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American Anglo-Catholicism and Black Episcopalians: Integrating the Narrative

By Brandt L. Montgomery 

In Men and Movements in the American Episcopal Church, E. Clowes Chorley dates American Anglo-Catholicism’s beginnings to around the time of the Civil War. By 1870, almost every major player of the old High Church generation was dead: New York Bishop John Henry Hobart in 1830; Pennsylvania Bishop Henry Onderdonk in 1858; New Jersey Bishop George Washington Doane in 1859; Alabama Bishop Nicholas Hamner Cobbs in 1861; and Vermont Bishop John Henry Hopkins in 1868.[1] For them, the method of sparking renewal within the Church was intellectual, basing their theology on the Church Fathers and the 17th century Caroline Divines. By emphasizing the Sacraments as the primary means of God’s grace and the Apostolic Succession, many found the High Church argument for the Episcopal Church’s continued existence attractive.

A younger generation felt the need for something more. This new generation, the Anglo-Catholics, wanted to put Oxford Movement ideals into practice. Through liturgy, Anglo-Catholic parochial clergy felt more effective in ministering to their people, showing a real connection between Word and Sacrament, as well as how Christ’s people, the Church, are united with him as one body in the sharing of his most precious body and blood.[2] This successor generation felt compelled to “preach and teach, and develop [their] views into system, and … be instruments in the preservation of the Church.”[3]

This new generation included Ferdinand Ewer, founding rector of New York’s Church of St. Ignatius, and his successor, Arthur Ritchie; James DeKoven, a sometime faculty member of Nashotah House and later Warden of Racine College, both in Wisconsin; and Thomas McKee Brown, founding rector of New York’s Church of St. Mary the Virgin. Each stood on the shoulders of Hobart, Onderdonk, Doane, Cobbs, and Hopkins, but took the High Church tradition to a whole new level.

The Appeal of Anglo-Catholicism to Black Episcopalians

While studying the Oxford Movement during a liturgy course last June for my DMin, I realized something I had not noticed before. In most major Oxford Movement and Anglo-Catholic histories, the principal characters are all white, mostly male, and predominantly English.[4] My next questions then became: What about black Anglo-Catholics? What has been Anglo-Catholicism’s appeal to many black Episcopalians? And why? To start, I look to the conversion story of Edward Thomas Demby, American Anglicanism’s first consecrated black bishop.[5]

Before becoming an Episcopalian, Demby was an ordained elder in the African Methodist Episcopal Church, the oldest denomination of black American Methodism. In 1895, while serving as Dean of Paul Quinn College in Waco, Texas, an A.M.E. Church institution, Demby was confirmed as an Episcopalian by John Franklin Spalding, the first Episcopal Bishop of Colorado.[6]

Demby’s biographer, Michael Beary, writes that he “was by nature a very high churchman in matters of worship” and

Being a passionate ritualist … felt very much at home. And there was, of course, the matter of race. Of consummate importance … the Anglo-Catholic revival laid new emphasis on being a truly catholic church, wherein racial, class, and ethnic differences were no impediment to membership and participation. Although the racial aspect of the revival had, to say the least, questionable appeal among the white laity of the Episcopal Church, the fact remained that leaders on both sides of the color line had at least raised the issue of racial equality and some were even contending for it. All of these developments could only have pleased Demby, whose memoirs, sermons, and reports are inundated with the Nicene phrase, “one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church.”[7]

Demby was elected Suffragan Bishop of Arkansas in 1918 and, in addition to Arkansas, given oversight of black clergy, congregations, and mission work in Texas, Kansas, Oklahoma, Missouri, and New Mexico. He retired from active episcopal ministry in 1938 and moved with his wife, Antoinette, to Cleveland; both died there in 1957. Anglo-Catholicism was for Demby the tradition through which he saw Christ’s Church as fully Catholic; thus it was very valuable to his ministry and spiritual life. It encouraged him to carry on as a herald of the greater Christian cause, racial uplift, and self-reliance. And his persistence helped move the Episcopal Church toward fully accepting its black members.[8]

My story, in some ways, is similar. Before becoming an Episcopalian, I was a member of the Christian Methodist Episcopal Church, America’s third-oldest black Methodist denomination. It was in 1997 that I was first introduced to the Episcopal Church as a 7th-grade student at St. Peter’s Episcopal Day School in my hometown of Talladega, Alabama. Because of the rich liturgy, my positive experience at the school, an invitation from a friend, and several years of frequent visits, I became an Episcopalian on the Feast of the Presentation in 2003.

