Bishop James Theodore Holly

The First African American Bishop in the Episcopal Church & Bishop of Haiti.  He was an African-American minister and abolitionist.

Born in 1824 in Washington, DC, James Theodore Holly was the descendent of freed slaves.  He was active in anti-slavery conventions in the free states in the United States participating in abolitionist activities. His father James Overton Holly was a Scottish man from Detroit, Michigan, and records show that his mothers name was Jane. Holly was baptized and raised a Catholic yet gradually he moved away from the Catholic Church. He spent his early years in Washington, D. C. and Brooklyn, NY where he connected with Frederick Douglass and other Black abolitionist.

In 1852 he converted to the Episcopal Church and went to Haiti in 1855. There in 1874 he became the first Negro Episcopal Bishop and the second bishop of any major white Christian church. During this time Haiti was split with the Vatican and most men of Haiti supported their religious sentiment through the symbolism and observance of the Masonic Lodge. As an experienced Masonic leader and scholar, Holly visited the Masonic temples and made friends among their exclusive members. He was also willing to perform Masonic burial services.

In 1856 the Protestant Episcopal Society for Promoting the Extension of the Church Among Colored People was founded by James Theodore Holly of St. Luke's, New Haven. Its membership included four Black clergy and seven congregations. This organization fought the exclusion of Blacks from Episcopal seminaries and diocesan conventions, as well as the refusal of the Episcopal Church to take a stand against slavery.

In July 1863 Holly organized the Holy Trinity Church. He later spent 15 years in Washington D. C. and moved to Brooklyn where he became friends with Frederick Douglass. From 1889 to 1891, Holly aided Douglass in a number of his programs.

Bishop Holly left the Roman Catholic Church over a dispute about ordaining local black clergy and joined the Episcopal Church. He was a shoemaker, then a teacher and school principal before his own ordination at the age of 27.  He served as rector at St Luke’s Church in New Haven, Connecticut and was one of the founders of the Protestant Episcopal Society for Promoting the Extension of the Church Among Colored People (a forerunner of UBE) in 1856.  This group challenged the Church to take a position against slavery at General Convention.

In 1861 he left the United States with his family and a group of African Americans to settle in Haiti---the world’s first black republic. He lost his family and other settlers to disease and poor living conditions but was successful in establishing schools and building the Church. He trained young priests and started congregations and medical programs in the countryside. 

In 1874 he was ordained bishop at Grace Church, New York City, not by the mainstream Episcopal Church, who refused to ordain a black missionary bishop, but by the American Church Missionary Society, an Evangelical Episcopal branch of the Church.   He was named Bishop of the Anglican Orthodox Episcopal Church of Haiti.  He attended the Lambert Convention as a bishop of the Church.  He died in Haiti in on March 13,1911. 

Information about Bishop Holly can be found in The History of the Afro- American Group of the Episcopal Church, by George F. Bragg.  The electronic edition can be found on line at

We ask all to support the effort to make James Theodore Holly one of the Saints of the Episcopal Church with a liturgical feast day on the church calendar and a place in “Lesser Feasts and Fasts” by planning celebrations in honor of Bishop Holly.