vol. 7, no. 1 (Fall 2003)
ISSN 1094-902X

 

 

Randall K. Burkett
The Reverend Harry Croswell
and Black Episcopalians in New Haven, 1820-1860

Part I | Part II | Notes

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2003 Randall K. Burkett.  Any archiving, redistribution, or republication of this text in any medium requires the consent of the author.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

2003 Randall K. Burkett.  Any archiving, redistribution, or republication of this text in any medium requires the consent of the author.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

2003 Randall K. Burkett.  Any archiving, redistribution, or republication of this text in any medium requires the consent of the author.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

2003 Randall K. Burkett.  Any archiving, redistribution, or republication of this text in any medium requires the consent of the author.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

2003 Randall K. Burkett.  Any archiving, redistribution, or republication of this text in any medium requires the consent of the author.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

2003 Randall K. Burkett.  Any archiving, redistribution, or republication of this text in any medium requires the consent of the author.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

2003 Randall K. Burkett.  Any archiving, redistribution, or republication of this text in any medium requires the consent of the author.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

2003 Randall K. Burkett.  Any archiving, redistribution, or republication of this text in any medium requires the consent of the author.

 

 

 

During the first half of the nineteenth century, African Americans seeking to form independent black congregations within predominately white denominations needed to secure the support of sympathetic whites who could assist in manipulating the levers of denominational and local political power. In the Protestant Episcopal Church there were a handful of bishops, clergy, and laymen who played this important intermediary role. Supportive bishops included William White in Pennsylvania, Thomas C. Brownell in Connecticut, Alonzo Potter in Pennsylvania, and William R. Whittingham in Maryland. Supportive laity included Benjamin Rush and that rarity among antebellum Episcopalians -- the abolitionists -- William Jay and John Jay, II. Among diocesan clergy, none had more extensive or intimate acquaintance either with his own black parishioners or with a larger number of the twenty-two antebellum African-American Episcopal clergy than did the Reverend Harry Croswell, rector from 1815 until his death in 1858 of Trinity Church, New Haven.

Croswell was born in West Hartford, Connecticut, in 1778. Several liabilities of his youth helped shape the distinctiveness, if not the genius, of his ministerial career. Unburdened by a Yale education due to his family's impoverishment, he was privately tutored, first by Nathan Perkins, Congregational minister of Fourth Church, West Hartford; and then by Noah Webster, the West Hartford-born lexicographer whom Croswell served as assistant during the year 1798.1 His education continued in Catskill, New York, where he joined the printer's trade and began co-editing, with his older brother Mackay Croswell, a weekly newspaper, The Catskill Packet.2

In 1801 Croswell moved to Hudson, New York, to join the retired Congregational minister, Ezra Sampson, and a bookseller, George Chittenden, in publication of an independent newspaper called The Balance and Columbian Repository. Croswell's forte on the paper was his acerbic -- one could even say venomous -- political commentary.3 Indeed, his intemperate columns in this paper and another, The Wasp (which he published briefly in 1802 to counter the pro-Democratic paper The Bee), foreshadowed the end of his journalistic career.4 Croswell printed such scurrilous attacks on Thomas Jefferson that Jefferson authorized his New York supporters to bring charges against Croswell as "a malicious and seditious man ... of a depraved mind and wicked and diabolical disposition," who had contrived to "scandalize, traduce and vilify" the President of the United States.5 Even Alexander Hamilton's eloquence on appeal could not overturn Croswell's guilty verdict, in a celebrated case that would establish limits to the freedom of the press.

Croswell completed his political education a few years later when induced by Federalist friends in Albany to begin another newspaper. When promised financial support failed to materialize and a supporter sued for a small debt, Croswell was incarcerated for several months in 1811. The embittered Croswell resolved to close the newspaper and leave publishing, the Federalist Party, and all partisan political activity for the remainder of his life.6 Coincident with his repulsion from political journalism came a conversion to the Protestant Episcopal Church. Privately tutored by the Rev. Timothy Clowes, Croswell was ordained deacon at the age of 36 and immediately called to the rectorship of Christ Church, Hudson, New York. A few months thereafter he accepted a call from Trinity Church, New Haven, which had just completed a new building on the southwest side of the New Haven Green.7 Here Croswell spent the remainder of his days, abjuring political life and devoting himself wholly to his pastoral and denominational duties.

