I saw Alexander Crummell first at a Wilberforce commencement season. … Tall, frail, and black, he stood, with simple dignity and an unmistakable air of good breeding. I began to feel the fineness of his character, his calm courtesy, the sweetness of his strength, and his fair blending of the hope and truth of life. –W. E. B. Du Bois
Alexander Crummell, who spent twenty years as a missionary in Liberia and Sierra Leone, was born in New York City on March 3, 1819. After study at the Mulberry Street School and high school in New York, he transferred to Canaan, New Hampshire, to a school founded by the abolitionists, which was destroyed by an angry local mob. After further study in Whitesboro, New York, and Boston, he was ordained a minister at age twenty-five. Excluded from the ranks of white clergy in his Episcopal diocese, he moved to England, where he completed an A.B. degree at Queens College, Cambridge, in 1853.
Next he spent twenty years as a missionary in West Africa, serving as professor of Mental and Moral Science at the College of Liberia. Crummell supported the vision of a black Christian republic of freed slaves, but became disillusioned with political life in Liberia, and his health failed. In 1880 Crummell founded St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in Washington, D.C., and the American Negro Academy. He was a prolific essayist for nearly two decades. His books include Future of Africa (1862), Greatness of Christ (1882), and Africa and America (1892). A tireless activist, Crummell maintained a strong interest in African missions. He believed that the best way for Africans to improve their situation was through acquiring “civilization,” that is, a classic Western education. If Africa “is ever regenerated the influences and agencies to this end must come from external sources. Civilization… never springs up, spontaneously, in any new land. It must be transplanted.”
Crummell believed that African-Americans were ideal candidates to be missionaries to Africa. Crummell observed, “There is a tropical fitness, which inheres in our constitution, whereby we are enabled…to sit down under an African sun; and soon, and with comparative ease, feel ourselves at home.” African-Americans also knew the “sorrow, pain, and deepest anguish” of slavery and thus demonstrated a special empathy with Africa. “The hand of God is on the black man, in all the lands of his distant sojourn, for the good of Africa. This continent is to be reclaimed for Christ. The faith of Jesus is to supersede all the abounding desolations of heathenism.”
The last two decades of the nineteenth century were times of mission expansion. Over a hundred black American missionaries went to Africa. Their viewpoints differed little from those of their white contemporaries. “Africa for Christ” was their rallying cry, but their message contained a basic contradiction; an attraction to the nobleness of native culture on the one hand and an aversion to heathenism on the other.
Crummell reflected the view of Africa as a “dark continent” prevalent among Americans of his time. Yet, like many African-American missionaries, he had high hopes for Africa. Christianity and civilization, he believed, together opened the road to a future of hope and progress.
*Christ for the world we sing! The world to Christ we bring with loving zeal; the poor, and them that mourn, the faint and overborne, sin sick and sorrow-worn, whom Christ doth heal.  *
Quoted in Walter L. Williams, Black Americans and the Evangelization of Africa, 1977-1900 (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1982), 11.
“Christ for the World We Sing,” hymn 537, in Prayer Book and Hymnal, 1982.
This article is reproduced, with permission, from African Saints: Saints, Martyrs, and Holy People from the Continent of Africa, copyright © 2002 by Frederick Quinn, Crossroads Publishing Company, New York, New York. All rights reserved.