It wasn’t that long ago that I stood in this very pulpit and preached about the grit and determination of William Wilberforce, who after years of fighting in Parliament, saw the send of slavery in the British Empire just days before his death in 1833. It would seem that grit and determination are par for the course for those who seek to fight against grave injustices upon which the world economy rests, and so today the Church remembers yet another brave soul who did the best he could to spread the Gospel and overcome oppression in his era. Alexander Crummell was born a free African-American in New York City in 1819. He was educated in the Quaker-run New York African School along with several others of the leading African-American leaders in the 19th century.
After failing to receive admittance into the General Theological Seminary, Crummell read for orders under the tutelage of the Bishop of Massachusetts and was ordained a deacon in 1842 and priested in 1844. After a brief stint in Massachusetts he attempted to move to Philadelphia to seek more a favorable congregation. He was met there by my least favorite bishop in all of Church history, the Rt. Rev. Henry Ustick Onderdonk, who told him “I will receive you into this diocese on one condition: no Negro priest can sit in my church convention and no Negro church must ask for representation there.” Crummell paused for a moment and said, “I will never enter your diocese on such terms.” Seeing that the time was not right to be an African-American priest in the State, Crummell moved to England where he studied at Cambridge where he was sponsored in part by William Wilberforce and became the first black student to graduate from Cambridge University.
History looks back on the plan to repatriate freed slaves in a colony called Liberia as the failed experiment of old, dead, colonialist white men. While it probably wasn’t the best idea to lump the children and grandchildren of men and women stolen from various tribes in Africa together in one land that was not their native home, the intent was good, and Alexander Crummell was a chief advocate for Liberia as an African Utopia where the best of European education and technology could mix with the best of African culture and be supported by a national Episcopal Church headed by an African Bishop with European training. Political opposition and a lack of funds meant that Crummell’s dream ultimately failed and he once again found himself living in the United States serving St. Mary’s Mission in Foggy Bottom and as “Missionary at Large to the Colored People” in Washington, DC. He spent the rest of his life working to develop independent black Episcopal congregations, like Saint Luke’s Church, DuPont Circle, a church not founded out of segregation from white congregations, but set up by blacks and for blacks.
Alexander Crummell was very much like the sower in the famous parable appointed for his Feast Day. He spread the seed of the Gospel everywhere he went by calling both Church and Country to leave behind its racist ways and move forward in respecting the dignity of every human being. As we are often reminded of on these types of Feast Days, the work of the Kingdom is not for the faint of heart. This day, we give thanks for the perseverance of the Rev. Dr. Alexander Crummell and his witness to us, even today, that racism is not of the Kingdom and not of God. Amen.