Dear Reader,


The following report is designed to give you a brief history of the facts surrounding the question of slavery and the ECUSA.  It is not meant to be inclusive of every fact nor is it presented to foster guilt or grief.  It will hopefully place the question of whether the Church is better off when it offers an apology for its actions before, during and after the Civil War as it relates to the question of slavery and the Church.


My hope is that the General Convention will pass the resolution presented by the Executive Committee around this issue and will separate this question of an apology from the discussion on reparation.  Both matters deserve the time for reflection and dialogue.


I wish I could share in the vibrant discussions at General Convention, however, since I am unable to be present I know that my brethren will give this matter due respect and consideration.


Anyone wishing to support this work with a contribution may send same to:


St. Jude’s Jubilee Center

PO Box 55458

North Pole, AK  99705


In Prayer and Conciliation,


Clarence Bolden

Deputy, Diocese of Alaska 





















  The Summative History of the Episcopal Church Policies Regarding

Slavery and Segregation


Researched and Prepared by Biswajit Pierce


Student, Seattle University


Edited and Presented by Clarence Bolden

Deputy, Diocese of Alaska 2003, 2006



The policies of the Episcopal Church of the United States of America (ECUSA) regarding slavery before, and segregation after, the Civil War years warrant an apology to blacks in America and in The Church.

 What follows is a survey of the ECUSA positions, supporting rationale, and practices from colonial times until the mid-twentieth century.  Although the history includes examples of dissent and practices different from those that were prevalent, the survey provides unequivocal support for the conclusion an apology to blacks in America is due.




Slavery – A Secular Issue

During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, particularly from 1792 to 1860, a period encompassing the invention of the cotton gin, the establishment of the textile industry, and the profitability of cotton (the export of cotton increased from 22% to 57% between 1820 to 1860) Southern morality championed slavery on the grounds of its economic contribution, “invoking God as the author and admirer.”[1]  The Episcopal Church refused to take a position on the matter.  Unlike other Christian churches that divided or seceded on the issue of slavery, including the Methodist Episcopal Church, The Southern Baptist Convention for Domestic and Foreign Missions, and the New School Presbyterians, the Episcopal Church remained inveterately reluctant, reticent, and reserved.[2]  The Church’s “deep reluctance”[3] to take an abolitionist position coupled with its noncommittal position after the expansion and perpetuation of slavery were justified by the doctrinal postulation that slavery was a secular matter and not a religious one. 

It was commonly assumed that secular affairs were matters of no concern to the Church.  Moral issues of a private nature, such as the sanctity of the home or the drink problem, might be discussed in ecclesiastical gatherings, but moral issues of a public nature, such as war or slavery, were taboo.[4] 


This position was predicated on central principles introduced by Bishop John Henry Hobart who advocated the separation of theological duty from civic duty by repudiating the right “to vote and [by] keeping his church apart from secular moral campaigns.”[5] 

Hobart’s belief that apostolic truth was a higher moral principle than political truth punctuated the Church’s noninvolvement position during the Bloody Kansas or Border War.   This conflict occurred between 1854 and 1856 and determined whether Kansas was to be a slave state or a free state.  The Pastoral Letter of the bishops at the General Convention of 1856 concerning the matters of the world read that the Church had “nothing to do [with] party politics, with sectional disputes, with earthly distinctions, with the wealth, the splendor, and the ambition of the world.”[6]  


Fear of Schism

The issue of slavery, whether a political or a moral problem, tended to be overlooked because it was likely to cause a schism within the Church.  The Church was in a state of “abhorring ecclesiastical schism more than the suffering of the people held in bondage.”[7]  Delegates from Virginia and South Carolina, primary strongholds for the Church, and the planter aristocracy (albeit a fraction of the general association) “formed the governing class,”[8]   Consequently the General Convention did not adopt a resolution to condemn slavery or form any indication on the grounds of Christian morality to intimate an abolitionist stance. 

