no black parishes available.”

So that’s where this is coming from: these two shibboleths

“The Episcopal Church didn’t split over slavery” and

“The Episcopal Church quickly reunited after the Civil War”

are the Episcopal Church’s own version of the Lost Cause because they are rewritten versions of history by the those in power to downplay or ignore addressing issues of systemic racism.

Sometimes people ask, “Where did all of this come from? How did this version of history happen?”

This is part of the pernicious poison of revisionism.  There’s nothing more baffling than when people say, “We can’t judge people in the past because things were different in the olden days” because PEOPLE AT THAT TIME judged their fellow people in the past.  People in the 1850s said slavery was wrong, barbaric, inhumane, and unjust.  People at the time it was happening pointed out and condemned southern states for disenfranchising African Americans in the 1870s and onward (again, it was all out there in plain sight; over 100,000 African Americans were registered to vote in Louisiana in the 1870s and 1880s and barely 1,200 were registered to vote in 1900).  People pointed out that white mobs routinely murdered African Americans (Wilmington; Atlanta; Memphis; New Orleans; Rosewood; Tulsa; Chicago; New York and on and on and on and on and on…) without anyone being held accountable.  The first federal anti-lynching law WAS INTRODUCED INTO CONGRESS IN 1900.  (And, by the way, today, in 2020, we still do not have a federal anti-lynching law.) When Theodore Roosevelt invited Booker T. Washington to the White House Residence for dinner in 1901, a Southern Senator openly said “How many will we have to lynch to remind them of their proper place?”  Of course we can judge the past because people at the time knew damn well what was happening was wrong.

In the Church, there were Episcopalians AT THE TIME who saw and named exactly what was happening with the inhumanity of slavery the failure of Reconstruction, and the abandonment of African American Episcopalians in the 1870s: Alexander Crummell, George Freeman Bragg, and Anna Cooper, among others.  They wrote about these issues, organized, and lobbied.  There were white abolitionists, too, most notably the Jay family of New York, but overall the number of abolitionists in the Episcopal Church was less than in other denominations with a significant northern presence.

This is the true evil of revisionism:  it rewrites the past, and, when that narrative becomes the received narrative, it somehow absolves those in the present from responsibility. Voila!  Erasing the past allows those with power and privilege in the present to vacate responsibility, thus ensuring justice is never done.

These two statements around splitting and reuniting are reflected in the mid-century historiography of the Episcopal Church.  The standard church histories used in seminary history classes well into the 1980s were written in the 1950s and 1960s.  I don’t want to imply in any way that these Epsicopal Church history texbooks invented this revisionist history: rather, they reflected the way Lost Causism had become such a part of the air that people breathed, and that the marginalized voices had been completely erased.

Let’s see what they have to say!

  1. A)  One standard history of the Episcopal Church was published in 1967 and was used widely into the 1980s.  This text devoted 6 pages out of 366 to slavery, the Civil War, and Reconstruction.  All three of these in their entirety covered in 6 pages out of 366 pages in the book.  These three topics do not even get their own chapter, they are combined with one that also covers 19th century domestic and foreign missionary expansion.

In this text, the Southern Church is purely an accident of circumstance, as the author notes that after secession the southern bishops “were in full authority in their dioceses but no longer in the United States of America” and “under the necessity of reorganizing the general structure of the church.”  Just an accident of history!  This text also states “Many denominations were permanently divided…the Episcopal Church in the North and South never declared a separation.”

While spending 6 pages on the Civil War and Reconstruction, and never mentioning the segregation of the church, this text spends 26 pages in a single chapter on the history of the Oxford Movement in the United States, and 4 pages alone on prominent Episcopalians who became Roman Catholics.

This text does not mention the Sewanee Conference of 1883, and Alexander Crummell’s name does not appear once.  Like Voldemort, racism and prominent Black voices Are-Not-To-Be-Named.

  1. B)  A second widespread standard history, published in 1951 and going through several later editions over the years, is more balanced.  It speaks of the “malignant cancer of slavery” and openly states “the Episcopal Church never split on the issue of slavery because it refused to take any position.”

