Many will praise his understanding;
it will never be blotted out.
His memory will not disappear,
and his name will live through all generations.
Nations will speak of his wisdom,
and the congregation will proclaim his praise.
This Sunday, September 12, many Episcopal parishes will celebrate the life and legacy of Alexander Crummell, the first African-American priest to be ordained in the Episcopal Church.
The actual feast day is September 10, but Sunday gives the church an opportunity to also designate the day as Union of Black Episcopalians (UBE) Sunday, to commemorate the racial justice ministry of this organization which was an outgrowth of Crummell’s advocacy.
The name of Alexander Crummell may not resonate with many, perhaps even within the Episcopal Church. But among the Church’s great cloud of witnesses, what sets him apart was his indomitable spirit and the belief that one can achieve anything, despite whatever obstacles one may face.
On numerous occasions, those obstacles come from right within the body of Christ – the church itself. And Alexander Crummell became well acquainted with barriers throughout his lifetime, chiefly the struggle against racism.
The Church – and this cuts across all denominations – is no stranger to racism and its effects. Crummell learned that lesson early when his aspirations to the priesthood were denied because of his race. He was dismissed as a candidate for Holy Orders in New York, denied admittance to General Theological Seminary, and forced to study privately. Yet, against all these odds, Crummell was eventually ordained in 1844.
Crummell then went on to study at Queens College in Cambridge, becoming the first black to graduate from that institution in 1853.
He spent 20 years in Africa, in a failed attempt to evangelize to the people of Liberia. Political opposition forced his return to the United States.
In Washington, D.C., he founded St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, the first independent Black Episcopal Church in the city. He served there until his retirement in 1894, and then taught at Howard University for the remaining years of his life.
Throughout his more than 50 years of ministry, Crummell identified with the struggle for civil rights and racial equality. He consistently opposed narratives about Black inferiority in his writings, sermons, speeches, and other literary works.
The noted scholar W. E. B. DuBois offers a sterling tribute to Crummell in an essay in his master work, The Souls of Black Folk. DuBois recounts meeting Crummell the first time. “Instinctively I bowed before this man, as one bows before the prophets of the world.”
The history of the Episcopal Church and racism – as with most church bodies that originated in Europe – is complicated. (I am quick to admit that I write from a Lutheran perspective, and we are just as guilty.)
Each Sunday, the multitudes who attend worship in many congregations confess that they are captive to sin and cannot free themselves. Over the past few years, there has arisen a glimmer of hope that its members are taking that confession seriously, as in our assemblies and conventions we have dedicated time specifically to apologizing and atoning for those egregious misdeeds of the past.
Looking back, it is astonishing to think that one man could have withstood all that sinfulness and still remain within a church body that repeatedly denied him his dignity, his humanity, his worthiness before God.
Yet Crummell did.
He resisted, as DuBois notes in his essay, the temptations of Hate, Despair, and Doubt, and shaped a vision of Life that allowed him to prevail.
Toward the end of his essay, DuBois writes of Crummell: “He did his work, –he did it nobly and well; and yet I sorrow that here he worked alone, with so little human sympathy. His name today, in this broad land, means little, and comes to fifty million ears laden with no intense memory or emulation.”
One of the assigned scripture lessons for this day in the Episcopal rite is from Sirach, from which two verses are quoted at the beginning of this reflection. These verses almost seem as if they were written with Crummell in mind, and would appear to refute that claim of his relative obscurity.
But on this day of celebration of the life and ministry of Alexander Crummell, we applaud the efforts of the Episcopal Church to raise the level of awareness of this saint and his labors, and take comfort in knowing that, at the very least, his work on earth did not go unnoticed by his Creator.