Despite the Church’s official position, there were individual attempts to uphold abolition among the Northern clergyman and laymen who denounced slavery.  Among these cleric abolitionists were Rev. E.M.P. Wells of Boston, Bishop Hopkins of Vermont, Bishop Whittingham of Maryland, and Bishop Phillips Brooks of Massachusetts.  Yet “it must be acknowledged that few outstanding clerical leaders made any bold public pronouncements.”[9] 

Other prominent members of the Church in the North endeavored to justify slavery and racism.  Dr. Samuel Seabury, a rector turned professor of the General Seminary of New York, wrote American Slavery Distinguished from the Slavery of English Theorists and Justified by the Law of Nature.  In his foreword, he “deplores[d] the fact that the question of slavery should ‘be complicated with the questions of morality, religion, and social reputation.’” [10]  His work differentiated between the “true slavery” and the “beneficent institution found in the South.”[11]  Applying the New Testament, he proclaimed “the precepts of love and equity enjoined on us by our Blessed Lord have no such tendency as is supposed to impair and ultimately subvert the relation of master and slave.”[12]  Finally, his apologia advocated white supremacy since “the Anglo-Saxon race is king; why should not the African race be subject?”[13]

 “Largely due to ministry to slaves in the southern states,”[14] before the Civil War, the number of black members of the Church accreted rapidly.  Particularly, in the 1840s and 1850s, slave holders were able to evangelize a large number of slaves.  Education of blacks had existed in colonial America, where the Church as an extension of the Church of England was educating slaves as a result of evangelism.  Slaves were “patronizingly referred to as ‘poor wretch,’ or simply ‘negro’ or ‘slave;’”[15] the “predominant feature of colonial education was the religious purpose in it.”[16]  Another feature was to train the slaves for their social bondage, which the evangelizing of plantation slaves established and reinforced.  Christianizing the social order whether through educational or promotional forms continued after the Civil War and during the segregation that marked twentieth century America.  Although the Church had many all black congregations preceding the War, it separated the white congregations from black congregations in “segregated slave galleries”[17] or slave chapels. 


The Civil War – A Silence That Speaks

When secession occurred, the Church divided and a new constitution for the South was drawn founding the Protestant Episcopal Church in the Confederate States of America or General Council of the Confederate States of America.  The split was not due to faction within the Church involving slavery “but of the actual fact of [political] secession.”[18]  Formation of a separate Church with a separate constitution not only violated the Anglican tradition, “which recognizes no central world authority for the Catholic Church, [and] stands for national Churches,”[19] but called into question the legitimacy of the apolitical policy the Church held during the antebellum years concerning secular issues, specifically the issue of slavery.  For members on both sides, North and South, the secession was difficult.  However, members like the Bishop Leonidas Polk of Louisiana, who later became a lieutenant-general in the Confederate Army, and Bishop Stephen Elliott of Georgia “recognized promptly that the Church must accommodate itself to the new situation.”[20]  During this period, southern members backed the Confederacy and joined the enlistment.  In North Carolina the Church supplied fifteen chaplains and Virginia supplied twenty-nine for the war efforts.  These adjustments precipitated the first and second Preliminary Meetings of the new Church which ratified the constitution while the moral issue of slavery remained neglected. 

Despite the actions taken by the Church in the Confederate States, the House of Deputies in the Northern States voted against denouncing “the bishops and other members of the church in the Confederate States for committing reprehensible sins of rebellion, sedition, and schism.”[21]  By not disciplining these states for their committed sins and heresies, the Church no longer remained indecisive on the issue of slavery.       Subsequently, for its Triennial Convention, the Northern Church acknowledged secular and national interests as the Confederate Church had, but not for abolitionist purposes.  Among the Northern Church resolutions, it was resolved to uphold the Articles of Religion that made duty “of all men who are professors of the Gospel to pay respectful obedience to the civil authority, regularly and legitimately constituted.”[22]  Concerning their southern dissenters, it was resolved to “refrain from employing toward them any terms of condemnation or reproach.”[23]  This resolution not only exonerated the Confederate Church but described the country before the Civil War as having been “so happily and harmoniously established.”[24] 

The Church resolved to support the Union cause.  Among these resolutions, none impugned or redressed the evils of slavery.  The Church focus was political to the extent that it involved the “duty in sustaining and defending our country [as] pledge to the national government …and [for] the restoration of our beloved Union.”[25]  These resolutions and the other actions, i.e. refusing to acknowledge the schism as treasonous, a call for accountability for committed sins, and positions taken for the sake of the Union alone, disclosed the Church’s attitude of support for, or at least acceptance of, slavery as reflected by its religious and political positions.