Yet it has some interesting explanations of why the Church refused to take a position.  One explanation is because the whole question was just so gosh-darned complicated: “The heritage of slavery had created a situation for which neither the diagnosis nor the remedy of the Abolitionist was adequate…it was hard to see, even from a Christian point of view, what ought to be done with three or four million slaves in the midst of a white population.”

But the gravest concern of all has nothing to do with what the author had named as the “cancer” of slavery.

The author solemnly concludes, “Strongest and perhaps worthiest of all motives to avoid pressing for a verdict on slavery was the dread of schism in the church.”

Here the author is not just recounting a historical fact — that many at the time did in fact cite this notion that schism was to be avoided — but editorializes, calling this “perhaps worthiest” of reasons.  There’s another “tell”.  We have no better example, right there on the written page, prizing the unity of white people at the expense of the marginalization and genocide of Black Americans.  Gosh, slavery might be bad, but [clutching pearls] WE CAN’T HAZ US A SCHISM.

And, despite acknowledging this “cancer” of slavery, this text asserts “When division came it was…the actual fact of secession.”  While spending 10 pages of 390 pages in the book on slavery and the Civil War, this text also spend 8 pages devoted entirely to life and career of Bishop William Lawrence of Massachusetts.  This text does not mention the Sewanee proposal and Alexander Crummell’s name does not appear.  Erasure is not just an awesome 80s British pop group: segregation and African American voices are simply erased in these histories.

This shows the intentional historical constructs white supremacy creates: it not only edits the past, it erases the voices and witness of marginalized peoples, and ignores the fact that plenty of people about it at the time talked about all of this stuff quite openly.

Where did I find out about the real narrative of those times?  In two places!

  1. A)  I learned about it by reading about the white supremacy in plain sight, in their own words.  Racists aren’t hiding out in caves, meeting in secret.   They are shouting their racism, in public, for everyone to see, then and now, BTW.  The Protestant Episcopal Church in the Confederate States issued its own Pastoral Letter which clearly spells out what it is and what it stands for.

The Southern bishops in their Pastoral Letter themselves helped to establish this narrative, noting they were “Forced by the providence of God to separate ourselves from the Protestant Episcopal Church in the United States” and “Believing, with a wonderful unanimity, that the providence of God had guided our footsteps, and for His own inscrutable purposes, had forced us into a separate organization…” and “With one mind and with one heart we have entered upon this blessed work, and we stand together this day a band of brothers, one in faith, one in hope, one in charity.”  Separation is due to secession, and this, in turn, is part of God’s will and Providence.  Never mind that secession was about slavery, which northern and southern political leaders openly named at the time.

And even better — as part of God’s providence, there is the wonderful opportunity that comes with slavery!  They write, “The religious instruction of the negroes has been thrust upon us in such a wonderful manner.”

Slavery is inherent in the apartheid, white supremacist nation they were fighting to establish.  According to the bishops, slaves “are a sacred trust committed to us, as a people…While under this tutelage He freely gives to us their labor, but expects us to give back to them religious and moral instruction.”  God appointed slavery for Black people to give whites their labor, in return for religious and moral instruction.  They make a quick move into whataboutism, noting “The systems of labor which prevail in Europe and which are, in many respects, more severe than ours.”

And, there’s more to be thankful for with secession as a gift from God’s providence! Previously, in this work of ministering to slaves southern Christians had “been hindered by the pressure of Abolitionism; now we have thrown off from us that hateful and infidel pestilence.”  “Infidel” is a key tell here: an infidel is a non-Christian.  Abolition is infidel, and thus non-Christian, because slavery and racial superiority are part of the Christian God’s will and providence for the ordering of creation and the church.

We have them all in their own words, over and over again, that secession was about slavery and white supremacy.  I have an original copy of the Journals of the Protestant Episcopal Church in the Confederate States.  There are numerous, numerous sermons from clergy which were collected and published.  I could go on, but it really gets spiritually draining reading pages and pages of this racist s**t.  You can read the Presiding Bishop of the Confederate church’s sermon for a Day of Prayer and Fasting proclaimed by the Confederate government here. Please, just trust me that I have the receipts.

