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Mar 17, 2020 | Kathy H. Culmer, Ph.D.

The Religious Meaning of the Emancipation Proclamation

“To most of the four million black folks emancipated by Civil War, God was real…He made them free.”

 – W. E. B. DuBois

W.E.B. Dubois observed in his history of the Reconstruction era that news of the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation resulted in exuberant expressions of religious feelings among African Americans in the South. Beginning on January 1, 1863, with the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation, Union Army camps became both bases of military operations and havens for thousands of jubilant runaways.

And while the Emancipation Proclamation may have held similar religious meaning for opponents of slavery in the North and those who had been active in the abolitionist movement, who thanked God that their nation at last was purging itself of its most detestable sin, for some others, and Episcopal clergy among them, they were feeling that God had deserted them. Episcopal priests in the South had been pretty successful in getting African Americans into their churches, but while white clergy taught that all people were in equal in God’s sight, they also stressed the need for slaves to remain obedient to their masters.

Having gained their freedom, former slaves were eager to be taught by and preached to by ministers who could relate to their own life experiences. In search of such a religious experience, they left southern Episcopal Churches and other white-controlled denominations in large numbers. Having by this time recognized the implications of the gospel that white clergy had preached to them while in bondage and  no longer bound by the social controls imposed on them by participation in their churches, they set up their own independent Baptist and Methodist churches. With the freedom of choice to worship God as they felt led, they perhaps saw this as a ripe opportunity to achieve freedom from the values of their former masters who had gone to war to uphold the brutal system of slavery under which they had suffered.

Just six months after the end of the Civil War, the General Convention of the Episcopal Church met in October of 1865 in Philadelphia. And, while healing the division that had occurred between its northern and southern white Episcopalians was of utmost priority to the organizers of the Convention, there was also the need to address the matter of this mass departure of blacks from the Church. To address this matter, General Convention that year also established the Protestant Episcopal Freedman’s Commission to win back African Americans that had deserted the Episcopal Church at Emancipation. Francis Wharton, the secretary of the commission, however, believed that African Americans were essentially an “ignorant and debased race” who threatened the health of American society, but felt that with the guidance of white church people, they could still be “elevated to self-support and self-control.” To address these issues, the commission’s organizers introduced a program of religious instruction to entice African American back into Episcopal parishes. Additionally, the commission founded several educational institutions, most notably St. Augustine’s College in Raleigh, North Carolina for the purpose of “training black Episcopalians as leaders who would cooperate with whites.”

There was a general lack of support for the commission by southern Episcopal Churches which resulted in a name change by the 1868 convention, as a concession. Again, during this post-Civil War period, the Church’s disposition and actions mirrored the attitudes and behaviors of the world around them, as well as their double-mindedness. While Episcopalians in the South were lackluster in their support of the commission, they maintained the view that some response was needed since African American worship included wild and inappropriate revelry, that black preachers were poorly equipped to be ministers and that their churches were centers for political organizing. Therefore it was deemed necessary to keep a hand in the religious affairs of black people and that evangelistic action was warranted on the part of white Episcopalians in order to provide guidance to the African American community, and I suppose maintain civility in the Church. 

(Source: Episcopalians and Race: Civil War to Civil Rights)