Crummell, Alexander

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Crummell, Alexander

March 3, 1819
September 19, 1898

Nationalist, abolitionist, and missionary Alexander Crummell was the son of Boston Crummell, who had been kidnapped from his homeland in Temne country, West Africa, and enslaved in New York. Boston Crummell was never emancipated, his son later wrote, but obtained his freedom simply by announcing to his master that "he would serve him no longer." Boston Crummell married Charity Hicks, a freeborn woman from Long Island, New York, and established an oyster house in lower Manhattan. It was in the Crummell home that the African-American newspaper Freedom's Journal was founded.

The Crummells were members of the Protestant Episcopal Church, and Alexander came early under the influence of Rev. Peter Williams Jr. Williams was a supporter of back-to-Africa movements and had been friendly with the repatriationists Paul Cuffe and John Russwurm. Crummell attended school in Williams' church and in the African Free School until his early teens, when he enrolled in the Noyes Academy in Canaan, New Hampshire. Shortly after it opened, the academy was closed by mob violence and Crummell resumed his studies at the Oneida Institute in Whitesboro, New York.

Encouraged by Williams to become a candidate for ordination, Crummell applied to the General Theological Seminary in New York City but was rejected. He informally attended lectures at Yale University and studied privately with clergymen in New England. While in New England he married Sarah Mabritt Elston of New York, ministered to congregationists in New Haven and Providence, and worked as a correspondent for the Colored American. Crummell was ordained to the Episcopal priesthood in 1842 and labored with small congregations in Philadelphia and New York. He went to England in 1848, ostensibly to raise funds for his parish; almost immediately, however, he began preparing with a tutor to enter Cambridge University. His familial obligations and lecturing activities detracted from his academic performance, and he failed his first attempt at the university examinations, but he was among the eleven out of thirty-three candidates who passed an additional examination, and he was awarded the bachelor's degree in 1853.

Wanting to bring up his children "under black men's institutions," he embarked on his missionary career in West Africa under the auspices of the Protestant Episcopal Church. Over the ensuing decades he was often in conflict with his immediate superior, Rev. John Payne, the bishop of Cape Palmas, especially when Crummell attempted to organize another diocese in the Liberian capital city of Monrovia. Crummell at first showed little interest in working with the native population. Many of his writings during these years addressed such statesmanlike topics as "God and the Nation" and "The Relations and Duties of Free Colored Men in America to Africa." These, along with a number of his other essays on black-nationalist themes, were collected for his first book, The Future of Africa (1862).

Between 1853 and 1872, Crummell spent sixteen years in Liberia, although he returned to the United States twice during those years to raise money. The assassination of Liberian president Edward James Royce and threats against Crummell's own life led to his hasty and final departure in 1872. Sarah Crummell died in 1878 and he was remarried, to Jennie M. Simpson, on September 23, 1880. Crummell established Saint Luke's Episcopal Church in Washington in 1879 and retained the pastorate until 1894, when he retired. He continued to write and lecture actively until his death in 1898. Among his important writings during the Washington years were "The Destined Superiority of the Negro" and "The Black Woman of the South, Her Neglects and Her Needs" (1883). These and other sermons were collected in his books The Greatness of Christ and Other Sermons (1882) and Africa and America (1891).

Crummell's theological writings are dominated by the idea that salvation cannot be achieved solely by the acceptance of grace. He believed that God works actively in history and that the good are punished and the evil rewarded in this life. Crummell was contemptuous of enthusiastic revivalism and believed that the struggle for salvation must remain an arduous task, even after the Christian has experienced conversion. Although a notorious Anglophile and hostile to the cultural expressions of the black masses, he never wavered in his black-nationalist chauvinism, apparently seeing no contradictions in his position. His essay "The Destined Superiority of the Negro" revealed his confidence that the African race was a chosen people.

In the year before his death, Crummell organized the American Negro Academy, which was dedicated to the pursuit of the higher culture and civilization for black Americans. He influenced W. E. B. Du Bois, whose sentimental and somewhat inaccurate eulogy, "Of Alexander Crummell," was reprinted in The Souls of Black Folk (1903). Other Crummell protégés were William H. Ferris and John E. Bruce, both of whom became prominent Garveyites during the 1920s.

Alexander Crummell

"The greatness of a people springs from their ability to grasp the conception of being. It is the absorption of a people, of a nation, of race, in large majestic and abiding things which lifts them up to the skies."

civilization: the primal need of the race and attitude of the american mind toward negro intellect. in american negro academy. occasional papers, 3:37. washington, d.c.: the academy, 1897.

Crummell's papers are widely scattered. The main repository is in the Schomburg Collection of the New York Public Library. A number of important letters are in the American Colonization Society Papers in the Library of Congress and in the Domestic and Foreign Missionary Society Papers in the Archives of the Episcopal Church at Austin, Texas. Additional important materials are in the Massachusetts and Maryland State Historical Societies.

See also Abolition; Bruce, John Edward; Cuffe, Paul; Du Bois, W. E. B.; Freedom's Journal ; Missionary Movements; Religion; Russwurm, John Brown


Moses, Wilson J. Alexander Crummell: A Study of Civilization and Discontent. New York: Oxford University Press, 1989.

Oldfield, John. Alexander Crummell and the Creation of an African-American Church in Liberia. Lewiston, Maine: E. Mellon, 1990.

Rigsby, Gregory U. Alexander Crummell: Pioneer in Nineteenth Century Pan-African Thought. New York: Greenwood, 1987.

Scruggs, Otey M. We the Children of Africa in This Land. Washington, D.C.: Howard University, 1972.

wilson j. moses (1996)