THE EPISCOPAL DIOCESE OF ALABAMA (1830-2010)
A BRIEF HISTORY
In February, 1828, with no apparent coordination, two Episcopal congregations were organized in Alabama. Christ Church, Tuscaloosa, was the first, and then, only two weeks later, Christ Church, Mobile, was launched. (It should be noted, however, that the congregation of the Mobile church had been worshiping as part of a Protestant “union” church with Methodists and Presbyterians since 1822.) The men and women who organized these churches were some of Alabama’s most prominent citizens. Although the Episcopal Church in Alabama has never exceeded 1% of the state’s population, it has consistently been over-represented at the highest levels of the state’s leadership by a factor of 8 to 10 (or even more). Among the prominent early 19th century Alabamians who affiliated with the Episcopal Church were Gov. John Gayle, Congressman William Lowndes Yancey, author Octavia Walton LeVert, and lawyer and newspaper editor John Withers Clay. Although a Baptist, Confederate president Jefferson Davis and his Episcopalian wife, Varina, regularly worshiped at St. John’s, Montgomery. In the 20th century, prominent Alabama Episcopalians have included actress Tallulah Bankhead and novelist Zelda Sayre Fitzgerald. Just in the 20th century Episcopalian governors served Alabama for 16 years.
The Diocese of Alabama was organized and admitted to the Episcopal Church in January, 1830, when Thomas Brownell, Bishop of Connecticut, presided over the first diocesan convention at Mobile. For the next fourteen years, the diocese would be led by a series of provisional bishops: Brownell, Jackson Kemper (Missionary Bishop of the Northwest), Leonidas Polk (Missionary Bishop of the Southwest), and James H. Otey (Bishop of Tennessee).
Nicholas Hamner Cobbs was elected Alabama’s first bishop at St. Paul’s, Greensboro, in 1844. A Virginian, Cobbs had served several parishes in Virginia before going to serve as rector of St. Paul’s, Cincinnati, Ohio. However, less than a year after going to Ohio, he was elected Bishop of Alabama. Cobbs was industrious to a fault and acquired a reputation for saintliness. At the time of his death in 1861, the diocese had grown to include 39 parishes and almost 1700 communicants. The population of the state increased by 78%, but the communicant strength of the Episcopal Diocese of Alabama increased by 164%, a rate of growth never subsequently equaled, much less exceeded.
Cobbs died at a moment of high crisis. On the very day of his death, the state of Alabama voted to secede from the Union. Just a few weeks later the bishops of the Confederate states met in Montgomery to organize the Episcopal Church in the Confederacy. One of the issues before them was the episcopal vacancy in Alabama. In the fall of 1861, Richard Hooker Wilmer, offspring of a family prominent in the evangelical wing of the Episcopal Church (his father had been instrumental in founding Virginia Theological Seminary), was elected the second Bishop of Alabama and led the diocese until his death in 1900. Wilmer was the only bishop elected and consecrated in the Confederate Episcopal Church.
To care for Confederate widows and orphans, Wilmer founded an order of deaconesses that would last until the early 20th century. Wilmer had little sympathy for the North and was an ardent Southern nationalist. When the war ended and Alabama was put under military jurisdiction, Wilmer ordered his clergy not to pray for the President of the United States, and Alabama’s military governor closed all the Episcopal churches in Alabama for a year until President Andrew Johnson rescinded his order.
In the 1870s Wilmer observed that the churches of Alabama’s fertile “black belt” (roughly the region between Tuscaloosa and Montgomery) were declining in membership, and the churches in Alabama’s “mineral region” were growing. This was the beginning of one of Alabama’s most profound socio-economic shifts as the industrial cities of Birmingham and Anniston sprang into being practically over night. When the Elyton Land Company laid out Birmingham, they set aside lots for several churches, including a prime location for an Episcopal Church. On that lot, the Church of the Advent was founded in 1871. In only a year’s time, it went from being a mission to a parish and quickly became the largest parish in the diocese (and today one of the largest in the entire ECUSA).
When Wilmer died in 1900 he was the longest serving bishop in the Episcopal Church. Toward the end of his episcopacy he was briefly assisted by Henry Melville Jackson, another Virginia priest who was elected to serve as what was then known as “assistant bishop.” Jackson, however, did not have the strength of character to be an effective bishop and was asked to step down. After Wilmer’s death, the Diocese of Alabama elected their first “native son” to serve as bishop – Robert Barnwell of St. Paul’s, Selma. Barnwell, however, died of a ruptured appendix after serving only two years as bishop.
Following Barnwell’s death in 1902, the diocese chose as their new bishop Charles Minnigerode Beckwith, the General Missioner of the Diocese of Texas. Beckwith was a “muscular Christian” of the Teddy Roosevelt school and an avid outdoorsman. He built a hunting lodge near Fairhope, which subsequently became Beckwith Lodge, the retreat center of the Diocese of the Central Gulf Coast. Beckwith, however, had an abrasive and high-handed manner and was involved in an escalating series of conflicts from the very beginning that would eventually cost him his episcopacy.
