By Peter C. Schellhase
Evangelical Anglicanism has among its heroes those who took a courageous stand against social injustice. These include William Wilberforce, the English MP who devoted much of his political career to ending the slave trade. Wilberforce, like other evangelicals, also pressed domestic moral reforms. He argued that for too many people religion was merely an adornment of genteel living, urging his readers to holiness of life and to bring forth fruit worthy of repentance.
This evangelical concern for holiness and authentic spirituality is reflected in the work and preaching of the “Evangelical” bishops of Virginia, Richard Channing Moore and William Meade, who brought the Diocese of Virginia back from near-total decline at the beginning of the 19th century. Meade and his associates attributed their success to the evangelical theology and preaching they fostered in the diocese. Meade’s preaching emphasized:
The depravity of human nature, the imminence of hell, the necessity of a divine Savior, the efficacy of the Crucifixion, the need for trust in Christ as the sole means of salvation, the rebirth through the Holy Spirit into a life of grateful obedience, coupled with the divine inspiration and the inerrancy of the Holy Scriptures . . .
Bishop Moore, like Wilberforce, was willing to challenge socially-acceptable vices. His Richmond parish, Monument Church, had been constructed on the site of a deadly fire that killed 72 theatergoers, including prominent members of society. As a rector in New York, Moore had forbidden “dancing, card-playing, and the theatre” to his communicants. In the wake of a tragedy widely viewed as divine judgment, Moore brought these reforms to Virginia as bishop:
[I]n 1818 Moore succeeded in persuading his convention to pass a resolution declaring that gambling, horse-racing, attending theatres, and dancing in public “stained the purity of the Christian character” and should be avoided by all communicants.
Yet, despite his characteristically evangelical moralism, Moore never spoke, either good or bad, to the institution of slavery which expanded greatly during his episcopacy, despite its gross immorality.
Remarkably, just a generation before, moral condemnations of slavery had been widespread even among the Virginia aristocracy. Many of Virginia’s leading Anglicans — Washington, Jefferson, Patrick Henry — recognized the conflict between their avowed principles of liberty and universal brotherhood and the institution of slavery in which they all participated. Henry, a devout Anglican and vestryman, urged its discontinuance in a 1773 letter:
It is not a little surprising that the professors of Christianity . . . should encourage a practice so totally repugnant to the first impressions of right and wrong. What adds to the wonder is that this abominable practice has been introduced in the most enlightened ages. Is it not amazing, that at a time, when the rights of humanity are defined and understood with precision, in a country, above all others, fond of liberty, that in such an age and such a country, we find men professing a religion the most human, mild, gentle and generous, adopting a principle as repugnant to humanity, as it is inconsistent with the bible, and destructive to liberty?
For Henry, the institution of slavery not only violated the enlightenment principles of liberty and equality, but the Christian religion itself. If immediate abolition was impossible, at least it was imperative to work for its discontinuance and to “treat the unhappy victims with lenity.”
But in response to economic pressure, new, more convenient moral paradigms were adopted. The profitability of slave labor increased as the major cash crop shifted from tobacco to cotton. Episcopal leaders began to justify the peculiar institution with arguments that Blacks were an inferior race unsuited to freedom, that they needed the benevolent oversight of whites lest they return to the supposed barbarism of their ancestors. Prominent northern churchmen such as John Henry Hopkins, Bishop of Vermont, and Samuel Seabury (grandson of the founding bishop), gave the South a run for its money with their no-holds-barred white supremacy: “The Anglo-Saxon race is king; why should not the African race be subject?”
Compared to Hopkins and Seabury, the Virginia Evangelicals were moderates. Bishop Meade was an active supporter of the scheme to repatriate free “persons of color” to a colony in West Africa. Between the 1820s and 40s this was widely seen as an acceptable option by churchmen and politicians throughout the North and South, from Thomas Jefferson to Henry Clay, most of whom, regardless of their views on slavery, did not see the full integration of free Blacks into society as a desirable possibility. The scheme was attacked by those who favored the full abolition of slavery, but supported — at first — by slaveholders who feared the destabilizing presence of free Blacks alongside the enslaved. Yet repatriation too fell out of favor in Virginia as keeping slaves in perpetuity and selling them “down south” became more and more profitable.
Responding to criticism from slaveholders, Bishop Meade testified that the unchanging tenor of his preaching to slaves was for
the servants to rejoice that they had been born in this Christian land, and not in a heathen land — to seek that liberty of soul from sin, which Christ alone could give, and which was infinitely better than any other liberty — to obey all those instructions to servants which God had given in His word . . .”
By his own account, Meade separated the “evangelical” preaching of personal, internal freedom from sin from any consideration of the structures of sin in which they were enmeshed, while perverting the teachings of the apostle Paul to uphold those structures.
The Civil War complicated evangelical priorities. The evangelical good intentions of many of the bishops remained after the war, but the newly liberated were no longer inclined to respond to their efforts. Bishop Wilmer of Louisiana, during the war an energetic evangelist among the slaves in his diocese, bemoaned how those who once had packed plantation churches now stayed away in droves, even migrating to other forms of religion:
The voice of remonstrance from their once-honored pastors falls unheeded upon their ears, unscriptural revelations are substituted for the Word of God; the ancient forms of devotion are declared to quench the ministrations of the spirit, and the sober worship of [the] sanctuary is exchanged for the midnight orgies of a frantic superstition.
In fact, these former slaves were not reverting to fetishism, but seeking out Christian worship of a non-Anglican character, and religious leadership from among their own people. Who could blame them, when Wilmer and his colleagues had allowed even their most fervent evangelistic efforts to be corrupted by the heresy of white supremacy?
Civil war, not slavery, temporarily divided the Episcopal Church along national lines. For most of the bishops, the scandal was not the southern bishops’ support for slavery, but their “schism” during the Confederacy. Following the war, Bishop Hopkins, as Presiding Bishop, oversaw their rehabilitation in the reunified church. Is it any wonder that the southern bishops were neither held accountable nor urged to repent for their support of slavery? Is it any wonder that even today the Episcopal Church lacks any credibility on issues of race?
The failure of Virginia’s “evangelical” bishops and their preaching is summed up in a pithy observation of Reinhold Niebuhr:
The orthodox church . . . particularly in the South, never allows the gospel of Christ to become a cleansing force in the whole life of man. It has a simple little legalistic system of Christian morality and tries to convict men of sin because they have violated this system. It deals with sins, mostly picayune sins, and not with sin. Actually its Christian legalism, with its strong emphasis on Sabbath observance and upon a scrupulous sex ethic, and its complete disregard of the hopes, fears, ambitions, and desires of men that create social, racial, and economic forces in society, is probably a partly conscious evasion of the moral problem involved in the race issue. (“Christian Faith and the Race Problem”)
Just as William Wilberforce and his associates are the everlasting glory of Anglican evangelicalism precisely because of their opposition to the slave trade, the Virginia Evangelicals are its perpetual reproach. Their “gospel” failed to oppose the heresy of white supremacy or confront the cruelty of slavery. Their moral progress was an illusion.
Peter C. Schellhase is a graduate of Nashotah House, a postulant for Holy Orders in the Episcopal Diocese of Dallas, and a native of Maryland and Virginia.