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

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

by Craig Townsend

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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.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780231508889
Publisher: Columbia University Press
Publication date: 10/26/2005
Series: Religion and American Culture
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 256
File size: 3 MB

About the Author

Craig D. Townsend is an Episcopal priest and associate rector for education at St. James' Church in New York City. He received his doctorate in the study of religion from Harvard University.
Craig Townsend is Associate Rector at St. James' Church in New York City. His Ph.D. is in religion from the Faculty of Arts and Sciences at Harvard, where he studied with David D. Hall and William R. Hutchison.

Table of Contents

1. Improper Associates
2. Freedom's Defects
3. Hobart and the High Church
4. One of Their Own Colour
5. An Orderly and Devout Congregation
6. A Bitter Thralldom
7. A Godly Admonition
8. Peculiar Circumstances
9. The Chains That Bind
10. Promoting Improvement
11. Partaking of the Heavenly Gift
12. To Employ a Colored Clergyman
13. A State of Schism
14. A Bishop's Trials
15. Exciting the Deepest Feelings
16. Vouchsafed to All Men
17. The Heart Must Be Changed
18. The Beauties of Freedom
19. Economic Opportunity and Religious Choice
20. Attentive to Their Devotions
21. The Express Wishes of Nearly All
22. Injurious to the Cause of Religion
23. A Fulness of Assent
24. But One Fold and One Chief Shepherd
Appendix. Parishioners of St. Philip's Church

What People are Saying About This

Robert Bruce Mullin

The story of St. Philip's church in New York is not the story of one congregation but of the intersection of key issues of religion and race in antebellum America. It is an intriguing and gripping story and Townsend has told it well. This is an illuminating book and fills an important gap in our understanding of the dynamics of African American participation in Euro-American churches.

Randall K. Burkett

This study of the second-oldest black Episcopal congregation in the United States takes religious ideas no less seriously than the political and social realities of racism that permeated the Protestant Episcopal Church during the first half of the nineteenth century. Townsend deftly peels back the layers of obfuscation, divergent strategies, and political maneuverings that intersected with a passion for the unity of the denomination evidenced by virtually all parties in dispute over the admission of St. Philip's Church to the diocesan convention. Simultaneously, the author opens a window onto the life and inner workings of this prominent African American parish, providing a view that is as rare as it is fascinating.

Randall K. Burkett, curator of African American Collections, Manuscript, Archives, and Rare Book Library, Robert W. Woodruff Library, Emory University

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