In The Talking Book: African Americans and the Bible, Allen Callahan describes how black Americans, during their days in captivity, originally understood the Christian Bible not as a written text but as a “talking book.”
African Americans first encountered the Bible as strangers in a strange land of slavery, through the strange land of English letters, and by the strange religion of Evangelical Protestantism. It is at the collision of the Great Awakening and the Peculiar Institution in colonial America that African Americans became literate, and, subsequently, literary. (p. 2)
Callahan contends that late 18th and early 19th century American Evangelicalism challenged the status quo of slave illiteracy.
The sermons of [Evangelical] preachers were always evocative expositions of the Bible, for Evangelicals insisted that the complete script of salvation had been inscribed in the pages of holy scripture. The two essential tenets of Evangelicalism were the paramount authority of the Bible and direct personal experience of God. Unmediated access to the Bible was an Evangelical imperative. Thus for Evangelicals, reading became a matter of religion. … Just as Evangelical religion required that one have the experience of saving faith for oneself, it required that one read that sacred script for oneself. (p. 3)
Callahan notes how significant numbers of slaves came to Christianity from Evangelicalism’s influence during the early 18th century and how Evangelical Christianity remains a formidable force in present-day black American religion (pp. 3–4). It is history that frames the mindset of this reputed quote by Booker T. Washington: “If a black man is anything but a Baptist or a Methodist, someone has been tampering with his religion.” And it is because of this still prevalent mindset that many black Episcopalians have frequently had to defend their legitimacy as black people and real Christians.
Harold Lewis, though, notes in Yet with a Steady Beat: The African-American Struggle for Recognition in the Episcopal Church that blacks have been a presence within American Anglicanism since the first recorded slave baptisms in Jamestown, Virginia in 1623 (p. 9). Callahan, in turn, does note how 17th and 18th century American Anglicans made modest attempts to introduce enslaved people to Christianity. “Some [Anglican] clergymen,” Callahan says, “composed special catechisms of biblical phrases and doctrinal sentences that slaves could be taught to parrot in preparation for baptism.” But the overall Southern planter class was both indifferent and often hostile to African slave Christian evangelization. The evangelization they did receive was little more than vague assurances of blessedness in the afterlife (pp. 2–3).
Following the Civil War, black Episcopalians had to make a choice: remain in the denomination of their baptism or join another Christian denomination.
Regarding the former choice, the ministries to black Episcopalians from churchmen such as William Rollinson Whittingham, the Fourth Bishop of Maryland from 1840-1879, proved crucial. Whittingham was an American Oxford Movement high churchman whose baptismal theology professed that all people offered by the Church to God in baptism were regenerated by his grace, therefore were all equal members thereof through Christ’s saving merits. (Clowes Chorley, pp. 237, 240-241)
George Freeman Bragg, the rector of Saint James Church in Baltimore, the oldest black Episcopal parish in the South, from 1891-1940 and the first historiographer of black Episcopal history, wrote in his history of the Missionary District Plan:
Bishop Whittingham, during his entire Episcopate in Maryland, was perfectly devoted to the interests of…blacks, and they knew it. He came among them constantly as a loving father. He was never afraid to speak out on their behalf. Whenever he made his visitations in the counties, the afternoons of Sundays was solemnly set apart that he might meet with [black] people and instruct them himself in the principles of the Christian religion. He ever took the most affectionate interests in the welfare of St. James’s First African Church in Baltimore…Although a native of New York, yet there have been few, if any, native South Bishops who were more truly identified in feeling and thought with representative Southern life, than the great Bishop Whittingham of Maryland. (p. 1)
As for the latter, Allen Guelzo recalls how many Southern whites in the aftermath of the Civil War were prepared to apply the “Jim Crow” spirit of segregation to their churches, in addition to their civil laws:
In 1875, St. Mark’s Church in Charleston, South Carolina, whose membership was entirely composed of former slaves, applied for admission to the Diocese of South Carolina, only to be refused on the ground that black Episcopalians could never be considered the equals of white Episcopalians. The diocesan convention explained: “The Church is bound to recognize, in all its relations to the world, and its offices to mankind, that distinction between the races of men which God has been pleased to ordain, and to conform its polity and ecclesiastical organisms to his divine ordinance.” (p. 220)
But South Carolina’s black Episcopalians did not take this lying down. Soon after, at a meeting of representatives of black Episcopal missions in the cities of Charleston, Pinopolis, and Oakley, three questions were raised.
1. Q: Has the Episcopal Church given [blacks] a Church or not?
2. Q: Should [we] withdraw from the Episcopal Church?
A: We will withdraw from it, if the Church still refuses to organize us.
3. Q: But then where shall we go?
A: The Reformed Episcopal Church. (pp. 221-222)
Like their South Carolina counterparts, many blacks left the Episcopal Church, understandably no longer wanting to be members of a Christian denomination within which they were enslaved and viewed by its racial majority as non-equal subordinates. But those who remained did so having rightly seen from William Whittingham and others like him Anglicanism’s catholicity reinforcing the Church’s formularies, practices, and constitutions being pre-slavery and pre-racist and in place well before racial inequality. Hence, black Episcopalians who stayed became resolved to point out their church’s theological inconsistencies on catholicity, showing themselves to be neighbors the larger Episcopal Church could love as they did themselves (Lewis, p. 189). And though the number of black Episcopalians has and continues to be low, they have remained a faithful presence within the greater American Anglican tradition.
