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Local Episcopalians deal with slavery past

3rd December 2013   ·   0 Comments

By Christopher Tidmore
Contributing Writer

The Diocesan Committee for Racial Reconciliation recently announced a special service called “Seeking Christ in all People: A Service of Commitment to Racial Healing, Justice, and Reconciliation.” Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori will celebrate with the congregation on the Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday weekend—Saturday, January 18, 2014–at Christ Church Cathedral, New Orleans.

In an interview with The Louisiana Weekly, author and social commentator Orissa Arend explained the intent of the special service, “When the sin of racism comes up in church or other settings, many of us protest that we love all persons and therefore could not be racist and do not participate in the sin of racism. Nevertheless, our Bishop is asking us to look at our parish or congregation with these questions in mind: What is the racial makeup of the leaders and members? How do you respond to and welcome members of a minority group?”

“How do you invite ALL people not going to a particular church to join your church,” she continued to ponder. “Is your congregation ready to incorporate them into its life and leadership? Are you engaged in community initiatives that promote racial harmony?”

“The Diocesan Committee for Racial Reconciliation can provide resources and practical assistance as your parish examines itself and plans its next steps forward. Some churches have already made excellent efforts toward racial reconciliation. The committee can link these parishes with similar congregations which are just getting started. The Service of Reconciliation can only be meaningful within a historical context – not to invoke guilt, but to provide knowledge and understanding to light the way.”

In 2010 the committee asked Tulane University to conduct primary research on slavery in the Episcopal Church in the Diocese of Louisiana. As Michael Goldston, an M.A. in history from Tulane outlined, “The Protestant Episcopal Church was hardly a natural fit for Louisiana and it had a slow start. In 1718 when New Orleans was founded by the French, no Protestant worship was allowed. After President Thomas Jefferson purchased Louisiana in 1803, Americans began to arrive here in large numbers and a Protestant/English enclave began to form in what had been a Roman Catholic/French territory. Simultaneously, cotton and sugar production were expanding and there was a need for lots more slaves.”

The Protestant Episcopal Church which arrived in New Orleans in the first decade of the 19th century was far from a shining example of American religious fervor. As Orend noted, “Having grown out of Anglicanism, the church of the enemy during the American Revolutionary War, it now attracted mostly the wealthy elite.”

According to Goldston, “The church limped into the 19th century maintaining its small membership primarily among the upper class who still valued its emphasis on social hierarchy, reason, and liturgical structure.”

Orend interjected, “The Great Awakening in the mid -8th century gave birth to many Baptist and Methodist churches. These appealed more to the common people with their evangelical fervor and emphasis on individual faith, conversion, and emotional response.”

As denominations sprang up to compete for reverent souls, New Orleans presented its own set of problems. The Rev. Philander Chase, rector of the first permanent Episcopal congregation, Christ Church Protestant Episcopal, in 1805 described New Orleans as a “land of vice and death.” In 1811 he left the city for more civilized and healthy climes, but his congregation endured. His parishioners included John McDonough, Senator Edward Livingston, and William Kenner, some of the richest and most powerful Americans in the state.

“The newly arrived Protestants in New Orleans couldn’t understand the lack of respect for worship on the Sabbath,” Orend pointed out. “It seemed to them that Catholics celebrated the Sabbath as a feast day with dancing and drinking instead of worship and communion. And then there was the matter of the slaves who were becoming more numerous. Slave labor was critical to the system which exported cotton and sugar and imported manufactured goods. The planters, merchants, lawyers, doctors, and storekeepers who served as the first Christ Church vestrymen all had a role. New Orleans was the hub of the slave trade and Louisiana had a reputation for brutal conditions for slaves.”

Though the social elite spun the story that the slave trade was the dark side of Southern society conducted by unscrupulous men and that good masters kept slave families together, “the truth was that slave trading was part of life, part of the economy, and part of Christ Church,” according to Goldston.

He cites Louisiana Slave Records from 1719-1820 showing that 93 Christ Church vestrymen participated in the slave trade. They bought and sold a total of 2,678 enslaved Africans.

