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Faith in Their Own Color

Faith in Their Own Color: Black Episcopalians in Antebellum New York City

Craig D. Townsend
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    Faith in Their Own Color
    Book Description:

    On a September afternoon in 1853, three African American men from St. Philip's Church walked into the Convention of the Episcopal Diocese of New York and took their seats among five hundred wealthy and powerful white church leaders. Ultimately, and with great reluctance, the Convention had acceded to the men's request: official recognition for St. Philip's, the first African American Episcopal church in New York City. In Faith in Their Own Color, Craig D. Townsend tells the remarkable story of St. Philip's and its struggle to create an autonomous and independent church. His work unearths a forgotten chapter in the history of New York City and African Americans and sheds new light on the ways religious faith can both reinforce and overcome racial boundaries.

    Founded in 1809, St. Philip's had endured a fire; a riot by anti-abolitionists that nearly destroyed the church; and more than forty years of discrimination by the Episcopalian hierarchy. In contrast to the majority of African Americans, who were flocking to evangelical denominations, the congregation of St. Philip's sought to define itself within an overwhelmingly white hierarchical structure. Their efforts reflected the tension between their desire for self-determination, on the one hand, and acceptance by a white denomination, on the other.

    The history of St. Philip's Church also illustrates the racism and extraordinary difficulties African Americans confronted in antebellum New York City, where full abolition did not occur until 1827. Townsend describes the constant and complex negotiation of the divide between black and white New Yorkers. He also recounts the fascinating stories of historically overlooked individuals who built and fought for St. Philip's, including Rev. Peter Williams, the second African American ordained in the Episcopal Church; Dr. James McCune Smith, the first African American to earn an M.D.; pickling magnate Henry Scott; the combative priest Alexander Crummell; and John Jay II, the grandson of the first chief justice of the Supreme Court and an ardent abolitionist, who helped secure acceptance of St. Philip's.

    eISBN: 978-0-231-50888-9
    Subjects: Religion, History, Sociology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
    (pp. ix-xii)
  4. CHAPTER 1 Improper Associates
    (pp. 1-9)

    By 1853, slavery in America was legally confined to the Southern states, and Northerners often basked in a sense of righteousness that they were free of the “peculiar institution.” Yet slavery had only been abolished in the state of New York twenty-six years earlier, and few African Americans living in New York City felt Northern governments had much right to feel proud. The passage of the Fugitive Slave Law three years earlier had effectively removed any rights to security free blacks had gained in the North, and prejudice in both gross and petty forms was the societal norm. African Americans...

  5. CHAPTER 2 Freedom’s Defects
    (pp. 10-17)

    Preaching on Independence Day in 1830, Peter Williams announced, “Alas! the freedom to which we have attained is defective.”¹ He was speaking in general, regarding the conditions of African Americans in the nation and especially in his own city on this third anniversary of the abolition of slavery in New York State. Those who were now “free” found themselves in a quagmire of constraints and restrictions, caught in the tension between areas of personal autonomy and exclusion from full participation in the society in which they lived. But Williams could just as easily have been speaking personally, for his life...

  6. CHAPTER 3 Hobart and the High Church
    (pp. 18-24)

    The Episcopal Church that Williams and his compatriots were to press for acceptance was in an awkward period at the beginning of the nineteenth century, an awkwardness destined to lead to a bifurcation from which it has not yet—and may never—recover. The advent of “High Church” and “Low Church” as designations of theological, ecclesiastical, liturgical, and ultimately even sociopolitical positions during this period was to both hinder and help the nascent congregation throughout its early history. Two factors contributed most immediately to the developing awkwardness: the American Revolution, which forced the denomination to re-create itself; and what is...

