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The story of a pioneering priest

by
02 October 2015

As Black History Month begins, Pamela Roberts celebrates James Arthur Harley, from Antigua, who served as a priest in Edwardian England

© Michael Wortley

In English Orders: the Revd James Harley

In English Orders: the Revd James Harley

THE Revd James Harley (1873-1943) was born in Antigua, 30 years after emancipation, to a white father and a black mother. Anglicanism had arrived with the English settlers, and the Harley family worshipped at the church of respectability, All Saints’ Pentecostal Episcopal Church.

As a young man, Harley wrote: “It was my dream to become a minister in the Pentecostal Church,” despite the fact that the churches at the time had designated pews, the front of the church being reserved for the plantation and colonial officers’ families. Even if no family members were present, no other worshipping parishioners were allowed to sit in the empty pews; it was an accepted part of attending church.

The young Harley studied at one of the best schools on the island, the Mico School, then at Spring Gardens Teachers’ Training College, and then worked in primary schools. But, by the end of the 19th century, sugar production in the Caribbean had deteriorated drastically, together with any tangible opportunities for black people to achieve real power and influence.

As a mixed-race man in a society predicated on the hierarchy of race, Harley may have found that his lighter skin afforded him certain perceived privileges; but, in reality, these were limited. Any real opportunities for advancement lay outside the island, especially if he wanted to pursue a professional career as a minister.

So, in 1899, he made the 400-mile journey across the Atlantic, arriving in a United States that still had notions that black people were intellectually inferior and could not function efficiently without the disciplined work of the plantation. Despite the Civil War, there remained a fear of black people, especially black men, who were portrayed as raving savages, uncontrollable without the slave-master’s whip. Lynching was an ever-prevalent threat. It was an era steeped in horrific racial prejudice. Three years earlier, the historic case of Plessy v. Ferguson had implemented the overt racial separatist laws in the South.

 

HARLEY also had to navigate the complex racial tensions within Black America. There was a belief among African Americans that West Indian Blacks considered them to be inferior. The colonial education system in the Caribbean instilled an attitude of English superiority and dominance throughout the Empire, so that class was as important to Black West Indian identity as colour-consciousness.

The Black West Indian, therefore, became the Black Englishman abroad, which clashed with American culture and led to significant tension. Harley would have been viewed with even greater suspicion because of his mixed-race heritage.

His goal in reaching New York had been to attend the oldest seminary of the Episcopal Church and a leading centre for Anglican theological education, the General Theology Seminary. But, whether deliberately or by accident, he was sent to King Hall, the theology school for training black students for holy orders at Howard University, in Washington, DC.

Harley found himself in an American state where he did not plan to be, in a college that he knew nothing about. But, making the best of it, he took the preparatory certificate, and went on to read law, earning his degree in two years instead of the stipulated three. After graduating, Harley rejected several offers to practise law, opting instead to take another degree, in Semitic languages, at Harvard University, and to study for a year at Cambridge Episcopal Theological School. A gifted scholar, he was awarded prizes for essay-writing and debating.

To support himself, he worked as a Sunday-school teacher, lay preacher, and choir master at St Luke’s, the city’s first independent black Episcopal congregation, and one of the most influential churches among the Washington black elite. It was at St Luke’s that Harley met his future wife, Josephine Maritcha Lawson. The Lawsons were part of a concentration of old families, bound together by background, good breeding, occupation, respectability, and colour, making them an exclusive group known as the “Black 400”.

 

IN 1907, Harley came to England to take a theology degree at Jesus College, Oxford. He then moved to Manchester College, but left after a year, writing: “I was falling out with friends over the college’s Unitarian teaching.” He also made history as the first black student to take the Anthropology Diploma at the Pitt Rivers Museum. He was joined by Josephine; the couple were married at Oxford Register Office on 1 July 1910.

Equipped with 11 years of education, Harley theoretically had the world at his feet, with the choice of any number of professions. Yet he regarded all the knowledge that he had acquired as preparation for his childhood ambition to become a minister in the Pentecostal Church.

He applied for a curacy in Shepshed, Leicestershire, and was sent by the Bishop of Peterborough to Jesus College, Cambridge, to be examined for the diaconate.

During the examination, he had to give an account of himself; he was well aware, as a colonial British West Indian, with time spent in the US at the seminary in Cambridge, Mass., and his year “excursion” to Manchester College, that the panel wanted reassurance that his form of Anglicanism was aligned with the Church of England way rather than with Protestant Episcopalian teaching.

He wrote: “The chaplain, who is the dean of college, was quite satisfied with my papers. My invitation to have lunch with the Lord Bishop and Lady Mary Glenn, at Peterborough Palace, I took as a sign of acceptance for Holy Orders.”

He was ordained on 19 September 1909.

 

ST BOTOLPH’s, Shepshed, where Harley served as curate, was constantly packed when he preached, even once the novelty value of a black minister had waned, much to the disdain of some of the old guard. His methods soon brought him into conflict with the 78-year-old Vicar, the Revd William Hepworth — a man from a different generation, who had been at the church for 30 years.

