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The African Orthodox Church: An Analysis of Its First Decade

  • Warren C. Platt (a1)

Extract

The African Orthodox church, an expression of religious autonomy among black Americans, had its genesis in the work and thought of George Alexander McGuire, a native of Antigua, whose religious journey and changing ecclesiastical affiliation paralleled his deepening interest in and commitment to the cause of Afro-American nationalism and racial consciousness. Born in 1866 to an Anglican father and a Moravian mother, George Alexander McGuire was educated at Mico College for Teachers in Antigua and the Nisky Theological Seminary, a Moravian institution in St. Thomas, Virgin Islands (then the Danish West Indies). In 1893 McGuire, having served a pastorate at a Moravian church in the Virgin Islands, migrated to the United States, where he became an Episcopalian. In 1897 he was ordained a priest in that church and, in the succeeding decade, served several parishes, including St. Thomas Church in Philadelphia, which was founded by Absalom Jones. His abilities and skills were recognized, and in 1905 he became the archdeacon for Colored Work in the Episcopal Diocese of Arkansas. Here he became involved with various plans—none of which bore fruit—which would have provided for the introduction of black bishops in the Episcopal church to assist in that church's work of evangelization among black Americans. It is believed, however, that McGuire was influenced by the different schemes which were advanced, and that he “almost certainly carried away from Arkansas the notion of a separate, autonomous black church, and one that was episcopal in character and structure, as one option for black religious self-determination and one avenue for achieving black independence.”

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1. Newman, Richard, “The Origins of the African Orthodox Church,” in Black Power and Black Religion: Essays and Reviews, ed. Newman, Richard (West Cornwall, Conn., 1987), p. 85. Material on the African Orthodox church is limited; however, researchers are advised to consult Newman's article, which carefully delineates those intellectual and social concerns which stimulated Bishop McGuire's behavior and quickened his resolve to found a black church imbued with catholic principles. Terry-Thompson, Arthur C., The History of the African Orthodox Church (New York, 1956), provides salient material on the founding of the church (including documents), but the author's membership in the church necessitates that one use this work with care. The Negro Churchman, the church's periodical during its early years, has been published in a reprint edition: The Negro Churchman: The Official Organ of the African Orthodox Church, 2 vols. (Millwood, N.Y., 1977). See also White, Gavin, “Patriarch McGuire and the Episcopal Church,” Historical Magazine of the Protestant Episcopal Church 38 (06 1969): 109142;Rushing, Byron, “A Note on the Origin of the African Orthodox Church,” Journal of Negro History 57 (1972): 3739;Burkett, Randall K., Black Redemption: Churchmen Speak for the Garvey Movement (Philadelphia, 1978); and idem, Garveyism as a Religious Movement: The Instil utionalizalion of a Black Civil Religion (Metuchen, N.J., 1978). A succinct analysis of the church may be found in Piepkorn, Arthur C., Profiles in Belief: The Religious Bodies of the United States and Canada, vol. 1, Roman Catholic, Old Catholic, and Eastern Orthodox (San Francisco, 1977), pp. 9294.

2. Newman, , “Origins of the African Orthodox Church,” p. 88.

3. Terry-Thompson, , History of the African Orthodox Church, p. 53.

4. Ibid., p. 51.

5. Newman, , “Origins of the African Orthodox Church,” p. 92.

6. Terry-Thompson, , History of the African Orthodox Church, p. 57. For more on Vilatte and the phenomenon of the episcopi vagantes, see Anson, Peter F., Bishobs at Large (London, 1964).

7. Terry-Thompson, . History of the African Orthodox Church, pp. 5758. Archbishop Vilatte had previously ordained McGuire deacon on 26 September 1920 and priest on 27 September 1921 at the Church of Our Lady of the Good Death in Chicago. This action, of course, indicated Vilatte's doubts about the validity of the Anglican orders which McGuire had previously received. Vilatte also ordained the Reverend William Robertson to the diaconate and priesthood on the same days; Robertson was himself consecrated bishop on 18 November 1923 in New York City and thus became the second person elevated to the episcopate in the African Orthodox church. Robertson succeeded McGuire to the leadership of the church upon the latter's death in 1934.

8. Newman, , “Origins of the African Orthodox Church,” pp. 8990.

9. Terry-Thompson, , History of the African Orthodox Church, p. 129.

10. Ibid., p. 131.

11. Burkett, , Black Redemption, p. 7.

12. Ibid., p. 7.

13. An examination of The Negro Churchman indicates that the seventy-four clergy ordained by McGuire included twenty former Anglicans, two former Moravians, one former Methodist, five former Protestants (denominations not given), and one former Roman Catholic; no information is available on the previous church affiliation of other ordinands. McGuire's previous ecclesiastical affiliation and the theological and liturgical emphases of the African Orthodox church might lead some observers to classify it as a racial branch of the Episcopal church. If this term is to be applied, however, it must be with qualifications. McGuire's choice of name for the new body (which did not include any variants on “Episcopal” or “Anglican”), the fact of the Vilatte (as opposed to an Anglican) succession, and the stated affinity of the church with Eastern Orthodoxy—all militate against the unqualified employment of this designation.