  7. CHAPTER 4 One of Their Own Colour
    (pp. 25-31)

    The missionary work of Elias Neau and his successors continued at Trinity Church after the American Revolution, despite the loss of SPG backing (it was, after all, an English church institution, no longer interested in the fate of the upstart nation’s downtrodden). In September of 1800, John Henry Hobart, then a young deacon, was appointed assistant minister of the church. The work of preparing interested African Americans for baptism and of leading their religious life was part of his charge. And thus began a connection between the future bishop and the future congregation of St. Philip’s that would prove both...

  8. CHAPTER 5 An Orderly and Devout Congregation
    (pp. 32-43)

    With the hope for ordination delayed, the congregation turned in the next few years to seeking a stable place of worship. They left the rented room in the African Free School in 1812, moving to a room over a carpenter’s shop on Cliff Street, near the East River. One member from those days later recalled that it was “furnished with only such furniture as was absolutely needed, being lighted up by candles fixed in square blocks.”¹ Funds to support the life of the parish were in short supply, demonstrated by an application from the congregation to Trinity Church in 1814...

  9. CHAPTER 6 A Bitter Thralldom
    (pp. 44-51)

    The American Anti-Slavery Society, less than a year old, gathered in New York City in 1834 to celebrate the Fourth of July. While the rest of the still-young nation was marking Independence Day with the pride of nationalism, however, the Anti-Slavery Society was taking part in what was a rather different celebration among the city’s black population: the anniversary of the abolition, in 1827, of slavery in the state of New York. This event had become the cause for a regular series of speeches and festivities both to give thanks for statewide emancipation and to inspire and agitate for the...

  10. CHAPTER 7 A Godly Admonition
    (pp. 52-62)

    John Henry Hobart died in 1830, at the relatively early age of fifty-five, bringing to an end one of the most productive bishoprics of the early Episcopal Church. The first few years had been awkward, with two living bishops still nominally with authority over him, but he had shown bold leadership nonetheless, and came completely into his own with the deaths of Provoost in 1815 (which technically made Moore the diocesan, though he was still disabled by his stroke) and Moore in 1816. Hobart had expanded his diocese, launched the first Episcopal seminary (the General Theological Seminary, in New York...

  11. CHAPTER 8 Peculiar Circumstances
    (pp. 63-72)

    The riots violently illustrated a constant fact of life for the city’s African Americans: they could not escape interacting (however balefully) with the city’s white population, no matter how “independent” their institutions and organizations and no matter how much that same population wished to segregate and isolate them. The riots made the corollary of that situation obvious as well: such interactions between the races in New York City were always about power. White New Yorkers had the power to determine to what extent and under what conditions black New Yorkers were permitted to belong to the American society. For the...

  12. CHAPTER 9 The Chains That Bind
    (pp. 73-83)

    In 1851, James McCune Smith appeared as an expert witness in a legal proceeding to determine whether one John Bolding was a runaway slave or had been illegally kidnapped to be sold into slavery. By this time, Smith was perhaps the most renowned African American in the city: the first African American to earn an M.D., he was a polymath and public intellectual who had helped to start newspapers, cultural societies, and educational institutions in the black community. Smith was a well-known speaker on subjects ranging from antislavery and black suffrage to scientific rebuttals of the inferiorities of African Americans....

  13. CHAPTER 10 Promoting Improvement
    (pp. 84-91)

    The state of New York enacted legislation in 1810 that permitted African Americans to legally incorporate. The first organization to record its certificate was the New York African Society for Mutual Relief, which had been created informally two years earlier. Its object was the collection of dues to assist its members with burial costs when they died, and to provide for their widows and orphans. The founders included George DeGrasse and fellow St. Philip’s members Alexander Elston and Isaac Gosiah, both bootmakers, and Henry Scott, when he was a sailor and not yet a businessman. Peter Williams, at this early...

