Disciple: A Lasting Legacy
200 Years of the Episcopal Diocese of North Carolina
By the Rev. Dr. Brooks Graebner
As we prepare to mark the bicentennial of the organization of The Episcopal Church in North Carolina, we do well to remember the daunting circumstances under which nine members from four founding congregations gathered in New Bern on April 24, 1817.
Efforts at statewide organization in the 1790s had come to naught, and only one of the few surviving colonial parishes, St. James’, Wilmington, had substantial communicant strength and a full-time rector. The Episcopal Church in North Carolina was still hampered by its colonial association with British rule, by the lack of clergy willing to come to the state and by the fact that other denominations, especially the Presbyterians, the Methodists and the Baptists, had already formed vigorous congregations in many towns and villages. Simply put, the Episcopal Church in North Carolina had to play catch-up.
Over the course of 200 years, the Church has almost always had challenges to face. Some of them reflect tensions within the denomination, such as the high church/low church split that generated considerable controversy throughout the 19th century. When the Rt. Rev. John Stark Ravenscroft became our first elected bishop in 1823, he introduced high church attitudes that struck some clergy as needlessly exclusive and confrontational. Ravenscroft’s successor, the Rt. Rev. Levi Silliman Ives, promoted more Anglo-Catholic high church practices, such as private confession, which proved so controversial that Ives left the Episcopal Church altogether and became a Roman Catholic. It was then left to the Rt. Rev. Thomas Atkinson to chart a path forward for the Diocese by upholding the high church principles of Apostolic Succession and ordination by bishops but rejecting Anglo-Catholic practices. More recently, the Church has contended with controversies over Prayer Book revision, the ordination of women and the blessing of same-gender unions. Like the issues of churchmanship in the 19th century, these topics have also proven highly contentious and strained the bonds of affection, prompting some to leave the Church altogether.
Other challenges reflect the context in which we find ourselves. For much of its history, North Carolina has been a place difficult to traverse. With large sections of the state sparsely settled, much of North Carolina has lagged behind other parts of the country in economic development and infrastructure. After organizing in 1817, the Diocese could not afford to elect its own bishop until 1823. Only in the mid-20th century has the Episcopal Church in North Carolina ceased to look to the North for missionary funds and personnel.
The Episcopal Church also has faced challenges arising from its social position. The colonial Anglican Church was identified with ruling elites, and the Episcopal Church continued to reflect economic and social privilege. In 1860, more than 50 percent of North Carolina’s largest slaveholders were Episcopalians, although in the state as a whole there were 50 times more Baptists and five times as many Presbyterians. Even though the church was committed to slave evangelization before the Civil War and ministrations to the newly emancipated after, the paternalism of these efforts severely compromised their effectiveness. Episcopalians still struggle to know how best to address longstanding social divisions of race and class.
MAKING A DIFFERENCE
But our history is more than a litany of challenges. It is also the story of how we have sought to rise to the challenge: to create and sustain vital congregations across this state, to nurture leadership through education, and to improve the lives of others in body, mind and spirit. An abiding source of strength for our church is our worship. The Book of Common Prayer has, as they liked to say in the 19th century, provided us with a liturgy that is “dignified, orderly and elevating.” Historically, the Episcopal Church attracted and retained members drawn to worship and devotional practices hallowed by tradition. This extended to church building as well. An important part of the Church’s legacy in North Carolina is found in the buildings erected, some of which continue to support active congregations after several centuries of use. St. Thomas’s, Bath; St. Paul’s, Edenton; Christ Church, New Bern; St. John in the Wilderness, Flat Rock; Christ Church, Raleigh; and Calvary, Tarboro, are just a few notable examples of enduring church architecture in North Carolina.
Another important facet of our legacy is a commitment to higher education and campus ministry. In the 19th century, many clergymen were also schoolteachers, and the history of many diocesan parishes is intertwined with local schools and academies. Three 19th-century institutions bear testimony to that ongoing commitment. St. Mary’s School in Raleigh has prepared generations of young women for vocations as leaders in their own communities and congregations since 1842. St. Augustine’s University, also in Raleigh, was founded in 1867 to train newly emancipated African Americans as teachers and ministers. It remains the flagship institution of African-American higher education in the Episcopal Church. Chapel of the Cross, Chapel Hill, began as a diocesan mission project to provide the ministrations of our church to students at the University of North Carolina. At its inception in the 1840s, it was the first denominational church building in Chapel Hill. Campus ministry remains a vital part of the mission of that parish — and indeed of the Diocese as a whole.
The Episcopal Church has also spearheaded important work in caring for the sick. Of the six general hospitals founded in North Carolina prior to 1890, four were the work of Episcopalians: St. Peter’s in Charlotte; St. John’s in Raleigh; the Dogwood mission in Asheville; and Good Samaritan in Charlotte. Good Samaritan, a hospital for African Americans, closed in 1961 as a result of desegregation. But the other three hospitals have evolved and become major medical centers: The Carolinas Medical Center in Charlotte, Rex Hospital in Raleigh and the Mission Health System in Asheville. The story repeated itself in the 1970s with the hospice movement, which, while instigated by Episcopalians, quickly became more broadly institutionalized.