Segregation – More Than Tacit Support

After the Civil War, the Church suffered from a heavy loss of black membership.  Blacks abandoned the Church, believing that “the creation of independent Baptist and Methodist churches represented their best opportunity to achieve freedom from the values of their former masters.”[26]  In 1865 the Church instituted the Protestant Episcopal Freedman’s Commission (1865-78) a department of the Commission of Home Missions to Colored People in order to address the changes that had taken place in the South.  With its own general agent and treasurer the committee within a year founded schools and secured other funds to support and represent the new freedmen.  With diocesan backing, secondary schools began operating.  The most prestigious were St. Augustine’s School at Raleigh, North Carolina, and St. Paul’s School at Lawrenceville, Virginia.  Virginia Seminary chartered in 1884 began the training of black clergies.  “Between 1866 and 1880 only twenty-seven colored men had been ordained, of whom only seventeen were in the South.”[27] 

In spite of amendments to the Constitution of the United States, racism after the Civil War persisted in the form of segregation.  Segregation was the only licit means of maintaining the social order of the past.  The Church tacitly approved segregation by neither condoning it, nor taking a position against it.  Although the “class legislation” proposal, which drew “lines of classification and distinction”[28] of the Sewanee Conference in 1883, was officially rejected by the General Convention, its policies were adopted in other ways. 

The proposal would have allowed the emergence of separate missionary districts for blacks under the supervision of white dioceses.  For instance, the Church did nothing to dissuade southern dioceses from limiting rights of participation for black delegates.  The General Convention neglected the matter, leaving the “issue of discrimination…to the discretion of the local diocese.”[29]  In defense of this discretionary exclusion policy, the New York magazine The Churchman, speaking of the Diocese of South Carolina stated, “The wisdom of their action must after all be decided by their own knowledge.”[30]

An exclusion policy was prevalent after the Civil War and continued through the 1920’s.  Nondiscrimination policies exemplified by the dioceses of West Texas and Florida, that in the 1880’s elected the first Negro delegates to the General Convention’s House of Deputies, occurred as exceptions; exclusion of blacks or prohibition of black participation in the southern dioceses was the norm.  Although blacks had convocations, they were excluded from electing their own bishops, making their own laws, and sending delegates to the General Convention. 

Even the most liberal northern dioceses were unwilling to elect a black bishop if it meant elected black bishops would rightfully, under the Church law, have jurisdiction over both black and white churches.  Under these conditions, black bishops could not even supervise black work.  However, when members sought to propose special missionary districts and bishops for different races, the General Convention’s committee in 1877 “reported that it was ‘inexpedient to take any action in regard to providing Bishops exclusively for persons of different races and tongues.’”[31]  This advice was accepted by the General Convention.


The Twentieth Century

During the General Conventions of 1904 and 1907 the suffragan plan was established with restriction.  The suffragan bishop, as an assistant bishop without successive rights, had the right to sit in the House of Bishops, but could not vote.  Dioceses could choose their suffragans, but suffragans could only supervise black work.  Several black leaders objected to the suffragan plan and favored the missionary district plan.  Objections to the suffragan plan were, 1) the plan would result in the disenfranchisement of blacks in certain southern dioceses; 2) the suffragan would be deprived of the right to vote in the House of Bishops; and 3) since the local dioceses, whose members would be whites, elect the suffragan, the suffragan would be supervised by the regular white bishop.  Besides, the plan would essentially be employed in the South, which made it even less likely to be beneficial for black members. 

On the other hand, the missionary district plan would allow blacks to send delegates to the General Convention.  Recognizing extant segregation, the objectors to the suffragan plan thought it would be better to have equal rights under a segregated jurisdiction, than none under the suffragan plan.  Gainsayers thought the missionary district plan would further perpetuate the division of race.  This missionary district plan placed blacks in a predicament, since favoring the missionary district plan meant favoring constitutional segregation and opposing the right of suffragans and the suffragan presence in the General Convention.

