Project Canterbury

The Episcopal Church and the Colored People
A Statement of Facts

By the Rev. Owen Meredith Waller
Rector of St. Luke's Church, Washington, D.C.

Washington, D.C.: Emmett C. Jones & Co., [1898]

During the centennial celebration of St. Thomas' Church, October, 1894, commemorating the opening of the church edifice, the Rector of Christ Church, Philadelphia, said: "It gives me great pleasure to take part with you in this celebration, but I can not refrain from saying that in our records in Christ Church Parish, we have many notices and entries of our work among the colored population of Philadelphia nearly 200 years ago." It is a fact that the American Episcopal Church did faithful and lasting work among the Colored People of this country nearly a century before there was a colored religious organization, during Colonial times when she was a part of the Church of England and the land under British rule. It was during the time that the Parish books of old Christ Church, Philadelphia, were recording the faithful work of her clergy among the colored people that the incident occurred which led to the building of St. Thomas' Church, Philadelphia, the first church edifice owned and controlled by the people of color in America. To quote the words of the Rev. William Douglass, Rector of St. Thomas' Church, under date of 1862: "Seventy-five years ago (i.e. 1787) no church edifice could be found throughout the whole country owned and controlled exclusively by persons of color. The religiously disposed among them were then under the necessity of worshipping in churches belonging to their white brethren.

As Methodism addressed itself chiefly to the feelings and affections, which are always strongest among undisciplined minds, the great majority gave their adherence to that system. * * * In those days (i.e. 1787) that denomination of Christians could lay claim to but one house of worship [3/4] in Philadelphia, known by the title of George's Church. Here it was that the larger portion of the colored population of the city assembled from time to time on occasions of public worship. Here, they, in common with others, gave vent to their devotional feelings without let or hindrance. They had comfortable seats on the lower floor of the building to which there was no objection made, until the increasing numbers of the congregation, afforded a plea on the part of those invested with power, for desiring their removal to the gallery. But as they had contributed their mites toward paying for the building, in which all the seats were free, they did not readily yield to such an unfair proposal. Their protest against the measure was given by subsequently taking a position near about where they usually occupied. But at length an expressed desire rose to an imperious order. The stern command was followed by a forcible act resorted to by one of the officials; and to the lasting shame of those who sanctioned the measure, it was enforced at a time when those assembled were invoking the blessings of the common Father of all, "Who is no Respecter of persons, and willeth all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth." [Annals of St. Thomas' Episcopal Church, pp. 9-10.]

To quote the words of the Rev. Richard Allen, the founder of the African Methodist Episcopal Church: "Meeting had begun, and they were nearly done singing, and just as we took seats the Elder said--'Let us pray.' We had not been long on our knees before I heard considerable scuffling and low talking. I raised my head up and saw one of the trustees having hold of Rev. Absalom Jones, pulling him of off his knees, and saying--must get up, you must not kneel here.' Mr. Jones replied, 'Wait until prayer is over.' Mr. H M. said, 'No, you must get up now, or I will call for aid and force you away.' Mr. Jones said, 'Wait until prayer is over, and I will get up and trouble you no more.' [Life of Rev. Richard Allen, written by himself, 1833, p, 13.]

"This assurance of Mr. Jones was made good. They all [4/5] walked out together, and before the close of that eventful Lord's Day, the solemn and deliberate purpose, the noble determination, was formed to worship the Lord henceforth under their "own vine and fig tree" without molestation from any." That first "vine and fig tree" was St. Thomas' Episcopal Church, Philadelphia. In the same year these men formed the "Free African Society." The Venerable Richard Allen, perceiving the trend of this Society to be toward the Episcopal Church, withdrew, and some time later was successful in founding the A.M.E. Church. In 1790 "The Free Africa Society" became by resolution a religious organization, the members preferring the Church Services, and from that moment Rev. William Douglass justly dates the beginning of St. Thomas' congregation. They rapidly pushed the construction of their handsome church edifice, which was opened for public worship July 17, 1894. In August, 1795, Absalom Jones was ordained Deacon, and in 1804 Bishop White of Pennsylvania reported him as having been advanced to the Priesthood. The first man of African descent elevated to the Sacred Priesthood in America and perhaps the first in modern times. In 1796 St Thomas' Church was duly incorporated in the State of Pennsylvania. The Rev. William Douglass preaching over thirty years ago to his congregation said: "I would have you mark well the following language used by the founders of this church: "Being desirous,' they say, 'of avoiding all appearances of evil by self-conceitedness, or an intent to promote or established an orderly Christian like government and order of former usage in the Church of Christ." They desired nothing more or less than to become a branch of the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic 'Church in which the pure Word of God is preached, and the Sacraments duly ministered according to Christ's ordinance, in all those things that of necessity are requisite to the same." [Annals of St. Thomas' Church, p. 130.]