The Rev. Harry Croswell was an unusual, even brilliant, parish priest. Fortunately for the historical record, this incisive and acute observer of contemporary people and events was unable to quell his pen, even though he rarely again appeared publicly in print. The diaries of Harry Croswell, which start in 1821, can be used to study various aspects of social, cultural, and religious life of one small, if not insignificant, New England town. The virtual absence of reference to current political events is more than compensated for in its richly textured descriptions of parish life. One of the fascinating issues on which the diaries shed light is the relationship between African-American parishioners and white priest in a racially tense northern urban setting.8

Among the first African Americans whose names appear in Croswell's diary is that of Jacob Oson, a man with whom Croswell was to have the most intimate and cordial relations up to the time of Oson's death in l828.9 One of the early diary entries illustrates both Croswell's engaging prose style and the esteem with which he held Oson. Having learned in the afternoon of August 22, 1821, "that Sarah Quay, the aged black woman in Neck-Lane, was dying, and wished to see me," Croswell writes:

She was of Indian extract, with a mixture of African, and her colour partook of both -- her jaw was fallen, and her large, black, glaring eyes, rolling in the sockets -- and added to all this, the most horrid groans, at short intervals. -- But amidst all, she took care to make me promise to attend her funeral! -- This was done, to avoid the indignity of being buried by Jacob Oson, a very worthy black man, who, having a license for the purpose, had been sometimes called upon to attend to services of this kind. -- The blacks have a great dislike to him, because he is considered more respectable in society -- and more especially because he sometimes acts as their teacher.10

Biographical information on Oson prior to 1821 is scarce, and it is difficult to tell when he arrived in New Haven or where he was born. A letter of recommendation written by a New Haven minister in 1822, documents that he was living in the city by the year 1805.11 An 1827 letter noted that Oson did not fear the tropical climate, since he "has spent the hot season in some of the most unhealthy of the West Indies islands,"12 suggesting that he was from the West Indies. In 1817 Oson had delivered, first in New Haven and then in New York City, a lecture entitled "A Search for Truth; or an Inquiry for the Origin of the African Nation." This thoughtful essay was published in New York "for and by the request of Christopher Rush," one of the founders and later a bishop of the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church.13 In it, Oson queries whether "my people and nation" are "such a vile ignorant race of beings, as we, their descendants, are considered to be." He concluded that "it is a false representation ... not founded upon truth":

Was there ever a land more fertile than that of our ancestors? History informs us that the arts and sciences sprang from there, and that they were a very mighty and powerful nation. And yet, in the annals of history, there never was a nation so subjected, made so vile, so trodden under foot, and used with such cruelty as my nation. All this God hath permitted, but he hath said that he would heal us.14

Oson's identification with Africa was certainly clear, regardless of his place of birth.

It is unclear where Oson acquired the education necessary to produce this address, but he early began imparting his knowledge to fellow African Americans in New Haven. For a number of years he taught a school for black children. While some, such as Sarah Quay, may have resented his manner or his learning, Harry Croswell was deeply impressed with Oson's abilities. On January 16, 1823, he wrote,

In the evening, Jacob Oson called to read to me a piece which he is preparing on the subject of Africa -- and I was astonished to find how much he had laboured to make out the proper origin of that nation, and with how much ingenuity and success he had managed the few materials of which he had possessed himself for the purpose. -- He is truly a remarkable man -- with a very limited education -- struggling with poverty -- without leisure, or books, or any other convenience, to undertake such a work, is sufficient to put to shame -- the highly endowed persons of leisure who suffer this subject to remain unexplored.15

