- Challenges on the Emmaus Road: Episcopal Bishops Confront Slavery, Civil War, and Emancipation by T. Felder Dorn
The title of T. Felder Dorn’s exhaustive study of Episcopal bishops before, during, and after the American Civil War is revealing in more ways than one. It is taken from the Gospel of Luke 24:13–35, where Jesus walks and talks with his disciples about his crucifixion and resurrection without being recognized. Dorn sees this biblical turn as a handy metaphor for the blindness and willful apathy exhibited by Episcopal bishops to the evils of slavery and the related events that led to civil war. The title and its origins are also emblematic of Dorn’s methodological commitment to telling history from a theological perspective. Challenges on the Emmaus Road is first and foremost a work of church history, and its every insight is offered in light of Episcopal doctrine prevalent during the years examined. Such conceptual predeterminations can result in myopic and hagiographic efforts so invested in illuminating a precise principle or celebrating a specific ecclesiastical past that they are all but irrelevant to those outside a particular faith tradition. In Dorn’s capable telling, however, this doctrinal emphasis has a real and broad explanatory value. By examining the religious ideas and attitudes of Episcopal bishops and how those opinions informed their interactions with the secular world and its most divisive issues, Dorn adds to our broader understanding of how destructive the slavery issue was within America’s churches and, perhaps more important, how it was that America’s churches failed so many millions in bondage.
Dorn’s offering is presented in seven parts, consisting not of chapters but of component profiles. The first section deals with the growth of the Episcopal Church in the colonies and early republic and then with the origins and development of American slavery. While the brief primer on slavery sheds no new light, the story of the Protestant Episcopal Church’s nativity is enthralling. Although complicated, early impediments to denominational harmony essentially grew out of the pro-British sentiments of New England church leader Samuel Seabury and the resentment those sentiments bred among churchmen elsewhere. Such discord [End Page 164] notwithstanding, the national church quickly grew in both wealth and stature. From its beginning boasting “many members influential in government,” American Episcopalism always embraced “a significant number of members from the upper class” (7). Although the church’s affluence was evident everywhere, by the time of the Civil War “Episcopalian wealth was perhaps most obvious in the South, where many plantation owners (and hence large slaveholders) were churchmen” (7). Thus unlikely to see an internal antislavery movement take shape, the church instead turned the fields of southern plantations into great mission fields, proselytizing and catechizing enslaved men and women.
Dorn introduces individual bishops one after the other, detailing their views on slavery, then secession, and finally on denominational reunion. What emerges most memorably from the book’s second section is the regretful irresolution that beset so many in the church’s hierarchy of authority. Dorn explains how and why such behavior rendered Protestant Episcopalism complicit in the national sin of slavery. “Prior to the Civil War,” he writes, “the silence of the Episcopal Church on slavery reflected in part an effort to preserve unity in the church; Northern churchmen who opposed slavery, especially the bishops, were reluctant to off end their Southern brethren” (87). In part 3, titled “Secession and Church Division,” the author privileges relationships between the likes of Leonidas Polk and Charles McIlvaine to illustrate how personally disruptive the larger church fracture often became. But as the church ruptured and northern bishops declared their allegiance to the United States and their disappointment in those aligned against it, the conservative nature of Protestant Episcopalism held sway. Even as resolutions were passed to seek divine intervention on the Union’s behalf, there was no mention of slavery anywhere to be heard. Indeed, Episcopal bishops still overwhelmingly believed slavery “a...