RACE AND THE
EPISCOPAL CHURCH IN
The June 17 massacre was one of the worst apparently racially motivated crimes in the history of South Carolina. As southerners try to come to grips with this monstrous event, it is useful, if painful, for us to review the role race has played in the history of the Episcopal Church in South Carolina. Perhaps even this cursory review will help us put our present shock into some meaningful perspective. A full examination of this would take volumes. Space here allows only a brief review. Sources: journals of the annual conventions and the diocesan histories.
Early white settlers flocked to the colony of South Carolina enticed by land grants, other benefits, and a new land advantageous for the vast production of agriculture. The labor intensive work required mass labor. The attempt to force the native Americans to do the labor failed as these people simply vanished into the wilderness. Land owners then began mass importations of slaves from western Africa and the West Indies. South Carolina was the only one of the thirteen colonies where slaves outnumbered whites. Not coincidentally, it was also by far the richest colony and Charleston the richest city. It was also one in which the Church of England (aka Anglican Church) was established (1704-1778). Even though 12,000 slaves escaped in the Revolutionary period, slavery rebounded to be even stronger as cotton became the greatest cash crop. After 1810, slaves outnumbered whites in South Carolina again.
The Episcopal Church was the predominant religion among the Low Country planter gentry and professional-commercial classes. Some of the planters brought their slaves to be baptized in the Church. Just before the Civil War, the Episcopal Diocese listed 3,000 "colored communicants." Calvary Church in Charleston gives as its date of origin 1847. Nevertheless, slaves as a whole showed little interest in the liturgical Episcopal Church preferring more personal and individualistic forms of worship. The Episcopal diocese did virtually nothing to improve conditions of life for slaves. For instance, a convention in the 1840's discussed recognizing the indissolubility of slave marriages, something that would have prevented owners from selling spouses separately. That idea was dead on arrival. The national Episcopal Church likewise ignored slavery, partially to please South Carolina which had made itself an indispensable part of the national Church (for instance, SC was the prime mover and main supporter of General Theological Seminary in New York City). The Episcopal Church was the only major Protestant denomination that did not split North/South before the Civil War.
The cataclysmic Civil War almost destroyed South Carolina. For whites it was as if the world had come to an end. In a sense it had. The place that was once the grandest and richest of all the American colonies, now lay prostrate in ruin and desperate poverty. For the slaves it was liberation and freedom at last, but nothing else. Ninety percent of the slave members of the Episcopal Church promptly abandoned the Church as they abandoned their servitude. In anger, anguish, and frustration many whites in South Carolina directed their rage of defeat and deprivation on the only victims at hand, the newly freed blacks.
From 1865 to 1930 relations between whites and blacks in South Carolina went from bad to worse; and the Episcopal diocese was part and parcel of this. In early 1865, St. Mark's in Charleston was founded as an African American church. In 1875, it applied for admission to the Diocese as a parish. If admitted, it would be the first African American parish of the Diocese and would be treated equally. All hell broke loose in the diocesan convention. And it was a hell of racism that was to last for decades. To their credit, the bishops and most of the clergy tried their best to advocate for racial equality, or at least tolerance, within the Diocese after the Civil War, but the fiercely resolved racist laymen found ways to block every initiative. Given the long Low Church tradition in South Carolina promoting the power of the laity, there was little the clergy could do. At the same time the national Church continued its hands-off policy on race (to continue to the 1950's).
The crisis over St. Mark's came to a head in 1887 when an African American clergyman presented himself for admission to the diocesan convention. The delegates from St. Paul's (the present cathedral), Charleston got up and stalked out followed by representatives of twelve other parishes including the great churches of Charleston. Bishop William Howe could hardly contain his anger and frustration. He declared a quorum, proceeded with business then ended the meeting with: "I trust that our brethren will reconsider the case and see whether it is sufficient ground for these old Parishes to go out because one colored clergyman, who has sat in Convention in Virginia, for eight years, I am informed, is here with us."
The "brethren" did not "reconsider." They made their demand very clear: it's the "colored" man or us. To stop this potentially ruinous "Schism of 1887," Bishop Howe caved and arranged a settlement giving in to the rebels' demands. He agreed to the complete segregation of the diocese along racial lines. Clergy would be admitted to the convention only from parishes in union with the Diocese. The three historically black congregations, St. Mark's, Calvary, and St. Luke's of Columbia, had not been admitted into the Diocese. Subsequently, the Diocese set up a "missionary district" as a separate organization for the African Americans with a legislative body called a Convocation. In time the bishop would appoint an archdeacon to oversee the separated minority. Long faithful African American Episcopalians in South Carolina were reduced to second-class treatment in their own church. It is no wonder that the number of "colored" communicants in the diocese changed not at all between 1873 and 1900. In 1900 there were nine white communicants for every one "colored" communicant in a state where there were three blacks for every two whites.
Meanwhile a post-Reconstruction harsh, virulent racism gripped South Carolina. No doubt the best-known proponent of this was "Pitchfork Ben" Tillman, governor from 1890 to 1894, and unabashed racist. Under his influence a new state constitution was adopted that disenfranchised the vast majority of African Americans (who just happened to be the majority of the population). Soon Jim Crow laws beyond count became the order of the day as did lynchings, of which 156 occurred in South Carolina between 1882 and 1930. The Episcopal Diocese of South Carolina remained silent in the face of this evil.
