House of Deputies repudiates pro-slavery views of 19th century house president in somber vote

By David Paulsen
Posted Jun 27, 2024

[Episcopal News Service – Louisville, Kentucky] The House of Deputies repudiated the pro-slavery theology of one of its Civil War-era presidents on June 27 at the request of the host Bishop Terry White and deputation from the Diocese of Kentucky, where the deputies’ former president was a priest.

The Rev. James Craik served in Louisville for nearly 40 years, as rector of the downtown congregation that later would become Christ Church Cathedral. In 1862, the same year the House of Deputies first elected him president, Craik, a slaveholder, published a racist tract defending slavery on the grounds of white supremacy. That history had long been overlooked, until recent years, when the diocese and cathedral began researching and reckoning with its role in slavery and other racist systems.

“Our 11th president published a pamphlet containing a reprehensible theology of slavery,” the Very Rev. Becca Kello, an alternate Kentucky deputy, told the house in urging passage of Resolution D074. “I would now ask this same body meeting in this same city where he served to renounced that theology.”

Kello also gestured to the visitor gallery, where those in attendance included Macauley Lord, one of Craik’s descendants, who eagerly anticipated the vote rejecting his ancestor’s written words.

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’s 1862 pamphlet “Slavery in the South; or What Is our Present Duty to the Slaves?” 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.”

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.

The debate and passage of the resolution repudiating Craik’s beliefs provided a somber and, at times, emotion-filled interlude in the rest of the deputies’ business for the day. The Rev. Edwin Johnson, who is Black, presented the resolution on behalf of the Racial Truth-Telling, Reckoning & Healing Committee, which he chairs.

“In the same breath,” Johnson said, Craik “named slavery as an evil institution while also referring to my African-descended Black [ancestors] as a race of barbarians.”

“While it’s easy to recognize how he, and all, are a product of their time … we must also recognize the way that we as the church in the name of God have upheld and further entrenched the sins against humanity,” said Johnson, a deputy from the Diocese of Massachusetts. “This resolution does not erase or cancel, but instead enables us to acknowledge and renounce the racism incredibly apparent in Craik’s words.”

Carsten Kennedy, a Black member of the Official Youth Presence from the Diocese of the Central Gulf Coast, also spoke in favor of the resolution.

“Being a direct descendant of slaves, it pains me to believe that the former president of the House of Deputies of my beloved Episcopal Church would believe such a theology,” Kennedy said. “But it warms my heart to see The Episcopal Church take a step, such as this resolution, to repair past mistakes and acknowledge the role that the church paid in benefiting and believing in the institution of slavery.”

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, and he served five terms as president of the House of Deputies, until 1877, making him one of the longest-serving presidents in the house’s history. At that time, the president’s primary role was to preside over the house’s legislative sessions.

The Archives’ biography of Craik does not mention his pro-slavery views. Resolution D074 asks the Archives to correct that omission by updating the website.

After the floor debate, President Julia Ayala Harris invited the Rev. Lester Mackenzie, the house’s chaplain, to lead the deputies in prayer.

Mackenzie, who also is Black, appeared to fight back tears. “May we always remember that we are a human family and emphasize our interconnectedness,” he prayed. “Help us on this journey of compassion, knowing that your love sustains us.”

After Mackenzie’s prayer, Ayala Harris asked the deputies to approve the resolution by acclamation with a collective “amen,” after which, all stood and applauded.

– 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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