Regardless of pleas in opposition, the General Convention of 1907 ratified the suffragan plan, which became Church law.  With the establishment of this scheme, no diocese in the South elected a black bishop, and where there were suffragans, the plan allowed whites to monitor them.  Regardless of whatever plan, it was evident that “if Negroes were to have a bishop, he would be a Jim Crow one, whether as a suffragan or as a missionary district bishop.”[32]  

The missionary district plan was reintroduced several times after 1907 in the General Convention.  It was a matter of debate for several years reappearing again in 1913, 1916, 1925, 1931, and 1937, but each time denied under the belief “that the ideal of the Church is not a policy of segregation, but a living principle of integration.”[33] 

In 1938 the South began to endorse the policy having decided that real integration was impossible.  Representing this endorsement were the southeastern bishops, who proposed it to the 1940 General Convention.  By this time, a survey done by a Joint Commission on Negro Work showed that most blacks rejected the district scheme.  The House of Bishops discarded the plan “by a vote of 54 to 37, [and so] the church finally rejected legalized segregation.”[34] 

Conventions of 1913, 1916, and 1919 condemned poverty, child labor, injustice, and corruption.  In the Convention of 1913 the church “stands for the ideal of social justice, and that it demands the achievement of a social order.”[35]  These resolutions were again attempts to Christianize the social order.  The Encyclical Letter states, “Whenever in the working out of economic or political theory moral issues are directly involved, the Church has a duty to see that the requirements of righteousness are faced and fairly met.”[36]  By the 1920s leaders of the Church supported minority leadership as long as “leadership was exercised within separate parallel structures,”[37] primarily because they questioned the skill of minority leadership. 

By this time black bishops sat in the General Convention.  But in 1928 when Bishop William Alexander Guery called for the election of a black bishop in South Carolina, a white opponent assassinated him.  The Church made other attempts to remove ethnic suffragan bishops.  For instance, the Diocese of North Carolina did not elect a replacement for Bishop Delany, a black suffragan.  Like Bishop Delany, when the Bishop Maneuel Ferrando of Puerto Rico died in 1934, the General Convention did not replace him.  After Bishop Demby’s of Arkansas retirement in 1939, the Church was without any active black bishops in the United States.  Until 1962 when John Burgess of Massachusetts became the third black bishop and diocesan to serve the church, the situation for black leadership remained static.  Because of these prejudices, black suffragans, archdeacons, and parish clergy ministered only to black parishes and convocations.  This form of segregation led Episcopalians like deacon and priest George Alexander to form the African Orthodox Church in 1921.  Another form of segregation was maintained through systems of indirect representation, which curtailed black participation in diocesan conventions. 

It was only around the 1940s with the annulment of the segregation of armed forces and civil services in 1948, and the Supreme Court ruling in Brown v. the Board of Education in 1954 did the Episcopal Church, although never having had a national segregation policy, “began to dismantle its institutional segregation policies.”[38]  In the 1940s black deputies began to attend the diocesan conventions.  Still, in most cases, neighboring black and white congregations did not attempt to merge until the 1960s and 1970s.  Some white congregations located within increasingly black inner city areas closed their doors, sold their property, and followed their white parishioners to the suburbs.”[39]  Later it was the establishment of an Office for Black Ministries that appointed blacks to senior positions and selected black bishops and clergy to General Convention committees, which would give a boost in election of blacks to the episcopate.  In the General Convention of 1952 delegates fought against racial segregation.  The convention urged “every member of the Church to labor unceasingly for the elimination of such injustice.”[40]

In the General Convention of 1958 a resolution was adopted that officially condemned racial prejudice and segregation in the South.  The convention attested to the belief of the “natural dignity and value of every man, of whatever color or race, as created in the image of God.”[41]  During the period, the Episcopal Society for Cultural and Racial Unity (ESCRU) was organized which sought to recognize equality within the church.  The period, marked in the beginning by “sit-in” protests as part of the civil rights movement, resulted in increased participation by black members of the Church. 