Harley had gained many supporters within the congregation, however. There is even a record of a petition signed by parishioners who sought to “protest most strongly against the unjust censure passed upon the Rev. J. A. Harley, in our presence, on the evening of St Andrew’s Day, for courageously doing what he felt to be his duty”.

When Harley eventually felt compelled to resign, six months later, the parishioners presented him with a framed testimonial and a purse of £30 in gold. The Leicester Chronicle also reported on the events: “During the past few weeks, [Harley] had pursued a vigorous policy, and has made various efforts to resuscitate church work in all its branches, and large congregations have been attracted to the church to listen to his straight talks and outspoken sermons.

“His two visits to the Sunday Morning Men’s Adult School, and the helpful address he gave were a true sign of his broadmindedness, and the regret at his departure is very genuine.”

 

ANSWERING an advertisement in the Church Times secured Harley his second curacy, in Chislet, a scattered parish consisting of five small rural hamlets, eight miles from Canterbury. This community, in deepest rural England, made up of poor white agricultural workers, was in stark contrast to the bustling city environment that the couple were used to.

The Vicar, the Revd Reginald Kent, wrote to the Bishop of Peterborough with the following assessment of his new curate: “James Harley is by birth a West Indian graduate of Washington (America) [. . .] a man of good education, but he is also a West Indian in character — very excitable, and rather difficult to order.”

Once again, however, Harley proved to be extremely popular, and Kent was forced to revise his opinion. He wrote to the Archbishop of Canterbury, asserting that ‘‘Harley is, without doubt, a far-and-away above average curate in abilities and powers. He is proven in teaching. The people all like him, and want him to stay.”

Indeed, in one of his own letters to his alumni at Yale University, Harley writes: “At Chislet, I painted the church with my own hands, and collected enough to have it thoroughly furnished and restored. The church is crowded when I preach, thanks to (1) dear Old Eli and Mr Fox, and (2) to Fair Harvard.”

But, in the end, it seems that jealousy got the better of Kent, and a feud arose, centred on a disagreement about Harley’s stipend. The Archbishop was persuaded to support Kent in a letter to Harley: “It is clear to me that Mr Kent is increasingly convinced that this is not the right parish, perhaps not the right (sort of) parish for you. You are older than a man in Deacon’s Orders. You clearly have a difficulty in working happily and loyally in a subordinate position. And in the conditions of a rural parish like Chislet.

“If you work on quietly and usefully until the time comes for going, I will be able to testify to that point in your favour. If, on the other hand, difficulties are allowed to arise, or if you seem to be forming a faction in the parish, or if, in short, your departure becomes the occasion of unrest, in which you appear to be in any way responsible, I should be in honour bound to state those facts to any Bishop.”

 

HARLEY was forced to move on yet again, but not before his parishioners had presented him with a silver tea-service and a testimonial.

He next took a post in the parish of St Leonard, Deal, 20 miles from Chislet, which had a more cosmopolitan feel, because Deal was one of the first ports of call for ships sailing from East India and the West Indies on their way to London. After all the trials, tribulations, and scrutiny, Harley was finally ordained priest on 11 June 1911, in Canterbury Cathedral.

It is unclear exactly when Harley left the parish: the Deal Mercury reported on a service he gave after the sinking of the Titanic in 1912, and his name appears as a visiting preacher on All Deal parish magazines dated September 1915 and 1916. But we know that, at some time during this period, Harley responded to a call to undertake secular war work.

Too old to enlist, he trained as a toolmaker at the University of London, and then returned to Shepshed to work in a munitions factory. He was also active in the recruitment effort, giving rousing talks to young men in a Shepshed cinema.

 

ALL this activity led to Harley’s reinvention as a local politician: he was elected as a Labour member of Shepshed Urban Council in 1927. Outspoken and provocative, he produced a weekly newspaper, The Charnwood Bulletin, which scrutinised the actions of the local council. He was defeated at the polls in 1930, but, two years later, he regained his seat as an independent member, which he held until his death in 1943.

His contribution to the people of Shepshed was recognised with the naming of a street, Harley Close, in his honour.

Harley’s church career could easily be dismissed as troublesome: some might argue that his own attitude and behaviour contributed to the way he was perceived and treated by presiding vicars and the church hierarchy.

His identity as the “West Indian Englishman”, which seemed to go hand in hand with a refusal to capitulate or be subservient, combined with his strong sense of self-purpose and social justice, and his ability to connect successfully with his parishioners, was misinterpreted as arrogance, disobedience, and disloyalty.

What is clear is that the factors of race and jealousy played an integral part in the way he was treated by the Church. Amid the complexities of religion, politics, and race in the early 20th century, Harley’s was a life of determination, personal conviction, and survival which can only be regarded as a triumph.

 

Pamela Roberts is a creative producer, historian, and the author of Black Oxford: The untold stories of Oxford University’s black scholars. She is writing a historical biography about James Harley.

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