The Episcopal Church in Mississippi traces its roots back to British West Florida in the late eighteenth century, about the time that the American Episcopal Church formed out of the remnants of the Church of England. The region around Natchez was the most settled area in what became Mississippi, and the Rev. Adam Cloud arrived there in 1789 or 1790 as the first Episcopal minister. The Rev. Adam Boyd came to Natchez in 1800 and conducted regular services with the Book of Common Prayer at the courthouse. Worshippers built Christ Church at Church Hill in 1815, making it the oldest Episcopal church in the state. Other early Episcopal churches were Trinity Church, Natchez; St. Paul’s, Woodville; and St. John’s (now St. James’s) in Port Gibson. The first convention of the diocese met in Natchez on 17–18 May 1826. Five clergymen, with no bishop, served fewer than one hundred congregants as the church worked to gain a foothold in what was already becoming a culture dominated by evangelical Protestants.
Native American Removal in the northern and central parts of Mississippi opened those areas to settlement by white Americans and their slaves, and Bishop James Hervey Otey of the Diocese of Tennessee began visiting the state in the 1830s, playing a supervisory role as provisional bishop beginning in 1835. The church consecrated William Mercer Green as the first permanent bishop of Mississippi in 1850. In that year, 506 congregants participated in Episcopal services in the state. Under Bishop Green, the church’s most significant work included the establishment of schools, among them St. Andrew’s College, which opened in 1852. Green also encouraged the church’s ministry to African Americans, with clergy baptizing more than four hundred slaves in 1860. At the beginning of the Civil War, the church was established throughout the state, but its strength remained in the southwest.
Mississippi Episcopalians helped found the University of the South before the war and joined the Protestant Episcopal Church in the Confederate States of America before reuniting with other American Episcopalians after the war. The conflict caused great upheaval in the diocese, as it did in the rest of the state, including the destruction of property and disruption of services. Green continued to encourage the church’s ministry to African Americans, ordaining the state’s first African American deacon, George H. Jackson, in 1874. Green served until 1883, when he was succeeded as bishop by Hugh Miller Thompson. Thompson designated St. Peter’s church in Oxford to serve as a cathedral church from 1883 to 1887, with St. Columb’s Cathedral in Jackson consecrated in 1894. Thompson established several congregations of black Episcopalians, expanded the church’s educational work, including the 1890 establishment of St. Mary’s School for African Americans in Vicksburg, and helped establish a diocesan branch of the national church’s Woman’s Auxiliary to the Board of Missions. In 1900, near the end of Thompson’s service, twenty-seven clergy served thirty-four parishes. Thompson divided the diocese into convocations of Columbus, Jackson, Pass Christian, Natchez, and Oxford.
Theodore DuBose Brattan became bishop in 1903, serving until 1938, when he was succeeded by William Mercer Green II, grandson of Mississippi’s first bishop, whose tenure extended until 1942. Between 1900 and 1940 the number of Episcopalians in Mississippi rose from 3,792 to 8,422. The Episcopal Laymen of Mississippi was established in 1927, and Green became nationally prominent for his work with rural churches. Duncan Montgomery Gray held the bishopric from 1943 until 1966, tumultuous years for economic development and social change. Within the church, Gray promoted the creation of an annual clergy conference, the Rose Hill conference center and campsite (established in 1946 and renamed the Gray Center in 1966), and new primary and secondary schools. As the civil rights movement reached Mississippi, Gray and other priests, among them Edward H. Harrison and Wofford Smith, witnessed in favor of racial reconciliation. Some laypersons responded by attempting to intimidate the clergymen, but other parishioners backed an end to Jim Crow. Over Gray’s tenure, Mississippi’s Episcopalians increased from eighty-three hundred members and thirty-three parish priests to thirteen thousand communicants and fifty-five priests. John Maury Allin served as diocesan bishop from 1966 to 1974, followed by Duncan Montgomery Gray Jr. (1974–94), Alfred Clark Marble (1994–2003), Duncan Montgomery Gray III (2003–15), and Brian R. Seage (2015–present).
In 1973 the national church selected Allin to serve as presiding bishop of the American Episcopal Church, while his successor in Mississippi oversaw such major changes as adoption of a new Book of Common Prayer in 1979 and the ordination of the first women in the diocese in the 1980s. Under its four most recent bishops, Mississippi’s Episcopal Church has championed ministries for social justice and aid for those suffering, both in the church and in the broader society. Commissions and committees at local parishes and at the diocesan level have supported feeding ministries, halfway houses, new affordable homes, prison work, racial reconciliation, and environmental stewardship. The most divisive issue has perhaps been the ordination of the national Episcopal Church’s first gay bishop.
- The Episcopal Church in Mississippi, 1763–1992 (1992)
- The Episcopal Diocese of Mississippi website, www.dioms.org.