Honoring Alexander Crummell: Preacher, Theologian, Visionary

Alexander Crummell
September 12, 2023

Ed Watson ’19 MAR considers the remarkable Alexander Crummell ’23 MAH, whose degree will be celebrated by Yale, along with that of James Pennington ’23 MAH, on September 14, 2023.


“…the more I met Alexander Crummell, the more I felt how much that world was losing which knew so little of him.” W.E.B. Du Bois

Since its publication in 1903, W.E.B. Du Bois’ The Souls of Black Folk has been one of the most influential works of American literature. It is hard to find a contemporary analysis of race and racism which has not been influenced by Du Bois’ articulation of double-consciousness and the global color line. 

Amongst its medley of chapters illustrating both the inner and outer dynamisms of Black life, Souls contains one piece of explicitly biographical writing: ‘Of Alexander Crummell.’ Apart from Booker T. Washington and the fictional John Jones, Crummell is the only person whose name can be seen in the table of contents. He is the one person Du Bois felt moved to write about in near hagiographic fashion. 
Alexander Crummell was also an Episcopal priest. Indeed, he was one of the very few members of his generation of black leaders who sought ordination in and remained committed to the Episcopal Church, as opposed to AME, Methodist, Presbyterian, or Baptist churches. There is an argument to be made that through his role in organizing Black communities in the late 19th century—especially in terms of helping to form the American Negro Academy (ANA)—Crummell should be counted alongside Pauli Murray as one of the most widely influential clergy-persons that the Episcopal Church has ordained. 
Despite this, it is not just possible but probable that most Episcopal seminarians since Crummell’s death in 1898 have graduated without encountering him as a name to remember, let alone reading any of his sermons or other voluminous writings as part of their theological formation. His feast day is September 10th, but he does not appear in introductions to Episcopal spirituality designed for parish use. Gardiner Shattuck draws attention to Crummell’s activism in his Episcopalians and Race. But across over four hundred pages of at least two broad histories of the Episcopal Church, Crummell’s name appears on only three, primarily as part of longer lists. 
On September 14th, 2023, Yale University will honor Alexander Crummell along with James Pennington for their posthumous receipt of M.A. Privatim degrees. Both men studied at Yale in the first half of the 19th century, though several years apart. Because they were Black, neither was recognized as an official Yale student. Their much belated recognition has resulted from the work of a number of students, especially Noah Humphrey (’23 MDiv). As well as an occasion for honoring Crummell as a Yale student, this calls for reflection on his eventful life, and what it means for the Episcopal Church that he is not better known. 
Alexander Crummell was born free in New York, NY in 1819. As recorded by Wilson Jeremiah Moses in his excellent biography, Crummell’s parents were members of the nascent Black petit bourgeoisie that developed in the Five Points neighborhood of New York City. Crummell became especially committed to education when he overheard two lawyers recounting a dinner with another Yale figure, John C. Calhoun, in which the proto-confederate statesman had said that “if he could find a Negro, who knew the Greek syntax, he would then believe that the Negro was a human being and should be treated as a man” (Moses, 20). Whatever its merit, Crummell took this challenge personally, trekking many hundreds of miles in 1835 through treacherous conditions with two close friends in order to attend Noyes Academy in Canaan, New Hampshire. Just a few months after they arrived, these three teenagers gave uncompromising speeches in favor of immediate emancipation. The town’s white population ran them out of town before quite literally moving the school buildings, destroying them, and eventually burning them to the ground. Crummell and his friends returned to New York, finishing their education at the Oneida Institute when it opened its doors to Black students shortly after their return. 
Crummell’s parents were Episcopalians, and he grew up attending the Free African Church of St. Philip. At some point in his early twenties, “a voice and vision called him to be a priest—a seer to lead the uncalled out of the house of bondage” (Du Bois, 147). His pursuit of ordination led to his being caught up in the racial politics of an Episcopal Church hierarchy that prioritized unity over justice. Bishop Benjamin Onderdonk of New York could find no reason to refuse Crummell the right to ordination—but he refused to allow Crummell to attend General Theological Seminary, ostensibly because it would alienate Southern pro-slavery donors, but probably also because of his own racism (Moses, 27). Crummell was forced to seek out learning and training from other sources, and it was in this context that he spent time between 1840 and 1841 in New Haven sitting in on Yale classes. During this time, he was active in New Haven’s Episcopal community, playing at least some role in the formation of St. Luke’s Church after Black congregants left Trinity on the Green en masse. He soon moved on to Providence, was eventually ordained in Boston, and then returned to New York. 
Even once ordained, however, Crummell was refused a stable place in the Episcopal Church. He sought to relocate to Philadelphia, but was told by Bishop Henry Onderdonk (brother of Benjamin) that he could only do so on condition that he would never seek a seat at the diocesan convention. Crummell refused to accept a post on these terms. After several years in New York working for an underfunded church, Crummell then went to England in 1847 on a fund-raising trip. He did not fully relocate back to America until 1873. Instead, he remained in England to study at Cambridge University before traveling to Liberia. He worked in Liberia for almost twenty years as part of its political elite, attempting unsuccessfully to start a national university as well as engaging in missionary work. In 1873 he left Liberia because of political upheaval, returning to Reconstruction-era Washington, D.C., where he became pastor of St. Mary’s Episcopal Church. From his pulpit and other podiums across the country, he became one of the 19th century’s most influential and effective organizers for Black civil rights.
