Edler Garnet Hawkins (1908-1977) First African-American Moderator

The United Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), formed by the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) and the United Presbyterian Church of North America in 1957, elected Edler Garnet Hawkins the first black moderator (1964) ever to so serve these denominations. Of course from the days of Samuel Cornish and Henry Highland Garnet to the organization of the Afro-American Presbyterian Council in Philadelphia (1894), through the years of "Jim Crow" institutionalized as "separate but equal" by the Supreme Court in 1897, Presbyterian blacks made their voices heard about Christian faith and life, breaking down some, not many, walls of segregation in the church.

Hawkins, from the Harlem-Bronx area of New York City, emerged as one of the most influential pastor-preacher churchmen, ecumenists and teachers among Presbyterians, and gave voice and visibility, to the “soul of black folks,” as W.E.B. DuBois put it in 1903, just before Hawkins saw the light of day.

Hawkins’ parents, Albert and Anna, from North Carolina and Virginia, found their way to the Bronx. They had five children, two of whom died in infancy. Born in 1908, Hawkins was raised by a family that struggled to survive. As a youth, Edler painted houses by day, studied by night and finally made it to and through Union Seminary in New York City. During this pilgrimage he was shepherded by William Lloyd Imes, a New York pastor, who championed equal and quality education for black youngsters. He also fell under the influence of Reinhold Niebuhr, Paul Tillich and Harry Ward, among others, during his theological education. This all took place during the “Harlem Renaissance” and the celebration of African-American identity by the likes of Langston Hughes, Claude McKay and Countee Cullen.

Hawkins became known as the “Renaissance Man.” Under his leadership, and with the assistance of his spouse, Thelma, the Saint Augustine church, to which he was called, grew from a very small congregation to 1,000 members in the center of the Harlem-Bronx community. The church ministered to the needs of both African-Americans and Hispanics who lived there. Hawkins understood not only the “soul of black folks” but the “soul” of the Hispanics. He, his wife and other associates built a bustling program which ministered to all the needs of a multilingual, multicultural area, leading members and neighborhood through the Depression of the 1930s, World War II and the Cold War. Hawkins helped empower the powerless with his pastoral, pulpit and public endeavors. Even Sammy Davis Jr. was impressed. He sang a benefit concert in Carnegie Hall to assist the activities of “Saint Aug,” as it was called.

Hawkins also impressed his colleagues in New York Presbytery. They heard Hawkins’ voice and elected him moderator in 1958. He also emerged a leader in the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church, serving on its Board of Education, the National Council of United Presbyterian Men and the Commission on Religion and Race, among other entities. Accused by some as a “troublemaker,” and falsely as a “Communist,” he lost a bid for Assembly moderator in 1960.

Always a prophet for justice, he also led the Afro-American Presbyterian Council in pursuit of his agenda for justice during some disillusioning and disappointing times. He continued efforts in 1963 through the denomination’s Commission on Religion and Race (CORAR) and later Black Presbyterians United. Through dialogue he helped broaden the consciousness and the conscience of Presbyterians about race and widespread racism.

In 1963, the year Martin Luther King issued his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” Hawkins delivered a stirring address to the General Assembly meeting in Des Moines, Iowa. He quoted DuBois to help him interpret what was happening to the “soul of black folks” during “massive resistance,” not only in Birmingham, but in New York, Chicago and elsewhere. He urged Presbyterians and the church to believe, to be obedient, to speak, to act, even to suffer in the cause of “love,” “brotherhood” and “justice.” Thereby, we express the deepest truth we believe as Christians and are faithful to God and Jesus Christ. The 1964 General Assembly elected him moderator, thus reaffirming the church’s quest for a “non-segregated church and a non-segregated society.” While moderator he and the stated clerk, Eugene Carson Blake (Ivy Leaguer, Union Leaguer and “Mr. Presbyterian”), paid a visit to Pope Paul VI in Rome. They were the first Protestant leaders from the United States to be received by the pontiff, and the first UPCUSA officials ever to visit a pope, thus underscoring Hawkins’ ecumenical spirit.

As ecumenist, the Bronx pastor extended his influence beyond Presbyterian institutions. He supported the Federal Council of Churches and the National Council (1950), and the World Council of Churches (1948) in Geneva. A commissioner from the UPCUSA to the Assembly’s meeting in Uppsala, Sweden (1968), he was instrumental in widening the council’s vision of economic justice and in embracing racial equality around the world. He was elected to the Central Committee of the world body in 1974. There he promoted a Programme to Combat Racism, contributing not only insights from the Reformed tradition, but those from his experiences as an African-American in the struggle for justice and racial harmony in the Bronx and the United States, to the world body. Despite illness, he was instrumental in saving and strengthening the Programme when it came under attack for opposition to apartheid in southern Africa at the Fifth Assembly of the WCC in Nairobi, Kenya, in 1975.

In 1970, Hawkins himself became an “Ivy Leaguer.” Princeton Seminary called him to a professorship in homiletics and church administration, teaching what he had practiced all his life. He offered courses on “Preaching in the Urban Crisis” and “Ministry in Urban Settings.” He coordinated Black Studies and introduced students to the literary voices who had influenced him during the “Harlem Renaissance.” In this regard he brought playwrights and actors to campus to underscore the importance of the arts in ministry. Just before he died in 1977, Hawkins addressed a meeting of the National Black Presbyterians United caucus on the theme, “Whence Have We Come.” In it he remembered his own struggles, recalled the Civil Rights movement, Martin Luther King’s martyrdom and the “black power” response to the powerlessness African-Americans felt at the time. Although he knew blacks had come a long way, he counseled hearers that the struggle was not over.

Hawkins continued to think of himself as a reconciler, in dialogue, “hard-headed,” yet “soft-hearted,” and in a life-long longing, striving for and witness to God’s Kingdom of racial equality and justice for all peoples. In 1987, editors of Church and Society devoted a special issue (November-December) celebrating his contributions to Presbyterians and the whole Christian community in his ministry. On this 25th anniversary of his death we also should remember and celebrate the faith and life of Edler Garnet Hawkins.