  14. CHAPTER 11 Partaking of the Heavenly Gift
    (pp. 92-97)

    The ironies that abounded in the interactions between white and black New Yorkers were hardly lost on the parishioners of St. Philip’s Church. It is hard for the modern mind to credit the possibility that they were not equally visible to white New Yorkers as well, yet that was overwhelmingly the case. An awareness of such ironies would imply a perspective that granted full humanity to African Americans and attained full self-consciousness regarding the behaviors and social structures that suggested otherwise. Such a perspective was impossible for most Americans of the early nineteenth century; those for whom it was possible,...

  15. CHAPTER 12 To Employ a Colored Clergyman
    (pp. 98-107)

    From the beginning, the people of St. Philip’s had wanted first and foremost “one of their own colour” to be their spiritual and pastoral leader, and this desire remained strong after their rector’s death. During the Williams years, the congregation had managed with difficulty to raise up two black priests. Unfortunately, DeGrasse died young and Crummell’s battles with Onderdonk had apparently poisoned the diocese for him, so neither priest was available when Williams died and a new leader was needed. But while the campaign for admission to convention was to become central to the parish in the 1840s, the search...

  16. CHAPTER 13 A State of Schism
    (pp. 108-114)

    The opening salvo of the campaign to admit St. Philip’s to the diocesan convention was fired by John Jay in 1844, when he asked the convention to appoint a committee to investigate why St. Philip’s “continued in a state of schism.”¹ The parish’s vestry minutes prior to 1843 have been lost, but there is no mention in the meetings of 1843 or 1844 that they had made any decision to pursue this question.² It would appear that Jay simply acted on his own, thus launching a campaign that would involve a great number of people over the next ten years....

  17. CHAPTER 14 A Bishop’s Trials
    (pp. 115-124)

    By all accounts, Benjamin Onderdonk never knew just how much trouble he was in, or just how angry he had made the Low Church leaders of his diocese. When Jay presented his resolution in the 1844 convention, he probably had a better idea than the bishop did of how provocative he could afford to be toward him. Jay was aggrieved by Onderdonk’s racial attitudes, but he was also one of the Low Church agitators, and he knew of the movements afoot to bring the bishop down.

    Onderdonk’s bishopric had been extremely successful on many levels. In 1838, he reminded the...

  18. CHAPTER 15 Exciting the Deepest Feelings
    (pp. 125-134)

    As they approached the diocesan convention of 1846, the vestry of St. Philip’s believed they had cause for optimism. Frazer had reported the previous year that their application for admission would be placed before the convention this year, and everything that could be was in order. Hopes were high as the vestry elected its delegates at their own meeting in September: James McCune Smith, still secretary, and Alexander Elston, a shoemaker serving his second year as warden.¹ They were sent off with no further instructions, as the vestry’s sentiments on the suspended bishop had not changed.

    The diocesan convention began...

  19. CHAPTER 16 Vouchsafed to All Men
    (pp. 135-139)

    The Rev. Evan M. Johnson and John A. King begged leave to differ with their colleagues on the special committee. As a minority by only one vote, they requested permission to submit their own report on the St. Philip’s question for the convention’s consideration. While it is impossible to tell whether any one of the three majority members had the greater hand in writing their report, it is fairly clear from Johnson’s history that he was the primary author of the minority report. It reflected, in particular, the theological stand to which John Jay’s pamphlet had recently exposed him.¹


  20. CHAPTER 17 The Heart Must Be Changed
    (pp. 140-146)

    As unadmitted delegates to the 1846 convention, were James McCune Smith and Alexander Elston permitted to sit in the balcony with the other observers, or was even that too close an association with the diocese’s white leaders for these men of color? If they were allowed to be seated as observers, how their faces must have burned as the majority report was read to the assembly before them. And how measured their pride and gratitude must have been as the minority report was read, with its carefully limited support for their congregation. It is hard to imagine a more vivid...

