Rev. Michael Curry has been in the news again this week as he was one of a large number of faith leaders participating in the Reclaiming Jesus march in Washington last night (http://www.reclaimingjesus.org). There has been a lot of positive discussion about the sermon he presented at last weekend’s royal wedding; I referred to it briefly in my post last Sunday.
What follows are my own thoughts and a crude timeline on the significance of a black American bishop’s involvement in a bi-racial British royal wedding. While I recognize the other forces involved, I think it’s commonly accepted that Christian organizations have driven the vehicles of racial equality for the last three hundred years. I apologize in advance for what will be a series of over-simplifications but I couldn’t help but see the larger irony of his participation in the wedding.
Let’s work backward:
- Curry, from a long line of Christian ministers (Baptist and Episcopal (Anglican)), is the first black bishop of the predominantly white Episcopal Church in America and provided an energetic sermon for the wedding;
- Royal Harry is of course a descendant of the British royal family and newly royal Meghan Markle is a descendant of American slaves and white colonials;
- There is a strong possibility that Meghan’s great-great-great-grandmother Mary Smith (on her father’s side), moved from Ireland and became a servant for the British Royal family (!) in 1856;
- Meghan’s family history on her mother’s side begins in slavery and winds through a number of ‘negro’, ‘white’ and ‘mulatto’ (blended) descendants;
- Public records of her mother’s family tree starts to be recorded after the Civil War, which was a defining moment for the Abolitionists and brought initial freedom to slaves in the U.S.;
- Wendell Phillips, Fredrick Douglas and others were main leaders in the second abolitionist movement which occurred around the time of the Civil War – they were either Christian or directly influenced by Christians;
- The first abolitionist movement began in the mid to late 1700s and was driven almost exclusively by Christians: Moravians, Quakers, Presbyterians, Mennonites, Methodists and other evangelical groups;
- The Abolitionist Movement came to America through people crossing the Atlantic Ocean from England;
- William Wilberforce was the famous British parliamentarian who became the driving force behind the anti-slavery legislation that was passed by Parliament in 1833 against overwhelming odds. He had come to faith years earlier through the Methodists. (A film was made about this period of his life and released in 2006.);
- The Methodist movement, among others, drove much of this change first in British culture. The founder of the Methodists was John Wesley, an ordained Anglican minister who came to a strong faith in the middle years of his life and influenced the anti-slavery movement by supporting William Wilberforce specifically on the subject;
- Also among the primary influences on Wilberforce was a man named John Newton, an atheist and slave trader who had a powerful religious experience and came to regret his former life. He became a proponent of abolition as well. He is better known for writing the classic hymn Amazing Grace ** where he reflects on God’s patience and goodness.
Historian James Stewart wrote about the Abolitionist (anti-slavery) movement’s conviction: “All people were equal in God’s sight; the souls of black folks were as valuable as those of whites; for one of God’s children to enslave another was a violation of the Higher Law, even if it was sanctioned by the Constitution.” *
Let’s all agree that Christianity has done a lot of evil in the world but there are also mountains of good that get overlooked (universities, hospitals, orphanages, social reform and more). In this stream of things it’s interesting that many of the people mentioned above were supported across denominational lines as well as by organizations of strong and determined women. These same streams of faith were important in workplace and anti child-labour legislation as well as the women’s rights movement.
Anyway, I just wanted to take a moment to off-load those thoughts; they have been rattling around in this tiny brain for a week now. As a person who has descended from the same Anglican/Methodist roots, I am happy to be in the religious lineage of both John Wesley and Michael Curry as well as the many life-giving Christians of all flavours who changed history. And who will continue to.
* James Brewer Stewart, Holy Warriors: The Abolitionists and American Slavery (1976)
** I’ve attached two versions of Amazing Grace below, the first with the original words, the second an updated alternate version.