CONDENSED HISTORY OF THE BLACK EPISCOPALIAN (part 1) By Joyce Crittenden
In the early days of the Republic, the majority of Black Christians in America were Anglicans. The Church of England the “Mother Church” was the established church of many of the landowners. The landowners, settlers, and planters were not interested in the conversion of African slaves; however, the “Mother Church” was.
The story of the Black Episcopalians begins around 1624 when large groups of English missionaries were sent to America under the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel (S.P.G.) to Christianize the Blacks and Indians. These baptized black slaves were the forebears of the Black Church of the Christian Gospel via the Anglican Church, later to be called the Episcopal Church. The response of the slaves and the eagerness of the missionaries was the basis for the survival of the Black Church.
An early example of the conversation effort is dated in 1695 under Samuel Thomas at Goose Creek Parish, South Carolina. By 1743 the S.P.G. had established a school in Charleston, South Carolina to train blacks for missionary work. Slaves were christianized and baptized but they had no church. They were not able to worship in the white Anglican Church.
After the American Revolution in 1783, slaves and free sought to establish themselves as a newly organized Anglican now the Episcopal Church.
The story of Richard Allen (1780-1831) and Absalom Jones(1746-1818) represents the beginning of the Black Church providing the Northern Black after the Revolution the setting for his own religious development.
CONDENSED HISTORY OF THE BLACK EPISCOPALIAN (part 2) By Joyce Crittenden
The story of Richard Allen and Absalom Jones represents the beginning of the Black Church. They both tell the story of the Methodist pair, who were expelled from St. George’s Methodist Church Philadelphia, in 1787 and formed the “The Free African Society” which later became an undenominational African Church which was dedicated in 1794. The membership voted to join the Episcopal Church, but Richard Allen dissented. He wanted three conditions met:
1) that they be recognized as an organized body,
2) that they be guaranteed local control of their affairs, and
3) that one of their members be placed over them, and be ordained.
The Episcopal diocese of Pennsylvania under Bishop William White accepted the terms, and St. Thomas African Episcopal Church became the first Black Episcopal parish in 1794 and Absalom Jones was ordained deacon by Bishop White in 1795 and priest in 1804. Before his death at age 71, Absalom Jones participated in the consecration of his comrade Richard Allen as Bishop of the A.M.E. Church.
Two important movements affected the development of the Black Church, 1) the increased concern for personal freedom following the American Revolution, 2) the effect of the “Great Revival” on American religious life. The Episcopal diocese was slow to give St. Thomas a vote at its convention in 1863. But a foothold had been established in the newly formed Black religious institutions prior to the Civil War. It was the spiritual revival of the “Great Awakening” that led to rapid growth of the Baptist and Methodist Churches in this era. The movement of Blacks towards Anglican was a late and slow process. Black men in other Americas seemed to have responded to Catholicism. However with the law of clerical celibacy in the Catholic Church, Blacks who were drawn to liturgical worship and Catholic theology turned towards Episcopalian. That plus the “Great Awakening” moved the emerging Black Church into Protestantism.
The first distinctly Black Episcopalians’ numbers spread in coastal cities first in the north and then into the south. After the establishment of St. Thomas Philadelphia, there followed St. Phillips, New York City 1819. There were Black parishes in southern coastal towns such as St. Stephens in Savannah, Georgia and St. Mark’s in Charlestown, South Carolina, but the southern parishes had white clergy in this period of time. Prior to emancipation southern Black Episcopalians were under the paternalistic control of the southern bishops. Black Episcopalians in the South received religious instruction and sacramental administrations of the Church. It was the Church that many Blacks learned to read and write through their instruction in Catechism. They were baptized, confirmed, took communion, were buried by the priest of the Church and increasingly married in the Church. Yet they were not incorporated into the fellowship of the Episcopal Church. They were forced into slave galleries and had services held for them at special hours or in separate buildings. Their priest was white and the bishop of the diocese had them as his special responsibility.
Source: Historical Magazine of the Protestant Episcopal Church Vol. 43 No. 3 (Sept. 1974) pp. 231-245 (15 pages) by the Historical Society of the Episcopal Church
A CONDENSED HISTORY OF THE BLACK EPISCOPALIAN (PART 3) By Joyce Crittenden
Prior to the Civil War the Bishop of South Carolina claimed more Black communicants than whites. These were the churchmen who occupied the slave galleries or chapels especially built for them by their masters. This was the body which described their plantation Holy Communion service in the spiritual, “Let us break bread together on our knees.” The official silence of the Church over the slavery issue and split in the Union led to mass defection among churchmen. It was this apparent lack of concern that led W.E.B Dubois, baptized at St. Luke’s in New Haven to remark “…the Church has probably done less for black people than any other aggregation of Christians.” It has been estimated that in some southern states 90% of the Black Episcopalians left to become African Methodist Episcopalians. Other denominations C.M.E, Zion, and Baptists claimed 9 out of 10 of all Black Protestants. The congregations of other denominations gained their autonomy and were able to vote at National Conventions by 1870. The Black Episcopalians though totally segregated in their diocese were given neither voice nor vote. Many parishes were excluded from diocesan conventions. Delegates were denied admittance to the General Conventions.
Though depressed and greatly diminished the Black Episcopalians who remained in the Church pressed the fight not for independence, but for the development of their own leadership within the Church and to exercise a voice and to vote in the General Convention. By the efforts of Alexander Crummell, rector of St.Luke’s Washington, D.C. and the Conference Of Church Workers Among Colored People, they were able to thwart the efforts of the “Swanee Canon” of Bishops who wanted separate Missionary Districts for the Blacks. In 1907, the General Convention established the Suffragan Bishop concept tied to individual diocese. It was not until 1918 that Black Bishops, Edward Demby of Arkansas and Henry B. Delany were selected under this plan.
Today Episcopalians are coming to see the significance of the early struggles of Black priests and congregations to have the Church acknowledge their presence within the Church as a racial group. The authentic witness of leaders like Absalom Jones, Alexander Crummell, and George Bragg is now being vindicated as the larger Church along with American society is beginning to respond to the Black community’s cry for self expression, liberation and full participation in national life. The pervasive impact of the Civil Rights movement of the 1950’s and 1960’s led the nation and its Churches to become aware and more receptive to the aspirations of Black America. In the Episcopal Church there was the formation of Episcopal Society of Cultural and Racial Unity and the General Convention Special Program to meet the needs of Black determination which began to be expressed in the 1960’s. The formation of an Episcopal Black Caucus and the Union of Black Episcopalians (UBE) in1968 provided a forum and lobby for Black interests. Though small in comparison to other Black Church bodies, there are around 100,000 baptized Black Episcopalians or 3.5% of the 3,500,000 total membership of the Episcopal Church. Over the past 145 years, there have been 44 Black Bishops consecrated in the Episcopal Church. The presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church is Michael Bruce Curry, the first African American to serve that position.