  1. B)  And I learned about all of this this by reading African Americans Episcopalians.  W.E.B. duBois’ chapter on Alexander Crummell in “Souls of Black Folk” is one of the more powerful historical essays I have read.  I always think of these words duBois writes about Crummell: “The more I met Alexander Crummell, the more I felt how much that world was losing which knew so little of him. In another age he might have sat among the elders of the land in purple–bordered toga; in another country mothers might have sung him to the cradles. He did his work,—he did it nobly and well; and yet I sorrow that here he worked alone, with so little human sympathy. His name to–day, in this broad land, means little, and comes to fifty million ears laden with no incense of memory or emulation. And herein lies the tragedy of the age: not that men are poor,—all men know something of poverty; not that men are wicked,—who is good? not that men are ignorant,—what is Truth? Nay, but that men know so little of men.”

Other important texts for me have included George Freeman Bragg’s “History of the Afro-American Group of the Episcopal Church” and “The Episcopal Church and the Black Man.”  Born into slavery in 1863, serving in the ministry of the Episcopal Church for over 53 years, Bragg wrote several definitive histories of the African American experience and was the leader for generations of African American Episcopalians. In just one of his several books, Bragg spends over 30 pages talking about the Reconstruction years alone.  Unlike the other mid-20th century histories, he mentions the Sewanee Conference of 1883, noting “Of course no Negroes, clergy or laity, were invited to participate.”  And he names the Sewanee Proposal for what is was, that it “authorized the segregation of the colored people under the direction and authority of the diocesan.”  All there, on the written page, by someone alive at the time the events happened and who lived through it all.

I knew all these historical folkways were untrue because I read Bragg, Alexander Crummell, Anna Cooper, and others.  I certainly don’t mean to limit the contributions of African American Episcopalians to those three, there are many other voices important in the life of the Episcopal Church.  Their writings, the organizations they founded, the lobbying they did — the real narrative was always there for those to see, if not for the barriers erected by our Lost Causism.

We can see the damage this kind of revisionist history can do in so many ways we live out our lives in the church.  Here’s a couple.

I remember an incident from a seminary I was involved with.  I’ve taught at 5 different seminaries and attended 3 different ones, and  I don’t want to name the one where this took place and single it out, because, frankly, I think it could have happened anywhere.

There was an end of year gathering, with students and some faculty present.  It then kind of morphed into a talent show, very unplanned and impromptu.  Some people sang or played instruments, recited poetry, that kind of stuff.  Then a group of students stood up and started singing.

With a jolt a realized they were singing “Dixie.” I was stunned and looked around and saw only white faces in that entire room. I got up and walked out, went into the next room where the food and drinks were.  I just couldn’t believe what had happened, and that nobody seemed to notice or care.  Someone came in, apparently I had gotten up and left rather abruptly, and asked if I was OK, perhaps thinking I wasn’t feeling well.

I said, “I have ancestors who enlisted and fought in the Civil War to preserve the Union, there is no way in a million years I am going to sit in a room and have people sing the de facto Confederate national anthem nostalgically.”

The person frowned, thought for a moment, then said, “Well it’s part of their heritage, like your ancestors serving for the Union is part of yours.”

I said, “An all white group of people singing that song to a room full of only white people doesn’t get to define the heritage of that song.”

Here’s another!  I had someone come to me saying they were thinking of proposing a resolution to add W.E.B. duBois to the calendar of commemorations, and if I was interested in writing in support of that.  I said, “DuBois wrote that  [this is a paraphrase of the quote] ‘Of all denominations, the Episcopal Church has done the least for Black people.’  His chapter on Alexander Crummell in ‘Souls of Black Folk’ is a searing indictment of the racism of the Episcopal Church at the turn of the 20th century.  Adding him to the calendar without specifically lifting up and naming that, and without the church committing to take real, tangible steps to right the wrongs of the systemic racism duBois named, would be just historical whitewashing.”

The person did not forward their resolution after our conversation, but was surprised to hear this about duBois, saying, “I didn’t know all of that.”  Again, this shows the ways in which history can be an extension of white privilege: how could someone put forth duBois for the calendar of commemoration and not be familiar with his writings on race and the church??