The principle factors of the South’s racial majority’s past prevalent racial views and the welcoming of majority white Christian denominations such as the Reformed Episcopal Church and black Christian denominations of disenfranchised Southern black Episcopalians on independent and/or equal footing with them greatly aided Anglo-Catholicism’s evangelization of remaining black Episcopalians. Hence, my belief that the first American Anglo-Catholic’s preaching of the historic catholic Christian doctrines received from their Oxford Movement forebears – along with the advanced liturgies and embrace of socialism – is why many black Episcopalians affiliated with the tradition. This goes with my other view that black Episcopalians who were evangelized by American Anglo-Catholics in the years following the Civil War did not perceive from their preaching and liturgical evangelism them thinking that black people were “savages” or an “inferior culture.” What early American Anglo-Catholicism gave black Episcopalians was Biblical preaching and liturgical evangelism in line with their needs as God’s people, not for the missionaries’ own glory or benefit (pp. 175–76).
The ritualistic presentation of salvation’s story encourages Anglo-Catholics to embrace their tradition’s history of rebellion. Anglo-Catholic rebellion finds its roots in John Keble’s 1833 Assize Sermon, in which he criticized the English Government’s overreach into the affairs of the divinely established Church. Since then, its rebellious nature has caused Anglo-Catholicism to appeal to the poor, sick, friendless, needy, and ostracized. Black Americans, unfortunately out of necessity, have had to be a rebellious people. Thus, for black American Anglo-Catholics, their tradition’s rebellious history has encouraged and empowered them to fight for and demand equality.
The Oxford Movement strove to remind Anglicanism of its connection to the ancient Church in doctrinal matters. Though it’s often understood in liturgical terms, the Oxford Movement was primarily a theological movement. In fact, liturgical advances were highly discouraged. Yet, consideration should be given to the probability that at work within early Anglo-Catholicism’s desire to put Oxford Movement theology into ritualistic practice was the Holy Spirit. Clowes Chorley “confessed” that ritualism “was greatly needed both in the English and the American Churches.” There was a need to incorporate Catholic doctrine not just into sermons, but also into the Church’s liturgy (p. 359).
Such ritualistic presentation has empowered black American Anglo-Catholics to live into God’s call to rebel against oppression. John Baldovin, though, says that the liturgy itself can’t accomplish everything. “It is unrealistic to imagine that an hour or so a week, and often less than that, of involvement in the liturgical assembly is going to be able to attune people to the value system and way of life to which the Gospel invites all Christians.” The liturgy can only do so much. Means within the assembly for carrying out the lessons heard during the liturgy must be provided. If not, then the liturgy becomes nothing but mere words, and assembly members’ gathering just a weekly obligation (pp. 437–38).
Hence, action arising from corporate liturgy is necessary for Christians to understand what the Gospel proclaims. Christian work both inside and outside local church walls is liturgical. And in such work, we see Paul’s plea: “May the God of steadfastness and encouragement grant you to live in harmony with one another, in accordance with Christ Jesus, so that together you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ” (Rom. 15:5–6).
By evangelizing through advanced ritual, Anglo-Catholicism has brought to the Anglican conscience Christ’s mystical identification with the world’s suffering, calling all to acknowledge the marks of grace present in all of God’s people. Because of the early Anglo-Catholics who felt called to offer the Episcopal Church theological correctives on catholicity, their early black counterparts were empowered to show its racial correlations. This witness is aptly summarized by this statement of the 1985 Conference on Afro-Anglicanism:
[The] Anglican emphasis on scripture, tradition, reason, liturgy, ministry and social witness has been a source of enablement and maturation, as we have … sought to discern and respond to the signs of the realm of God in our world. Many of us owe our Anglican connections to the missionary initiatives taken by the British and North Americans in former years. We thank God for these initiatives. The missionaries brought the Gospel in their own cultural vessels. The message has survived, but the vessels are being retired in the face of our own cultural traditions. …
We firmly believe that God has called us as Afro-Anglicans to be part of the salt of the earth, and that we are richly endowed with many gifts of grace and human virtue to persevere in our Christian calling. Above all else, we believe that we have been called to be ourselves and to become what God would have us become in our own cultural and historical contexts. Our endowments of warmth and feeling, of movement and beauty, of truthfulness and wisdom, of wholism and familial responsibility, of a spirituality of endurance, survival and hope, are by no means marks of a divine mistake. God has entrusted these to us as talents for service in the Church.
Thus, the ritualistic expression of equality in the Anglo-Catholic tradition must remain in communicating the truths of Christ’s Gospel, not just for the sake of its black adherents, but for those of all God’s people everywhere. At the same time, Anglo-Catholicism must beware of evolving into a purely subjective tradition. Clear theological articulation must go together with ritualistic expression. If Anglo-Catholicism becomes purely subjective, how can it be a meaningful tradition going forward?
These are questions not only for Anglo-Catholics in particular or Episcopalians in general, or for Christians of this time or any one past time, but for all Christians throughout all the Church’s history. The Incarnation of Jesus Christ reveals the powerful love of God offered to all. And through all time Christ’s invitation remains the same: “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light” (Matt. 11:28-30).
The Rev. Brandt L. Montgomery is the Chaplain of Saint James School in Hagerstown, Maryland.