Although the first African-American Episcopal Church, St. Thomas African Episcopal Church in Philadelphia, was consecrated on July 29, 1794, with Absalom Jones as the first priest, the history of the African-American affiliation with the Episcopal Church began with the baptism of African slave children in seventeenth-century Virginia, Maryland, and the Carolinas, where most eastern seaboard planters belonged to the Church of England. Whereas some devout masters baptized slave children, others, suspecting that Christianity might legally or morally undermine their slaves' subordinate status, expressed indifference to religious training for slaves and resisted slave conversions. In spite of resistance in the colonies, several Anglican missionaries began training and baptizing slaves as early as 1695. The Church of England Christianized slaves and Native Americans through the English Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts (SPG), which was founded in 1701. The first schools for blacks in the colonies were organized by the SPG in the early eighteenth century. Through the SPG, the Church of England became the first church to take Christianity to slaves in the British North American colonies and became the earliest denomination to train blacks to be missionaries.
During the colonial period the Church of England and the SPG established Sunday schools and catechetical schools for missionary training and adult education of slaves. Since baptism and religious instruction depended upon the masters' and mistresses' attitude, SPG efforts to induce masters to send slaves to regular catechetical instructions met with inconsistent results. Whereas some masters encouraged slave baptism and conversion, many other colonists and Anglican ministers continued to ignore the religious lives of slaves throughout the colonial period. Other colonists apprehensively questioned SPG activities, rejected slave presence at the communion table, and doubted the qualifications of African Americans for Christian salvation and church participation.
Although at mid-century the Church of England carried out the most extensive work of any denomination among slaves in the southern colonies, the American Revolution disrupted the church's work and led to the complete reorganization of the Church of England in America into a separate denomination, the Protestant Episcopal Church of America, in 1787. In addition to losing the momentum and experience of seven decades of work among slaves, the church lost the most influential catalyst for bringing slaves into the Episcopal Church: the large number of Anglican southern aristocrats who were British sympathizers and loyalists. This contributed to the decay and disestablishment of the church in the southern states and the subsequent decline of its membership and the rise of the Baptists and Methodists.
Whereas in the colonial period black participation in the Anglican Church had been centered among slaves in eastern seaboard cities and on plantations, antebellum black Episcopalians were predominantly free blacks living in northern cities who saw themselves as role models of black achievement, activism, and independence for other blacks, and as members of a higher social class, differentiated from the masses of illiterate, rural slaves.
Given the identification of the Episcopal Church with the middle and upper classes, the bulk of the antebellum free black community rejected the Episcopal Church in favor of affiliation with the Methodists and Baptists, whose egalitarian message and ease of conversion offered greater access to membership and the ministry. Catechetical teaching and literacy requirements inhibited black membership in the Episcopal Church and especially denied African Americans access to the Episcopal ministry. With no literacy requirements for membership in Methodist and Baptist churches, blacks could not only join these denominations but also become ministers to their own people. While Episcopalians recoiled at the emotional expressiveness of black worship in song, dance, and shout, the Methodist and Baptist evangelical traditions included these same worship styles. Free to lead their own congregations, black ministers could preach a message of liberation, and their congregations could claim this niche of cultural and political autonomy.
For the vast majority of antebellum blacks who were slaves, Methodist and Baptist membership and ministry were infinitely more accessible than Episcopalian affiliation on the expanding frontiers of plantation slavery. The farmers, planters, and slaves of Alabama, Mississippi, Tennessee, and other new states did not inherit the Anglican traditions of the eastern seaboard colonial aristocracy. Instead, they were claimed by the Second Great Awakening of Methodist and Baptist revivalism, which not only brought slaves into Christianity in large numbers but also provided fertile ground for the invisible slave church, led by black ministers and embraced by slaves who created African-American religious traditions.
