In the small Florida community where I grew up, there was a palatial and historically prominent mansion called the Porcher House. It was mostly abandoned when I was a teen and is now a wedding and events venue, having been restored and added to the National Historic Registry. It is a lovely piece of architecture, made of local coquina rock and bearing four stones in its façade that reflect Mrs. Porcher’s love of playing Bridge. As a child I can still remember looking for the stones carved to the shape of a diamond, heart, club and spade.
My mother was friends with a Porcher descendant, a woman who grew up as a child in that house. I remember her talking about the “good old days” before the family sold the house to the city.
When I became an Episcopalian in my teens and later went to seminary in my late twenties, I eventually came across the name William Porcher DuBose, a prominent Episcopal theologian and professor and dean of the School of Theology at the University of the South in Sewanee, Tennessee. I quickly learned from my mother’s friend that they were related. Of note, there are a ton of Porcher and DuBose descendants from South Carolina, and many descendants spread out throughout the South following the Civil War. Maybe some of them are reading this now.
When DuBose’s feast day rolls around, I enjoy the opportunity to commemorate that day and preach a bit about him and my second-degree-of-separation from him. Our diocese offers a midweek service at our cathedral and as a member of the diocesan staff I participate in the rota of leadership for those services. So this year I signed up for August 18, the day of his death in 1918.
But this year I looked at him with renewed eyes. DuBose was a product of two prominent southern families of means, raised on a plantation with hundreds of slaves, an officer and chaplain in the Confederate army, and thus represents all things to which our present national reckoning is drawing attention. He dropped out of seminary in 1861 to join the army and served as a fighting soldier. In 1863 with the influential help of family and church contacts, he was commissioned as a chaplain. What a classic example of white privilege.
Perhaps he was a brilliant theologian…but not enough prevent him from racism. One of his greatest students at Sewanee, the Rev. Edgar Gardner Murphy, became a prominent social reformer in Alabama, but only through his own white supremacist perspective. Scholar Hugh Bailey of Valdosta State University writes, “Although an avowed and vocal supporter of white supremacy, Murphy was horrified at the violence, especially lynchings, suffered by African Americans in the South and felt that the southern white upper classes should lead the masses to change their attitude. To aid in doing so, he formed the Southern Society to provide a forum for discussing racial reform.”
DuBose, too, shows tinges of regret in his later writings, and yet as late as 1902, as dean of the School of Theology, wrote the following in the Sewanee Review: “Slavery we say, is a sin, and a sin of which we could not possibly be guilty.” He used the tired argument of constitutional legitimacy rather than morality to make his point. He also talked about how the impact of the war drove his family from wealth to that of “utter impoverishment.” In his last book, Turning Points in My Life, he wrote of his life right after the war, “…our social and political condition was unendurable and hopeless.” That sounds a lot like what enslaved persons had been enduring for generations prior and would sadly keep enduring for generations to come. For DuBose, the reality was that he was still educated, landed on his feet, and led most of his adult life from the privileged ivory (pun intended) tower of academia. He may have lost his wealth, but he never lost his privilege.
His anti-war stance, once the Civil War ended, is understandable. He was wounded multiple times and personally suffered the ravages of that war. Toward the end of the war, after a defeat in Northern Virginia, he lay awake that night, pondering his relationship and understanding of God. He “redevoted myself wholly and only to God, and to the work and life of His Kingdom, whatever and wherever that might be.” That took him to Sewanee where he was undoubtedly a strong and persuasive influence on the campus, the students and the world at large through his writings. But he never had to live in the skin and shoes of an enslaved person and know what that was like, both before and after the war. Therein lies the difference. His attitude of white supremacy continued within the security of his privilege. In 1902 he wrote, “Put oil under water, and (right or wrong) it will come to the top. Put such people as the whites of any of our States as much under and as much at the mercy of not merely their late slaves, but their late slaves manipulated in mass by the leaders and for the ends that then prevailed, as was the case in the South in 1876, and what is the use of asking whether they ought to have remained at the bottom? Law and bayonets might keep them there for a while, but for how long a while was inevitably a question not of morals but of opportunity.”
In my research for this sermon and article, I was in touch with members of the history department at Sewanee and was grateful to speak with The Rev. Benjamin King, Ph.D, professor of Christian history, and associate dean for academic affairs, at the School of Theology. He described some of the honest conversations the community is having about DuBose as well as other aspects of Sewanee’s racial history through the work of the Roberson Project on Slavery, Race and Reconciliation (https://new.sewanee.edu/roberson-project/). He noted that the annual lecture series named in honor of DuBose has recently been focusing on racial reconciliation. In fact, at last year’s first lecture, Bishop Neil Alexander’s words of introduction about DuBose included this: “DuBose was a complicated man who lived in a very complicated time. But to say that is not to make an excuse for his blindness with respect to racial reconciliation, but only to name it.”
I am encouraged that institutions like Sewanee are looking inwardly at the legacy of racism in our church. Dr. King and others have begun looking more critically at DuBose’s writing, his theological writings included. I am encouraged to think that his theological “brilliance” is being given a more honest historical critique from the vantage point of his privileged heritage.
For my part, I’ve just been trying to come up with about five minutes of text to speak to this man’s legacy, on a Tuesday at noon. But I’m choking on the words. As someone raised in the South with many of the same white privileges that DuBose and Murphy enjoyed (albeit on a much smaller scale), I am still not immune from the destructive impact my privilege has on society today and on me personally. As I continue to be awakened to what God asks me to do from my context and perspective of privilege, I know one thing I am called to do: speak this truth. Flesh it out in fuller context and nuance. Not sugar-coat it in a liturgical book of naïve tributes (such as his biography in Lesser Feasts & Fasts). At this moment in time, to echo the words of Bishop Alexander, I’m choosing to honor DuBose’s legacy by being more honest and critical of it, naming that dynamic, and pondering what it can teach me about my own position of supremacy, my remaining blind spots, and the power I possess to take action from my place of privilege to be an agent and advocate of racial reconciliation and systemic transformation.
Perhaps DuBose said it best without even realizing the depth of what he wrote: “We all find contradictions in ourselves hard to reconcile and unify….there is truth to which I have all my life been coming, to which I have not yet come….[I] shall probably die waiting, for them to become true to me.”
It is my hope that this truth is now clear to him and that he has repented and reconciled with those his family held in bondage and those whose full humanity he never recognized.
The Rev. Scott Slater has served as canon to the ordinary in the Diocese of Maryland since 2010. He is active in issues of racial reconciliation and gun violence prevention, including leading prayers walks for victims of gun violence, most of whom are people of color.