James Theodore Holly: A 19th Century Evangelical Episcopalian and Black Nationalist

In 1874, the American Church Missionary Society, with the sanction of the presiding bishop of the Protestant Episcopal Church in the United States, consecrated James Theodore Holly as missionary bishop to Haiti. Holly lived previously in the Black Caribbean republic for a decade. At his consecration, he became the first African American bishop of the Episcopal Church.

As a young presbyter, Holly helped found the Protestant Episcopal Society for Promoting the Extension of the Church Among Colored People. He caucused with the Evangelical wing of the Episcopal church. He cooperated with Northern Evangelicals on emancipation and anti-slavery reform and pushed to have the Episcopal Church’s general convention take a more forceful position against slavery.

Anti-slavery and anti-racism activity defined Holly’s life and ministry. Born and reared in a family of pious Roman Catholics originally from Maryland, Holly felt some call to ministry as a young man. Born free to parents who had gained their freedom as teenagers, Holly saw the plight of blacks, free and enslaved, as an area for ministry. As a young man he and his wife moved to Brooklyn, New York and faithfully attended worship in their local Roman Catholic parish. The Roman Catholic hierarchy in New York in the era refused to ordain blacks, a custom that incensed Holly and which drove him eventually to leave the Roman Catholic Church for the Episcopal Church in 1852. The Hollys moved to Windsor, Canada, and it was there that Holly first encountered Protestant ministers committed the abolition of slavery. It was also where he seemed to have turned towards Evangelical churchmanship.

Holly ferociously defended churchly prerogatives; he was in his way a High Church Evangelical. Likewise, he rejected the idea that Christianity annihilated racial differences. Black Christianity and even nationality deserved celebration. He decried, along with “downright prejudice against this long abused race,” a “woeful distrust” of Black’s natural equality with whites that sought to subsume black nationalism and identity in to white nationalism and identity. This tendency, he complained, existed mostly among “those who claim to be his friends.” The idea that blacks were different, and and also equal and different, “unnerves their hands and palsies their tongue; and no pen is wielded or voice heard, among that race of men, which fearlessly and boldly places the negro side by side with the white man, as his equal in all respects.”

A denial of Black particularity, Holly warned, was that many blacks “are almost persuaded that they are a brood of inferior beings.” It was a denial of black particularity that moved Holly to take up his pen “to attempt a fearless but truthful vindication of this race.” Holly wished,

“by the undoubted facts of history, to cast back the vile aspersions and foul calumnies that have been heaped upon my race for the last four centuries, by our unprincipled oppressors; whose base interest, at the expense of our blood and our bones, have made them reiterate, from generation to generation, during the long march of ages, every thing that would prop up the impious dogma of our natural and inherent inferiority.”

Certainly, it was wrong to treat black men as inferiors, Holly argued. It was also wrong to treat them as anything other than Black.

Bishop Holly’s spent much of his ministry in Haiti, trying to create and sustain an indigenous Black Episcopal tradition on that island. He died in 1911, and is buried in Port-au-Prince.

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