Freedom is God's gift of human dignity
General Convention 2006 called the Episcopal Church to confront the sin of slavery in our past. At Christ Church in Philadelphia, we put this to the test, attempting to make "a full, faithful and informed accounting of our history."
During this past summer, we brought back into focus the life of Oney Judge, household slave of one of the Episcopal Church's most prominent and revered members, President George Washington. The President's House, where George and Martha Washington lived while in Philadelphia, has been carefully excavated by the National Park Service, right in the shadow of the Liberty Bell. Under centuries of dirt, archaeologists uncovered not only the first oval office, but also the reality that the Washingtons kept nine slaves while living — and worshipping in the Episcopal Church — in Philadelphia.
Oney Judge came to Philadelphia with George and Martha Washington in 1790. She was seamstress, playmate to children and companion to Martha Washington. In 1796, after learning that she was to be a wedding present to Martha Washington's eldest granddaughter, she escaped, with the help of free blacks in Philadelphia, while the Washingtons ate dinner. Leaving from the docks in the shadow of the Christ Church steeple, she was smuggled by ship to Portsmouth, New Hampshire, and lived out her days as a free woman, marrying and bearing children of her own.
Earlier, in 1793, President Washington had signed the Fugitive Slave Act. In the current excavation of the President's house, one can see that the very office where he signed the law that would allow him to legally recapture and enslave Oney was just a few feet from the bedroom where she slept. Washington tried to recapture her for years, and she lived in fear that he would succeed. Martha Washington was certain that because Oney had been treated well, she must have been taken against her will (by a Frenchman, she thought). This was the argument President Washington used in urging officials in New England to capture and return her. But, after interviewing Oney Judge, a federal official concluded, "It appeared to me that she had not been decoyed away [by a Frenchman] as had been apprehended, but that a thirst for complete freedom which she was informed would take place on her arrival here had been her only motive for absconding."
Fearing eventual capture, Oney Judge tried to negotiate through the official that if she returned to the Washingtons, she would be set free upon their death. President Washington replied, "It would neither be politic or just to reward unfaithfulness with a premature preference [of freedom]."
Oney Judge stood her ground. Deep in her heart, she knew what the Apostle Paul preached centuries before: "For freedom, Christ has set you free. Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to yoke of slavery."
In 1848, poor and frail, Oney Judge told a newspaper reporter who asked her if she were sorry that she left the comforts and privileges of the Washingtons' home, "No, I am free, and have, I trust, been made a child of God by the means."
At Christ Church in Philadelphia, thousands of visitors from around the world came over Independence Day weekend to see the place where President Washington worshipped. We told them not only his story, but Oney Judge's. We told them that the rector, William White, was Washington's confidant and adviser and kept quiet on his sin. We told them that Absalom Jones, the first black priest of the Episcopal Church, was owned by a Christ Church Vestry member, who granted Jones freedom reluctantly when he paid for it himself. As bishop, William White first refused to ordain Absalom Jones and denied his congregation the right to be an Episcopal Church. We told our visitors that Bishop White finally ordained Absalom Jones after the goading of former Christ Church member Benjamin Rush, who had signed the Declaration of Independence and had been president of the Pennsylvania Abolition Society while being a slaveholder himself.
The visitors are not shocked but thankful that we will tell the "faithful, full and informed," accounting of the members and leaders of the Episcopal Church's unofficial national shrine. General Convention and its resolution A-123 helped us be bolder and more honest to our visitors.
I think that the Philadelphia history of President Washington and Oney Judge reminds us that freedom is not a human construct, but the gift from God of human dignity, a gift far more powerful than any human, or human society, has yet to fully honor in any one time and place. And, their history reminds us that we human beings are prone to sin, and to misuse the very gifts of God so freely bestowed to harm and hurt our brothers and sisters in Christ. Their history reminds us that our ministry, given us in the freedom for which we were made, is not complete.
I hope, as a Church, we boldly tell of our past, but then have the humility to realize that our current sins against God and neighbor are still huge and unacceptable to God. We can live in the past only as long as it helps us see, and work toward, God's unexpected future.
The Rev. Timothy Safford is rector of Christ Church, Philadelphia.