Despite these changes to equalize and desegregate the Church, the organizing of the General Convention Special Program (GCSP) in 1968, excluded black clergy.  John Hines, the presiding bishop in 1967 introduced the GCSP which not only excluded the black clergy, but also permitted Tollie Caution, the senior black official on the national staff of the Episcopal Church, to be dismissed.  Consequently, the black northeastern dioceses, upset and betrayed, founded the Union of Black Episcopalians (UBE) in 1968 to prevent further exclusion.



The Church’s retreat from the issue of slavery before the Civil War, its apparent support for slavery during the Civil War, and its continued racism and support for segregation after the Civil War and well into the mid-twentieth century, provide flagrant evidence of its position on the status and rights of blacks in America and the Church.  One could more easily rationalize its position as a product of the times, if there were not so many examples of different choices made by other churches and institutions during those times.  The Church’s history is further marred by its inconsistency of policy during the Civil War: exhibiting silence on one secular matter and vocal support for another, which exposed its failure to speak out on the matter of slavery for what it was—support for slavery.  

Given the moral posture of the Church prior to the Civil War, perhaps it would be too much to expect a change of direction after the Civil War.  The first half of the twentieth century was a long time to profess a concern for the ideals of social justice and tolerance and at the same time accept practices that supported segregation and or exclusion.  Irrespective of expectations, the Church did not reach a consistency between official policies and official acts condemning segregation until 1958.  







Work Cited


Addison, James Thayer. The Episcopal Church in the United States, 1789-1931. New

York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1951.


Brewer, Clifton Hartwell. A History of Religious Education in the Episcopal Church to

1835. New York: Arno Press Inc., 1969.


Hein, David and Gardiner H. Shattuck Jr... The Episcopalians. Westport: Praeger

Publishers, 2004.


Holifield, E. Brooks. The Gentlemen Theologians. Durham: Duke University Press, 1978.


Lewis, Harold T. Yet with a Steady Beat. Valley Forge: Trinity Press International, 1996.


Prichard, Robert W. A History of the Episcopal Church. Harrisburg: Morehouse

Publishing, 1999.


Reimers, David. "Negro Bishops and Diocesan Segregation in the Protestant Episcopal

Church." Historical Magazine of the Protestant Episcopal Church Sept 1962: 232-242.





[1] Addison, James Thayer. The Episcopal Church in the United States, 1789-1931. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1951, 191.

[2] Lewis, Harold T. Yet with a Steady Beat. Valley Forge: Trinity Press International, 1996,162.

[3] Ibid. 192.

[4] Ibid. 192.

[5] Prichard, Robert W. A History of the Episcopal Church. Harrisburg: Morehouse Publishing, 1999, 147.

[6] Addison, op. cit., 192.

[7] Shattuck, Gardiner H. Episcopalians and Race. Lexington: The University Press of Kentucky, 2000, 9.

[8] Ibid. 193.

[9] Ibid. 193.

[10] Ibid. 194.

[11] Ibid. 194.

[12] Ibid. 194.

[13] Ibid. 194.

[14] Prichard, op. cit., 145.

[15] Brewer, Clifton Hartwell. A History of Religious Education in the Episcopal Church to 1835. New York: Arno Press Inc., 1969, 52.

[16] Ibid. 18.

[17] Reimers, David. "Negro Bishops and Diocesan Segregation in the Protestant Episcopal Church." Historical Magazine of the Protestant Episcopal Church Sept 1962: 232-242, 231.

[18] Ibid. 194.

[19] Ibid. 195.

[20] Ibid. 195.

[21] Ibid. 196.

[22] Ibid. 197.

[23] Ibid. 197.

[24] Ibid. 197.

[25] Ibid. 197.

[26] Shattuck, op. cit., 8.

[27] Addison, op. cit., 237.

[28] Ibid. 232.

[29] Ibid. 232-3.

[30] Ibid. 233.

[31] Ibid. 233-4.

[32] Ibid. 236.

[33] Ibid. 238.

[34] Ibid. 239.

[35] Addison, op. cit., 322.

[36] Ibid. 323.

[37] Prichard, op. cit., 214.

[38] Ibid. 243.

[39] Ibid. 243.

[40] Reimers, op. cit., 241.

[41] Hein, David and Gardiner H. Shattuck Jr... The Episcopalians. Westport: Praeger Publishers, 2004, 134.