In order to counter these false narratives of revisionism, we have to name the systemic white supremacy what it is.  We also must lift up the voices of the marginalized to accurately tell the story.  We must also remember that issues of white supremacy and racism are not confined solely to this Church’s relationship with African Americans: similar dynamics are present in interactions with Hispanic/Latinx, Asian/Asian American/Pacific Islanders, and Native Americans/First Peoples.  The Episcopal Church’s missionary work with Native Americans expanded in the 1870s and 1880s — the funding from the Freedmen’s Commission was folded over into this missionary work.  Yet this missionary work was an extension of white supremacy and cultural genocide: Native American children were sent to church-run boarding schools; converts were required to take a new, white, Christian name and give up their Indian name at baptism; cut their hair; wear Western/American/European clothes, and forbidden from speaking their native languages.

Thankfully, there have been a number of really great histories written in the past 25 years, efforts to correct the systemic racism in how we have told our history:  Prichard’s “History of the Episcopal Church,” Hein & Shattuck’s “The Episcopalians” among them.  There has been a number of works specifically on the history of race and racism in the Episcopal Church.  Harold Lewis literally wrote the book on this subject in “Yet With a Steady Beat.”  Gardiner Shattuck’s “Episcopalians and Race: Civil War to Civil Rights” is a conscious effort to right some of the historiographic wrongs I note in this post.

But it’s also clear that we have not done enough.  The sheer number of people who say “The Episcopal Church didn’t split over slavery” and sheer number of people who do not know the Church’s complicity with racism, slavery, and white supremacy are evidence of that.

We must name these aspects of telling our history that fail to challenge or acknowledge our systemic racism.  We have to stop teaching people in confirmation classes “The Episcopal Church never split over slavery.”  One of the reasons statements like these persist, despite the fact that most Episcopal Church historical scholarship for the past 40 years has not said this, is because repeating them has nothing to do with history, and everything to do with something else, mainly, the unwillingness and reluctance to address issues of systemic racism.  (A related issue, for another post, is the continued repeating of the whole “The Episcopal Church Constitution is based on the U.S. Constitution and was written in the same city by some of the same people.”  This is utter nonsense, and persists because it reflects the lust for the Episcopal Church to be a quasi-established national church that was a fever dream of much of the 19th and 20th century.  But again, another post for another time, only reinforcing the notion that the real reasons for the persistence of patently un-historical folk wisdom has nothing to do with history, and everything to do with our own prejudices.)

It is far, far past time to abandon the lazy racism that allows whites to avoid addressing the systemic racism of our church.  It’s past time because it NEVER should have had its time.  Faithful voices throughout the ages called these issues out when they were happening.  It is the Church that is complicit in constructing this apparatus that fails to challenge this systemic racism.

As part of my history classes, I also present the demographics of the Episcopal Church.  In 1960, the Episcopal Church was about 89% white.  In the 2010s, it was about 84% white.  Sometime students ask, “Why is that?” and my reply is, “Because for the overwhelming majority of our history, that’s exactly how the church wanted it, because of systemic racism, segregation, and denial of opportunities for African Americans.”

It is far, far past time to stop prizing unity at the expense of the marginalized.  The statement the Episcopal Church reunited quickly and seamlessly after the Civil War stands as a monument to prizing unity over justice.  It is far, far past time because we repeat that sin time and again: with the ordination of women and with full inclusion of LGBTQ+ persons, when those who were marginalized were told to wait at the expense of preserving so-called “unity.”  We will continue to repeat it.  I also do not want to think we should confine this solely to history, and we should also be asking ourselves how our theology, liturgy, polity/decision making, and other elements of the church have also been shaped by white supremacy and the erasure and marginalization of other voices.

Unity cannot be built on the blood of the marginalized so as not to trouble those in power.  That is called oppression, not unity.

In this kairos time of broader conversations about race and racism, with the witness of the Black Lives Matter movement, it is time for the Church finally to answer this question: These are the legacies of our past; will they continue to be our future?

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