Unresting the Waters: The Fight against Racism in New York's Episcopal Establishment, 1845-1853

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Unresting the Waters: The Fight Against Racism in New York's Episcopal Establishment, 1845-1853

"Another Revolution...and the nigger delegation admitted into the Diocesan Convention." So wrote George Templeton Strong, a very prominent, white attorney and leading New York Episcopalian, in his diary on September 30, 1853.(2) In his racist way, Strong was referring to the victory just won by the people of St. Philip's Church, then located on Centre Street, between Worth and Leonard Streets, in lower Manhattan, not far from the recently rediscovered 17th century Negro Burial Ground.

Racism had been the root problem from the very beginning. In 1809, 200 black men and women decided not to put up any longer with the second-class treatment they were getting at historic Trinity Church, the "Mother Church" of the Anglican or Episcopal denomination in the United States, where their forefathers had been worshiping since long before the Revolutionary War. Greatly encouraged by Absalom Jones' breakaway from the Methodist Episcopal Church and the formation of the St. Thomas African Episcopal Church of Philadelphia in 1794, New York's black Episcopalians pulled out of Trinity and organized their own congregation, The Free African Church of St. Philip. "Free" meant free of official denominational affiliation. And they named their religious organization for Philip, the only Apostle known to have converted an Ethiopian to Christianity.(3)

Racism was clearly behind the designation of St. Philip's Church on Centre Street as "...consecrated for the use of coloured members of the Protestant Episcopal Church," when in 1818 it became the first African-American congregation received into the Episcopal Diocese of New York. But segregation was not the issue. The St. Philip's members wanted to wor ship by themselves. They could not have desired or expected anything else in a New York City that was, at the time, in the words of one historian, "as firmly Jim Crow as if the term had already been invented."(4)

The problem was the black Episcopalians wanted to worship in the enhanced dignity and comfort they would feel if they had a minister of their own color. To accomplish this, they had to fight against the strong resistance of New York's Episcopal establishment to the ordination to the Episcopal priesthood of a certain young black man, who also happened to be one of the earliest of the black abolitionists in New York. It took a long time -- some 17 years from 1809, when the application was first made. But victory came in 1826, when Peter Williams Jr., first rector of St. Philip's Church, became a priest.(5)

The 1853 success over racism was therefore only the most recent in the parish's long-term efforts to achieve recognition as full-fledged Episcopalians entitled to the very same rights as any European-American congregation in the diocese. Representation in the annual convention meant that St. Philip's would at long last have a vote in determining policy, electing bishops, and in the general governance of the diocese, which then covered all of New York State.

The drive to achieve admission to the convention started in earnest in 1845. At the time, St. Philip's was without a settled religious leader or rector. The Rev. Peter Williams Jr. had died in 1840. No replacement for him had yet been found. In the absence of a rector, it was solely up to lay leaders -- two wardens and eight vestrymen, collectively known as the vestry -- who were then annually chosen by the congregation to conduct the affairs of the parish.

Elected in April of 1845,(6) at a time when women could not yet vote nor serve on vestries, they were men of widely different stations in life, some well-known in the black community, others really known only within the parish that chose them. But they had at least four characteristics in common. All had demonstrated leadership abilities. All were devoted to the Episcopal form of worship. All were painfully aware of the not-so-subtle -- indeed, sometimes vicious -- racism then pervasive in the Episcopal Church. …