[Episcopal News Service] Every year on Aug. 18, Episcopalians are invited to pray a collect that honors theologian William Porcher DuBose for his God-given “gifts of grace to understand the Scriptures and to teach the truth as it is in Christ Jesus.”
A century after DuBose’s death in 1918, this seminary professor and dean is regarded as an Episcopal saint whose feast day is one of more than 150 such “lesser feasts” on the church’s official calendar. The short biography for DuBose in the church’s published volume of “Lesser Feasts and Fasts” describes him as “among the most original and creative thinkers The Episcopal Church has ever produced.” The entry on DuBose also briefly mentions his service in the Confederate Army during the Civil War.
In the past year, however, researchers have highlighted other aspects of DuBose’s life that cast doubt on his fitness for a feast day. His family once owned hundreds of slaves, and long after slavery was abolished, DuBose offered unapologetic defenses of that system of racial oppression while espousing white supremacy in some of his writings, even praising the early Ku Klux Klan.
Those writings now form the backbone of a recommendation by the church’s Standing Commission on Liturgy and Music, or SCLM, to remove DuBose’s feast day from the church calendar – a rare and likely unprecedented repudiation of a church-anointed saint. “As the church continues to strive against white supremacy and the sin of racism, we must not raise as examples of heroic service those who in their lives actively worked to devalue whole classes of human persons,” the SCLM said in its Blue Book report to General Convention, which meets next in July 2022.
The push to revoke DuBose’s feast day comes amid parallel moves by the University of the South in Sewanee, Tennessee, where DuBose was appointed the second dean of the School of Theology in 1894. The seminary, after researching DuBose’s published and unpublished writings, announced this month that it was removing his name from its annual lecture series.
DuBose’s past statements on slavery and race “were incompatible with the kind of example and image that we wanted to hold up to be imitated,” the Very Rev. James Turrell, Sewanee’s seminary dean, told Episcopal News Service. Turrell, who also serves on the SCLM, sees DuBose’s feast day as similarly undeserved.
“Who we choose to memorialize in our calendar is a reflection both on the people that we are remembering but also a reflection on those doing the remembering,” Turrell said. “I think one of the things that we have been coming to grips with, both in the wider church but also here at Sewanee, is the unspoken assumptions that we once made that came out of a frankly structurally racist past.”
SCLM members told ENS their recommendation is based in the criteria approved by General Convention for adding and deleting feast days. The calendar “commemorates those who were, in their lifetime, extraordinary, even heroic servants of God and God’s people for the sake, and after the example, of Jesus Christ,” according to one of the criteria.
DuBose may have passed that test in past church leaders’ eyes, but the SCLM in its recommendation for removal concluded his white supremacist writings now disqualify him, especially in light of the widespread secular protests in the past year against racial injustice and the racism inherent in American institutions.
“DuBose was a sort of self-avowed white supremacist,” the Rev. Paul Fromberg, chair of the SCLM, told ENS. “He was not repentant of white supremacy, and in fact, he wrote in his secular writings in support of white supremacy.” None of the people on the church calendar were perfect human beings, Fromberg said, but “when it becomes clear that people on the calendar become a scandal to the church, they have to be removed.”
That a long-dead Episcopal theologian has become a church scandal in 2021 further points to the ways The Episcopal Church is placing racial reconciliation work at the center of its contemporary mission and ministry in the world.
“I think we as a denomination are paying a lot more attention to reparation and reconciliation,” the Rev. Scott Slater told ENS. Slater is canon to the ordinary in the Diocese of Maryland, where he has helped draft resolutions committing the diocese to racial reparations.
The diocese also is preparing to host the 80th General Convention next year in Baltimore. In July 2020, Slater wrote to Fromberg requesting that he and the chair of a church committee on racism consider drafting a General Convention resolution “addressing whitewashed histories in commemorations.” He raised specific concerns that the biographical information in “Lesser Feasts and Fasts” overlooks DuBose’s white supremacist views.
At the time, Slater was researching DuBose’s life and writings in preparation for a sermon he was scheduled to preach on DuBose’s feast day. A version of that sermon was posted to Episcopal Café last year on Aug. 18.
