War, Racism, and The National Cathedral

The Cathedral Church of Saint Peter and Saint Paul in the City and Diocese of Washington, better known as The National Cathedral, has a rich and unknown history. In order to grasp historical nuances of The National Cathedral, an examination of  Washington D.C. post-Revolutionary War, War of 1812,  Civil War, and Spanish-American war  is needed. As America expanded, Pierre L’enfant’s idea for a national house of worship became needed and feasible.  A critiquing of the policies and ideas of Bishop Satterlee and  Bishop Stokes is also necessary to understand the historical nuances of the Cathedral. The plan of a National house of worship, was set in motion in 1893 by Act of Congress. The Gothic style Cathedral was completed in 1990 but, not without many detours along the way.

Religion during The Revolutionary War saw America break away from the protection and financial support of The Church of England. The rift between the colonies and England could be seen through the fact, Thomas Jefferson, rewrote The Bible.[1] More importantly, Jefferson rewrote The King James Bible, which to England could be a religious issue but, also a political threat. This religious and political disconnect from the newly formed United States and England took another turn, America needed bishops and England was unwilling to ordain them. One of the conditions for England to ordain a bishop is an oath of allegiance to the King of England, which no American would utter.[2]

American bishops looked towards the Scottish Presbyterian Church, who maintained their Anglican roots after The Reformation.[3] The Scottish Church would ordain and support American Bishops, under the condition, the American Prayer book was shaped after the Scottish Prayer book. The Scottish prayer book used many Eastern Orthodox liturgies, in order to preach a more authentic Christianity in their eyes.

It is imperative to investigate the relationship between the Maryland Diocese and the formation of the Dioceses of Washington as a separate entity.  Before the creation of the Dioceses of Washington in 1895, there were suggestions of dividing the Dioceses of Maryland between two bishops. This suggestion would come from no other than the first Bishop of Maryland, Thomas John Claggett. [4] Claggett and the 1791 Convention suggested that the Dioceses of Maryland be separated between the Eastern and Western shore of the Chesapeake. [5] The division did not go through and to make matters worse, less than 25 years later, the War of 1812 devastated Washington DC.

On August 24th, 1814 British troops entered Washington DC and began a twenty-six hour burning spree of the city. The war between America and England was entering the third year when the young city of Washington DC was occupied. [6] By the time the English forces had set foot into D.C. after defeating American troops in Bladensburg, 90 percent of the residents in Washington had evacuated.[7]  Documents from the House of Representatives were loaded onto an oxen pulled wagon and transported to a safe house in Virginia.[8] The State Department was just as disorganized,  the Declaration of Independence and Constitution were loaded into a backpack and taken across the Potomac River.[9]

The Navy Yard was set ablaze by American forces to hinder the movements of the British.[10] This did not stop the Library of Congress and three thousand volumes of books from being burned in a bonfire by British troops.[11] British forces also set their sights on The White House which was torched but, not before they ate and drank at the President’s table.[12] The British abandoned Washington D.C. before American troops could block their escape route but, the damage had been done.

Any conversation for a Washington Diocese would be unfathomable due to the lack of a working Washington DC. Unlike Washington DC; Baltimore and the Maryland Diocese was left intact by the victory at Fort McHenry. An account of the British bombardment of Fort McHenry survives from the hands of Lt. Colonel Armistead to the Secretary of War. The British would try to climb ladders to storm the fort, but constant battery fire would drive them off. [13] An American flotilla  also repealed British advancement by constant battery fire.[14] After twenty five hours of bombardment, eighteen hundred shells were thrown by British forces; only two public building had been destroyed and four American lives were lost.[15] The victory would be commemorated by Francis Scott Key in a poem called The Star Spangled Banner, later becoming the American National Anthem.

By 1830, Washington had twice the population of Alexandria, Virginia and once again the separation of the Diocese of Maryland would be suggested. This time, Washington D.C. was seeking to become independent instead of simply being caught in the division of the Dioceses of Maryland.[16]Unfortunately, after the War of 1812, Washington D.C. was still struggling to muster the support for a separate Diocese. The aftermath of The Civil War as devastating as it was, Washington D.C. went through a dramatic transformation. The defenseless Washington D.C. of 1814 was no more and by 1864, Washington D.C. was the most fortified city in North America. Washington D.C was home of 68 forts, 807 cannons. 93 mortars, and 20 miles of rifle trenches.[17]