Suffering under denial of their human rights and blocked from access to economic opportunities at home, blacks by the thousands began fleeing from South Carolina in what is called the Great Migration. They mostly headed north for the big cities. It has been estimated that across the South, 1.6m African Americans fled their home states between 1910 and 1930, and 6m for the period of 1910 to 1970 (this began to reverse only in the 1990's). This outflow of manpower alone was a heavy price for South Carolina to pay for its crushing racism.
In the Episcopal dioceses of the South, there developed in the early 1900's discussion of whether to have a suffragan bishop for their African American communicants. Two dioceses decided favorably, Arkansas and North Carolina, which unanimously elected the Rev. Henry Beard Delany a bishop suffragan in 1918 (d. 1928). He was the first African American bishop in the southeastern U.S. In South Carolina, Bishop William A. Guerry was very much in favor and tried his best to get the diocesan convention to agree to an African American bishop suffragan. He was voted down every time. As in the 1870's and 80's the racist laymen were too powerful to control. Guerry was murdered (d. June 9, 1928) by a deranged gunman who took his own life.
From 1930 to 1945, the Diocese was preoccupied with conditions of the Great Depression and the Second World War. As far as race relations went, nothing changed (although the diocese did support Voorhees College in Denmark, SC starting in 1924). Once the War was over, the diocese returned to the race issue. In the convention of 1945, a committee was set up to make recommendations on the "colored" role in the diocese. It recommended inclusion. When admission of "colored" came up for a vote in the convention, the laity voted it down in 1946, in 1949, in 1951, and 1953. Finally, in 1954 the convention voted to admit only St. Mark's of Charleston. This was the first African American parish to be admitted to the Diocese of South Carolina, and it came seventy-nine years after it had applied for admission and eighty-nine years after the Civil War. The Diocese of South Carolina was the last Episcopal diocese to integrate.
Although the laity had at long last agreed to let blacks into the diocesan convention, they were in no mood to change Jim Crow. In 1956, the convention passed a resolution: "there is nothing morally wrong in voluntary recognition of racial differences."
By 1960, the Civil Rights movement was underway in America. In South Carolina, a new bishop, Gray Temple (1961-1982) guided the diocese in harmony with the national Church. He removed all the last vestiges of the old racism in the diocese, nearly a century after the Civil War. Equality came at last. His was also the era when women were first admitted to Holy Orders and a new prayer book was adopted. Around 1960, the national Episcopal Church shook off its historical indifference to social and cultural issues in America and began to develop an active role in making reforms in the nation. This was, and still is, controversial in the Church, but Bishop Temple never wavered in his loyalty to the Episcopal Church. When state law required the diocese to be incorporated, he did so in 1973 with the explicit statement the diocese would function "under" the Constitution and Canons of the Episcopal Church.
The Diocese of South Carolina considered itself nothing but an integral part of the Episcopal Church. This was to change after Temple retired in 1982 and Bishop Allison took over.
In sum, the Episcopal Church in South Carolina has a long and heavy history of racism that began changing only a few decades ago. Whether it has truly changed is a matter of conjecture and debate. There is a theory that the schism of 2012 was really a reaction against the Civil Rights movement, as if South Carolinians were saying we will get revenge on forcing racial equality on us. Maybe, but I have seen no empirical evidence to support such a theory. Overt racism has disappeared in the Episcopal Church and the dioceses. No one can know how much covert racism remains in South Carolina. Nevertheless, the intolerance, prejudice, and bigotry that drove racism in South Carolina for so long did reappear as the leadership of the pre-schism diocese crusaded for years against the national Episcopal Church and its stand for inclusion of another mistreated minority, homosexual persons. It may be they traded one minority for another. The resolutions they passed in their last convention speak to the continuation of that.
It is interesting to note that when time came for the schism of 2012, the two historically African American parishes of the Diocese of South Carolina made their voices known early and loudly. They would have none of the new discrimination. They would remain steadfastly with the Episcopal Church. Who could know better that intolerance and discrimination against one minority is the same against all minorities?
The old Diocese of South Carolina split in 2012 on the issue of rights for a minority of human beings. Having agreed to accept rights for one minority, the leadership and majority of the old diocese decided they could not and would not accept the equality of another.
"I Forgive You"
Yesterday, family members forgave the monster even though he did not ask for it or show any contrition. Apparently, he had no moral conscience. They reminded us how to be true Christians, even in the hardest of times. Goodness knows, African Americans can speak to endurance in the face of evil. The two dioceses that are now heirs of the old Episcopal Diocese of South Carolina both claim to have moral consciences. It is time for them to ask for forgiveness for the sin of racism that runs so deeply in the church in South Carolina. Slavery, dehumanization, deprivation of human rights, and silence in the face of evil are all sins for which the Episcopal dioceses in South Carolina should ask forgiveness from the African American community of South Carolina. These good people, whose family members were murdered apparently only because of their ethnic heritage, forgave the monster. They can forgive the Episcopal Church too. That is a place of beginning to move toward a healing, reconciliation, and unity of all of God's people.