“Perhaps he was a brilliant theologian, but not enough to prevent him from racism,” Slater wrote. Even in DuBose’s later years, “his attitude of white supremacy continued within the security of his privilege.”
Slater’s article drew partly on the research of the Roberson Project on Slavery, Race, and Reconciliation, which Sewanee launched in 2017 to examine the Episcopal university’s origins in Southern slaveholding society and its history of complicity in other racist systems. The Rev. Benjamin King, a professor of Christian history in Sewanee’s School of Theology, specifically scrutinized DuBose’s life. When the School of Theology announced on April 13 that DuBose’s name would be removed from the school’s annual lecture series, King defended that decision.
“Theology always arises in a context,” King said in a press release announcing the decision. “Even if DuBose’s theology retains an international reputation, his writings on this region and on race bear witness to his context. DuBose is not the name that best represents our context and what the School of Theology and our alumni have to offer the 21st-century church.”
DuBose was born in 1836 in South Carolina into a wealthy family. By 1860, the family’s slaveholdings totaled 204 Black men, women and children, according to Sewanee’s research. “Lesser Feasts and Fasts” says DuBose was ordained a priest in 1861 and served the Confederacy as both an officer and a chaplain.
The University of the South was founded in 1857 but didn’t begin enrolling students until after the Civil War, in 1868. DuBose began teaching at Sewanee in 1871 and was appointed dean of the School of Theology two decades later. He went on to publish seven books, including the autobiographical “Turning Points in My Life” in 1912. The books, which first brought him international acclaim, “treated life and doctrine as a dramatic dialogue, fusing the best of contemporary thought and criticism with his own strong inner faith,” according to his “Lesser Feasts” biography. “The result was both a personal and scriptural catholic theology.”
Though mostly mining theological ideas, he also once wrote that slavery in the South was “no sin to those who engaged in it.”
“The South received and exercised slavery in good faith and without doubt or question, and, whatever we pronounce it now, it was not a sin at that time to those people,” DuBose wrote in a Sewanee Review article commemorating the 1902 death of Confederate Gen. Wade Hampton. “Liable to many abuses and evils, it could also be the nurse of many great and beautiful virtues.”
DuBose acknowledged that abolishing slavery was “a necessary step in the moral progress of the world,” but slavery had been “a sin of which we could not possibly be guilty.” He also suggested in the same article that Black former slaves were inferior and that downtrodden white Southerners would “come to the top” of society, like oil rising above water.
The SCLM, in its proposal to remove DuBose from the church calendar, alludes to other examples of DuBose’s espousing white supremacy as late as 1914, and it cites a passage in his unpublished memoirs praising the formation of the KKK during Reconstruction: “It was an inspiration of genius – the most discreet and successful management of the situation that could have been devised.”
DuBose, the SCLM concluded, “remained unrepentant for the South’s slaveholding past” and “clung to the ideology of the slaveholding Confederacy.”
It isn’t clear precisely when DuBose was granted Episcopal sainthood. Turrell, the Sewanee seminary dean, found a liturgical reference to DuBose’s feast day as far back as 1971. The feast day was absent in a 1963 publication. The calendar’s criteria for additions call for a waiting period of 50 years after a prospective saint’s death, though that requirement sometimes is waived to consider more recent candidates. DuBose would have first qualified for a feast day in 1968.
The Episcopal Church’s Constitution states the process for removing an individual from the calendar is the same as the process for adding someone: approval by two consecutive General Conventions. That means if General Convention votes next year to delete DuBose’s feast day, he would remain on the calendar at least until 2024, when General Convention could vote a second time for the removal. ENS searched General Convention resolutions and could find no prior example of a saint being removed from “Lesser Feasts” since it was first approved as part of the major revision of the Book of Common Prayer in 1979, nor were several current and former SCLM members able to cite such a removal.
The facts about DuBose’s life may not have changed since he was added to the calendar, but the church has changed, said Fromberg, the SCLM chair.
