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Sarah Lindsay

James Theodore Holly

Portrait of James Theodore Holly
Bishop James Theodore Holly. Image from the Episcopal Church.

I’m a member — and not only a member, a staff person — at an Anglican church. My denomination (the ACNA) emerged from the Episcopal Church (TEC), which is one of the whitest denominations in the U.S. despite its commitment to progressive causes — and the ACNA has certainly not improved upon TEC in this regard, despite our reliance on bishops in Africa and Asia as we formed.

We need to seriously examine ourselves, and our enmeshment in white culture, if we want to welcome our brothers and sisters of color and better reflect the kingdom of God. And one way to do this is to acknowledge the often forgotten people of color who were leaders and theologians, whose insights are still relevant to our churches today.

One such person is James Theodore Holly, the first African-American bishop in the Episcopal Church. He believed that Black Americans had much to contribute to the life of the church as a whole, although he came to the conclusion that African-Americans must form their own churches, even their own nations, because they would never be fully accepted by predominantly white churches (or governments).

Holly was born in 1829 in Washington, D.C. to free parents and was raised as a Roman Catholic. In the mid-1840s, Holly moved with his family to Brooklyn where he learned the shoemaking trade from his father, a trade he would continue to practice throughout most of his life in order to earn money. In his late teens, Holly became involved with the abolitionist movement in New York; this involvement led him to move to Ontario, Canada for a few years to help with The Voice of the Fugitive, a weekly abolitionist newspaper. In 1854, he and his wife, Charlotte, returned to New York where, frustrated with the unwillingness of the regional leadership of Roman Catholic church to ordain black priests, he left that church and became an Episcopalian.

In 1855, Holly was ordained as a deacon; he became a priest in 1856, and relocated to New Haven, CT where he was the rector of St. Luke’s Church. During this time, Holly helped to found the Protestant Episcopal Society for Promoting the Extension of the Church Among Colored People, an abolitionist organization within the Episcopal Church. Also during these years, Holly became very interested in Haiti, and interest that led him to argue that Black solidarity, in the form of a nation and a church led by Black men, was necessary in order to bring righteousness, justice and peace to the world.

In 1861, Holly led a group of 110 people to Haiti to settle and establish an Episcopal Church in that nation. Despite the difficulties of disease and social unrest, Holly spent the rest of his life in Haiti. He was consecrated as the first African-American bishop in the Episcopal Church in 1874 by The American Church Missionary Society, an evangelical group within the Episcopal church.

Holly never had the full support of the Episcopal church for his work in Haiti and seldom received the financial support offered to white missionaries. Nevertheless, Holly persevered, serving in Haiti until his death in 1911. At his death, the Episcopal church in Haiti had over 2,000 members.

Holly had two overriding convictions that the church — particularly TEC and ACNA — would do well to internalize. The first is his conviction of the catholicity of the church; the second, his belief that black Christians had special insight into issues of justice, righteousness and peace that could benefit the whole church.

The idea that the church is catholic — encompassing the world, and everyone in it — is something we affirm in our creeds each week, but often something we fail to embody in our churches. But despite the difficulties that led Holly to believe that black people could never be fully accepted members of the Episcopal Church in America, he still believed that the Anglican Church was indeed for everyone. Holly’s idea that a community of Anglican Churches could unite and strengthen Christians in many nations and of many races and ethnicities remains a compelling vision that should undergird our vision of our churches and our communal spiritual life.

The second point in Holly’s convictions, his belief that the black church would be a source of righteousness and justice to the world, deserves our attention. Holly anticipates the key idea in liberation theology that God is particularly present among those who are oppressed and those who suffer, and that those who have suffered are uniquely positioned to bring justice to others.

It remains true in the white American church broadly that we have not listened well to those who are marginalized and oppressed; we tend to wear our privilege unconsciously rather than doing the hard work of understanding what justice means to our sisters and brothers of color in particular. When the white majorities in TEC and the ACNA center their own experiences and views (consciously or not), they undermine the catholicity of the church and also miss out on rich and vibrant theologies of justice. This weakens the whole church.