By the end of the Civil War these developments—limited access to membership and the ministry, rejection of African and evangelical traditions, and early geographic containment of the church on the eastern seaboard—placed black Episcopalians wishing to proselytize the freed slaves in the disadvantageous position of being in a church that required a highly literate ministry, that rejected African folk traditions, that afforded African Americans little independence or autonomy compared to the black Baptist church or the independent black Methodist denominations, and that appealed to northern urban black communities rather than the majority of blacks in the rural South. Nonetheless, some of the most important leaders of African-American cultural and religious life were Episcopal priests, including James Holly (1829–1911) and Alexander Crummell (1819–1898), both of whom, somewhat surprisingly given their denominational background, became ardent black nationalists.
In the two decades following the Civil War, the Episcopal Church's Freedman's Commission operated schools, hospitals, and churches but failed to compete effectively against the missionary campaign launched by the predominantly black denominations, whose membership swelled. To make matters worse, the black membership of the Episcopal Church drastically declined during Reconstruction when the Episcopal Church failed to accept black Episcopalians' demands for black ministers. For example, in South Carolina between 1860 and 1868 black membership in the Episcopal Church declined from three thousand to fewer than three hundred.
By the 1880s a slight increase in black membership from the small but growing black middle class in southern cities alarmed southern Episcopalians who had embraced the widespread reestablishment of white supremacy and segregation of the post-Reconstruction South. In 1883 the Sewanee Conference of Southern Bishops met in Sewanee, Tennessee, and unanimously authorized diocesan segregation and placed the care of black congregations and ministers under missionary organizations. In response to this and other forms of church discrimination, Alexander Crummell, rector and founder of St. Luke's in Washington, D.C., founded the Conference of Church Workers Among Colored People in 1883 and the Women's Auxiliary to the Conference in 1894. Although the Negro Conference failed in its appeal to the General Convention to change the Sewanee Canon's endorsement of church segregation, it succeeded in getting the General Convention to appoint a Church Commission for Work Among the Colored People. The meetings of the Conference of Church Workers Among Colored People also provided black Episcopalians a forum in which they could meet each other, share their grievances, and formulate solutions to their ambiguous and limited role in the church.
As black Episcopalians entered the twentieth century, they confronted an ironic, complex dilemma that discouraged growth of black membership: Whereas their own predominantly white denomination continued to discriminate against them by denying black clergy and laypersons full voting rights on diocesan councils and in the General Convention, the black denominations saw the majority of black Episcopalians as elite, privileged, and snobbish. From the 1880s to the 1930s the Episcopal Church did not decide if black communicants should be separated into racial dioceses and missionary districts with their own bishops or if they should remain in a diocese and be given equal representation and perhaps a black suffragan bishop (a bishop without the right to become archbishop). In 1903 the Conference of Colored Workers asked that black churches be placed under the general church rather than the diocesan conventions composed of the same local white leaders who supported and upheld secular racial segregation and discrimination. Requests for redress of the inequality within the church at the 1905 General Convention went unanswered and revealed that sentiments among northern white Episcopalians were little better than those of the Sewanee Conference. Northern dioceses questioned African-American ordinations and promoted the idea of placing black congregations under the supervision of white parishes or under the direction of the bishop.
The question of independence was even more complicated because black churches were not self-supporting. Black clergy salaries and black school supplies were paid for by the Domestic and Foreign Missionary Society or the American Church Missionary Society and their auxiliaries until 1912. In 1918 Edward T. Demby and Henry B. Delany became the first black suffragan bishops.
By 1921 the Episcopal Church had two black bishops, 176 black ministers, 288 African-American congregations, and 31,851 communicants concentrated along the eastern seaboard from New York to Georgia. The church had failed to respond adequately to requests for a black ministry, although it had established schools during the late nineteenth century—not only primary and secondary schools but also schools to train teachers, ministers, and missionaries to go to Africa. Like the churches, the schools also had a welfare status and received at least half of their funding from the American Church Institute for Negroes, Inc., the agency that disbursed general church funds for black education. In spite of extensive efforts in support of black education, these schools created few black members, churches, or ministers. Black students felt no necessary allegiance to or affiliation with the Episcopal Church. Rather, their training led to secular jobs and their membership remained with the predominantly black denominations. After decades of training blacks, the church continued to impede African-American ordinations and to maintain the dependent status of black congregations as subordinate churches.
