Moving Forward in Truth: Telling Our Story

Celebrant: Will you strive for justice and peace among all people, 
and respect the dignity of every human being?

People: I will, with God’s help

 Slavery has divided this country from its beginning. It has been deemed by some to be the central event in shaping this nation’s historical consciousness. There are remnants of the dilemma posed by this institution that counted some human beings in part rather than as a whole in order to perpetuate itself that still haunt us until this very day…that still impose themselves upon us affecting how we regard one another, interact with and react to one another.

Slavery posed no less of a dilemma for the church, many of whose members were themselves slaveowners, than it did for the country. Just as the nation was faced with the question of whether it, having been born of a declaration that all human beings were created equal and endowed by their Creator with the rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, would remain the largest slaveholding country in the world, the church was similarly faced with the dilemma of whether or not it could, in good faith, uphold a system that allowed for the buying and selling of human beings, claiming them as household property, and thereby condoning the brutality fostered by this system of chattel slavery.

Clergy and the Church throughout this nation’s history have reflected the times and sentiments of the ages in which they lived. They, like the rest of the nation, often found their allegiances torn. Clergy, who as servants of God, were called to evangelize the lost and baptize Christians, had to do so making sure they were not encouraging slaves to become less servient or inciting them to insurrection claiming a freedom that the laws of the land did not allow. Kathleen McAdams in her 1998 Dissertation for the MDiv from the School of the Pacific pointed out that “from their first arrival on American soil, missionaries of the Church of England sought to incorporate all races by baptizing Native and African children. In 1623, the first slaves were baptized at Jamestown, Virginia. Colonial society was unfriendly to the Church for baptizing slaves, as there was a fear that their conversion might make them freedmen.”

This dichotomy could be clearly seen here in this diocese. The first elected Bishop of Texas, Bishop Alexander Gregg (1859-1893), was himself born and raised on his father’s plantation in South Carolina, and after he was consecrated as Bishop of this diocese, he moved here to Texas with his family, his household goods, and his own slaves. While Council records show Bishop Gregg would visit plantations to administer the sacraments to slaves, it was not with the same regard as he did so for the whites he served in the Church. In 1862, he addressed the Diocesan Council held at Christ Church Cathedral in Houston with a sermon entitled “A Time of War,” in which he stated that the “inferior race” would realize its “highest development” only if it remained slave to Southern masters.

The following is excerpted from Bishop Gregg’s Sermon “A Time of War” 

“The relation itself, of master and slave, when properly understood, and regulated by Christian principle,—when its mutual responsibilities are faithfully met, and a sound public sentiment, as at the South, restrains or corrects the abuses to which it is incident,—constitutes one of the best of all schools for the development of the nobler traits of individual character, and calls into being the higher elements of national life.  Only in that relation can the inferior race, as its history has universally proved, reach its highest development, or subserve any important part in the economy of the world.—How it may yet be made to aid in the advancement of a nobler work,—the Christianizing of millions who sit in darkness and the shadow of death,—the orderings of Providence will doubtless open more plainly hereafter to the eyes of the world…”

While Bishop Gregg, at the time of the Civil War, held secessionist views, fortunately, not all the clergy of Texas shared the bishop’s ardent support of Southern sentiment.

Historically, the Church has been double-minded about evangelizing the poor, the disenfranchised, and the “other,” that “other” often meaning anyone unlike the majority or the accustomed-to.  It has wavered between practice and principle as to whether the cooling, cleansing waters of baptism are to provide the same assurances for all, and whether the freedom they offer can be experienced by all alike here on earth or for some can only be fully claimed once they have crossed the waters of Jordan. 

Perhaps, when we can once and for all clarify this, we can make good on our baptismal vow to “respect the dignity of every human being.”

In his 1989 D. Min. Proposal to Research Blacks in the Diocese of Texas, The Rev. Robert J. Moore, serving at the time the Church of the Resurrection, a Black congregation in this diocese (1957-2000), he wrote: “The history of black Episcopalians in the Diocese of Texas has been concentrated in less than a dozen congregations since the Civil War.  For over 100 years the predominant thought and policy has been that blacks are a specialized ministry, and that separate congregations are preferred by both blacks and whites. As a result of this separation, there is within the diocese a readily identifiable history which is often invisible to non-black Episcopalians.”

The stories in this series attempt to make this history more visible and to lessen the divide between the knowing and un-knowing.

The past is complicated, and while we cannot change it by revisiting it, we must periodically look through that rearview mirror of time to make sure we are not on a collision course and that all lanes are clear and safe to move ahead without hindrance.  

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