[6] The early history of the Colored People in the Episcopal Church was made chiefly in the great cities. In New York, Trinity Church, the wealthiest religious corporation in America, always took a profound interest in the colored population. Trinity Church was organized in 1697 and as early as 1702 special provision was made for the instruction of the Colored People in the Church Catechism and other branches of religious knowledge. Usually it was the assistant minister of the Parish Church to whom was assigned the duty of instructing the colored members. This arrangement went steadily forward, the colored people worshipping at Trinity and receiving instructions from the clergy until the War of Independence began. About 1810 the colored congregation become so large that they themselves decided to secure a church of their own and, if possible, have a clergymen of their own people. They assembled first in Williams Street, and afterward in Cliff Street, where Peter Williams was authorized by the bishop to perform the duties of lay Reader. In 1818 St. Philip's Church was formally organized as the tenth parish in New York City, where there are now not less than one hundred Episcopal Churches and Chapels. In 1819 a well proportioned, fine structure, the first church was consecrated by Bishop Hobart. The building seated about 700 people. In the following year Peter Williams was ordained to the Sacred Ministry by Bishop Hobart and immediately assumed charge of St Phillip's Church. After ministering to the congregation for twenty-five years the Rev. Peter Williams died suddenly in October, 1840.

The names of the Rev. John Peterson and the Rev. Wm. J. Alston are still remembered with affection and esteem by the older people in New York as worthy ministers of the Word of God. Rev. Wm. J. Alston was Rector of the Church from 1872 to 1874. He was succeeded by Rev. Joseph Attwell in 1875, who lived till 1881 and was in turn succeeded by the present Rector, Rev. Hutchens C. Bishop, during whose administration the congregation moved from Mulberry Street [6/7] to their present commodious and beautiful Church in West 25th Street. [See Story of St. Philips' Church, B. F. DeCosta.]

St. Philip's Church, as an independent organization, is now in its eightieth year; closely followed by St. James' Church, Baltimore, which is about seventy-one years old. The Rev. Peter Williams was the second colored man to be advanced to the Priesthood, and the Rev. William Levington, Rector and founded of St. James' Church was the third.

It may now be seen that work among the colored people is not an experiment in the Episcopal Church. We have history, prestige and experience. No people in these cities more deservedly command the respect of their fellow-citizens than these members of the Episcopal Church during the past two centuries. None gave better examples of true Christian living, and strict business integrity than those courageous and hopeful men of our independent churches during the last hundred years. (Witness the Records of the city of Philadelphia during the plague of 1793). Since the founding of the three churches mentioned, in Philadelphia, New York, and Baltimore, about 116 churches and chapels have been established in this department of the Church's work, throughout the country. Absalom Jones, the first Priest, has been succeeded by fifty others, besides near forty Deacons engaged in the same work, and ranging from Key West, Fla, to Omaha, Neb., and from Boston, Mass, to Galveston, Texas.

There are few matters of interest in considering this subject which some explanation will perhaps make more edifying and certainly better understood. For instance, the status of one person in the Episcopal Church is exactly the same as that of another. In the estimation of the Church, wealth race, power, place or nationality do not remove one member to an unthinkable distance from another. Lay delegates elected from St. Luke's Church sit in the diocesan convention and vote with equal liberty and authority beside the lay delegates of other churches.

So it is with the Sacred Ministry, Bishops, (as Bishop Holly [7/8] and Ferguson) stand on the same place with other Bishops who fill similar places and do like work.

Our priests and deacons must measure up in examinations and in all intellectual and moral qualifications, prior to ordination, with other priests and deacons. We have the same rights of the floor and ballot in convention, and officially occupy the same place of honor and responsibility in the Apostolic Succession of ministers.

The propositions which have recently been made, bearing upon the more effective extension of the Church's influence among Colored People, look rather temporary local adaptations in the missionary work of the Church, than to any permanent changes in our official relations or recognition, as the Church is at present constituted.

So it means something for the Episcopal Church to have half a hundred colored Priests in this work, occupying such a position and dignity and filling such posts of large and varied responsibility.

The Roman Catholic Church, which is the only other church established in this country that claims the Apostolic Succession in her ministry, has, I believe, not one colored Priest in parish work in this entire land, and only one colored Priest at all, who, I understand, is engaged in teaching.

Then, there is the question of numerical strength. It is to many a cause for astonishment that a Church so influential for good, and true to the principles of her Founder appears from published statistics to be so far behind other leading religious bodies. It is true that in the United States we are fewer in numbers, but not to the extent that might be supposed; the figures are somewhat misleading. We publish only the number of communicants, who in the majority of cases are adults. Many Christians bodies, and certainly the Roman Catholics, place in their lists the names of all who are baptized as members of their churches and thereby greatly swell their roll. Accordingly, where the number of Episcopalians appears to be 600,000, I believe it can safely be multiplied by five, to include, as with others, all who are [8/9] baptized, though not communicants, thus making the very respectable and more accurate estimate of 3,000,000. Then by looking out upon the English speaking world, into Great Britain, Canada, New Zealand, and Australia, it will be found that the Episcopalians outnumber, by millions, every church or denomination.

