Pioneer bishops

Daily Reading for August 2 • Samuel Ferguson, Missionary Bishop for West Africa, 1916

The Episcopal Church consecrated two black bishops prior to the elevation of Demby and Delany in 1918. They were James Theodore Holly, consecrated in 1874 as missionary bishop of Haiti, and Samuel David Ferguson, consecrated in 1885 as missionary bishop of Liberia. Although both. . . suffered calumny at the hands of the mother church, and although both, victims of the racism and imperialism of the day, were succeeded by white bishops, their exemplary ministries helped to plant in the minds of black Episcopalians the idea that black bishops could and should be consecrated for the domestic church. Specifically, the seed was planted by the Reverend Paulus S. Moort, M.D., a West Indian ordained in the United States but who was working in Liberia at the time under Bishop Ferguson, who called for the election of black bishops in four or five American dioceses. It was largely because Moort held up the examples of the black missionary bishops that the Conference of Church Workers among Colored People, beginning in 1889, eschewed their previously held objection to a racial episcopate. Formerly of the opinion that a request for a racial episcopate “would fall into the hands of those southern whites pressing for ecclesiastical segregation to match disfranchisement, segregation and economical peonage being structured in the South as a replacement for slavery,” “they conducted a strong campaign to convince the Episcopal church that the mission work among blacks would not develop until a black bishop was at its head.”

The Episcopal Church, therefore, it is reasonable to argue, as a result of its experiences with Holly and Ferguson. . . might well have abandoned any further attempts at ordaining black men to the office of bishop. But the valiant efforts of those very men provided an impetus and incentive to black Episcopalians to replicate the missionary experiment at home. They believed that the experiment was necessary because “educated, self-respecting middle-class blacks to whom the Episcopal Church had a special appeal would not be drawn to a church which limited black achievement.”

It can be asserted, then, that while the Church tried to paint the pioneer black bishops as failures and did everything in its power to thwart their enterprise, black church leaders saw in them strong role models, who having succeeded in making bricks without straw had exhibited extraordinary grace under pressure. If black American bishops abroad could accomplish all this despite oppressive tropical heat and severe lack of resources, the conference reasoned, they should be no less successful on their native soil.

From Yet With a Steady Beat: The African American Struggle for Recognition in the Episcopal Church by Harold T. Lewis (Valley Forge, Penn.: Trinity Press International, 1996).

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