Alexander Crummell - Diocese of Iowa Clergy Day

St. Paul’s Cathedral, Des Moines
September 10, 2013
Katharine Jefferts Schori

We are in the midst of an ongoing conversation about leadership – in this nation, globally, and in the Church.  We are consumed with worry about Syria, about the economic state of this nation and the world, and about the health and sickness in most human systems and systems of creation.  We live with an image of God’s dream for creation, and the work of our lives as a faithful people is to keep dreaming and seeking that goal of abundant life for all.  We urgently need leaders who are agents of change and ministers of transformation toward the Reign of God.

Today we celebrate the feast of such a leader.  Alexander Crummell was born in 1819 in New York City, to a mother who was a free woman and a father who was a former slave.  Crummell’s paternal grandfather was born in Sierra Leone and enslaved as a young teenager before being brought to these shores, and the awareness of his ancestry and cultural heritage informed Alexander’s life work.  His parents were strong abolitionists and the first African-American newspaper was published from their home.  The seeds of that vision of abundant life were planted early, took root, and flourished in deep and fertile soil. 

Crummell’s educational history is almost a recapitulation of the parable Jesus tells.  His early growth was fostered in the African Free School #2 and by tutors at home.  He attended the Canal St. High School, then went off to join the first class at Noyes Academy, near Dartmouth.  The Free School was founded and funded by John Jay and other abolitionists and produced a number of black intellectuals and leaders.  Noyes Academy was an innovative interracial school started by New England abolitionists.  The first class had 14 black men and 28 white, but it was destroyed by an invasion of thorns – a mob of white men from the area who within months of its opening literally pulled the building down and burned the remains.  Crummell then went to the Oneida Institute in upstate New York, a Presbyterian foundation that was training missionaries, and funded by students’ manual labor (like Berea College).  While he was there he discerned his vocation to the priesthood in The Episcopal Church.

General Seminary turned Crummell down because of his race, but the Diocese of Massachusetts let him study and ordained him in 1842.  He served a mission congregation there for several years, and then went looking for more challenges.  Bishop Onderdonk of Philadelphia apparently told him he would be welcome, on the condition that he not attend diocesan convention or let his black parishioners apply for recognition in convention.  Crummell declined.[1]

In 1847 he went to England to preach and speak about abolition and raise funds for his congregation.  He went back in 1849 to study at Queens College, Cambridge, supported by Wm Wilberforce and other abolitionists.  He took a degree in 1853, the first recorded black man to do so.[2]  He advocated for a pan-African alliance, which he believed was the only rational way to address racism, slavery, and discrimination.  He celebrated the gifts of African heritage, which he saw as a “warm, emotional, and impulsive energy” and the traditionally communal culture, gifts which had been corrupted by oppression and enslavement.  He worked in support of the colony developing in Liberia, and in 1853 went there as a missionary of this Church, with a particular vision for a black national church, with a black bishop. 

His work in Liberia was provocative and influential enough to make him a target of the emerging ruling class, and he fled in fear of his life in 1873.  The seeds he planted bore fruit in 1885 in the election of Samuel David Ferguson, an African-American who had lived in Liberia since age 6, as the first black bishop in this Church.

On Crummell’s return to the US, he served a mission in Washington, DC and in 1875 founded St. Luke’s, the first independent black Episcopal congregation in that city.  He served there until he retired in 1894, and then taught at Howard University.  He spent the last year or two of his life establishing the Negro Academy, with a focus on the liberal arts.  Crummell and WEB DuBois championed a comprehensive liberal education for African-Americans, believing that would best equip them to succeed in the legal and political spheres where change could be led most effectively.  That position was in marked contrast to Booker T. Washington, who focused on industrial and manual arts, believing that financial independence would help his people most constructively.

Crummell was instrumental in the foundation and growth of the Episcopal Church in Liberia and in the United States, and continued to push for equality of opportunity everywhere.  When southern clergy and bishops proposed a separate diocese for blacks in 1882 (the Sewanee Plan), Deacon John Peterson of St. Philip’s, New York called together a group that became the Convocation of the Colored Clergy, with Crummell as its first president.  As lay people and white clergy joined it was renamed (the Conference of Church Workers among Colored People) and much later succeeded by the Union of Black Episcopalians.

The work of full equality for African-Americans is not finished.  But the seeds planted in Alexander Crummell gave rise to hopes and dreams in others that have continued and advanced the work toward a more godly vision of community.  When you read through the long litany of rejection, exclusion, threat, intimidation, and frustration, it’s a blessed and godly surprise to see the strength of his witness over his nearly 80 years.  He was beginning new initiatives, teaching students to think and dream, and continuing the cry for freedom in the last years of his life.  His witness gave strength and encouragement to peers and successors, and reminds us all that the labor continues.  [The letter of] James insists that trials and testing yield endurance, and Crummell is a remarkable witness to the fruits of endurance.           

Jesus’ parable is wonderfully ambiguous about the identity of the sower – is it God, or might it be a human planter?  Likely both, considering that we’re made in the image of God.  The word is strewn on the wings of the wind, it goes where it wills, with and without our help.  It is our task to keep sowing, and keep cultivating the ground so that it is ready to receive the seminal word, and continue to hope for rain, and consider the difficult times as fertilizer – as in the story of the fruitless fig tree,[3] the one in which the gardener is going to dig around it, and spread manure, and wait a bit longer.

That’s actually a pretty good diagnosis for leadership in any time of major anxiety and transition.  Keep your eye on the goal of abundance and fruitfulness, whether it’s the harvest of more agents of transformation, more workers in the field, or the big one called the Reign of God.  We may not see the final harvest in our own lifetime, but faithfulness, like regular digging and prodding and pruning, will keep us focused and the ground ready.  The fertilizer may not smell so great, but it’s essential to fruitfulness, like the chaos that precedes creation.  In God’s nostrils, it is like incense.  Patience in the face of trials is hope that suffering will eventually produce fruit.  And fruit comes in its own season, not ours, but that does not relieve us from the regular work and readiness, or make the goal less urgent.

The Syria crisis is a timely example.  Open ground is producing some new possibilities, and patience is part of that openness.  There is no ultimately fruitful solution evident yet, and we must know that suffering will continue – and hope. 

We’re in a time of cultivation – clearing the fields, even – choosing which roots to prune away so that new ones might emerge.  That can be painful, but there will be precious little fruit without it.  So stay open to the sowing of the spirit, keep the ground ready, bless the fertilizer to do its work well, and suffer the indignities that will come before the harvest.  And give thanks for Alexander Crummell.

[1] Du Bois, W.E.B The Souls of Black Folk, p. 139.

[2] Bates, Stephen (19 October 2011). "Alexander Crummell, Cambridge's first black graduate". The Guardian.

[3] Luke 13:6-9