The English speaking population of the world is fully 110,600,000, of which number

17,000,000 profess no particular religion;
4,000,000 are of minor religious sects;
1,800,000 are Unitarians;
2,000,000 are Lutherans;
5,500,000 are Congregationalists;
10,000,000 are Baptists;
12,400,000 are Presbyterians;
16,000,000 are Roman Catholics;
18,000,000 are Methodists, and
26,000,000 are Episcopalians.
[Pocket Companion of American Church Sunday School Institute, p. 12.]

Roughly speaking, the Christian population of the world is between four and five millions ("Buddhism"--Sir Monier Williams) and of this number more than one-fifth speak the English language.

Something has been said about the beginnings of this work in the Church from one to two centuries ago. Coming to the Civil War we learn that during the existence of slavery there vast numbers of colored communicants throughout the South. We need not dwell upon this fact further than to say that, this large membership was largely caused by the obligatory ties between master and servant. When therefore, emancipation came about, bearing upon the wings of freedom the new life of millions of human beings, not unnaturally thousands turned to congregations entirely of their own brethren and of their own creation; for it was at this point that the Episcopal Church lost her great opportunity. Had she put forth the same efforts then for the evangelization of the Colored People as are now being made, and given her colored membership encouragement and assistance, in [9/10] establishing separate, independent, and ultimately self-supporting churches, with assured ministration, I believe she would not to-day be numerically far behind any religious body in the land. There were, however, reasons why this was not done. In theory, certainly, the Episcopal Church is Catholic, and any departure from her Catholic position is rightly regarded. With apprehension. Time will alter present condition soften prejudices, and another generation will see every right and privilege of our Apostolic and Catholic heritage freely accorded to every member of the Church.

Thirty-five years ago it was difficult for her to recognize the real need of even temporary adaptations of separate congregations, and she failed to appreciate the spirit of the freedman who preferred separation in worship however lowly the surroundings, to the usually subordinate seats in the grander temples of the Church. By the time the Church became alive to her responsibility and the real situation began to dawn on her, the cry of independence and separation, so often mistaken and misguided, had weaned vast numbers away from her fold. But now the awakening has come to both Church and people, though the slumber has been heavy too long. About twelve years ago the Commission on Work among the Colored People was appointed by the General Convention to foster and encourage this work in the South. No place in the gift of the Church being considered too great or honorable for the colored man, the Venerable Dr. Crummell was nominated and duly elected a member of this Commission a year or two ago, and now has the rare opportunity as a member of this distinguished body, of offering his mature experience and sound counsel to all interested in the work. The Rev. Thomas W. Cain, Rector of St. Augustine's Church, Galveston, Texas was sent by a white constituency to represent the Diocese of Texas in the General Convention of 1889. The Rev. Paulus Moort, M.D., was also a member of that honorable body. The Rt. Rev. Drs. Holly and Ferguson are on the Episcopal Bench, and four Colored [10/11] Priests have been honored with the care and direction of the field in Southern Dioceses in the responsible office of the Archdeaconry. With these facts in mind let us glance at the field as it is to-day, in the North first, because there the work first assumed proportions of importance. A mission room on Anderson Street, in Boston, Mass., in 1890, has today become St. Augustine's Church, a handsome ecclesiastical edifice, with a communicant roll of 110, ministered to by a Priest and Deacon. St. Luke's, New Haven, Conn., claims 116 communicants. St. Thomas' Church, Chicago, with brick edifice and rectory, 273. All Saints', St. Louis, under its founder and present Rector, with brick Church and 216 Communicants. In the State of New York there are in colored congregations, omitting many who are members of Caucasian Congregations, 1200 communicants, distributed in St. Augustine's, Brooklyn, 374; St. Philip's, Buffalo, 100; St. Philip's, New York, 600, and in other smaller bodies.

Of St. Philip's Church, New York, it may be said that it is the wealthiest religious corporation of men of color in America. The property owned and controlled by the Vestry may be safely valued at $200,000. A year or two ago the Vestry erected a Parish House and Rectory combined that cost $22,000 on a lot of their own valued at $10,000. There is no Church in the land in which we worship which is so beautifully and expensively appointed and furnished in the interior. Its male vested choir of fifty voices is confusedly unsurpassed by that of any denomination, its maintenance alone costing nearly $2,000 annually. The Church is usually filled morning and evening.