“The church is not static. The Episcopal Church is continuing to evolve,” he said. “We are learning every day how to walk the way of love. We are learning how to appreciate the saints of the church, and so with greater learning comes greater responsibility.”
Such commemorations are called “lesser feasts” to differentiate them from Sunday worship and the calendar’s major holy days. Christmas and Easter, for example, are among the church’s seven principal feasts. Other major feasts mark moments in Jesus’ life, such as the Annunciation and the Transfiguration. Each apostle’s feast day is a major feast on the calendar, as are the secular holidays of Independence Day and Thanksgiving.
Most days of the year, though not all, have a major or lesser feast assigned to them. Sundays and major feasts take precedence in the lectionary. On other days, worship leaders may, but aren’t required to, celebrate the lesser feasts. The lectionary offers propers – designated biblical lessons, psalms and collects – to honor the saint whose life is commemorated by the feast day, typically on the person’s date of death. The saints range from influential 13th-century Italian theologian Thomas Aquinas to Harriet Bedell, a 20th-century American deaconess and missionary.
The last full revision of “Lesser Feasts and Fasts” was approved in 2006. In 2018, the SCLM proposed a new, expanded edition of “Lesser Feasts” in response to calls for a calendar that “better reflects the diversity of the church.” The existing calendar of feasts honors far more white men, especially bishops and priests, than women, people of color or lay leaders.
The proposed calendar would have drawn from the additional biographical entries contained in a supplemental church text called “A Great Cloud of Witnesses,” and it would have broken the new list of lesser feasts into two tiers. DuBose would have been among the Episcopal saints relegated to the second tier, labeled “supplemental/local commemorations.”
Although the 79th General Convention approved adding Thurgood Marshall, Pauli Murray and Florence Li Tim-Oi to the calendar, it shelved the SCLM’s broader proposal. Instead, it voted to maintain the existing list of lesser feasts while allowing some additional feasts for trial use and giving the SCLM more time to plan for the single, expanded calendar that it now is proposing to the 80th General Convention. “A Great Cloud of Witnesses” was made available to congregations, but General Convention stopped short of putting any canonical authority behind commemorations of those individuals.
For now, DuBose remains the only name on the calendar for Aug. 18, but at least two others have been considered for that date. “A Great Cloud of Witnesses” also honors Artemisia Bowden, a Black woman from North Carolina who was chosen in 1902 to lead an Episcopal vocational school for Black children in San Antonio, Texas. The school grew to become today’s St. Philip’s College, a historically Black community college.
Another potential candidate for Aug. 18 is Rosa Judith Cisneros, a Salvadoran lawyer and human rights activist who was kidnapped and killed on that day in 1981. She is remembered as an Anglican lay leader who provided legal and other assistance to El Salvador’s rural poor. Cisneros was proposed for “A Great Cloud of Witnesses” in 2015 and “Lesser Feasts” in 2018 but has yet to be approved for either calendar.
In 2019, Kathleen Moore was preparing for her ordination as a deacon in the Diocese of Vermont when then-Bishop Thomas Ely emailed her and let her know that, because it was scheduled for Aug. 18, the name of the man honored on that feast day would be printed on her ordination certificate: William Porcher DuBose.
“I did a quick Google search, and I was really concerned and really not comfortable with it,” Moore, now a priest in the Diocese of Northwestern Pennsylvania, recalled in an interview with ENS. “That was not a model of a lived vocation in the church that I wanted on this certificate forevermore.”
Moore said she asked Ely and he agreed to allow Cisneros’ name on her certificate instead of DuBose’s. “I loved that she was a lay leader, she was an activist, she was concerned with the rural poor,” Moore said. “A lot of things felt really right about it, and I got reading a bit more about her and found her to be an inspiring Christian.”
Moore serves as a supply priest while working full time as communications manager for Canticle Communications. She said she supports the effort to remove DuBose from the calendar but not because she thinks DuBose is beyond redemption.
“This is not saying that we don’t think God has DuBose,” she said. “But it doesn’t mean that we need to put him forward as a model of Christian living, which is really what the calendar is all about.”
– David Paulsen is an editor and reporter for Episcopal News Service. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.