Lessons From the Life of Alexander Crummell

Visionary Priest, Missionary, & Educator

By The Rev. Canon Bruce Jackson
Canon for Black Ministry

Every year, the Episcopal Church calendar commemorates Alexander Crummell on September 10. Crummell was an Episcopal priest who lived from 1819 to 1898. Born in N.Y. City, his father was West African, taken into slavery there, and brought to Boston. In Boston, he got his freedom, met and married Alexander’s mother, a free black woman, and then moved to New York.

Upon graduating from the Quaker-operated N.Y. African School, Alexander was denied entrance to the General Theological Seminary because of his race. Undaunted, he went on to receive his theological education in the Diocese of Massachusetts. He was ordained a priest in 1844 by the Diocese of Delaware.

That same year, he established a small mission in Philadelphia, where he campaigned for equal suffrage, the abolition of slavery, and the abolition of racial segregation in the Episcopal Church. After being excluded from the Pennsylvania Diocesan Convention, he moved to England. There he became the first black person to graduate from the University of Cambridge in 1853.

Crummell then went to the West African nation of Liberia as a missionary. There he served at four parishes, and on the faculty of Liberia College for over twenty years. He made frequent visits back to America, where he was an outspoken voice against racial segregation and racism. 

Returning to the U.S. permanently in 1873, Crummell focused on founding and strengthening urban black congregations. He also continued advocating against the racial climate of the times.

In 1883, the Southern Bishops proposed that all black congregations become separate missionary districts from the rest of the Episcopal districts. Crummell responded in protest by organizing the Conference of Church Workers Among the Colored People. Through it, he vigilantly led the opposition against the imposition of further racial segregation in the Episcopal Church. That organization became the Union of Black Episcopalians, a strong branch of which is in the Diocese of Arizona today.

Crummell fought to keep black and white Episcopalians together in a single body – even though it might have been more comfortable for everyone to have not done so. He knew that, if we were ever going to have any unity, it was not going to be earned on principle. It was going to be the product of our PRACTICE!

The most effective way to defeat the sin of racism – which builds walls of separation among people – is to keep the dialogue about it up front and visible. This is something even we modern Americans don’t seem to want to grasp – as we try to avoid those discussions whenever we can. But, only out of our personal knowledge of, and honesty with, one another will we overcome estrangement and hostility.

Bringing people together, and working on our relationships, is the most effective way to usher in the kingdom of God’s love and justice. It’s as simple as that. Only when we stop staying contained in our self-sufficient little worlds…only when we invest ourselves in relationships beyond the already defined easy and comfortable…can the seed of God’s kingdom take root and grow.

What Christ’s great Parable of the Sower does not tell us is that the sower must do preliminary work – that good soil is only made good by cultivation. The soil must be plowed. Rocks must be removed. The soil must then be turned to receive the seed.

A modern icon of Alexander Crummell written by John Walsted

Alexander Crummell labored hard to keep us together during some very difficult times. Our work today is also especially hard. It seems that some of our current political leaders are adept at being silent or worse in the face of the rise of racist white nationalism, and opposed to a complete vetting of our racist past and present in schools and books.

That means that we, as a church, must be in somewhat of an uproar. Walking a freshly plowed field is difficult going. The newly turned earth is constantly changing under our feet. But we have to cultivate it, and we must walk it nonetheless. 

So, let us be thankful for, and honor, Alexander Crummell. Let us continue doggedly in his footsteps. Let us combat, at every turn, age-old tendencies to revert to stone and path…stone and path where the going seems easier, but the growth is not.

4 comments on “Lessons From the Life of Alexander Crummell”

  1. Wow! Thank you Canon Jackson for a marvelous reflection on the groundbreaking witness of Alexander Crummell–and an equally thoughtful and beautifully developed presentation of the parable. Thank you for an inspiring read! Fr. Colville Smythe, St. Matthew’s Chandler.

  2. Thank you for sharing this moving information regarding a great man of God. It is easy to lose heart in this struggle but we must continue as he did because that is God’s way.

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