Jesse Anderson – St. Wilfred Episcopal Church
The Legacy: From Jones to Curry 2016
Here we are again in the month of February, Black History Month, and for the Episcopal Church recognition and celebration of the life and ministry of Absalom Jones, first priest of African descent, his history and legacy, then and now. I have to offer and apologia on three counts: for most it is an annual education and information time of which I remind you is like housework…; and unlike our regular scripture lectionary with changes over three years; Lesser Feasts and Fasts only provide for a singular set of lessons annually, which is why I asked for a change in today’s 1st lesson, Ecclesiasticus, from the Apochrypha, which Rev. Virginia granted; third, it is more history lesson than sermonic, but sermonic in actions done in service of our Lord Jesus.
Ecclesiasticus 44: ff “Let us now sing the praises of the famous, our ancestors in their generations…
The history, mission and ministry of Blacks in the Episcopal Church began with Absalom Jones and the A.E. Ch. of St. Thomas congregation, with a legacy that continues on through the recent election of The Most Rev. Michael Bruce Curry as the 27th Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church and Primate. There is a long, seldom known and honored, list of ancestors, actions, and events that led to this election, a lineage who in the words of James Weldon Johnson in LEVAS kept moving, “YET WITH A STEADY BEAT…come to the place for which our parents sighed?” until the Lord’s work is done.
Jones and the slave ancestors came out of a tradition cited by Phillis Wheatley, America’s first poet: ‘Twas mercy brought me from my Pagan land, Taught my benighted soul to understand, That there’s a God, that there’s a Saviour too; Once I redemption neither sought nor knew.” On Being Brought From Africa to America. The masters introduced their slaves to religion to include the hearing of Scripture read and often misinterpreted, and Baptism. Upon hearing read the words of St. Paul to the Galatians on baptism: “For as many of you were baptized into Christ have put on XT. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are one in Xt.” The slave began to question, and call their masters to answer for their status and treatment, so much so that baptisms were stopped and forbidden. Absalom was versed in Scripture, as this was how he learned to read, and came to know Jesus in the intimate way that our PB is calling for us to become real: “Jesus people.” In Jesus, Absalom found hope, solace and strength despite the hardships of slavery.
You see church, while Scripture and Baptism were used by the master as instruments of oppression; Absalom and his slave forbearers saw them, and later the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution of USA as instruments of political emancipation and liberation. They were a people, proud of being followers of Jesus, a “Jesus Movement.” A people proud enough to want to emulate Him and bring others to Him, that they too might receive the same joy, and come to intimately know, love and serve Him. A pride that we need to replicate today whereby we just might be accused, as was the early church in Acts 17:6 of, “turning the world upside down;” with God’s help and blessings.
This “Jesus Movement” brought forth: The A.E.C. of St. Thomas, Philadelphia, PA, 1792, followed by 4 Episcopal churches: St. Philip NYC – Peter Williams 1818; St. James, Baltimore, MD, William Leavington 1827, the first in slave territory; St. Luke’s, New Haven, Ct., Eli Stokes 1844; St. Matthew’s, Detroit, MI, 1851; all of whom while financially independent and self-sufficient, were not admitted to full membership in Diocesan and Natl. Episcopal Church conventions until 1864 and later. St. James and St. Luke were heavily involved in the Underground Railroad. Absalom Jones himself preached and petitioned for an end to the slave trade and slavery itself, a legacy continued by The Rev. Fr. Alexander Crummell, an Episcopal priest who was refused admission to the seminary of my father and myself, General Theological Seminary in NYC. Crummell wrote a major treatise refuting the justification of slavery through Scripture: “The Negroe Race Not Under a Curse,” published in 1862.
There were no congregations of color throughout the south until well after the Civil War, though the Diocese of So. Carolina noted that ½ of their total communicants were blacks, and two major congregations in Georgia cited their membership to be made up of ½ and ¾ blacks. These figures diminished dramatically after the Civil War, to quote Bishop Potter of N.Y., the black membership, “refused to follow the white peoples God.”
Following the Civil War, the Episcopal Church was non plus over whether and how to evangelize these freed Black men. Fr. George Freeman Bragg, noted Black church historian stated, Negroes in the south were under “the paternalistic control of (their) Bishops,“ while those in the north “suffered under the benign neglect of their Bishops;” separate and unequal, not too unlike today. To this end, suggestions were offered and debated on developing separate convocations or missionary districts for colored work, under the control of white Bishops. While these conversations went on in this regard, Black Bishops, were chosen by the Hse. of Bishops to serve international missionary districts: The Rt. Revd’s James Theodore Holley, Haiti 1874; Samuel David Ferguson, to the ‘colony” of Liberia 1885. The upshot of these conversations brought forth the office of Suffragan, or assistant Bishop, under the direction of the Diocesan Bishop w/o right to vote in the Hse. of Bishops or of diocesan succession. Upon the General Convention’s approval Bishops Edward Thomas Demby, Arkansas, and Henry Beard Delaney, North Carolina, 1918, were elected and consecrated, to promote colored work; and in the words of Demby they became “suffering Bishops.” Upon retirement neither were replaced.