The final straw was his refusal to let a Montgomery rabbi speak at St. John’s. The rector of St. John’s defied Beckwith and let the rabbi speak anyway. Beckwith responded by having the priest tried in ecclesiastical court, but the court found the priest not guilty, and Beckwith rightly saw this as a vote of no confidence. The bishop agreed to turn over all his episcopal authority to the bishop coadjutor who was to be elected at St. Paul’s, Carlowville, in 1922. Beckwith kept his promise and continued as Bishop of Alabama in name only until his death in 1928.
The newly elected bishop coadjutor, William George McDowell, had been rector of Holy Innocents, Auburn (in effect, the campus chaplain at Auburn), and he quickly won the hearts of the people of the Diocese of Alabama. McDowell displayed a new awareness of social and political issues. McDowell and Birmingham Presbyterian pastor Henry Edmonds, worked quietly (although unsuccessfully) behind the scenes to achieve a more humane outcome in the infamous “Scottsboro case” However, like Bishop Cobbs in the early 19th century, McDowell worked himself to a state of exhaustion and finally his body gave out. In 1938, after visiting Mobile’s Trinity Church, McDowell was too ill to return to Birmingham. He was admitted to the Mobile Infirmary, diagnosed with pneumonia, and died within days.
The young rector of the Church of the Advent, Charles Colcock Jones Carpenter was elected Alabama’s sixth bishop in 1938. Still remembered with a mixture of warmth, awe, and respect by older Episcopalians in Alabama, Carpenter was larger than life in many ways. Standing 6 feet, 5 inches tall, he had been the Ivy League wrestling champion at Princeton, and he had a large, booming voice, marked by a deep, patrician Southern accent. His enormous hands and his voice made an indelible impression on those he confirmed: “May you daily increase mo-ah and mo-ah in the Holy Spirit…”
In almost every way, Carpenter proved an effective leader for the Diocese of Alabama. He was fortunate in presiding over the diocese during the “baby boom” that followed World War II, a time when almost every religious group in the U.S. was experiencing growth. During Carpenter’s episcopacy St. Luke’s (Mountain Brook), Ascension (Vestavia Hills) and St. Thomas (Huntsville) were founded as missions but quickly became large parishes. Other churches that had long been missions also achieved parish status, such as St. Andrew’s (Tuskegee), and Epiphany (Guntersville); and new missions were founded: Grace (Cullman); St. Alban’s (Birmingham); St. Christopher’s (Huntsville); St. Stephen’s (Huntsville); and St. Matthias (Tuscaloosa).
Among Carpenter’s most significant accomplishments was the founding of a permanent diocesan camp named after his predecessor. A summer camp program for young people had begun under Bishop McDowell, but under Carpenter the diocese took steps to put camping on a firm and permanent foundation by acquiring land in Winston County (near Jasper) and establishing Camp McDowell, sometimes called the “heart of the diocese.” Three generations of young people have attended Camp McDowell and/or worked as counselors. Camp McDowell continues to expand its facilities and program, and it is in constant demand, not only by Episcopalians but also by other groups.
Carpenter’s leadership during the Civil Rights movement is still controversial and disputed, but it seems fair to say that he was more backward-looking than forward-looking during the Civil Rights struggle. On two very significant occasions Carpenter took positions that would paint him and the people he led as reactionaries. When Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., announced plans to demonstrate in Birmingham during Holy Week, 1963, Carpenter and six other religious leaders urged King to wait. King responded devastatingly in his “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” pointing out that “to the Negro, ‘Wait’ has almost always meant ‘Never’.” Two years later when King organized the Selma to Montgomery march for voting rights, Carpenter did everything in his power to prevent Episcopal clergy from participating in the march, which he termed “foolishness.” However, it should be noted that Carpenter had good relationships with black clergy in his diocese; he facilitated meetings between Birmingham’s black and white leadership in his office; and it was on his watch that Camp McDowell was integrated.
