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


* We are pleased to publish this article in cooperation with The A.M.E. Church Review, which will also publish it in the September-October 2003 issue.

1. William B. Sprague, Annals of the American Pulpit, Vol. 5, "Episcopalians," (New York: Robert Carter & Brothers, 1859) , p. 697; and Edward J. Getlein, A History of Trinity Church On-The-Green, New Haven, Connecticut, 1752-1976 (New Haven: Trinity Church on the Green, 1976) , p. 76. The venerable Perkins, for more than sixty-six years pastor of Fourth Church, was well-known as an educator, having prepared more than 150 men for college, among whom Noah Webster himself was among the first. See the biographical sketch of Nathan Perkins in Robert A. Harrison, Princetonians, 1769-1775; A Biographical Dictionary (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1980) , p. 101.

2. Mackay Croswell (1769-1847) is identified in the Printer's File, located at the American Antiquarian Society, Worcester, Massachusetts. I am grateful to the Antiquarian Society staff for their generous assistance in facilitating research for this paper.

3. The paper announced its polemic intent in the following statement that appeared in the first issue: "With respect to politics, the editors, whenever or wherever they shall think they espy real danger, will faithfully blow the trumpet of alarm, and, with independence and frankness, will publish their sentiments upon public measures, tho' it still may (as it already has done) expose them to the bitter censure of some, who wish to establish 'a political intolerance, as despotic as wicked.'" Vol. I, no. 1 (5 January 1802), p. 1.

4. Franklin B. Dexter, "The Rev. Harry Croswell, D.D., and His Diary," Papers of the New Haven Colony Historical Society 9 (1918), 46-69 at pp. 47-48.

5. Getlein, op. cit., pp. 77-79, citing People vs. Croswell 3 Johnson's (NY) Cases; 336, 339 (1904).

6. Dexter, op. cit., p. 48.

7. Getlein, op. cit., p. 80.

8. Antebellum New Haven is well known for its generous response to and support of the Amistad victims, that shipload of slaves whose 1839 mutiny trial aroused international attention and a United States Supreme Court defense by former President John Quincy Adams. It is also known, however, as the town whose citizens eight years earlier, by a margin of 700 to 4, had voted "to resist ... by every lawful means" the establishment there of a college for the education of men and women of African descent. In fact, the citizens determined to resist the college by unlawful means as well: abolitionist Arthur Tappan's house in New Haven was nearly destroyed by angry citizens, and mobs attacked homes and businesses of its black residents. This response was typical of statewide attitudes towards African Americans. Two years after the "College for Colored Youth" was repulsed in New Haven, Prudence Crandall was denied the right to admit "colored ladies and little misses" to her Canterbury, Connecticut, school. A bill was rushed through the state legislature specifically to prohibit Crandall's school from operating. See the account by Samuel J. May, Some Recollections of our Antislavery Conflict (Boston, 1869, reprinted by Mnemosyne Publishing Co., Miami, 1969), pp. 39-72. Slavery itself was not abolished in Connecticut until 1848, and as late as 1865, the citizens voted overwhelmingly to deny Negroes the right to vote. As William Chauncey Fowler drolly remarked, in his review of the Historical Status of the Negro in Connecticut, "The People of Connecticut were practical and believed that our two-fold Government was created by and for white men." Fowler's essay is published in Local Law in Massachusetts and Connecticut, Historically Considered (Albany: Joel Mansell, 1872), quoting at p. 144. For details on the Amistad case, the College for Colored Youth, and Prudence Crandall's school, as well as for a general review of race relations in New Haven, see Robert Austin Warner, New Haven Negroes; A Social History (New York: Arno Press and the New York Times, 1969), passim.

9. Oson's name heads a list of seven "Blacks, confirmed," in an entry dated Sunday, April 15, 1821, Volume I, p. 5, [henceforth cited Diaries, I:5 (15 April 1821)]. The diaries are located in the Manuscripts and Archives Division, Sterling Memorial Library, Yale University.

10. Diaries, I:65 (22 August 1821).

11. A.L.S. Samuel Merwin, Pastor of the church in the "United Society," 28 Jan 1822, writing to William White, stated that he had known Oson for the past seventeen years since his own arrival in New Haven. Episcopal Church Archives, Austin, Texas, RG 50-5 Executive Committee Correspondence Received, Papers of the Domestic and Foreign Missionary Society.