To pass on, we notice that our greatest strength is to be found in Philadelphia, both in number of communicants and churches. There are the four costly and beautiful churches of St. Thomas, the Crucifixion, St. Michael and All Angels, and St. Mary, together with four mission stations, affording a seating capacity of nearly 2,500. There are about 1,200 communicants, distributed as follows: At St. Thomas' over [11/12] 400; over 300 at the Crucifixion; between 300 and 400 at St. Mary's, and St. Michael's, and the other mission stations.

In Maryland and the District of Columbia we have not less than 1,500 communicants, exclusive of hundreds baptized, in the strictest sense of the word members of the Episcopal Church. There are between 500 and 600 at St. Mary's, Baltimore; 165 at St. James', Baltimore; 315 at St. Luke's, Washington; 166 at St. Mary's; 60 at Annapolis, besides several hundred in the counties, worshipping in their own churches. In far off Omaha, Nebr., one of the finest churches in the city, St. Philip the Deacon, has a Colored Priest as Rector.

Besides the above, we see young but flourishing churches and chapels in Denver, Colo., Keokuk, Iowa, in Detroit, with 209 communicants; in Wilmington, Del., where a new church is about to be built, in St. Paul, in Cairo, in Topeka, in Kansas City, in St. Joseph, in Camden, N.J., were arrangements are nearly completed for the erection of a splendid edifice; in Cleveland, Ohio, with nearly 100 communicants; in Cincinnati and Dayton, Ohio. In all these places I see the new awakening and great numbers of the young and intelligent people of the present time flocking to the standard of the Church of which Christ himself was the founder.

It is for these hopeful reasons that many who are engaged in the work believe that a few common-sense adaptations in the missionary department would bring the people in closer touch with the Church that has such an uplifting influence upon the life of those she has reached. Among these thousands of communicants, a criminal, an offender against the laws of decency, honesty and truth, in short against the laws of the land, is almost as rare as a polar bear in a tropic zone. In the idea, spirit and services of the Church there is a potent influence that dignifies a man's life, lifts him to a higher plane of thought and action and ennobles his whole existence. There are evidences of this abroad in the land, and many who from traditional prejudices and training can not learn new and better ways in their old days, are yet anxious for their children to be baptized and trained in the [12/13] Episcopal Church. We turn now, for a moment, to the great South. It is true that we find there extensive fields as yet untouched by us, but there are other States where the great awakening has come. Already in many places the thrifty and intelligent colored populations in that beautiful but desolate land, have asked that the ministrations of the Church be carried to them. Such was the case in Birmingham, Ala., and Chattanooga, Tenn. Wherever the people are most enlightened and most eager for the better and higher life there are we to be found in our greatest strength. Our numbers could be more, but it should be borne in mind that we are not carried away by the modern fallacy of numbers. We strive for those who wish instruction and through preparation for Confirmation and Holy Communion; for men, women and children, who by the Grace of God will take with understanding the service of the Cross. Therefore, people are not permitted to rush pell mell into the Episcopal Church, and the saying, "Once a Churchman always a Churchman" is one well understood and appreciated by Episcopalians.

Following up the above thoughts, we find in Virginia 25 stations and 1,200 communicants in North Carolina 19 stations and 1,000 communicants; in South Carolina 22 stations and 1,000 communicants; in Georgia 8 stations and 800 communicants; in Florida 11 stations and over 700; in Tennessee 10 stations and over 300; in Texas 3 stations and over 250; in Alabama 2 stations and 150; in Mississippi 2 stations and 108; in Louisiana 1 station and 137, and in Arkansas 1 station and 49 communicants. There are now one hundred and sixteen churches and chapels with about one hundred clergyman engaged in the work, of which number eighty-four are colored. In all the colored churches and chapels there are about 12,000 communicants, but if every one who is baptized and attached to the Episcopal Church is enumerated there would probably be found not far from 50,000 who call themselves Episcopalians.

There is no way of ascertaining the complete number of [13/14] colored communicants, for there are white congregations in the North especially, that have numbers of colored members not enumerated above. From this brief review of the History and present status of the Colored People in the Episcopal Church, it is hoped that some true idea of what has been and is being done may be obtained. This sketch is submitted with the hope that multitudes may share in spirit and in life, in the wave of appreciation of the Church, in the great awakening to her influence for good, gradually dawning upon the Colored People of this great country. May the knowledge of her strength increase our loyalty to her and devotion to her Divine Founder and Head, even Jesus Christ Who is at the right hand of God in Heaven. May the knowledge of her numerical weakness in some neglected and unenlighted parts, but be an incentive to gird us for the battle and unloose our purse strings in her service as gallant knights unsheathing their swords for the right. So shall we renew our strength by adding to hers, and then mount up with wings, as eagles, to our glorious heritage.

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