Impressed with Oson's piety as well as his intellect, Croswell worked assiduously throughout the 1820s to help Oson secure his own congregation. In September 1821 he recommended Oson for a position as lay reader in St. Thomas' Episcopal Church, Philadelphia, the first black Episcopal parish formed in the United States. St. Thomas' had been without a rector since the death of its founder, Absalom Jones, in 1818. Oson went to Philadelphia to interview for the position, and on October 23, 1821, the "male part of the congregation of St. Thomas' Church" met "for the purpose of considering the propriety of calling Mr. Jacob Oson to the ministry of the said Church." Having read letters from Peter Williams, Jr., rector of St. Philip's Church, New York, and from Bishops White and Brownell, the vestry "On motion Resolved that Mr. Jacob Oson be taken for a candidate for the holy orders and handed over to the ordaining committee for ordination and to allow him a sallary (sic) of four hundred Dollars per-annum. On amendment it was agreed by a large majority to give him three hundred Dollars per annum."16

The matter was not so easily resolved, however, for on December 24, the congregation of St. Thomas' met at the house of Tobias Barclay and appointed a committee to visit the Rev. Jackson Kemper (then assistant to the bishop in Christ Church, Philadelphia) to inquire why it was that Oson's name had not been placed before the Standing Committee for ordination. Five days later the assembly was informed that "it was for the want of one more Signer to his credentials and no other Reason."17 They immediately voted to request additional letters from Oson. On January 23, 1821, Croswell wrote to Bishop White on his behalf:

I do not hesitate to express my opinion that Jacob Oson, a man of colour, "possesses extraordinary strength of natural understanding, a peculiar aptitude to teach, and a large share of prudence. " -- And I feel great pleasure, in being enabled to add, that this opinion is founded on an acquaintance of seven years, during which, I have been particularly attentive to his conduct, and have had frequent opportunities to witness his manner of reading the prayers of the Church, and of instructing youth, both as a school-master, and as a Sunday-school teacher.18

Three days after writing that letter, Croswell prepared a petition which stated, "We the underwritten hereby certify, that we have been acquainted with Jacob Oson, for many years, and that he has uniformly maintained the character of an honest, sober, industrious, and pious man -- and that we have never known or heard any thing derogatory to his reputation, as a man or a Christian." This letter was signed by some of New Haven's most influential citizens.19

In late January the members of St. Thomas' Church also petitioned Bishop White and the clergy of the Episcopal Church of Philadelphia. They observed that the church had suffered a decline since Absalom Jones' death, and "there is much reason to apprehend that unless some Minister be established in this Congregation the Members will become scattered even more widely than at present." While recognizing the right and responsibility of the bishop and clergy to determine who was qualified to be ordained, they nevertheless urged a reconsideration of Oson:

The only thing that has been urged in objection to Jacob Oson within the knowledge of the Subscribers is his want of a Classical or sufficient education. With all diffidence and humility they would suggest that being themselves generally illiterate it is their Opinion with unwearied zeal and steadfast Faith and Piety his knowledge of the world's learning will be equal to expound to the Congregation the plain truths of the Gospel and the words of eternal life.20

A sheet containing the signatures of eighty-eight male members of St. Thomas' Church accompanied the petition. Like Croswell's efforts, however, this petition failed. When Croswell received the news from Jackson Kemper that Oson was not selected for the position, he went promptly to Oson's house to give him the bad news.21

Failing to secure for Oson the rectorship of the only available black Episcopal parish, Croswell next sought to have him appointed as minister to the African United Ecclesiastical Society of New Haven. The Society had been formally organized October 21, 1824, and efforts to establish an African Union Church had been fostered by Congregationalist Simeon S. Jocelyn as early as 1820.22 Croswell was furious when informed in March 1825 by the Ecclesiastical Society representative, William Lanson, that this plan would not work. The very day he learned the news, Croswell went to Oson's house, "having in the morning drawn up articles of agreement for an African Congregation, which I wished to submit to him. -- As the Union Society will not receive him as their minister, on account of his episcopacy, -- my plan is, to encourage him to raise an Episcopal Congregation for himself."23 This was the first in a series of actions Croswell took to help organize a black Episcopal congregation in New Haven. As we shall see, St. Luke's Church would not be established for nearly twenty years.

