The Church of the Redeemer in Morristown has had a Racial Dialogue Group since the 1990s. In 1999, it asked our Worship Committee to develop a liturgical season addressing racism and other systemic forms of oppression. Redeemer’s first Reconciliation Season began on Martin Luther King, Jr. weekend in 2000 and has continued every year since, running from MLK weekend in mid-January to the feast of Absalom Jones in mid-February.
In 2011, Reconciliation Season added a new component: worship with Bethel A.M.E. Church of Morristown. For one Sunday of the season, we leave our space (virtual or in-person) and worship with Bethel, and on another Sunday, they do the same. After doing this for 11 years, significant relationships have developed.
Because of the many incidents of police brutality in the last year, and the disproportionately high number of deaths from COVID-19 among Black and Brown people, Reconciliation Season this year was gripping. For a preacher, there was a lot to invite the congregation to consider. But I couldn’t get to the end of Reconciliation Season without considering what for me had become a haunting question: what were the circumstances of Redeemer’s founding?
The story about Redeemer’s origins suggests that at the time its members split from St. Peter’s, Morristown in 1852, they held a strong abolitionist position. Was this true? Were we being honest about our roots?
Shortly after my arrival at Redeemer in 2011, a former parishioner and sometime historian of the congregation had sent me a letter from the early 1900s, correspondence between a former rector of Redeemer and a parishioner. The century-old letter was heavily redacted – with portions literally cut out of the paper – so that no sleuth would ever be able to piece the puzzle together. It was easy to see why: it was on the topic of the role of Black people in the life of the church, and it did not cast Redeemer in a favorable light.
Then one morning in 2017, I nearly choked on my breakfast while reading a New York Times article about Columbia University’s reckoning with their connection with enslaved Black people. One of the article’s illustrations was an 1814 advertisement placed in the Poughkeepsie Journal by one of Redeemer’s two founding wardens:
NEGRO WENCH, FOR SALE. FOR Sale a sober, honest and healthy Negro Girl, of twenty one years, well acquainted with country work, and having fourteen years to serve. To prevent unnecessary trouble, the price is 150 dollars. Apply to WILLIAM A. DUER, Rhinebeck Flatts, June 1, 1814.
William A. Duer had moved to Morristown after retiring from his position as seventh president of Columbia College. The other founding warden was Alfred Vail, and it didn’t take me much research to learn that his family’s business was the Speedwell Ironworks. Because of records kept by the Morris County Historical Society, we know that Black people were integral to the Ironworks’ success and that they were not compensated. Were they indentured servants? Enslaved people?
With barely two days research I had uncovered more than enough evidence to indicate that Redeemer, like so many institutions of the time, was likely founded by people whose families had benefitted from enslaving Black people.
What is the rest of the story? And once we find out, what will we do with the information? A group has formed at Redeemer to consider these questions. My hope is that once we get closer to the truth, it will be possible to consider more deeply what Reconciliation means.