The large urban African-American migrations following World Wars I and II failed to increase the numbers of black Episcopalians. Rather, the rural folkways of black southerners estranged black Episcopalians even more from the black southern working class that filled northern cities. As ever larger numbers of black southerners entered the urban North, black Episcopal scholars and clergy attacked the spontaneous, emotional music and folk traditions of rural black southern church culture in the Methodist and especially the Baptist churches.
The civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s and the Black Power movements of the 1960s and 1970s evoked increasing racial consciousness among blacks within predominantly white denominations, including Episcopalians. Black Episcopalians confronted their historical dual identity crisis—one within the Episcopal church where black members and clergy had felt alienated, excluded, and invisible for almost two centuries, and the other in trying to identify with other black Christians, especially those in independent black churches.
Black Episcopalians responded to this new climate of racial awareness by forming the Episcopal Society of Cultural and Racial Unity and the General Convention Special Program in 1967. Formed out of the merger of the Conference of Colored Church Workers and Summer Schools of Religious Education, the Union of Black Episcopalians was founded in 1968 to confront the historically diminished role of African Americans in the Episcopal Church. More than twenty chapters in the United States serve 150,000 black members out of 3,500,000 Episcopalians. In 1972 the Union of Black Episcopalians had the church establish the Absalom Jones Theological Institute at the Interdenominational Theological Center in Atlanta. In 1973 the General Convention formed the Commission for Black Ministries, now the Office of Black Ministries, which compiles a directory of black clergy, convenes the Black Diocesan Executives, and acts as a clearinghouse for African-American clergy. In 1981 the church published an official supplementary hymnal, Lift Every Voice and Sing: A Collection of Afro-American Spirituals and Other Songs. Since the 1960s a large influx of black Anglicans from the Caribbean and the development of new liturgies directed toward black parishioners have revitalized the African-American presence in the Episcopal Church.
Whereas the National Baptist Convention could claim a tradition of independence and the largest black Methodist denominations could embrace a strong tradition of protest, it seemed that the black Episcopal tradition could claim neither independence nor protest. Beginning in the 1960s black Episcopalians affirmed the strains of independence and protest within the African-American religious traditions by celebrating being Episcopalian and black. In recent years women have taken a more active role in the church. In 1976 the social activist, lawyer, and poet Pauli Murray became the first black female priest in the Episcopal Church; in 1980 Barbara Harris—a black woman—became the first female Episcopal bishop. Black Episcopal clergy joined the National Council of Black Churches in its attack on white domination of the National Council of Churches and in its efforts to improve the lives of urban blacks. Since 1973 the Episcopal liturgical calendar has included the celebration of Absalom Jones, the first black Episcopal priest.
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Bragg, George F. Afro-American Church Work and Workers. Baltimore, Md., 1904.
Bragg, George F. History of the Afro-American Group of the Episcopal Church. Baltimore, Md.: Church Advocate Press, 1922.
Brydon, George MacLaren. The Episcopal Church Among the Negroes of Virginia. Richmond: Virginia Diocesan Library, 1937.
Hewitt, John. Protest and Progress: New York's First Black Episcopal Church Fights Racism. New York: Routledge, 2000.
Hood, R. E. "From a Headstart to a Deadstart: The Historical Basis for Black Indifference Toward the Episcopal Church, 1800–1860." Historical Magazine of the Protestant Episcopal Church 51 (1982): 269–296.
Lewis, Harold T. Yet With a Steady Beat: The African American Struggle for Recognition in the Episcopal Church. Harrisburg, Penn.: Trinity Press International, 1996.
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Spencer, Jon Michael. "The Episcopal Church." In Black Hymnody: A Hymnological History of the African-American Church. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1993, pp. 165–181.
lillie johnson edwards (1996)