This past Sunday, we kicked off our fall Christian Education series “Foundations of our Faith” with a whirlwind session discussing the history of the Episcopal Church. In order to pare down the information, I relied heavily on Christopher L. Webber’s Welcome to the Episcopal Church: An Introduction to Its History, Faith, and Worship — a useful primer for new church members.
I did have a significant problem, though, with the material presented in the opening chapter on History — an issue that those present at the forum picked up on pretty quickly too. Although I understand that the purpose of Webber’s volume is to be as inviting as possible to newcomers, I was surprised and disappointed to notice that in a chapter that focused heavily on the church’s history in America, there was no mention of the church’s involvement with slavery. Since I did not do enough to counter that omission on Sunday, I thought I would write a few sentences here to clarify.
The first parish in the colonies was established in the settlement at Jamestown, and it benefitted by being supported by parishioners who were slave owners. As time went on, the church was able to grow in part through the generous financial support of wealthy slave owners throughout the colonies as well as by participating in the general economy that was heavily reliant on slave labor and businesses (like banking) that supported it. While a few abolitionists made their voices heard within the church, there was also very strong support of slavery. For example, the Bishop of Vermont, John Henry Hopkins, wrote a pamphlet in 1861 in which he attempted to justify slavery by appealing to the New Testament. (His argument should have been as theologically indefensible then as it is today.) While the Methodists, Baptists, and Presbyterians all split over the Civil War, the Episcopal Church stayed together – as a result of deference to slave holders and at least in part by just avoiding discussing the issue.
The legacy of slavery and the church’s complicity with it continued to play out during Reconstruction, and the Jim Crow and Civil Right eras, and the church still has much work to do. The Episcopal Church has passed resolutions in recent years expressing remorse for the sin of slavery and pledging to look into its complicity and the possibility of reparations. The 2006 General Convention passed a resolution that specifically called on dioceses to respond to the Transatlantic Slave Trade and its aftermath of segregation, discrimination, and oppression. In response, the Diocese of New York created the Diocesan Reparations committee – you can learn more about their work here: https://www.dioceseny.org/mission-and-outreach/social-concerns/reparations-for-slavery/. They called, and our diocesan convention approved, for 2018 to be a year of lamentations for our role in slavery.
May we as a parish, a diocese, and a national church endeavor to acknowledge and wrestle with our shameful past rather than “white-washing” it away. By seeking the truth; lamenting and repenting; and pursuing reconciliation, reparations, and restoration, may we truly live into our baptismal vows to strive for justice and peace among all people and respect the dignity of every human being.