In January 1826 Oson called on Croswell to report that "the coloured church people, despairing of any union with the other denominations, had ... resolved to try to raise a congregation of their own -- and would accordingly commence service in the lecture-room on Sunday next. -- He read me an address, which he had prepared for the occasion, which, excepting some bad grammar, and one or two moderate negroisms, was not only well adapted to the purpose, but was very creditable to his talents and judgment."24 On Sunday, January 29, 1826, according to a diary entry, "Jacob Oson began to-day to minister to a little flock of blacks at the lecture-room -- but I have not yet learned with what success."

Throughout the next year Oson struggled without success to build up an African congregation within the confines of the Protestant Episcopal Church. His failure at home coincided with the denomination's growing interest in African missions. As early as 1820 the Domestic and Foreign Missionary Society had asserted the duty to send missionaries to Africa, and their interest was intensified by a letter from the Secretary of the Church Missionary Society in England, requesting help from the American Church to locate African Americans for their missionary efforts in Sierra Leone.25 Oson's long-standing interest in Africa, evident in his 1817 essay, A Search for Truth; Or, An Inquiry for the Origin of the African Nation, led him to ask Croswell's support to seek work in Africa. On April 7, 1827, Croswell wrote to the secretary of the American Board, informing him of Oson's decision.

[Oson] would prefer a situation at Sierra Leone, under the Church Missionary Society; but I think would not object to our own missionary station [in Liberia]. He is best qualified for the former, -- though he does not entirely come up to their engagements. He is deficient in his English education; but can write intelligibly, and in a decent hand. He is a good reader, & performs the services of the church with much solemnity & propriety. He is a sound churchman, well informed in the principles of the church, & is withal truly pious, & full of zeal for the African cause. He is well acquainted with the scriptures, is a man of discretion & judgment, and is modest in his pretensions, & humble in his walk & conversation. He has taught a school of black children for many years, sometimes as a district school master, & sometimes on his private account; and, I believe, always acceptably .... He was admitted as a candidate, with the understanding that he should not receive orders, until he could find a congregation to employ him. In this he has but partially succeeded.26

Oson threw himself into the enterprise of preparing for the foreign mission field, and Croswell eagerly supported him. By the fall Oson had decided on Liberia rather than Sierra Leone as his chosen field. In mid-November Croswell received from the Domestic and Foreign Missionary Society a packet of pamphlets concerning Africa, all of which he carefully read before delivery to Oson. The following day he wrote informing the Society of Oson's decision to accept the call to Liberia.27

In December Croswell submitted a testimonial letter on Oson's behalf to the Standing Committee of the Connecticut diocese, signed by the rector, wardens and vestry of Trinity Church.28 In January 1828 Oson was examined by the Reverends John M. Garfield and William T. Patten, who concluded that "the talents and attainments of the said Oson are sufficient to qualify him for usefulness as a Missionary to Liberia, or to exercise the ministry among the people of colour in the United States of America."29 One month later, on Saturday, February 16, Oson was ordained deacon by the Rt. Rev. Bishop Thomas C. Brownell in Christ Church, Hartford, and the following day he was ordained priest. Brownell's ordination sermon made explicit an important but sometimes overlooked motivating factor with respect to African missions, namely, the sense of guilt that some Americans felt for permitting slavery to exist in the New World.

You go to a country which has received the deepest of injuries, from men bearing the Christian name. You go to a race for whose wrongs our own country has a fearful account to render. -- Ah! happy for us, if by sending to injured Africa the light and the blessings of the Gospel, we can make some reparation for the wrongs she has received at our hands, and some atonement for our national guilt!30

Episcopalians evinced considerable interest in Oson's ordination, the first person ordained for the African mission field and only the fifth African American ordained in the Episcopal Church.31 No one in the denomination, however, had greater personal interest than did Harry Croswell. When he had written his earliest letter of recommendation on Oson's behalf, Croswell had noted "one material drawback," namely, that Oson was already more than fifty years of age. Oson himself had seen no problem in this fact, arguing that "this will leave him so many the less years in the hands of the Society; and that by the time he is worn out, younger ones may be trained for the field."32 Alas, this liability proved to be more important than either he or Croswell anticipated, and Oson was destined never to reach Africa as a missionary after all.

