Bishops, Bourbons, and Big Mules: A History of the Episcopal Church in Alabama

By J. Barry Vaughn

The University of Alabama Press, 2013, pp. 264. $49.95

Review By Brandt L. Montgomery

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June 27, 2020 will be a historic day in the 190-year history of the Episcopal Diocese of Alabama. On that day at the Cathedral Church of the Advent in Birmingham, Glenda S. Curry will be ordained as the diocese’s Coadjutor and future XII Bishop, the first woman to be called to this role. Having known her from the first years of my own ordained ministry in Alabama, I attest to Glenda’s leadership gifts and the respect of many for her because of them. She is a clergyperson above reproach, qualified to author, God being her helper, the next chapter of Alabama’s diocesan story.

In Bishops, Bourbons, and Big Mules, J. Barry Vaughn, an academic historian and former Alabama priest, now a parish rector in Nevada, lays down an authoritative diocesan history, which serves as a foundation for that story’s next chapter. What J. Robert Wright said of New York’s Saint Thomas, Fifth Avenue, can also be said of Alabama’s diocesan history: histories of Christian parishes are stories of both buildings and of people.

Saint Peter says, “Let yourselves be built into a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ” (1 Pet. 2:5). If Church history is best told through the theme of a spiritual household, then it also holds true that a parish’s story is best told in terms of those who have been the high priests of its worship and leaders of its community service.

The “symphony” of the Episcopal Diocese of Alabama is best orchestrated and told around the eleven bishops who have led it. A noteworthy charism of Alabama Episcopalians has been their consistent election of strong and able bishops, a cause for the diocese’s overall success and esteemed status throughout the larger Episcopal Church. Even despite their respective shortcomings and those of the times in which they lived, the diocese’s sustainability remained strong.

The Bishop Coadjutor-elect has cited hatred as a significant issue confronting humanity. It has “subtle forms [that] extend into our communications via… print and social media networks bombarding us with voices that dehumanize, disrespect, distort, and dismiss the image of God in each person. The Church has life-saving, life-giving help to offer a hurting world.”

Vaughn devotes significant time to Alabama’s past wrongs about race relations. Of Charles Colcock Jones Carpenter, the diocese’s beloved VI Bishop during the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s, Vaughn says:

Carpenter did not clearly and forcefully address the fear and anger that kept his white communicants from tearing down the walls that separated them from black people and stood between black people and the educational and economic opportunities that white people took for granted. When Carpenter retired [in 1968], he left… a legacy of unfinished business in the area of racial reconciliation that the Episcopal Church in Alabama continues to confront. (p. 167)

Vaughn quotes a 1960 letter to Carpenter from William Scarlett, who served as the Bishop of Missouri from 1933 to 1952 and was one of Carpenter’s best friends in the House of Bishops, saying, “The tragedy of… Carpenter and of the Diocese of Alabama during the civil rights struggle was that they had ‘an opportunity of a hundred years’ and failed to seize it” (p. 166).

While I agree that Carpenter was not as clear and forceful in denouncing racial segregation as he should have been, it is not true that he didn’t at least try. Three years ago I wrote about Carpenter’s gradualist civil rights philosophy, which advocated for time and patience regarding racial integration in the South and called for the civil rights fight to be fought in the courts, not out on the streets. He felt that proper order and reasonable time was the best approach in changing the hearts and minds of many of Alabama’s white Episcopalians on race, wanting to bring as many as possible “to the light” on the issue. Carpenter saw the civil disobedience demonstrations in his diocese as contributing to the ill-will they already had towards the Civil Rights Movement and, thus, as setbacks in his quest to help bring positive change.

Yet, as a bishop of the Church charged with preaching and defending the faith of Jesus Christ, Carpenter should have proclaimed God’s favor for all people everywhere not only through sound writing and articulate speech, but also physically on the front lines right then and there. His “in time” rhetoric was viewed as complicity with segregation and being too stuck in the past to realize the full scope of the racial injustices happening around him. His gradualism, however well-intended, missed the mark.

But where Carpenter failed in race relations, his successors Furman Stough, Robert Miller, Henry Parsley, and John McKee Sloan have helped improve. And as the Sloan episcopate approaches its end, the “opportunity of a hundred years” will soon come to Glenda Curry. May she not only seize the opportunity, but also “proclaim the word; be persistent whether it is convenient or inconvenient; convince, reprimand, encourage through all patience and teaching” (2 Tim. 4:2).

What Vaughn’s volume achieves best is reminding Alabama Episcopalians that though they are only a small percentage of the state’s population, because the Episcopal Church has been the preferred denomination of many politicians and influential aristocrats, they have a unique opportunity to help chart Alabama’s future course. Hence, the book’s title: Bishops, Bourbons, and Big Mules.  Vaughn states that it has been the Baptists and Methodists (and to a smaller degree the Presbyterians) who have largely shaped the fabric of American life through the founding of colleges and universities, hospitals, and other social institutions and that the Episcopal Church’s historic alliance with the socially affluent explains its failed attempts to bring into it the poor and lower middle classes. “The Episcopal Church in Alabama claims a disproportionate share of Alabama’s wealthiest, most powerful, and best-educated people, so why has it created so few institutions to serve other Alabamians? Is it reasonable to expect such a small percentage of Alabama’s citizens to have created educational and medical facilities for the service of the state?” (pp. 187-188).

In this is a reminder of the baptismal covenant: “Will you proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ?” and “Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself?” With Glenda, the answer of Alabama Episcopalians (and for us all), as Christians, should be, “I will, with God’s help.”

Committing to the baptismal covenant entails full-on love for God. Jesus says, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the greatest and first commandment” (Matt. 22:37-38). To commit to God through the baptismal covenant is to willingly and completely surrender our entire selves to God, replacing our wills with the authority of Christ’s gospel. “It is no longer I who live,” Paul says, “but Christ who lives in me” (Gal. 2:20). Vaughn’s book serves as an important reminder that these are important things for Alabama Episcopalians to remember and to reflect upon as they prepare to close one chapter and begin another.

It is oftentimes said, “There’s no place like home.” For me, that is what Alabama is — home. It was there I discovered the Episcopal Church in junior high school and accepted Jesus Christ as my Lord and Savior. It was in the Diocese of Alabama that I was called to ordained ministry and served my first two years as a priest. I still love the Diocese of Alabama and am glad to have been a small fraction of a part of its story. Bishops, Bourbons, and Big Mules is a story worth all Alabama Episcopalians’ time to read in these times.

With that, “Unto whomsoever much is given… shall much be required.” For Glenda, the future XII Bishop of Alabama, much will be required. I will pray for her and for the people of my Alabama Episcopal home.

The Rev. Brandt L. Montgomery is the Chaplain of Saint James School in Hagerstown, Maryland.

About The Author

The Rev. Brandt Montgomery is the Chaplain of Saint James School in Hagerstown, Maryland, having previously served at the Episcopal Church of the Ascension in Lafayette, Louisiana as Chaplain of Ascension Episcopal School from 2014-2017, then as Associate Rector and All-School Chaplain from 2017-2019.

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Mary Barrett

What Carpenter called for, time and patience during the civil rights era, was exactly the point of Dr. King writing “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” The southern Episcopal Church was generally a massive failure with a few bright spots during this time. But do not feel bad, as most southern white churches greatly failed this calling.