The history of the Episcopal Church USA reflects the changes and challenges of the nation including the unique experience of Black Americans as slaves and free people. This newsletter will focus on two pioneers: one from the past and one contemporary. Their lives and their ministries are a tribute to their spiritual, intellectual and vocational gifts as well as to the community that nurtured and continues to support their work.
The Rt. Rev. James Theodore Holly
Born in 1824 in Washington, DC, James Theodore Holly was the descendent of freed slaves. He was active in anti-slavery conventions in the free states in the United States befriending Frederick Douglass and participating in abolitionist activities.
Bishop Holly left the Roman Catholic Church over a dispute about ordaining local black clergy and joined the Episcopal Church. He was a shoemaker, then a teacher and school principal before his own ordination at the age of 27. He served as rector at St Luke’s Church in New Haven, Connecticut and was one of the founders of the Protestant Episcopal Society for Promoting the Extension of the Church Among Colored People (a forerunner of UBE) in 1856. This group challenged the Church to take a position against slavery at General Convention.
In 1861 he left the United States with his family and a group of African Americans to settle in Haiti---the world’s first black republic. He lost his family and other settlers to disease and poor living conditions but was successful in establishing schools and building the Church. He trained young priests and started congregations and medical programs in the countryside.
In 1874 he was ordained bishop at Grace Church, New York City, not by the mainstream Episcopal Church, who refused to ordain a black missionary bishop, but by the American Church Missionary Society, an Evangelical Episcopal branch of the Church. He was named Bishop of the Anglican Orthodox Episcopal Church of Haiti. He attended the Lambeth Convention as a bishop of the Church. He died in Haiti in 1911. Below is a contemporary account of his funeral:
“The crowd that followed was immense--the side walks and balconies were crowded with people to see the funeral go by. The Mayor of the city sent to inquire through what streets the procession would go, and then sent to have those streets perfectly cleared. People have told us that after the funeral they could not find a piece of mourning in town; everywhere they were told that 'Bishop Holly had cleaned them out,' so great was the number of those who thought it their duty to take mourning for the Bishop.”
Bishop Holly shows us how the Church can nourish and sponsor freedom, education and liberation as it provides the spiritual support for resistance to society’s prejudices and oppression.
Information about Bishop Holly, including this quotation, can be found in The History of the Afro- American Group of the Episcopal Church, by George F. Bragg. The electronic edition can be found on line at http://docsouth.unc.edu/church/bragg.
The Office of Black Ministries supports the inclusion of the Rt. Rev. James Theodore Holly in the Lesser Feasts and Fasts that is in the process of being revised.