  21. CHAPTER 18 The Beauties of Freedom
    (pp. 147-154)

    On Saturday July 1847, the Brazilian ship Lembranca docked at the Roosevelt Street pier in New York City. Word soon reached the offices of the American Anti-Slavery Society that three slaves, owned by the ship’s captain, were on board. A crowd of African Americans and antislavery activists quickly gathered at the pier in protest. John Jay rushed to court for a writ of habeas corpus, and had the three slaves brought before a judge. Anticipating the argument of the Dred Scott case ten years later, Jay insisted that the slaves were free by virtue of having been brought by their...

  22. CHAPTER 19 Economic Opportunity and Religious Choice
    (pp. 155-161)

    Despite how little the historical record contains about most of the individuals whose worship Alexander Frazer led that Sunday morning, some conclusions can be drawn about them and their circumstances. Though small, the list of names that can be definitively attached to St. Philip’s and the addresses and occupations associated with those names in city directories over the years provide a means of exploring the economic conditions of the congregation relative to African Americans in other urban centers, to those in New York City itself, and even to one another. For in exploring the humanity and individuality of this congregation,...

  23. CHAPTER 20 Attentive to Their Devotions
    (pp. 162-170)

    As Alexander Frazer began the service on that imaginary but typical Sunday morning in 1847 (or thereabouts), he looked out on a congregation that was just as religiously odd as the rest of his denomination. The Episcopal Church, even in its most evangelical parishes and dioceses, stood largely apart from the revivalist, democratizing fervor that American Protestantism was bringing to the still-new nation in the middle of the nineteenth century. The denomination had grown significantly over the first half of the century, but it had not seen anything like the growth of the evangelical denominations—the Baptists, the Methodists, and...

  24. CHAPTER 21 The Express Wishes of Nearly All
    (pp. 171-178)

    The desire to see the people of St. Philip’s as a monolithic body working steadily by predetermined methods toward a clearly defined goal is a seductive one, as it would provide a simple and clearly cut historical narrative. But the foregoing picture of a diverse body with differing interests amid varying life circumstances does not support such a heroic perspective any more than the actual history of the parish during the time of Peter Williams. It should not be surprising to realize that the battle to be fully accepted into the Diocese of New York and to be permitted to...

  25. CHAPTER 22 Injurious to the Cause of Religion
    (pp. 179-187)

    The people of St. Philip’s came to midcentury with a new and well-connected minister, a significantly changed vestry, and mixed signals from the wider church about the full inclusion of African Americans in denominational gatherings. They had also seen two years of inactivity by the diocesan convention regarding their situation, so they must have been discouraged about how best to proceed. The new decade would ultimately prove fruitful in this regard, but these years would also make it ever clearer that the vestry and John Jay were not really working in concert on the admission of the parish to the...

  26. CHAPTER 23 A Fulness of Assent
    (pp. 188-193)

    The people of St. Philip’s had built a church and had it consecrated by an Episcopal bishop to be an Episcopal house of worship. They had worshiped with order and devotion according to the rites of the Book of Common Prayer. They had been led for many years by a minister of their own color who had been ordained as an Episcopal priest, and they continued to seek another such person. They had been confirmed, many of them, by a bishop who came to their parish, laid his hands upon them, and thereby acknowledged their essential Christian nature as attached...

  27. CHAPTER 24 But One Fold and One Chief Shepherd
    (pp. 194-198)

    In 1883, the Rt. Rev. William M. Green, bishop of Mississippi, invited the Episcopal bishops of the former slave states to a gathering at the University of the South in Sewanee, Tennessee. The purpose was to address “the relations of our Church to the late slave population of our States, and the best means that can be adopted for their religious benefit.” He encouraged them to bring along any of their clergy or lay leaders “who, either from much experience in instructing the negro, or from a becoming interest in his behalf, may be qualified to aid us by his...

  28. APPENDIX. Parishioners of St. Philip’s Church
    (pp. 199-202)
  29. NOTES
    (pp. 203-232)
  30. INDEX
    (pp. 233-241)
  31. Back Matter
    (pp. 242-244)