Serious defences on Washington started on May 23rd 1861 after much delay from Congress.[18] Overnight the security of D.C. became paramount and The Capital along with other important government buildings was taken as possessions of the military.[19]  This was the correct move as Confederate General Jubal Early would plan to march on Washington D.C. in a bold and brash ambush. On July 10th 1864, General Early and his forces would appear in Rockville, just miles away from Washington D.C. [20]

The rapid speed of the Confederate forces put them in Tenleytown and Silver Spring within days. On July 11th, General Early would take the Georgetown Pike and Seventh Street.[21] The same day General Early would set his sights on Fort Stevens in Washington D.C. and search for a weak spot. Union Forces from New York and Vermont were already stationed in Washington D.C. for support. By July 12th, the remaining Confederate troops were driven back and the wooded areas area major roads were occupied. [22]

Washington D.C. was the center for construction contracts, supply contracts, and troops during this time. [23] The population swelled to 200,000 and was the undisputed capital of The United States. Washington also became the home of the most influential and affluent people in the country who had the means to push an independent Dioceses of Washington.[24] An Act of Congress passed on January 6th, 1893 created the Protestant Episcopal Church Foundation.[25] The next step was the formal creation of the Washington Dioceses on October 8th, 1895 and the election of Henry Yates Satterlee as Bishop.[26] The Progressive Era was forming in America and many changes were occurring within America including within Christianity. The newly formed Dioceses of Washington had to take positions on many movements during the Progressive Era

One of these movements was the Oxford movement which started in England and looked to remind the English Church of its Catholic past. One aspect of the Oxford movement that had to be realized was that many of the ceremonial practices were in fact Catholic in origin. One person who approached the Oxford movement with speculation was Henry Satterlee the first Bishop of the National Cathedral.[27] According to Bishop Satterlee, “it is another thing to adopt and push the scientific method of research to the spiritual world”.[28]

Another one of the movements was the Social Gospel movement which, Satterlee approached with just as much speculation. The Social Gospels called for a renewal in Christian understanding in order to solve Progressive Era issues. The moral standards and social fiber was being torn according to the Social Gospels. The Christian church needed new ways to tackle these issues. Satterlee, agreed issues needed to be addressed, but rejected the notion they were too complex for an orthodox understanding of Christianity.[29] As the Social Gospels preached that personal salvation was no longer enough; Satterlee clung to the idea that personal salvation was key. [30]

Satterlee also believed that contemporary philosophy and scientific ideologies were incomplete and  other religions fell short of God’s revelation. Satterlee was on a mission to create a “primitive church”, one untouched by Roman Catholic power.[31] Satterlee wanted a representative priesthood, as he, rejected the meditative priesthood found in Roman Catholicism. According to Satterlee, “ in the representative priesthood he is simply Christ’s priesthood to the people”. [32]

When it came to a location for the Cathedral, Satterlee had  a vision for the land between Massachusetts Avenue and Wisconsin Avenue known on Mount Saint Alban.[33] Satterlee saw this area as a future residence of the wealthy; and Cleveland Park the home of “the humbler class”. [34] Satterlee would settle on Mount Saint Alban for the price of 245,000 dollars.[35]  Now that the building and theology was set in stone, the construction of the Cathedral could begin.

There were many proposals for Cathedral designs such as the Renaissance inspired design by Ernest Flagg.[36] Flagg believed that the Gothic style was obsolete and limited in construction techniques. Renaissance architecture according to Flagg, defined the modern times and liberal ideas, as Gothic architecture was symbolic of medieval thought and superstition.[37]  His French Renaissance design was known as “The Vatican II”. [38]  Satterlee referred to Gothic architecture as, “God’s style”, and undoubtedly found issue with the title of “Vatican II”. After financial failures and much politicking, the Gothic design was accepted.

When exploring how the National Cathedral became “national”, examining Satterlee’s stance on issues would definitely sway how the Cathedral was shaped. When the American wind blew one direction, the Cathedral seemed to be a leaf caught in the breeze, simply blowing along with the other leaves. America, as a country, had not seen warfare since the Civil War. Many of the political aftermath between the Northern and Southern states was still settling. With the sinking of USS Maine, on February, 15th 1989, while on a mission in Cuba, the Spanish were America’s new enemy.[39]  The Spanish-American War was a three month battle from April to August 1898, which saw the collapse of the Spanish Empire. Satterlee, used the Cathedral as center stage to parrot “Manifest Destiny rhetoric of his time in religious language”.[40]  As America swallowed Cuba and the Philippines into their empire, a new chance to spread Gospels to a Catholic majority was wide open.