But it was at St. Andrew’s Church in Montevallo, Alabama as a freshman student at the University of Montevallo in 2003 that I had my first exposure to Anglo-Catholic liturgy. At St. Andrew’s, the rector chanted the Opening Acclamation, Collects for Purity and of the Day, and the Sursum Corda. There were Sanctus Bells at the Institution Narrative. And there was, on high holy days, incense! Seeing these liturgical practices, I thought, “Now that’s the [stuff]!”

This liturgical experience made God’s Kingdom become, for me, an even more “future present” reality, a visible foretaste of the heavenly banquet to come. From that time forward, I have identified with the Anglo-Catholic tradition, my experience further enriched from time spent at both St. Luke’s Church (Germantown) in Philadelphia and St. Thomas, Fifth Avenue. Anglo-Catholicism’s theology and ceremonial practices evoke in my mind that which we say in the Lord’s Prayer: “Hallowed be thy name, thy Kingdom come, thy will be done, on Earth as it is in Heaven.”

Like Demby, black Episcopalians identifying with Anglo-Catholicism have felt and seen from it an emphasis on being a united body in Christ, completely free of prejudice, all its members partaking of Christ’s body and blood as equals. The Anglo-Catholic tradition brings the Christian gospel and the Church’s theology to life, seeing through both Word and Sacrament that “there is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal. 3:28).

Anglo-Catholic Socialism — The Foundation of the Appeal

Furthermore, black Anglo-Catholic attraction comes by way of Anglo-Catholicism’s historic embrace of socialism. Kenneth Leech in his March 1989 lecture “The Radical Anglo-Catholic Social Vision” describes Anglo-Catholic socialism as a fusion of the theology of 19th century English Christian socialist Frederick Denison Maurice with Oxford Movement sacramentalism.[9]

Maurice’s theological work encourages active Christian participation in social reform. At its heart is encouragement of the Church’s proclamation of the good news of Jesus Christ for all people. But Maurice’s concerns were not confined to England; all of Western society was at a point of crisis.[10] Maurice’s influence catalyzed Anglo-Catholicism’s embrace of social action, influencing future generations of movement sympathizers to confront the social issues of their time.

Oxford Movement sacramentalism emphasized the sacraments’ interior benefits. In baptism one becomes incorporated into Christ’s body, the Church. As part of Christ’s body, the baptized are to be transformed by God’s Word.[11] In the Eucharist, Christ’s body is transformed as we “offer … unto [God] our selves, our souls, and bodies, to be a reasonable, holy, and living sacrifice.” The eucharistic language and Christ’s real and objective presence in the bread and wine opens one’s consciousness to the Holy Spirit actively transforming the community. Not only is there in sacramentalism a call to holiness, but the reality of God’s kingdom made available to all people.

From this historic embrace of socialism, black Anglo-Catholics have experienced their tradition giving them greater courage, confidence, and self-esteem.[12] Using the words of 19th-century Irish Anglican Bishop John Gregg, black Anglo-Catholics see in their tradition

Jesus, the true sacrifice for sin, offered by Himself, not any miserable substitute offered by men … Jesus the true Priest forever, the high Priest in Heaven … Jesus, the “Minister of the Sanctuary, and of the true tabernacle which the Lord pitched and not man.”[13]

Where to from Here?

Esau McCaulley in his post “The Invisible: African Americans in North American Anglicanism” argues “that the evangelical/Anglo-Catholic wing of North American Anglicanism was and remains largely devoid of African-American clergy, leadership, and congregations,” that “the black community in North American Anglicanism trends to the left,” and that “traditional North American Anglicans … might consider their lack of diversity an unfortunate by-product of historical factors.” He further asserts that “if we remain a tradition that only speaks to certain subsections of American culture, then we as a tradition have fallen short of our Gospel mandate to reach all people.”

Overall, I must agree. This past November, I had the good fortune to attend the special mini-conference “Anglo-Catholicism: Uncovering Roots” at the famed Church of the Advent in Boston. It was a wonderful conference, its premise being reflection on, and retrieval of, the best of Anglo-Catholicism’s past in marching forward to a faithful future. But of over 120 participants, only three were black. And out of those three, I was the only one ordained — an unfortunate reality to see.

I have one small but significant disagreement with Esau’s assessment of the “largely devoid” black representation within North American Anglicanism’s evangelical and Anglo-Catholic wings. Though what he says may, in fact, be true regarding the evangelical wing, as far as Anglo-Catholicism is concerned, though black identification and leadership may be small, it is there. By linking the two traditions together as he does (“evangelical/Anglo-Catholic”) in his assessment, Esau downplays (unintentionally, I am sure) Anglo-Catholicism’s historical record of success in evangelizing black Anglicans. There is a widely held view that the key to attracting blacks into Anglicanism is less liturgy. That simply is wrong. And what Anglo-Catholicism has shown is that black Episcopalians very much value the liturgy, and the more there is, the richer their spiritual experience.