The deaths of four young girls in the bombing of Birmingham’s 16th Street Baptist Church in September, 1963, served as a catalyst for passage of the 1964 civil rights act. But it was the death of Episcopal seminarian Jonathan Daniels in August, 1965, that brought home to many Episcopalians in Alabama and elsewhere the potential for violence in the civil rights struggle. A student at the Episcopal Theological Seminary in Cambridge, Massachusetts, Daniels was a native of New Hampshire and a graduate of Virginia Military Institute. Inspired by King’s summons to clergy of all faiths to come and march in Selma, Daniels’ came to Selma in early 1965. He stayed on to help register black voters and tried to build bridges between the black and white communities. In August, Daniels was arrested for participating in a demonstration in Lowndesboro. After a few days in the county jail in Hayneville, Daniels and his fellow demonstrators were released. Daniels, Catholic priest Richard Morrisroe, and two young black women walked from the jail to a nearby store to buy cold drinks. At the store Tom Coleman, a state highway department employee, confronted them and aimed a shotgun at one of the young women. As Coleman fired, Daniels stepped in front of the young woman, taking the blast and dying almost instantly. Coleman also fired his shotgun at the fleeing Morrisroe, hitting him in the back. In spite of vigorous prosecution by the Alabama Attorney General, Coleman argued that he had acted in self-defense and was found not guilty by a jury made up exclusively of white men.
Carpenter retired at the end of 1968. He had been in poor health for some time and died less than a year after retiring. George Murray, Bishop Coadjutor of Alabama, (and also a signer of the letter urging Dr. King not to demonstrate) became the seventh bishop of Alabama. More liberal than his predecessor, Murray urged Alabama Episcopalians to find ways to participate in President Johnson’s “Great Society” programs. However, Murray’s most significant achievement was to successfully divide Alabama into two dioceses, a project that had been discussed in the Diocese of Alabama almost from the very beginning.
After a long period of study, the Diocese of the Central Gulf coast was created in 1970 out of the lower third of Alabama (below Montgomery) and the Florida panhandle. Murray chose to step down as the seventh Bishop of Alabama and become the first Bishop of the Central Gulf Coast. In Murray’s place, the people of Alabama elected native Alabamian Furman Stough, the rector of Trinity Church, Florence, and a former missionary to Okinawa.
Stough proved to be a bishop of energy, vision, and ambition. He established a companion diocese relationship between Alabama and South Africa’s Diocese of Namibia; he gave his blessing to and helped plan and build federally-supported housing for low income elderly persons (Episcopal Place in Birmingham); and he oversaw the Church of the Advent’s re-designation as the cathedral of the diocese. Stough was also nominated for Presiding Bishop in 1986 but lost to his close friend, Edmond Browning, Bishop of Hawaii. Browning invited Stough to join his staff as director of the Presiding Bishop’s Fund (now Episcopal Relief and Development). However, after a short time in New York, Stough returned to Alabama.
Stough served as bishop of Alabama during one of the most tumultuous decades in the history of the Episcopal Church. In 1976 the General Convention voted to replace the 1928 Book of Common Prayer with a new prayer book and authorized the ordination of women as priests and bishops. Stough ordained Alabama’s first woman priest, Marianne Bogel, a hospital chaplain, in 1977.
In 1989, Alabama’s Bishop Suffragan, Robert Oran Miller, a former United Methodist minister, was elected to succeed Stough. Miller’s episcopacy was not much less tumultuous than Stough’s. Gay and lesbian Episcopalians increasingly insisted on full inclusion in the church. An Integrity chapter, the organization of gay and lesbian Episcopalians, was organized in the diocese in 1991, and the diocese established a taskforce to deal with the AIDS pandemic.
In 1997 Miller announced his intention to retire following the election of a bishop coadjutor. The diocese chose Henry Nutt Parsley, Jr., rector of Christ Church in Charlotte, North Carolina, who became the tenth Bishop of Alabama when Miller retired. Parsley’s episcopacy has been characterized by a more intentional and assertive program of church growth by planting new churches in growing communities. In 2006, Parsley became the second bishop of Alabama to be nominated for Presiding Bishop but lost to Nevada bishop, Katharine Jefferts Schori, the first woman to hold the highest position in the Episcopal Church. Also in 2006, the Diocese of California elected Marc Andrus, Alabama’s bishop suffragan, as eighth Bishop of California. John McKee Sloan, a native Mississippian serving as rector of St. Thomas’s, Huntsville, was elected to replace Andrus in 2008.
In The Power of Their Glory (1978), a sociological study of the Episcopal Church, Kit and Frederica Konolige observe, “To a large degree, the Episcopal Church produced . . . America.” The same could be said of Alabama. The Episcopal Church in Alabama began as the church of the planter aristocracy and became the church of the industrial barons. Episcopalians have a distinguished record of leading Alabama and its institutions. For the most part, the Diocese of Alabama has been very well served by its bishops and priests. However, the religious landscape of the 21st century will be very different from the recent past. In some ways, it will be more like the situation Bishop Cobbs faced in 1844; Alabama will be more religiously fragmented, and more and more groups will be competing in the religious marketplace. Once again the Episcopal Church in Alabama will have to win the right to be heard, to organize congregations in groups new to the state, and to commend itself by its commitment to gospel. It would be well for Alabama’s Episcopalians to keep in mind what Bishop Carpenter frequently told those he confirmed:“Remember who you are and what you represent.”