14. The 1922, 1925, 1928, and 1931 General Conventions of the Episcopal church mentioned neither McGuire nor the African Orthodox church. These conventions (especially that of 1931) did discuss evangelizing the Negro but were unable to reach a consensus on the most appropriate means for doing so.

15. “Rise! Stand Upon Thy Feet!” The Negro Churchman 6 (03. 1928): 5.

16. Garrett, F. A., “Why I Entered the African Orthodox Church,” The Negro Churchman 6 (07 1928): 12.

17. Garrett, F. A., “Why I Entered the African Orthodox Church,” The Negro Churchman 6 (08. 1928): 3 (a continuation of Garrett's article from the July 1928 issue). Garrett overlooked the fact that the Methodist Episcopal church did appoint its first black bishop (Matthew Clair) in 1920.

18. McGuire, George A., “Patriarch's Address,” The Negro Churchman 6 (10 1928): 3. Bishop McGuire assumed the title of Patriarch Alexander (that being his middle name) to indicate his responsibilities over the two Provinces (America and South Africa) which then composed the African Orthodox church.

19. McGuire, George A., “The Bishop's Sermon at the Ordination of Rev. F. A. Toote to the Priesthood,” The Negro Churchman 1 (05 1923): 4.

20. Robinson, Richard G., “Philadelphia Confirmation,” The Negro Churchman 6 (07 1928): 3.

21. Grant, Reginald, “Our Grace Needs Our Church,” The Negro Churchman 3 (10 1925): 8.

22. For information on the establishment and organization of the African Orthodox church in Africa, see Newman, Richard, “Archbishop Daniel William Alexander and the African Orthodox Church,” in Black Power and Black Religion, pp. 109130. Articles on the founding of the African branch of the church appeared in The Negro Churchman from 1925 through 1927.

23. On this matter, see “Peace in Separation,” The Negro Churchman 1 (04 1923): 2–; and McGuire, George A., “Liberia's Appeal to the Western Negro,” The Negro Churchman 1 (05 1923): 12.

24. McGuire, George A., “Extract from Primate's Address: General Synod, 1930,” The Negro Churchman 8 (11 1930): 1;Valentine, Robert A., “A Part of the Whole and the Whole of a Part,” The Negro Churchman 8 (09. 1930): 6.

25. “Racial Understandings,” The Negro Churchman 1 (06 1923): 2.

26. “Historical Facts, 1921, 1925,” The Negro Churchman 5 (08 1927): 03. The constitution of the church was formally adopted at its First General Synod in 1921.

27. “Our Episcopal Succession,” The Negro Churchman 1 (01 1923): 2.

28. McGuire, , “Bishop's Sermon,” p. 3. See also McGuire, George A., “The Episcopalians and Archbishop Vilatte,” The Negro Churchman 1 (08 1923): 35; and “Certificate of Consecration of Bishop McGuire,” The Negro Churchman 1 (08 1923): 2.

29. Terry-Thompson, , History of the African Orthodox Church, p. 44.

30. “Instruction for Confirmation Classes,” The Negro Churchman 9 (02 1931): 3.

31. Terry-Thompson, , History of the African Orthodox Church, p. 44.

32. Toote, F. A., “An Instruction for Confirmation Classes,” The Negro Churchman 2 (02 1924): 37; and “Instruction for Confirmation Classes,” The Negro Churchman 9 (02 1931): 14.

33. “Resume of Fourth General Synod,” The Negro Churchman 2 (09-10 1924): 4.

34. Terry-Thompson, , History of the African Orthodox Church, p. 134.

35. McGuire, George A., “Patriarch's Address,” p. 5;Abbott, E. A., “A Review of ‘The Negro Churchman’ for March, 1928,” The Negro Churchman 6 (04-05 1928): 7.

36. The Divine Liturgy and Other Rites and Ceremonies of the Church According to the Use of the African Orthodox Church (New York, 1945), pp. 1850. While the text of the Divine Liturgy was largely derived from Anglican sources (with some additions from the Roman Rite), the actual order of the rite as well as the ceremonial were based upon the Tridentine Mass of the Roman Catholic church. The vestments employed at celebrations of the Divine Liturgy were Western style.

37. “Proceedings of the Third General Synod,” The Negro Churchman 1 (09-10. 1923): 2.

38. Toote, , “Instruction for Confirmation Classes,” p. 4;ibid., pp. 5–6.

39. Garrett, F. A., “Is Title ‘African’ Orthodox Correct?The Negro Churchman 7 (01 1929): 4.

40. “S. Agnes Church, New York City,” The Negro Churchman 7 (01 1929): 5 The growth of the African Orthodox church in the United States was modest. In 1926 it reported 1,568 members in thirteen parishes; in 1936 it reported 1,952 members in the same number of parishes. Members were concentrated in New England, New York, and Florida; in 1936 approximately 20 percent of the membership was under thirteen years of age. For these statistics, see United States Department of Commerce, Bureau of the Census, Religious Bodies: 1936, vol. 2, part 1, Denominations A to J: Statistics, History, Doctrine, Organizalion, and Word (Washington, 1941), pp. 4951.

41 The Divine Liturgy, p. 63.

42. “What France Thinks of Us,” The Negro Churchman 3 (05 1925): 2.

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