How We Could Celebrate the Legacy of Flawed Leaders

(RNS) — Is it possible to celebrate the exploits of the American founders, imbued as they are with white male supremacy? As we reassess their legacy, including their absolute limitations and flaws, are their records just too cluttered with blind spots, abuses of power, and failures to support all of humanity, no only on race, but also on gender, sexuality and many other categories. ?

Is there a middle ground between valuing these leaders and nullifying them? And if so, what do we have to lose and gain morally in the exchange?

This is as much, if not more, of a dilemma for those of us in religious institutions as for those who live in more secular contexts. And those of us in the Episcopal Church in the New York area were particularly confronted with these delicate questions as we recently celebrated the 200th anniversary of Hobart and William Smith colleges in Geneva, New York, and by extension of their founder, the Rt. Rev. John Henry Hobart.

In addition to being the college’s founder, Hobart simultaneously served as Bishop of New York and Rector of the diocese’s best-known and wealthiest church, Trinity Wall Street, from 1816 until his death in 1830 at the 54 years old. Most important early leaders, Hobart led this branch of mainstream Christianity from its decimation in New York after the American Revolution (most Episcopalians were on the wrong side) to a thriving denomination in which he confirmed more than 15,000 new members.

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Hobart had a strong view of Episcopalism as a reflection of American democratic principles. Bishops were (and are) elected by members of the Church, rather than appointed by the monarchy or the institutional hierarchy. The same is true for delegates from its churches to local and national bodies that govern the church.

Hobart worked to make the church more democratic. He crisscrossed the state, founding churches and bringing in members from outside the social elites, small towns and rural populations as well as growing towns in the state. He appointed a missionary to the Oneida people of western New York and dedicated St. Philip’s Church in New York, the first black Episcopal church in the state, and ordained its rector, the Reverend Peter Williams, as the denomination’s second black priest (after Absalom Jones in Philadelphia).

Hobart founded Geneva College, renamed for him after his death, in the upstate countryside as an educational opportunity for students away from urban ivory towers. His achievements represent an early 19th century version of today’s diversity, equity and inclusion movement.

Yet the dossier also reveals a man unwilling to upset the social order of his time. He strongly advocated keeping secular issues out of church discussions, denying any possibility of taking a public (or even private) stance against slavery or the mistreatment of Indigenous peoples.

While he visited St. Philip’s each year and proudly reported to the annual diocesan convention on his growth and progress, he kept the congregation at bay. His annual reports of these visits always described the members as “remarkably orderly and devoted in the performance of service”, a backhanded compliment expressing his surprise that this black congregation was not as noisy and disorderly as white Episcopalians assumed.

Worse, perhaps, Hobart only ordained Williams on the condition that Williams stay away from gatherings of diocesan clergy and that his church not attend the same diocesan convention. Hobart missionary to the Oneida people, Eleazar Williams, a member of the Mohawk people, was rightly proud of his accomplishments among the Oneida, but also pressured them to accept removal to Wisconsin under pressure from corporations and government. State, clearly with Hobart’s acquiescence.

So while we cannot condone Hobart’s racial attitudes as typical of his day – other white Christians were already pushing to end slavery and speaking out against Indigenous oppression and genocide – we do not can’t deny that his vision of inclusion has set the Episcopal Church on a path of opening up to the marginalized, not easily or smoothly, but eventually.

Today, women, people of color, and members of the LGBTQ+ community all hold churchwide and local leadership positions. In July, the governing bodies voted to fund an external coalition for racial equity and justice and a truth process regarding church involvement in residential schools.

Episcopal spiritual practice holds this combination of sin and forgiveness, the imperfect nature of humanity, and our trust in the possibility of reconciliation, in a tenuous balance. Perhaps, then, it is possible for a tradition to celebrate the complications of its shared past by admiring its movements toward justice and inclusion, while acknowledging the ways in which that movement has become mired in white male supremacy.

We must continue to advance this work of reassessment and reconciliation. Maybe it’s possible to stop idolizing or canceling people out and instead see those like John Henry Hobart – and ourselves – as complete, rounded, tough human beings.

(The Right Reverend R. William Franklin assists the Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Long Island. The Reverend Craig Townsend is the Diocese’s Historian-in-Residence. The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service.)

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