While little was done in the development of Black parishes, there were actions taken to advance the freedman educationally with the establishment of St. Augustine College in N.C. and St. Paul’s College in Virginia in the late 1860s; followed by the Bishop Payne divinity school, VA, for the preparation of Black Episcopal clergy. Traditional Episcopal seminaries did not begin to accept Blacks until the 1930’s, with Virginia seminary remaining segregated until 1955.
The emergence of the Civil Rights movement saw a continuous clamor for the election of Black Bishops in homeland Dioceses, answered once again by selection of Bishops for foreign missionary Districts, Liberia and the West Indies, Rt. Revd’s Bravid Harris, Dillard Brown, Cedric Mills. In 1961; the Diocese of MA broke this cycle with the election of The Rt. Rev. John Melville Burgess as Suffragan in 1962, and later as Diocesan; this same Diocese would again offer surprise by electing a Black woman, The Rt. Rev. Barbara C .Harris, as the Episcopal Church’s first female Bishop; it should be noted, MA had previously elected Edward Brooke to the U.S. Senate.
The 1960’s saw the emergence of the Union of Black Episcopalians, in reaction to the unjust “firing” of The Rev. Dr. Tollie Caution, who headed the Natl. Ch’s. Office for Negroe Work, which provided scholarship, mentoring and placement to many candidates of color for Holy Orders, to include yours truly.
An aside: I would be remiss were I not to say that the Episcopal Church’s discrimination was not limited to Blacks, as it was a bastion of “white male privilege.” The term “layman” was interpreted literally, and women were not sat as deputies in General Convention or on many vestries until 1970, and priested until 1976. Civil Rights and inclusiveness was given a further jolt with the Special General Convention in South Bend, Ind. 1969, which sought to hear from minorities, women and youth.
1969 then saw the call for the “specific” election of a Black Suffragan Bishop to serve in the Diocese of Washington; D.C. affectionately called “Chocolate City,” with its majority Black populace. I am proud to state, this effort was “floor managed” by myself, culminating in the election of John Thomas Walker, 1970, who became Diocesan in 1977; and as Diocesan eliminated the National Cathedral’s $10 million debt, incurred from the Bicentennial visit of Queen Elizabeth. This election opened the election process for four additional Suffragans, two of whom became Diocesan Bishops. There have now been 8 Dioceses headed by Bishops of color. “Yet with a steady beat.”
“Now let us sing the praises of the famous, our ancestors in their generations…” those who spoke in prophetic oracles; those who led the people by their counsels and by the knowledge of the people’s lore;…” Absalom’s legacy has not been limited to clergy, for just as the early church grew from lay participation, and our catechism rightly tells us “The ministers of the church are lay persons, bishops, priests and deacons;” so too did many laypersons take up Jesus’ commission for Love, Justice, Peace and service: There was Dr. Anna Julia Cooper, women’s rights activist, to W.E.B. DuBois with the Niagara Movement and the NAACP, J. Ernest Wilkins, Dr. Charles Drew who pioneered use of Blood Plasma in WWII, Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, Margaret Bush Wilson, Mattie Hopkins; Dr. Charles Willie, 1st Black to serve as V.P. Hse. of Deputies, who resigned his office in objection to the Houses’ rejection of the ordination of women; followed by Dr. Charles Lawrence, as V.P. and later President of the House of Deputies, who saw that every Committee and Commission was integrated; and now State Rep., MA, Byron Rushing; Dr. Deborah Harmon Hines, first lay President, UBE; the multitude of officers and staff holding positions at Natl. Ch.. “Now let us sing the praises of those …who composed musical tunes, or put verses in writing…” in the arts, music, and liturgy, moving from a single hymn, “In Christ there is no East nor West…,” by Harry Burleigh, in the 1940 Hymnal, to: David Hurd, as Organist and Music Director at GTS, to the authorization of 2 editions of LEVAS as a supplemental book of worship, and the inclusion in today’s hymnal: mass music by Robert Powell, Lena McLin and Hurd, with words and hymnody by The Rev. Dr. Harold Lewis, Drs. Horace Boyer, Carl Haywood, Carl Maultsby; not to forget the inimitable poet and story teller, Langston Hughes, liturgical artist Alan Crite, and architect Julian Francis Abele’, designer of Duke’s chapel and the Philadephia Museum of Art, to name a few.
This Episcopal legacy began with The Rev. Mr. Absalom Jones in 1792 a child of God and a priest of God’s choosing and service, a legacy which has taken people of color through many trials and tribulations, but continued moving “Yet with a steady beat;” taking it “One day at a time sweet Jesus, one day at a time.” reaching a pinnacle with a third try, when at the 78th General Convention a “Great Day” came in the House of Bishops with the election to the office of Presiding Bishop and Primate of Michael Bruce Curry, Bishop of North Carolina, who I remind you, asks each of you to become an active member of “The Jesus Movement,” that this nation and the world might become a better place: one filled with Love, Justice and Peace for all of God’s people, regardless of status, gender, nationality, or station in life.