Two Bishops of Liberia: Race and Mission at the Dawn of the Twentieth Century

By White, Stephen L. | Anglican and Episcopal History, December 2001 | Go to article overview

Two Bishops of Liberia: Race and Mission at the Dawn of the Twentieth Century


White, Stephen L., Anglican and Episcopal History


As the nineteenth century gave way to the twentieth century, two bishops of the Protestant Episcopal Church in the United States of America were prominently engaged in raising funds for missionary work among people of African descent. Both had served in Liberia in West Africa as missionary bishops whose diocese was styled "The Missionary District of Cape Palmas and Adjacent Parts."1 Both traveled throughout the United States raising money and both carried on a lively correspondence with individual Church people and on the pages of The Churchman, the leading national Episcopal newspaper of the day. There the similarities between these two bishops end, for their aims in evangelizing were strikingly different and they tell us something about the racial fault lines that exist in the Episcopal Church to this day.

Charles Clifton Penick was the third bishop of The Missionary District of Cape Palmas and Adjacent Parts and Samuel David Ferguson was the fourth. Ferguson holds the distinction of being the first African American to be consecrated bishop in the Episcopal Church in 1885.2 As we shall see below, Penick's fundraising activity was for "colored work" in the United States after he had retired as bishop of Liberia, whereas Ferguson's fundraising efforts were in behalf of the Liberian mission while he was still the incumbent bishop. The reasons for, and the significance of, this difference in focus will become clear following a brief rehearsal of the early biographies of both men.

THE RT. REV. CHARLES CLIFTON PENICK.

Charles Clifton Penick was born in Charlotte County, Virginia, on 9 December 1843. In 1860 he attended a military school in Danville, Virginia, and from there entered Hampden Sidney College in Virginia. At the beginning of the Civil War, he entered the Confederate Army as quartermaster in the 38th Virginia Regiment, where he remained until Lee's surrender. In 1869 he graduated from the Virginia Theological Seminary where he was ordained deacon in the chapel on 26 June 1869 by The Rt. Rev. John Johns. He was ordained priest in the same place on the 24 June 1870, also by Bishop Johns.

He spent his diaconate in Bristol, Dinwiddie County, Virginia, and upon his ordination to the priesthood moved to Maryland where he became the rector of St. George's Church, Mount Savage. In 1878 he moved to Baltimore, and took charge of The Church of The Messiah, of which he subsequently became the rector, and where he remained until his elevation to the episcopate.

Penick was consecrated Missionary Bishop of Cape Palmas and Parts Adjacent in Western Africa in St. Paul's Church, Alexandria, Virginia, on 13 February 1877, by Bishop Thomas Atkinson, and assisted by bishops Francis McNeece Whittle, William Pinkney, and Thomas Underwood Dudley. He was awarded an honorary doctor in divinity degree from Kenyon College in the same year.

In October 1877, Penick arrived in Liberia where he found the church in much disarray. He wrote home that "Every building connected with the Mission is tumbling to pieces. I can put my foot through the rotten floor in the room where I now write, and it is one of the best in the house, and the house as good as any in the Mission."3 But Penick was encouraged in his work by finding three hundred natives who could read the Bible, and of them twenty-five young men who could teach reading. Penick's entire tenure in Liberia was marked by his focus on education and the establishment of schools.

By 1882, however, the strenuous work and the harsh climate badly affected Penick's health and he was forced to return to America. The following year he found his health would not allow him to return to Liberia, so he tendered his resignation which was accepted by the House of Bishops.

Penick, still a young man, focused all his attention on the plight of the former slaves in the United States. As we shall see below, he worked diligently to raise money for the evangelization and education of freed slaves and their children. …

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