Born March 3, 1819, in New York City, Alexander Crummell struggled against racism all his life. As a young man, he was driven out of an academy in New Hampshire, dismissed as a candidate for Holy Orders in New York, and rejected for admittance to General Seminary. Ordained in 1844 as a priest in the Diocese of Massachusetts, he left for England after being excluded from participating in Diocesan convention.
After receiving a degree from Cambridge, he went to Liberia as a missionary. The African race, Crummell believed, possessed a “warm, emotional and impulsive energy,” which in America had been corrupted by oppression. The Episcopal Church, with its emphasis on rational and moral discipline, was especially fitted for the moral and spiritual regeneration of Afro-Americans. A model Christian republic seemed possible in Liberia. European education and technology, combined with traditional African communal culture, and undergirded by a national Episcopal Church headed by a black bishop, was the vision espoused by Crummell. He traveled extensively in the United States urging blacks to immigrate to Liberia and support the work of the church there.
On returning to Liberia, he worked to establish a national Episcopal church. Political opposition and a loss of funding finally forced him to return to the United States. He concentrated his efforts on establishing a strong urban presence of independent black congregations that would be centers of worship, education and social service. When southern bishops proposed that a separate missionary district be created for black congregations, Crummell created a national convocation to fight the proposal. The Union of Black Episcopalians is an outgrowth of that organization.
Crummell’s ministry spanned more than half a century and three continents. Everywhere, at all times, he labored to prepare his people and to build institutions that would serve them and provide scope for the exercises of their gifts in leadership and creativity. His faith in God, his perseverance in spite of repeated discouragement, his perception that the church transcended the racism and limited vision of its rulers, and his unfailing belief in the goodness and greatness of black people are the legacy of this Afro-American pioneer.
I was drawn to the history of Alexander Crummell because it seems like we haven’t come very far since his struggle against racism almost 200 years ago. He had to leave the continent to continue his education, he traveled to yet another continent to attempt to spread the word of God and to establish a church where very few people were focusing their efforts at that time. He saw the benefit in incorporating the traditions of other peoples into the mainstream. And here we are 200 years later and still we have people who would not only hold down a man like Crummell, but whose hatred and racism move them to rally around a figurehead of hatred and oppression, who when confronted by people who disagree with their narrow minded beliefs, have amongst them one who would physically harm those condemning cowardly and despicable behavior. Some would defend their behavior in the gathering as freedom of speech, saying “Even Nazis have the right to speak their minds!” I say No! Freedom of speech is the right to talk about your government without fear of reprisal, it’s not the right to talk about committing hate crimes. No person has the right to denigrate another human simply because they look or act “different.” We’ve all heard the old adage that all it takes for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing. It’s time we started doing something! It’s time we take a lesson from the life of a man who struggled against oppression and strived to bring the love of Christ to all people in all places. It’s time to speak up and speak out instead of internally squirming when you hear someone saying something you know to be wrong in the moral and Biblical sense. It’s time to actively look for ways to heal our nation. I don’t know all the answers, but I do know that if I hear someone say something offensive about another culture, I’m not going to do nothing… I’m going to say something. Will you?
Almighty and everlasting God, we thank you for your servant Alexander Crummell, whom you called to preach the Gospel to those who were far off and to those who were near. Raise up in this and every land evangelists and heralds of your kingdom, that your Church may proclaim the unsearchable riches of our Savior Jesus Christ, who lives and reigns with You and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.
Psalm 19:7-1 Ecclesiasticus 2:7-11, 17-18 James 1:2-5 Mark 4:1-10, 13-20