How we might celebrate the legacy of flawed leaders


(RNS) — Is it possible to celebrate the achievements of American founders, steeped as they are in white male supremacy? As we reassess their legacies, including their limitations and outright flaws, are their records simply too checkered with blind spots, abuses of power and derelictions of support for the full range of humanity, not only on race, but gender, sexuality and many other categories?

Is there a possible middle ground between valorizing these leaders and canceling them? And if there is, what do we stand to lose and gain morally in the exchange?

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

In addition to being the college’s founder, Hobart served simultaneously 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 age of 54. One of the Episcopal Church’s most important early leaders, Hobart led this branch of mainline 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 vision of Episcopalianism as a reflection of American democratic principles. Bishops were (and are) elected by church members, rather than appointed by monarchy or institutional hierarchy. The same goes for the delegates from its churches to the 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, from small towns and rural populations as well as the state’s growing cities. He appointed a missionary to the Oneida people of western New York and consecrated St. Philip’s Church in New York City, the state’s first Black Episcopal church, and ordained its rector, the Rev. Peter Williams, as the second Black priest in the denomination (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 far from urban ivory towers. His accomplishments amount to an early-19th-century version of today’s diversity-equity-inclusivity movement.

Yet the record also reveals a man unwilling to rock the social order of his time. He staunchly advocated keeping secular issues out of church discussions, negating any possibility of taking a public (or even private) stand against slavery or the mistreatment of Indigenous people.

While he visited St. Philip’s annually and proudly reported back to the annual diocesan convention about its growth and progress, he held the congregation at arm’s length. His annual reports about those visitations always described the members as “remarkably orderly and devout in the performance of the service,” a backhanded compliment expressing his surprise that this Black congregation was not as loud and disorderly as white Episcopalians assumed it would be.

Worse, perhaps, Hobart ordained Williams only on the condition that Williams would stay away from diocesan clergy gatherings and that his church would not attend the same diocesan convention. Hobart’s missionary to the Oneida people, Eleazar Williams, a member of the Mohawk people, was justly proud of his accomplishments among the Oneidas but also pushed them to accept removal to Wisconsin under business and state pressures, clearly with Hobart’s acquiescence. 

So while we cannot excuse Hobart’s racial attitudes as typical of his time — other white Christians were already pushing for an end to slavery and speaking out against Indigenous oppression and genocide — we can’t deny that his vision of inclusion set the Episcopal Church on a path of openness to the marginalized, not easily or smoothly, but ultimately.

Today women, people of color and members of the LGBTQ+ community all fill churchwide and local leadership positions. In July, governing bodies voted to fund an external coalition for racial equity and justice and a truth-telling process in regard to the church’s involvement in Indigenous boarding schools.

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

We must continue to push this work of reassessment and reconciliation forward. Perhaps it is possible to stop idolizing or canceling people and instead see those like John Henry Hobart — and ourselves — as full, rounded, difficult human beings.

(The Rt. Rev. R. William Franklin is assisting bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Long Island. The Rev. 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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