Academic journal article Anglican and Episcopal History

The Episcopal Church and Race in Nineteenth-Century North Carolina1

Academic journal article Anglican and Episcopal History

The Episcopal Church and Race in Nineteenth-Century North Carolina1

Article excerpt

"The truth's the light and the truth never hurt nobody. I'm proud of my kinfolks. Besides, I'm telling this child pure history." So Cornelia Fitzgerald, the grandmother of prominent Civil Rights attorney and pioneering black Episcopal priest Pauli Murray, used to respond when questioned about the value of recounting her family pedigree - a pedigree rooted in the fact that she was the daughter of a slave mother and a white master whose family were prominent members of the Episcopal Church and benefactors of the University of North Carolina. This made Cornelia both the niece and the slave of her mistress, Mary Ruffin Smith, as well as a communicant of the same church.2

I, too, am here to tell "pure history," and I share with Cornelia Fitzgerald a surpassing confidence in the value of truth-telling. Although the truth I am about to tell is neither easy nor painless to recount, addressing the topic of slavery and race in the antebellum Episcopal Church requires a willingness to probe beneath glib, sentimental versions of the past. It also means exploring the depths of a complicity that leaders of our church forged with a violent and cruel institution, a complicity they masked from themselves with various self-serving strategies. But if we do not tell the truth about our past, including the parts we might heartily wish to avoid, we cannot properly meet the distinctive challenges and opportunities for healing and reconciliation that lie before us today.

The Episcopal Church in North Carolina before the Civil War was populated both with slaveholders and with slaves. That was as true in my parish, St. Matthew's, Hillsborough, as anywhere else. The two leading rectors of St. Matthew's in the antebellum period, founding rector William Mercer Green (1825-38) and Moses Ashley Curtis (1841-47; 1856-72), were themselves slaveholders. Moreover, the single largest slaveholder in the state on the eve of the Civil War was Paul Cameron, owner of several plantations including Burnside, the estate from which St. Matthew's own property was carved.3 Though largely forgotten today, many enslaved African Americans were part of the baptized membership of St. Matthew's along with the white families - the Camerons, Greens, Curtises, and Ruffins - who owned them. In fact, of die 550 or so baptisms recorded in St. Matthew's parish register between 1828 and 1864, 142 - over twenty-five percent - were of African Americans.

That number reflects the high value placed on the evangelization of slaves in the antebellum Episcopal Church in North Carolina. All three antebellum bishops of the diocese - John Stark Ravenscroft, Levi Silliman Ives, and Thomas Atkinson - were vigorous promoters of slave evangelization, and they did not hesitate publicly to commend those members of the church, lay and clergy, who embraced this work.4 Thus Bishop Ravenscroft, on his first visitation to our county in 1823, noting in his journal with evident satisfaction the efforts at slave education.5 And a decade later we find Bishop Ives at St. Matthew's, baptizing nine slave children belonging to the rector, with Green and the children's parents serving as baptismal sponsors.6 To demonstrate even further this public commitment to evangelizing slaves, Green oversaw the addition of a slave gallery to St. Matthew's in 1835. He later incorporated this architectural feature into the Chapel of the Cross in Chapel Hill - the church he founded after resigning his Hillsborough cure to take a faculty position at the nearby University of North Carolina.7

Such sustained commitment to slave evangelization was not insignificant in time or money, so it behooves us to ask: What did the clergy and bishops of the diocese hope to achieve through these efforts? Perhaps the single best statement of the matter can be found in the 1836 pamphlet, The Rights and Duties of Slaveholders, which was written by George W. Freeman, then rector of Christ Church, Raleigh, and published with the express encouragement of Bishop Ives. …

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