November 2, 2006

A Man of Justice, Freedom and Peace

At the upcoming Convention of the Episcopal Diocese of New York, I am sponsoring a resolution to ask the Bishop to authorize the commemoration of John Jay on May 17, using a proper to be developed by the diocesan liturgical commission.

Those who only know of Jay from high school American history classes may well wonder why Jay could possibly figure on the calendar of the church. I was in much the same position until an attorney friend and colleague from a neighboring diocese brought Jay to my more devoted attention!

He also pointed out to me that the American Book of Common Prayer’s calendar commemorates no American layman — with the exception of Jonathan Daniels, who was a seminarian. This is not for a lack of people on whom to draw, and among them is John Jay (1745-1829), who as most of us know was a major figure in the early days of American politics, serving in the Continental Congress, on numerous diplomatic missions, and as the first Chief Justice of the Supreme Court.

But Jay was not only pivotal in the creation of this nation, and the peaceful settlement of the Revolution, but in the early constitution of the Episcopal Church, locally and nationally. He supported Bishop Provoost of New York, and was a close friend of the first Presiding Bishop William White, who was chaplain to the Continental Congress that Jay headed as President. As a deputy to the first General Conventions he influenced the development of the church’s political structure in a way that won the approval of the Church of England, and paved the way for Canterbury’s consecration of the post-Seabury generation of bishops. (Seabury’s freewheeling approach had nearly scotched further recognition of the Episcopal Church on England’s part!)

Jay’s influence didn’t stop with the Constitution, however, as he was also blessed to live long enough to become one of the charter members of the Episcopal Church’s first corporate effort: the Domestic and Foreign Missionary Society, founded in 1821.

Jay was also a man of high moral principles — not without his complexities — and as the church is called to examine the history of slavery, it is important to note Jay’s early role in ending it, from as early as 1777. He was a founder (in 1785) of the New York State Society for Promoting the Manumission of Slaves, and the African Free School for their education. He was a major voice in the debates that eventually led to the phased abolition of slavery in New York State beginning in 1799, with the passage of an Act he was able to sign as Governor. Years later, in 1854, journalist Horace Greely noted that no one could take more credit for ending slavery in New York state than Chief Justice Jay.

It is certainly true that Jay had his faults and was no stranger to controversy. He tangled with Bishop Hobart over the relative merits of denominational versus free Bible societies — and to prove his point was a founding member of the American Bible Society. And unlike the more idealistic abolitionists of the next generation (including his son William), although Jay eventually freed all slaves in his possession, he defended the gradual approach on the pragmatic grounds that liberation without education and skills was of no service to the one set free.

Jay has additional local significance for New Yorkers. He was a graduate of Kings College (now Columbia University), a warden of Trinity Church in Manhattan, and a founding member and senior warden of St Matthew’s, Bedford. It is altogether fitting that the Diocese of New York commemorate the life of this servant of Christ, an exemplar of a layman’s ministry in his tireless work for justice, freedom and peace, as a step towards proposing his eventual inclusion in the calendar of the Book of Common Prayer.

— Tobias Haller BSG

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