Civil War-era House of Deputies president’s pro-slavery views were long overlooked, until now

By David Paulsen
Posted Jun 20, 2024

[Episcopal News Service] One of the longest-serving presidents in House of Deputies history, the Rev. James Craik, was a Civil War-era Kentucky priest and slaveholder whose racist views on slavery and African Americans have since been disavowed by his diocese for openly promoting white supremacy.

Much of the controversy over Craik’s views centers on a pamphlet he wrote in 1862 entitled “Slavery in the South; or What Is our Present Duty to the Slaves?” In it, he described the enslaved as “a race of barbarians, gradually degraded by many thousand years of ignorance and brutishness to the lowest stage of humanity” but now under the care of “the most enlightened and civilized race upon the globe.”

James Craik

The Rev. James Craik was rector of Christ Church in Louisville, Kentucky, from 1844 go 1882. He also served five terms as House of Deputies president. Photo: Christ Church Cathedral

Craik, in addition to presiding over the House of Deputies from 1862 to 1877, served as rector of Christ Church in Louisville from 1844 until the year he died, 1882. Christ Church became the Diocese of Kentucky’s cathedral the following decade.

This year, with Louisville preparing to host the 81st General Convention from June 23-28, Kentucky Episcopalians are inviting the wider church to join local efforts “to repudiate these horrific words from a former priest of this church.” The diocese’s deputation submitted a memorial statement drawing attention to Craik’s pro-slavery theology. A separate resolution will ask General Convention to renounce that theology as part of the church’s broader and ongoing reckoning with its complicity in slavery and other racists systems.

“The clergy and people of Christ Church Cathedral and the Diocese of Kentucky have undertaken steps to repent of, and continue to reckon with and repudiate, the horrific words contained in this pamphlet, and engage in ongoing healing and reconciliation,” Bishop Terry White said in a written statement for this story. “Now the 81st General Convention, convening in Louisville, is asked to join us in repudiating this anti-Christian statement by a past leader of The Episcopal Church.”

Kentucky was a slave state in 1861 at the start of the Civil War, and though initially declaring itself neutral, it had benefited greatly from the slave trade. Craik, despite arguing for preservation of the Union, wrote his pamphlet in defense of slavery as an institution, which he said ultimately benefited the enslaved Africans more than their white enslavers.

“It does not get better from there,” the Diocese of Kentucky’s deputation writes in its memorial statement summarizing Craik’s views. “Ultimately, Craik’s argument is that the institution of slavery, while a burden to whites and a blessing to the enslaved, must continue to protect the social order of America and to continue bestowing upon the enslaved ‘the blessing of religion, moral, and intellectual culture.'”

The deputation now calls on the 81st General Convention “to acknowledge the role our leadership played in the institution of chattel slavery, to repent of the ongoing benefits procured unto us by the same and to publicly renounce the thoughts, words, and actions of the 11th president of the House of Deputies, the Rev. James Craik.”

Members of Christ Church Cathedral have spent recent years researching Craik as part of the congregation’s attempt to tell the fuller story of its own historic role in perpetuating racist systems.

Christ Church Cathedral

Christ Church in downtown Louisville became the Diocese of Kentucky’s cathedral in 1894, about a decade after the death of its Civil War-era rector, the Rev. James Craik. On June 26, the House of Bishops will occupy the cathedral for a closed session to elect the next presiding bishop at the 81st General Convention. Photo: David Paulsen/Episcopal News Service

“For us, our Episcopal church has been reckoning for a long time with our complicity in the structures, racist structures, that enabled and promoted chattel slavery,” the Very Rev. Matt Bradley, dean of the cathedral, said in an interview with ENS. The congregation’s discovery of Craik’s 1862 tract was shocking. “We find it to be anathema to our reading of the Gospel today.”

Now, Bradley said, it is important to tell the truth about the views espoused by Craik, when he was a leader of both the Louisville congregation and The Episcopal Church’s House of Deputies. “Many people in the wider church still do not know what he wrote,” he said.

Craik, the grandson of a Revolutionary War-era physician, was born in Virginia in 1806, according to a short biography on The Episcopal Church Archives’ website. The Archives’ biography reported he served as a deputy to General Convention from 1842 to 1882. It does not mention Craik’s pro-slavery views.

