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
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.
Subjects: Religion, History, Sociology
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