As The United States was in search of new markets, Cuba who was revolting against their Spanish colonizers, was right for the taking. Not only would Spain cede Cuba, but Puerto Rico and other West India islands as well. [41] On October 23td 1895, The National Cathedral would unveil The Peace Cross, to celebrate the end of the Spanish-American War. This would be the first time the Cathedral would be have a role in a national event. [42] Satterlee also looked to connect with the English Anglican community by inviting The Bishop of London to the event.[43]

Consequently, Satterlee did not see America’s actions as imperialistic, but the flexing of a healthy growing nation. [44]  In fact, he saw the American victory as “God given vindication of the United States”.[45] Satterlee would support missionary missions in America and overseas, as he wished to help “elevate the position of America among nations”. [46] Satterlee was no fan of nuance either as he said, “never take sides against the United States…because-God is behind America”. [47]

Satterlee, although outspokenly against the social gospels, preached that Christians should work to establish the Kingdom of God. According to Satterlee, “worship and voting were separate categories that should not be mixed”. [48] Although he preached that political activism was not desirable, he looked to unite the Northern and Southern whites by evangelization of Blacks in the country.[49] He labeled the issue of preaching the gospels to Blacks as, “the negro problem”. [50]

The Cathedral, Satterlee, and Washington DC must be looked at through the lense of their time. In the 1900’s Washington DC was deeply segregated and the Cathedral under Satterlee looked to be progressive for their times by preaching inclusion of African Americans, if not equality.  The issue with Satterlee’s statement is that African Americans established an Episcopal Church in 1787. Congregations would be established in Washington DC by 1850 and spread as far as California. [51] It is plausible that Satterlee did not know  African Americans had their own Episcopal Church. The only issue is that Satterlee and Bishop Benjamin A. Arnett, of the African Methodist Episcopal Church were involved in the 1893 World Parliament of Religions.

Arnett would address the crowd, reminding the attendees that African Americans have an important position in the formation of Christianity.[52] Satterlee would acknowledge the event, but did not endorse the event. Satterlee believed that there was no other way to salvation, not the remembrance of Buddha, Mohammed, or Confucius, but only Jesus. [53] Satterlee, knew of other religions, so undoubtedly knew of the African Episcopal Church as well. This mindset Satterlee held of other religions, “the negro problem”, showed in the formation of Washington.  The Cathedral had no answer to the racial issues rampant in Washington D.C. during this time.

The Cathedral along with Washington D.C. would make a drastic shift when Anson Stokes was elected as Bishop in 1924. Stokes would work to improve race relations in Washington as well as women’s rights. In 1933, Stokes would ask secretary of labor Frances Perkins to speak at the Cathedral on Labor Day. [54] Stokes also worked on public housing and educational improvement for African Americans. [55]

Stokes was also vocal on allowing Marian Anderson to perform at Constitution Hall in 1939. The Daughters of the American Revolution refused to allow Anderson access to the venue, even after a petition was signed by the Philadelphia Orchestra and several music professionals.[56]  Stokes would write, “I felt up against a stone role of prejudice”, when speaking of the Daughters of the Revolution. Although, Anderson would be forced to perform at the Lincoln Memorial, Stokes made his voice heard against racism and sexism.

Wartime Washington D.C. put The National Cathedral in a position in which it could flourish into existence. A National Cathedral was necessary from the first day after the Revolutionary War but, the struggle for Bishops was a key issue. The War of 1812 competently decimated the Nation’s Capital thus a National Cathedral and Dioceses of Washington was hard to fathom. At the onset of the Civil War, Washington D.C. was protected and fortified. and attracted wartime business and political influence. The Washington Dioceses and National Cathedral was able to form and grow under a protected and prosperous Washington D.C.

Washington D.C. and the National Cathedral have an intimate relationship that has lasted for generations. As Washington grew so did the Dioceses of Washington and The National Cathedral. Satterlee and the Cathedral put a smokescreen on American racism and imperialism as God’s work. Stokes worked to improve the condition of women and African American by being a voice for the voiceless. It is hard to determine if Washington D.C influenced the National Cathedral or vice versa. What is certain is that people shape cities and people shape religion. The National Cathedral is the fusion of city and religious life.

[1] Christopher Webber, Welcome to the Episcopal Church,(Harrisburg,Morehouse Publishing, 1989), 7.  

[2] Webber, Welcome to the Episcopal Church,9.

[3] Webber, Welcome to the Episcopal Church,8.

[4] Richard Hewlett, The Creation of the Diocese of Washington and the National Cathedral,( Anglican and Episcopal History Vol 71, No 3, 2002), 350.  

