Burgess, John M. 1909–2003
John M. Burgess 1909–2003
Episcopal Church Pre-Dated Nation
In 1962 the Right Reverend John Melville Burgess became the first African American to lead an Episcopalian congregation in the United States. Burgess was installed as a suffragan bishop in one of the oldest congregations in the American Episcopal Church, located in the center of Boston, and worked to bring the church’s focus onto social issues and progressive causes. “I just wanted to prove that the Episcopal Church could be relevant to the lives of the poor,” Episcopal Times writer Tracy Sukraw quoted him as saying.
Burgess was born on March 11, 1909, in Grand Rapids, Michigan. His father hailed from Ohio, and worked as a waiter in the dining cars of the Pere Marquette Railroad in Michigan. From him, Burgess inherited the Episcopalian faith. Burgess’s mother was from Grand Rapids, and had been educated as a kindergarten teacher. The family attended St. Philip’s Episcopal Church, a black church in the western Michigan Episcopal diocese, where Burgess served as an altar boy.
The Episcopal Church differed from the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) church, founded in 1816 as an offshoot of the Methodist church. Burgess’s Episcopal church was considered the church of the American elite for generations. It was part of the Anglican Communion of churches, along with the Church of England, and its religious rituals on North American soil dated back to 1607 and the Jamestown colony. The colonial-era American congregation split from England’s Anglican church during the Revolutionary War period, and in 1789 reconstituted itself as the Protestant Episcopal Church. Well into the twentieth century, its membership ranks included the names of some of the wealthiest and well-connected American families. Eleven U.S. presidents have been Episcopalian, the largest number from any creed.
Burgess studied at Grand Rapids Junior College before following a neighbor, fellow Episcopalian and future American president, Gerald R. Ford, into the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. Burgess earned his undergraduate degree in social work there in 1930 and a master’s degree the following year. Social work attracted him because he viewed it as a way to help others, but he eventually decided that entering the
At a Glance…
Born on March 11, 1909, in Grand Rapids, Ml; died on August 24, 2003, in Vineyard Haven, MA; son of Theodore Thomas (a railroad dining car waiter) and Ethel Inez Beverly (a kindergarten teacher) Burgess; married Esther J. Taylor, August 21, 1945; children: Julia, Margaret. Education: Attended Grand Rapids Junior College; University of Michigan, AB, 1930, MA, 1931; Episcopal Theological School, divinity degree, 1934, Religion: Episcopalian,
Career: Episcopal Church, ordained deacon, July 1934; Episcopal Church, ordained priest, January 1935; St. Philip’s Episcopal Church, Grand Rapids, Ml, rector, 1935-38; Mission of St, Simon the Cyrene, Lincoln Heights, OH, vicar, 1938-46; Howard University, Washington, DC, Episcopal chaplain, 1946-56; Washington Cathedral, canon, 1951—; Boston City Mission, Massachusetts, archdeacon and superintendent, 1956-62; elected suffragan bishop, September 1962, and consecrated December 1962; Diocese of Massachusetts, twelfth bishop, January 12, 1970-75. Berkeley Divinity School of Yale University Divinity School, professor.
Memberships: Union of Black Episcopalians; National Council of Churches; World Council of Churches.
Selected Awards: Recipient of honorary degrees from the University of Michigan, Boston College, Assumption College, the University of Massachusetts, Trinity College, and St. Augustine’s College.
ministry would provide a more solid foundation through which to work with the poor. He journeyed to Cambridge, Massachusetts, and entered the Episcopal Theological School there. After finishing his divinity degree in 1934, he returned to St. Philip’s in Grand Rapids for his ordination in July of 1934.
Burgess was also assigned to a post at St. Philip’s, which he held for the next four years until transferred to a parish outside of Cincinnati. He was assigned to the Mission of St. Simon the Cyrene in Lincoln Heights, which was a racially divided town and a poor, hardscrabble one as well. “The experience made me very, very angry,” Burgess recalled in a Grand Rapids Press interview, according to writer Cami Reister. “I came to believe that racism like that simply could not continue in a country as enlightened and as rich as this. I tried to give the community some moral fiber. I tried to give them more than just jobs or streetlights. I tried to raise them to a standard of living based on the Gospel.” With this mission in mind, St. Simon’s new vicar established a medical clinic, a social services center, and a day school; he also worked with the local labor leaders in an attempt to integrate the nascent auto unions of the area.
