St. Matthew’s [Episcopal Church] priest showed a small group of us the balcony, which was added to the church mid-nineteenth century to segregate its enslaved members from the landed gentry below. Those southern gentlemen imagined themselves as great fathers, writing often in their personal letters about “our family, black and white.” But they also understood the necessity of distinction. The whole plantation economy rested on everyone knowing the difference between slave and free.
We were standing at the front of the chapel, looking up at the balcony in the back, when a fellow visitor turned to the communion rail behind us and asked, ‘Were masters and slaves segregated when they came forward for Communion?’
‘Oh, no,’ said the priest matter-of-factly. ‘They had very good sacramental theology. “One Lord, one faith, one baptism. One God and Father of all.”‘
He recalled an annual report of one of his predecessors, who’d … described the scene of master and slave kneeling together at the altar, receiving the body and blood of Christ. It had seemed to him a notable image of the reconciliation Jesus Christ makes possible.
‘But is there any record of an experience like that making someone question slavery itself?’ …
Thomas Ruffin donated the land where St. Matthew’s still sits today. He was an upstanding white citizen of North Carolina in the nineteenth century and a lifelong member of the parish, where the fellowship hall still bears his name. Ruffin was also a justice on North Carolina’s Supreme Court. When a white man was convicted of assault against a woman he hired, Ruffin’s court voted in the *State vs. John Mann* to overturn the white man’s conviction. Ruffin wrote the opinion himself.
The priest had read Ruffin’s words with a pastor’s eye. He could see the man who is still buried in St. Matthew’s graveyard wrestling in every sentence with the reality he experienced at the Communion rail each Sunday. Ruffin went to great lengths to acknowledge the humanity of the slave. But legal precedent was clear. ‘The power of the master must be absolute,’ the white churchman wrote, ‘to render the submission of the slave perfect.’ Reading Ruffin’s opinion, the priest said, was ‘like watching a man tear himself in two.’Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove, *Reconstructing the Gospel: Finding Freedom from Slaveholder Religion.* InverVarsity Press, 2018, 12-14.
Still reading this book … but an early recommendation.