But I do not want it thought that I am, in any way, discounting the black Anglican evangelical tradition. How Anglican evangelicalism has helped black Episcopalians experience Jesus’ love is just as important a story and deserves recognition. Furthermore, the histories of other racial-minority Anglo-Catholics and evangelicals deserve to be told, that they too may claim their place in Anglicanism’s larger narrative. I agree with Esau that “we Christians need each other,” especially in these times. Therefore, let us not let anyone be invisible to anyone.

My hope for future posts is that they will be the beginning of the recognition of black Anglo-Catholics who have played pivotal roles in its mission to preach and teach the gospel and be God’s instruments for the Church’s preservation. I also hope these reflections will help all see how Anglo-Catholicism not only has appealed to one race of people historically and socially oppressed, but how it presents a glorious vision of the gospel meant for and offered to all people.


[1] E. Clowes Chorley. Men and Movements in the American Episcopal Church (Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1946), p. 341.

[2] Catechism of the Catholic Church (Doubleday, 1997), ¶1331.

[3] John Henry Newman as quoted by George Herring in The Oxford Movement in Practice: The Tractarian Parochial World from the 1830s to the 1870s (Oxford University Press, 2016), p. 19.

[4] Stewart Brown and Peter Nockles’s Oxford Movement: Europe and the Wider World 1830-1930, published by Oxford University Press in 2012, examines the movement’s effects not just in England but throughout the British Empire, Continental Europe, and the United States.

[5] Michael J. Beary, Bishop Demby’s biographer, writes: “I would like to correct a popular myth pertaining to black Episcopal history. The error is a bit of benign misinformation innocently and inadvertently propagated by Sarah and Elizabeth Delany, the daughters of Bishop Henry Beard Delany. Those who have read their collections in Having Our Say: The Delany Sisters’ First One Hundred Years will note that their father is described as the ‘first elected Negro bishop of the Episcopal Church, U.S.A.’ This is incorrect. Bishop Edward T. Demby was the first black bishop in the United States. Demby was elected first and consecrated first. The confusion arises from the circumstances surrounding their elections. Demby and Delany represent two halves of the suffragan bishop plan … I … note that the Dembys have remained true to the tradition of their illustrious forebear and [have] withheld public comment, trusting, I guess, that the author, or God, or both, will set the record straight.” Black Bishop: Edward T. Demby and the Struggle for Racial Equality in the Episcopal Church (University of Illinois Press, 2001), p. xiii.

[6] Beary, p. 22.

[7] Ibid., pp. 22-23

[8] Ibid., pp. 264, 278-79; George Freeman Bragg. History of the Afro-American Group of the Episcopal Church (Johnson Reprint Co., 1968), p. 212.

[9] Kenneth Leech. “The Radical Anglo-Catholic Social Vision” (Center for Theology and Public Issues, 1989), p. 3.

[10] Robert Bruce Mullin. A Short World History of Christianity (Revised Edition) (Westminster John Knox Press, 2014), p. 207.

[11] Bill Fraatz. “The Oxford Movement,” The Boston Collaborative Encyclopedia of Modern Western Theology (2004).  Accessed Feb. 15, 2018.

[12] “The New York Oxford Celebration,” The Living Church (Nov. 20, 1983), p. 11.

[13] John Gregg. “Preach Jesus,” Love’s Redeeming Work: The Anglican Quest for Holiness (Oxford University Press, 2001), pp. 393-94.


  1. A thoughtful article. However one important correction: The first African-American Bishop of the Episcopal Church is the Rt. Rev. James Theodore Holly, Missionary Bishop of Haiti, who was consecrated in 1874. He is commemorated in Lesser Feasts and Fasts.

    • While Bishop Holly was, indeed, the first of the Episcopal Church’s black clergy to be consecrated to the episcopate, the fact of the matter is that he did not serve in the United States, but in Haiti.

      Being that my post’s premise was on Anglo-Catholicism’s effects upon Black Episcopalians in the United States of America, I referenced Bishop Demby being the United States’ first consecrated black bishop, as he was the first to serve on American soil.

      In a future post, I plan on talking about African-Caribbean and West Indian influences on American Anglo-Catholicism, during which I certainly will be mentioning Bishop Holly.


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