Crummell was a creative theological thinker, and became an extraordinary preacher. At the heart of his preaching was the belief that the Holy Spirit works through human creatures to build up Christian souls, and that this takes place through everyday interactions. He held that grace was given to creatures so that they might communicate this grace to others. The characteristic feature of the generous soul is thus that it “brings the tides of other lives into the reservoir of its own spirit life” (Crummell, 176). The human soul is “made and fitted in every attribute to be a builder of souls” (Crummell, 259). The “true and legitimate function of speech … is to sow the seeds of truth in the souls of men,” which will “bring to consciousness the ideas of God and eternity” (Crummell, 277). In each of these ways, the human creature has been created so as to become itself the creative motor of redemption—every way in which human beings relate to each other has the potential for spiritual formation, and our calling in Jesus Christ is to build each other up towards grace, truth, and eternity. 
Crummell’s theological thinking is interestingly and complicatedly bound up in his thinking about race. Throughout his entire life, Crummell was absolutely committed to the liberation and social uplift of Black people. In one of his most famous addresses, he gives a theologically inflected argument for his confidence that Black people can indeed achieve everything they had been refused by white society. He states that Black people have “a mobile and plastic nature, with a strong receptive faculty, seizes upon and makes over to himself, by imitation, the better qualities of others” (Crummell, 346). Black people do not merely imitate, however—they also transform these qualities in their own way, he argued, and so creatively elevate the highest values. Both then and now, Crummell can be critiqued for a kind of essentialism here. It is notable, however, how his account of Black distinctiveness coheres with his sense of theological formation; for throughout the Church, it is the capacity to take on, recreate, and then communicate the qualities of truth and holiness that enables the realization of God’s kingdom on earth. Indeed, at several points in his corpus he avers that receiving the gospel can transform collective nature, complicating considerably (without dissolving) his conceptions of ‘natural’ difference. Within this complexity, Crummell also emphasized repeatedly the importance of black people building up their own institutions, rather than being assimilated into dominant white ones. A precursor in many ways to the 20th century Black Power movement, he held that white racial prejudice would only finally be dissolved when Black people had their own unassailable foundations for social power, so that none would ever be forced to inhabit hostile institutions in the ways that he had been.
Precisely in its complexity, there is also significant ambivalence in Crummell’s thought. His conceptions of social uplift were heavily bound up with his admiration for high English culture, and he saw his mission in both America and Liberia in terms of civilizing the uncivilized. Wilson Moses even-handedly describes Crummell as exceptionally Christian ethno-centric, and his sense of Christian formation was bound up with his valorization of ‘dignified’ social mores. Indeed, Moses speculates that this is part of what kept Crummell committed to the Episcopal Church, given his dislike of what he deemed the ‘enthusiasm’ of other denominations. In his now classic Black Atlantic, meanwhile, Paul Gilroy critiques Crummell along with Edward Blyden for think-ing primarily in terms of European nationalism. 
Crummell’s importance is not, however, grounded in the idea that he might be a pristine exemplar of a more perfect mode of thought (though he has a lot to teach theologians of the present). In his essay on Crummell, Du Bois writes that the 19th century was one of developing the human capacity to “descry in others that transfigured spark of divinity which we call Myself,” through which “clodhoppers and peasants, and tramps and thieves, and millionaires and—sometimes—Negroes, become throbbing souls whose warm pulsing life” touches us with the wonder that our joys and sorrows and lives are Other-worlds (Du Bois, 147). At the close of the chapter, however, he mourns that “the more I met Alexander Crummell, the more I felt how much that world was losing which knew so little of him” (Du Bois, 152). True then as today, Du Bois concludes that Crummell’s “name today, in this broad land, means little, and comes to fifty million ears laden with no incense of memory or emulation. And herein lies the tragedy of the age: not that men are poor … not that men are wicked … not that men are ignorant … but that men know so little of men” (Du Bois, 152).
It is significant for the Episcopal Church that Crummell’s name has little to no incense of memory or emulation attached to it. This is first because to know Crummell is to know more of human creatures—it is to know how their struggles, failures, successes, joys, and perseverance can be bound up in the complexity of life. But to know Crummell is also to know more of the Church itself; it is to begin to see the Church’s ambivalent place in American society, in its own society, through the fact that Crummell’s history is so rarely considered part of the Church’s history. It is to see the stakes of its disciplinary structures, given that there have been Bishops Onderdonk in every age. And it is to see its theology illuminated by one of its most creative and brilliant preachers. 
Crummell should be known for his own sake. This goes hand in hand with the tragedy of how little creatures know of creatures, unable to know how much we lose in knowing so little of each other. To honor Crummell is not to falsify him as a paragon or to ignore him as problematic. It is to know him, and to know him as one whose words communicate the Spirit to us by challenging us to bear the call of communicating this Spirit in our own lives. Especially in terms of the racial struggles to which he devoted his life, to honor Crummell is descry in him that transfigured spark of divinity, to see it in our fellow creatures, and then to work tirelessly for a world free of forces which would seek to extinguish or contain that spark. 
W.E.B. Du Bois, The Souls of Black Folk (Oxford University Press, 2007)
Wilson Jeremiah Moses, Alexander Crummell: A Study of Civilization and Discontent (Oxford University Press, 1989)
Alexander Crummell, The Greatness of Christ: and Other Sermons (Forgotten Books, 2017)
Further Reading
Alexander Crummell, Destiny and Race: Selected Writings, 1840-1898 (University of Massachusetts Press, 1992)
Alexander Crummell, Civilization and Black Progress: Selected Writings of Alexander Crummell on the South (University of Virginia Press, 1995)