In late May a diary entry noted that Oson had called to make arrangements for a trip eastward, and during the visit had complained about suffering what Croswell characterized as "the clerical distemper, dyspepsia!" In mid-July Croswell still sought to make light of Oson's distress, noting that he "is complaining a good deal, and seems inclining to consumption -- but he has taken a ride in the country." By July 25, however, it was plain that matters were serious: "One of the very hottest of days ... P.M. towards evening, called to see Jacob Oson, who is quite ill." In mid-August, having just visited the mortally ill Jehudi Ashman, Governor of the Colony of Liberia (who had arrived in New Haven from Liberia after an arduous voyage, hoping to recover his broken health), Croswell went again to Oson's home. The diary entries were discouraging and increasingly terse:

13 August 1828: [F]ound him a little more comfortable, but still in a low state. -- He seemed anxious to have the communion -- and as there were three or four to unite with him, complied with his desire to receive it.

27 August 1828: Walked down to Jacob Oson's -- found him very low -- conversed and prayed with him.

2 September 1828: Wrote to Mr. Weller an acct. of J. Oson.

4 September 1828: Visited and prayed with Jacob Oson, who seems to be approaching his end.

8 September 1828: Visited and prayed with Jacob Oson, who seemed in a dying state ... recd a message from Oson 's family, that he was dying, and they wished to see me. The message had been left in my absence -- and before I arrived at the house, he was dead. -- I was completely jaded before I got home -- and was in much pain withal.

9 September 1828: P.M. attended the funeral of Oson. -- The body was brought to the African Meeting House, where the burial service was performed -- and we then proceeded to the grave, where the remainder of the service was added -- The whole fell upon me....

16 September 1828: Prepared a short obituary article on Jacob Oson for the Watchman.33

Croswell's diaries document a decade-long, intimate involvement with the Oson family, nearly all of whom attended Trinity Church. Croswell buried Oson's first wife, who died in 1820 at the age of 49, and he performed Oson's second marriage to "Saray Way, a very respectable coloured woman," in November 1821.34 He attended closely to the spiritual needs of Jacob's son, Abraham, who died a lingering death of consumption in the summer of 1822, arriving on one of his frequent visits to find "him dying -- and, his father having stepped out for a moment, there was nobody but his wife, his father's wife, and another black woman in the house. -- I assisted their in closing his eyes, etc." He performed the wedding of Oson's daughter, Amelia, to William Butler, on the 4th of July, 1824. He attended the funeral of Oson's grandsons in 1823 and 1826. And so the record goes, demonstrating an intimate involvement by Croswell with the tribulations, the aspirations and the joys of the extensive Oson family. That Croswell's own family shared his regard for Jacob Oson is evident from the text of a memorial sonnet which his son, William, published in the pages of the Episcopal Watchman a few weeks after Oson's death:

Not on the voyage which our hopes had planned
Shalt thou go forth, poor exile, o'er the main;
The savage glories of thy fatherland

Shall never bless thy aged sight again;
Nor shalt thou toil to loose a heavier chain
Than e'er was fastened by the spoiler's hand.
And yet the work for which thy bosom yearned
Shall never rest, though sin and death detain
Messiah from his many-peopled reign,
Till all thy captive brethren have returned.
But thou hast gained, (O, blest exhange!) instead,
A better country, and a heavenly home,
Where all the ransomed of the Lord shall come,
With everlasting joy upon their head.35

Part II | Notes

 

Randall K. Burkett is Curator of African American Collections at the Robert W. Woodruff Library, Emory University. He is the author of Garveyism as a Religious Movement: The Institutionalization of a Black Civil Religion (1978), editor of Black Redemption: Churchmen Speak for the Garvey Movement (1978), co-editor (with Richard Newman) of Black Apostles: Afro-American Clergy Confront the Twentieth Century (1978), co-editor (with Nancy Hall Burkett and Henry Louis Gates) of Black Biography, 1790-1950: A Cumulative Index (1991) and co-author (with Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham, Leon F. Litwack, Darlene Clark Hine, and Henry Louis Gates Jr.) of the Harvard Guide to African American History (2001).