Much of the resourcefulness and creativity that enabled the Church to address issues came from women’s organizations. As early as the 1820s, when the Diocese was still in its infancy, the young priest-in-charge of St. John’s, Williamsboro, the Rev. William Mercer Green, lauded the “women of the church” for raising funds and seeing to the renovation of colonial-era church buildings that had fallen into disuse. After the Civil War, Lizzie Jones and the Women’s Sewing Society of St. Matthew’s, Hillsborough, raised much-needed funds for mission work and the furnishing of the church by making and selling their needlework in markets extending from Pennsylvania to Alabama. By the 1880s, many parishes formed branches of the Women’s Auxiliary and supported missionary enterprises at home and abroad. Indeed, the above-named hospitals trace the impetus for their creation to women leaders such as the indomitable Jane Renwick Wilkes in Charlotte.
Our church has been blessed with inspiring leaders. First and foremost must be Bishop Atkinson, who placed before this Diocese a call to fulfill the catholic ideal of the church and not rest content until the face of the Church reflected the face of society. In his Primary Charge to the clergy as a new bishop in 1855, Atkinson addressed head-on what he decried as the cultural captivity of the Episcopal Church and urged the Diocese to adopt practices that would open pews to everyone and draw clergy from all ranks of society. Atkinson practiced what he preached, taking the personal initiative to create and lead a robust biracial congregation at St. Paul’s in his hometown of Wilmington. After the Civil War, he insisted that black congregations and clergy be seated in diocesan convention along with whites, a practice unique among southern dioceses. The enduring appeal of Atkinson’s message can be seen in the fact that his successors — the Rt. Rev. Joseph Cheshire in 1908, the Rt. Rev. Thomas Fraser in 1971, and the Rt. Rev. Michael Curry in 2008 — all have invoked Atkinson and his catholic vision for the church in their own convention addresses.
But inspiring leadership counts for nothing unless there are those willing to follow. The Episcopal Church in North Carolina has been blessed by numerous examples of faithful and sacrificial service from clergy and laity who embodied these ideals and worked to implement them. These men and women made the Church a credible
witness to the gospel and engendered great loyalty and
affection. In the 1870s and 80s, a cohort of young men took Atkinson’s message and made it their own, preaching and planting churches throughout the North Carolina
Piedmont. Chief among them were the Rev. Francis
Murdoch, longtime rector of St. Luke’s, Salisbury, and the Rev. William Shipp Bynum, a lawyer turned deacon turned priest, who helped found churches from Burlington to Winston-Salem. For several years, Bynum served as Diocesan Evangelist, crisscrossing the state and holding services in many towns and villages where no Episcopal church had been planted. Murdoch and Bynum thought nothing of preaching three or four times a day in different communities.
Also notable were two men who extended the ministrations of the church to African Americans. The Rev. Franklin Bush was a Boston-born, Harvard-educated priest who came to North Carolina to serve in Lenoir but subsequently determined to devote his life and ministry to the black community in Chatham County. His efforts helped make St. James’, Pittsboro, one of the largest African-American congregations in the Diocese. The Rev. John H. M. Pollard was the first African American to serve on diocesan staff. As Archdeacon for Colored Work from 1898 to 1908, he personally oversaw congregations in Franklin, Warren, Vance, Granville and Halifax counties.
Lay people were instrumental in extending the Church into underserved areas. In the early 20th century, Sam Nash of Tarboro led Sunday schools and helped develop congregations throughout Edgecombe County. Starting in the Great Depression, Annie Cameron, a Hillsborough schoolteacher and graduate of St. Mary’s School, began making weekly trips throughout northern Orange County, picking up children (and sometimes their parents) and bringing them to Sunday school at St. Matthew’s. The vestry purchased a vehicle for her outreach that was dubbed “the gospel wagon.” This practice continued for more than 30 years.
North Carolina has also contributed local saints to the calendar of the Episcopal Church. Manteo and Virginia Dare are remembered for their baptisms in August 1587 at what is now called “the Lost Colony.” Dr. Anna Julia Haywood Cooper and the Rev. Dr. Pauli Murray are notable African-American women educators and writers who met the challenges of racism and sexism with grace, passion and persistence, as they advocated tirelessly for the rights of others.
In 2000, North Carolina was home to another landmark event in the life of the Episcopal Church, when the Diocese elected the Rev. Michael Curry as the first African-American bishop to lead a southern diocese. And on November 1, 2015, Bishop Curry was installed as the 27th Presiding Bishop for the Episcopal Church, the first North Carolina bishop and the first African-American bishop to hold the position.
Without doubt, there is much for which to give thanks as we observe the 200th anniversary of the organization of the Episcopal Church in North Carolina. We recognize that challenges persist, wrongs must be righted and much work remains to be done, but it is work we will do. We will continue the legacy of creating disciples and making a difference.
The Rev. Dr. Brooks Graebner is the historiographer for the Diocese of North Carolina and rector of St. Matthew’s, Hillsborough.