Posted on December 19, 2007

Too Many Episcopalians Were Silent on Slavery, Massachusetts Bishop Tells Congressional Committee

Mary Frances Schjonberg, Episcopal Life Online, December 18, 2007

Episcopal Diocese of Massachusetts Bishop Thomas Shaw SSJE told a Congressional hearing December 18 that “too many Episcopalians did not raise their voices” against slavery “when God would have wished them to do so.”

“Episcopalians were owners of slaves and of the ships that brought them to this land,” Shaw told the Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights, and Civil Liberties’ oversight hearing on the legacy of the trans-Atlantic slave trade. “Episcopalians lived in the north and in the south and, as a privileged Church, we today recognize that our Church benefited materially from the slave trade.” The Subcommittee is considering H.R. 40, a bill to establish a federal Commission to Study Reparations Proposals for African-Americans.

Shaw was representing Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori on behalf of the Episcopal Church.


Noting that the Episcopal Church has “asked God’s forgiveness for our complicity in and the injury done by the institution of slavery and its aftermath,” Shaw said that the post- Revolutionary War Episcopal Church “wanted to avoid a schism within the church, which it was successful at doing (unlike the divisions that had occurred to Presbyterian, Methodist, and Baptist churches during this period over the issue of slavery) but avoiding that schism meant not addressing the issue of slavery in any official or collective way.”

Shaw told the hearing that “with that painful history as background,” the 75th General Convention in June 2006 looked to the then-upcoming bicentennial commemoration of the abolition of the slave trade in Britain in 2007 and in the U.S. in 2008 as a time in which the Episcopal Church could affirm “our commitment to become a transformed, anti-racist church and to work toward healing, reconciliation, and a restoration of wholeness to the family of God.”

Shaw outlined the efforts the Episcopal Church has made thus far and is continuing to make. They include, he said:

    * 75th General Convention resolution A123 which expresses the church’s most profound regret for its involvement in slavery, apologizes for its complicity, deems slavery “a sin and a fundamental betrayal of the humanity of all persons who were involved” and one which continues “to plague our common life in the Church and our culture,” “repent[s] of this sin and ask[s] God’s grace and forgiveness,” calls on every diocese of document information from its community about the church’s complicity with and benefit from slavery for a report to the 76th General Convention in 2009 and calls on the Presiding Bishop to designate a Day of Repentance and to conduct a service at Washington National Cathedral (the chosen date is October 4, 2008).

    * 75th General Convention Resolution A127 which endorses the principles of restorative justice.


    * Two pastoral letters from the House of Bishops, one from March 1994 and one from March 2006 on the sin of racism.



Resolution A123

Title:   Slavery and Racial Reconciliation

Topic:   Reconciliation

Committee:   Social and Urban Affairs

House of Initial Action:   Bishops

Proposer:   Executive Council

Resolved, That the 75th General Convention of The Episcopal Church declare unequivocally that the institution of slavery in the United States and anywhere else in the world, based as it is on “ownership” of some persons by other persons, was and is a sin and a fundamental betrayal of the humanity of all persons who were involved, a sin that continues to plague our common life in the Church and our culture; and be it further

Resolved, That The Episcopal Church acknowledge its history of participation in this sin and the deep and lasting injury which the institution of slavery and its aftermath have inflicted on society and on the Church; and be it further

Resolved, That we express our most profound regret that (a) The Episcopal Church lent the institution of slavery its support and justification based on Scripture, and (b) after slavery was formally abolished, The Episcopal Church continued for at least a century to support de jure and de facto segregation and discrimination; and be it further

Resolved, That The Episcopal Church apologize for its complicity in and the injury done by the institution of slavery and its aftermath; we repent of this sin and ask God’s grace and forgiveness; and be it further

Resolved, That the 75th General Convention of The Episcopal Church through the Executive Council urgently initiate a comprehensive program and urge every Diocese to collect and document during the next triennium detailed information in its community on (a) the complicity of The Episcopal Church in the institution of slavery and in the subsequent history of segregation and discrimination and (b) the economic benefits The Episcopal Church derived from the institution of slavery; and direct the Committee on Anti-Racism to monitor this program and report to Executive Council each year by March 31 on the progress in each Diocese; and be it further

Resolved, That to enable us as people of God to make a full, faithful and informed accounting of our history, the 75th General Convention of The Episcopal Church direct the Committee on Anti-Racism to study and report to Executive Council by March 31, 2008, which in turn will report to the 76th General Convention, on how the Church can be “the repairer of the breach” (Isaiah 58:12), both materially and relationally, and achieve the spiritual healing and reconciliation that will lead us to a new life in Christ; and be it further

Resolved, That to mark the commencement of this program the Presiding Bishop is requested to name a Day of Repentance and on that day to hold a Service of Repentance at the National Cathedral, and each Diocese is requested to hold a similar service.


Other institutions have addressed their failures in various respects with regard to slavery and its aftermath, including an apology issued by the U.S. Senate for not having enacted federal anti-lynching legislation during the post-Civil-War period. The United Methodists in Alabama recently led a walk to a Birmingham church as part of a service to repent of racial injustice and to pledge to be more inclusive. In addition some dioceses, such as, Chicago, Maryland, and Newark have undertaken a study of the concept of reparations.

It is important to recognize that much of the U.S. economy was built on the basis of slave labor. There are plenty of data that prove beyond doubt that African Americans are a disproportionate part of the nation’s poor. No one who is paying attention can fail to recognize that race discrimination is still very much part of the fabric of life in our nation and in our Church. Sometimes it is subtle, sometimes it is inadvertent, but it is plainly there. This resolution complements anti-racism training and other activities that are promoting justice and racial reconciliation in the Episcopal Church.


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

Kesselus, Kenneth, John E. Hines: Granite on Fire. (Austin, Texas: Episcopal Theological Seminary of the Southwest, 1996).

Robinson, Randall. The Debt: What American owes to Blacks. (New York: Penguin Putnam Inc., 2000).

Shattuck, Jr., Gardiner H. Episcopalians and Race: Civil War to Civil Rights (Religion in the South). (Lexington, Kentucky: University Press of Kentucky, 2000).

Winbush, Raymond. Should America Pay?: Slavery and the Raging Debate on Reparations. (New York: HarperCollins Publishers, Inc., 2003).

* The final language, as well as the final status of each resolution, is being reviewed by the General Convention office. The Journal of the 75th General Convention and the Constitution and Canons will be published once the review process has been completed.