[5] Hewlett, The Creation of the Dioceses of Washington and The National Cathedral,350.

[6] Anthony Pitch, The Burning of Washington,(www./www.whitehousehistory.org/history/documents/White-House-History-04-Pitch-Burning-1814.pdf), 2.

[7] Pitch, The Burning of Washington, 4.

[8] Pitch, The Burning of Washington, 7.

[9] Pitch, The Burning of Washington, 7.

[10] Pitch, The Burning of Washington, 8.

[11] Pitch, The Burning of Washington,8.

[12] Pitch, The Burning of Washington,8.

[13] Account of General George Armstead to Secretary of War, James Monroe, chrome-extension://ecnphlgnajanjnkcmbpancdjoidceilk/http://www.umbc.edu/che/tahlessons/pdf/The_Star-Spangl_RS__1.2.pdf

[14] Account of General George Armstead to Secretary of War, James Monroe, chrome-extension://ecnphlgnajanjnkcmbpancdjoidceilk/http://www.umbc.edu/che/tahlessons/pdf/The_Star-Spangl_RS__1.2.pdf


[15] Account of General George Armstead to Secretary of War, James Monroe, chrome-extension://ecnphlgnajanjnkcmbpancdjoidceilk/http://www.umbc.edu/che/tahlessons/pdf/The_Star-Spangl_RS__1.2.pdf

[16] Hewlett, The Creation of the Dioceses of Washington and The National Cathedral, 352.

[17] “Washington’s Civil War Defences and Battle of Fort Stevens, Civil War Trust, accessed April 14th. 2014, http://www.civilwar.org/battlefields/fortstevens/fort-stevens-history-articles/washingtons-civil-war.html.

[18] William Cox, The Defences of Washington-General Early’s Advance on the Capital and the Battle of Fort Stevens,(Historical Society of Washington, Vol 4, 1901), 135.

[19] Cox,The Defence of Washington, 135.

[20] Cox, The Defence of Washington, 140.

[21] Cox, The Defence of Washington, 145.

[22] Cox, The Defences of Washington, 150.

[23] Hewlett, The Creation of the Dioceses of Washington and The National Cathedral, 356.

[24] Hewlett, The Creation of Dioceses of Washington and The National Cathedral, 356.

[25] Quinn, A House of Prayers for all People, 3.

[26] Hewlett, Creation of the Dioceses of Washington and The National Cathedral, 350.

[27] Frederick Quinn, A House of Prayer for all People:A History of Washington National Cathedral,(New York, Morehouse Publishing, 2014),1.

[28] Quinn, A House of Prayer for all People, 19.

[29] Richard Hewlett, The Foundation Stone:Henry Yates Satterlee and the Creation of the Washington National Cathedral,(Rockville, Montrose Press, 2007), 32.  

[30] Hewlett, The Foundation Stone, 32.

[31] Quinn, A House of Prayer for all People, 27.

[32] Quinn, A House of Prayer for all People, 29.

[33] Quinn. A House of Prayer for all People, 6.

[34] Quinn, A House of Prayer for all People, 6.

[35] Quinn, A House of Prayer for all People, 6.

[36] Hewlett, The Foundation Stone, 46.

[37] Quinn, A House of Prayer for all People, 9.

[38] Quinn, A House of Prayer for all People, 9.

[39] Oscar Carlstrom, The Spanish American War,(Chicago, University of Illinois Press, 1923), 105.

[40] Quinn, A House of Prayer for all People, 40.

[41] Matthew Jacobson, Barbarian Virtues:The United States Encounter with Foreign Peoples at Home and Abroad,(New York, Hill and Wang, 2001), 44.

[42] Hewlett, The Foundation Stone, 66.

[43] Hewlett, The Foundation Stone, 66.

[44] Quinn, A House of Prayer for all Peoples, 43.

[45] Quinn, A House of Prayer for all People, 42.

[46] Quinn, A House of Prayer for all People, 42.

[47] Quinn, A House of Prayer for all People, 43.

[48] Quinn, A House of Prayer for all People,44.

[49] Quinn, A House of Prayer for all People, 45.

[50] Quinn, A House of Prayer for all People, 45.

[51]Our History”, http://www.ame-church.com/our-church/our-history/.

[52]Our History”, http://www.ame-church.com/our-church/our-history/.

[53] Quinn, A House of Prayer for all Peoples, 42.

[54] Quinn. A House of Prayer for all Peoples, 75.

[55] Quinn, A House of Prayer for all Peoples, 77.

[56] Quinn, A House of Prayer for all Peoples, 78.


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