Burgess had found a mentor at the Episcopal Theological School in Cambridge, Angus Dunn, who became bishop of Washington, D.C., in 1942. Dunn invited Burgess to serve as an attending presbyter for services at the landmark National Cathedral there, which was a first for a black Episcopal priest. In 1946, Dunn was instrumental in helping Burgess obtain the Episcopal chaplainry at Howard University, the prominent African-American school in the nation’s capital. Burgess served as chaplain for the next decade, and his concurrent directorship of the Canterbury House, the Episcopal student center at Howard, introduced him to many students from around the world who would return to become leaders in their respective African or Caribbean nations.
Burgess was a canon of the Washington National Cathedral after 1951, the first black to hold such a position there, and used his pulpit to speak on issues of racial segregation and the burgeoning civil-rights movement. His growing profile attracted the attention of elders in the Boston diocese, who made him an archdeacon and installed him as head of what was then known as the Boston City Mission in 1956. The Mission worked with the poor in the city and served not just as a spiritual beacon but as a liaison with social service agencies. It was a time when many venerable Episcopalian parishes in the heart of Boston were losing members as city dwellers moved to the suburbs, and Burgess believed it important that the older churches find new ways to appeal to people from all walks of life. “I think that any church in a poor urban area which says that they can go it alone has not developed a big enough program,” Sukraw’s article in the Episcopal Times quoted him as once saying. “Their program ought to always be bigger than their resources.”
In September of 1962, a diocesan gathering of Burgess’s fellow priests elected him suffragan bishop. The event even made the New York Times, which ran a photo of Burgess under the headline, “Negro Is Elected Episcopal Bishop.” He became the first African-American priest to lead an Episcopal congregation in the United States. “Integration is part of the ordering of the community,” he told the newspaper’s John H. Fenton, speaking of the Episcopal Church’s outreach program to increase and diversity its membership roster. “Individuals ought to be able to accept one another as people in racial, economic and nationality areas. This will be the test.”
For the rest of the decade, Burgess also served as assistant bishop to the head of the Massachusetts diocese, the Right Reverend Anson Phelps Stokes. When Stokes announced his retirement, Burgess was elected to succeed him. He was installed on January 17, 1970, at Boston’s Cathedral Church of St. Paul. He added yet another first, as the first black to head an Episcopal diocese. His was the largest in the United States at the time, and Burgess continued to encourage his subordinates into embracing social progressivism and making the church a model of integration. After he retired in 1975, he taught pastoral theology at Yale University’s Divinity School, and edited a 1982 collection Black Gospel, White Church, a collection of sermons delivered by black priests dating back nearly two centuries.
Since the 1960s, Burgess had served as a summer minister at the Grace Episcopal Church on Martha’s Vineyard, the Massachusetts resort community. He moved there permanently in 1989 with his wife, Esther Taylor Burgess. The pair had met at a church conference in North Carolina, married in 1945, and had two daughters. Esther Burgess was also committed to civilrights causes, even taking part in an attempt to integrate a restaurant in St. Augustine, Florida, in 1964 during which she and the mother of Massachusetts’s governor were arrested.
On the occasion of Burgess’s 90th birthday in 1999, a stained glass window was installed at Grace Episcopal in his honor. The window features his likeness as well as that of his role model, Absalom Jones, the former slave and Philadelphia minister who was the first black to serve as a priest in the Methodist Episcopal Church. Burgess died at age 94 on Martha’s Vineyard. He was a longtime NAACP member, and the president of the organization’s Boston branch, Leonard C. Alkins, called him “a spokesperson for equal rights,” as reported by New York Times obituary writer Eric Pace. “He gave the encouragement to so many people of color to make that next step forward and not to be afraid. He was a beacon and a drum major for all people.” St. Philip’s Episcopal Church—where he went from altar boy to rector—broke ground on the John M. Burgess Wellness Center in his honor in the spring of 2004.
(Editor) Black Gospel, White Church, Seabury Press, 1982.
Notable Black American Men, Gale, 1998.
Episcopal Times, August 25, 2003.
Grand Rapids Press (Grand Rapids, MI), April 17, 2004, p. B5; August 29, 2003, p. D3.
Jet, September 15, 2003, p. 16.
Martha’s Vineyard Times, September 4th, 2003.
New York Times, September 23, 1962, p. 1; August 27, 2003, p. B10.
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