It does, however, reference a speech Craik gave to the Kentucky House of Representatives in 1859 urging the state to remain in the Union. Craik then described the United States as carrying out a kind of divinely ordained mission under white European rule – “that Teutonic race which had already proven itself to be before and above all other races for perseverance, endurance, indomitable energy, the spirit of adventure and strong common sense.”

“God has called us to a station high above all people in working out his purposes of goodwill toward men,” he said.

Three years later, on Oct. 1, 1862, at General Convention in New York, Craik was elected House of Deputies president by a unanimous voice vote after the other three named candidates withdrew, according to the General Convention Journal. At that time, the role’s primary function was to preside over business when the House of Deputies was in session every three years.

At the 1862 convention, Craik oversaw a vote on a resolution lamenting the Confederacy’s “extensive rebellion” against the United States and the divisions it had caused within The Episcopal Church. During the war, leaders of about a dozen southern dioceses voted to align with the Confederacy, organized themselves as the Protestant Episcopal Church in the Confederate States and did not attend General Convention in 1862.

Craik and other Diocese of Kentucky leaders remained loyal to The Episcopal Church. After the war, the Southern Episcopalians were welcomed back into The Episcopal Church and again participated at General Convention. Craik was re-elected the deputies’ president in 1865 on his way to presiding at five straight General Convention meetings.

After his death, he was memorialized by the House of Deputies in 1883, including for being the author of “several works valuable in theological controversy and literature, and having a large foreign as well as home reputation.”

The Kentucky deputies’ resolution to the 81st General Convention includes language asking The Episcopal Church Archives to update its online biography of Craik to acknowledge the pro-slavery views he promoted in “Slavery in the South.”

One of Craik’s descendants, Macauley Lord, has conducted his own genealogical research paralleling the cathedral’s historical inquiries. Lord, 68, grew up in Louisville but has lived most of his adult life in Maine. He told ENS he was unaware of Craik’s 1862 pamphlet until cathedral leaders brought it to his attention in the past year.

“It’s really sickening,” he said. Craik and other ancestors of Lord’s “had a lot to do with supporting slavery in the United States.” Lord said he also determined that Craik first inherited his family’s slaves at age 9. “That’s going to corrupt the soul of any human being.”

Lord plans to be in Louisville during General Convention, to follow deliberations on the Kentucky deputation’s Craik resolution and to participate in a workshop about Craik at the cathedral.

Bishop Terry White

Kentucky Bishop Terry White spoke about his diocese’s research into the Rev. James Craik’s pro-slavery views during White’s remarks in January to Executive Council, which was meeting in downtown Louisville. Photo: David Paulsen/Episcopal News Service

The Diocese of Kentucky, which includes the western half of the state, has prioritized racial reconciliation and anti-racism work at least since 2016, White said, and those efforts gained urgency after the March 2020 killing of Breonna Taylor, a Black EMT, who was shot to death in her Louisville home by police executing a “no knock” warrant.

Taylor’s death, along with the killings of other unarmed Black victims, Ahmaud Arbery in Georgia and George Floyd in Minnesota, fueled a nationwide reckoning that year with the legacy of racism that still can be found embedded in American institutions, including its churches.

In June 2020, Executive Council passed a resolution condemning the killings and approved $150,000 each for the dioceses of Minnesota and Kentucky “support their continuing work of dismantling the systemic racism we have created in this country and still permeates our church and society.” Additional grants of $75,000 each were later approved for the dioceses of Georgia and Atlanta.

The Rev. Steve Pankey, a Bowling Green priest and deputy from the Diocese of Kentucky, was lead author of the deputation’s statement about Craik’s views. He told ENS he hopes it will “raise awareness of a sliver of the awfulness that is in that pamphlet.” The timing is right, he added, with Kentucky hosting the 81st General Convention.

“I don’t think we can let a General Convention in Louisville go by without something being said about it.”

– David Paulsen is a senior reporter and editor for Episcopal News Service based in Wisconsin. He can be reached at dpaulsen@episcopalchurch.org.


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