“The Episcopal Church, however,” Orend added, “wasn’t plagued by a moral conundrum concerning slavery as were other denominations. Slavery was never seriously questioned by Episcopal church leaders in the North or the South. They were more concerned with how to get their members to pay their dues and how to grow their small congregations.”

Said Goldston, “Christ Church was at once a place of worship, a meetinghouse for friends, a symbol for the American Protestant community, a connection for business, and a bastion for the social elite to affirm one another in the morality of their ‘peculiar institution’. . . They built a church that did not force them to examine the morality of slavery.”

Enter the Rt. Rev. Leonidas Polk, a conservative evangelical from a respected slaveholding North Carolina family. In 1836 Polk was elected missionary bishop of the Southwest, the same year the Diocese of Louisiana was formed. Three years later Leonidas Polk was assigned as Louisiana’s bishop. In 1839 Christ Church reported between 130 and 150 communicants, all Caucasians.

“Polk was more influential than most clergy because he was a planter,” Orend noted, “and he used his influence to expand the Episcopal Church among the enslaved Africans in his diocese. A mission to the slaves was important to him. He owned hundreds himself and so did the Christ Church parishioners.”

“Whereas previous pastors had their hands full trying to gather their white flocks, the men Polk shepherded brought the Gospel to their slaves to fulfill what they saw as their paternalistic obligations for the civilizing and Christianizing of an inferior race. They stressed loyalty and obedience.”

“Here’s how the theological thinking went: A tortured ‘logic’ held that Blacks were spiritual equals of whites. But their worldly circumstances required them to fill the role of slaves. Evil as slavery was, it could only be reasonably expected as part of a sinful world. Anything that disturbed the social order was unreasonable, and therefore against the will of God. The Christian master, then, was obliged to bring enslaved people into the church without upsetting the social order. This mostly meant baptizing them. Teaching them to read the Bible or performing marriages could cause problems.”

“As the Civil War approached, the rationale morphed from ‘necessary evil’ to a ‘white-washed gospel of subservience.’ Bishop Polk stated that ministering to slaves would teach them ‘to do their duty in that state, in which, it has pleased God to call them.’ Many whites were appalled by the notion that there might be Blacks in Heaven. Here on earth, the master controlled the religious life of the slave.”

Bishop Polk’s theology that sustained his passion for a mission to the slaves turned him ultimately to war. In 1861 he accepted a commission as a Major General in the Confederate Army. In 1864 he was killed in battle. After the war, freed slaves were quick to leave the church of their masters. The National Protestant-Episcopal Church lost almost all of its African-Americans in the South.

“So,” Orend wondered, “how do we Episcopalians – many of us beneficiaries of the trans-generational affirmative action on our behalf by our forebears – how do we respond to this very specific evidence of a dismal and shameful part of our history? In many ways.”

Nell Bolton, former director of Episcopal Community Ministries, Orend believed, said it best, “The charity we could do in our lifetimes would never be adequate to rectify hundreds of years of imbalances. Therefore, our starting point cannot be one of charity, but rather one that seeks to restore relationships. We need to extend ourselves beyond the ‘club’ of privileged people that our church has always been, even when those relationships take us to uncomfortable places.”

The upcoming Service of Reconciliation is a culmination of Bishop Morris Thompson’s declared 2013 Year of Reconciliation in this diocese, a planning year in response to Resolution 17 of the 168th Convention of the Episcopal diocese. In that resolution, parishioners pledged to work to end institutional and other forms of racism through dialogue and training.

This January service will also inaugurate a period of increased activism which, “with God’s help”, as the congregants put it, will lead to personal and institutional transformation to be the new people Christians are baptized to be.

For more information about the service or about the Diocesan Committee for Racial Reconciliation contact Lee Crean at To read Goldston’s full thesis entitled “The Gospel of the Rich ‘as The Property of the Poor’ The Slaveholding Elite of the Protestant Episcopal Diocese of Louisiana and their mission to the slaves 1805-1870,” go to:

This article originally published in the December 2, 2013 print edition of The Louisiana Weekly newspaper.

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