12.A.L.S. George Weller to the Revd. Edward Bickersteth, Secretary of the Church Missionary Society, London (4 June 1827), in the C.M.S. Archives, G/AC 20, Misc. Letters.

13. A Search For Truth; Or, An Inquiry For The Origin Of The African Nation: An Address, Delivered At New Haven In March, And At New York In April, 1817. By Jacob Oson, A Descendant of Africa. Published for, and by the request of, Christopher Rush, a descendant of Africa. (New York: For the Proprietor, 1817). p. 12.

14. Ibid., pp. 1, 7, and 11.

15. Diaries, I:199 (16 January 1823). No text of this speech survives. I have been unable to locate contemporary accounts in New Haven newspapers of Oson's 1817 address.

16. Diaries, I:75 (17 September 1821). At this date there was only one living black Episcopal clergyman, the Rev. Peter Williams, Jr., who had been ordained by Bishop Hobart in New York, 20 October 1820, and who was immediately placed in charge of the newly-founded St. Philip's church, New York City. The action of the male members of St. Thomas' Church is found in a memorandum, dated 23 October 1821, in the Episcopal Church Archives, RG 50-5.

17. Extracts of the Minutes of St. Thomas' Episcopal Church, James Johnson, Secretary, dated Philadelphia, 24 December 1821 and 29 December 1821, in Episcopal Church Archives, RG5O-5.

18. Testimonials for Jacob Oson, dated 23 January 1822, signed by Croswell and Joseph Perry, Rector of Christ Church, East Haven and Trinity Church, West Haven, in Episcopal Church Archives, RG5O-5.

19. Testimonials for Jacob Oson, dated 26 January 1822, ibid. Samuel Merwin also wrote a separate letter on Oson's behalf, cited above, note 10.

20. Testimonials from members of St. Thomas' African Church, Philadelphia, Episcopal Church Archives, RG5O-5. The petition appears to have been dated Philadelphia, January 21, 1822, though this date was crossed out in heavy ink and Dec. 29, 1821, written over it.

21. Diaries, I:102 (12 December 1821), Diaries, I:117 (14 February 1822). Oson's fate had probably been sealed nearly a year earlier by a single sentence from Connecticut Bishop Thomas C. Brownell. In a letter to Jackson Kemper, dated 30 March 1821, Brownell had written, "On enquiry concerning the coloured man in this place, I am led to believe he does not possess sufficient talents and information for the Society in Philadelphia." Jackson Kemper Papers, 6G15, State Historical Society of Wisconsin, Madison. A notable omission from the list of eighty-eight signers of the petition from St. Thomas' Church was that of James Forten, a prominent member of the vestry. This suggests that there may have been opposition to Oson from some parish members as well.

22. Warner, op cit., pp. 46-47. Interdenominational African community churches were organized in the North as early as the 1780s, and they flourished in the 1820s in Newport, Providence, Cincinnati, Rochester, New Haven, and elsewhere. They quickly succumbed, however, to the denominational factionalism which was characteristic of American churches in the early nineteenth century. See Will B. Gravely, "The Rise of African Churches in the America, (1786-1822): Re-examining the Contexts," Journal of Religious Thought 41:1 (1984), 58-73 at 64,65.

23. 23 Diaries, II:19 (13 March 1825). A somewhat vindictive note crept into the diaries in an entry Croswell made three days later. "[A] ttended prayers at the funeral of a little infant of a black man, named Sandy Simpson. - Declined going to the burying ground - and as the man was one of the Union Society, talked to him a little on the inconvenience of their plan, &c." Diaries, II:20 (16 March 1825).

24. Diaries, II:112-13 (24 January 1826).

25. Proceedings of the Board of Directors of the Domestic and Foreign Missionary Society, First Triennia1 Meeting, 20 May 1823, pp. 46-53.

26. Croswell's recommendation is summarized in a letter of George Weller to Edward Bickersteth, op. cit. Bickersteth's original letter to the American bishops requesting men of African descent for the Sierra Leone mission field was published in the African Repository II
(January 1827), p. 348.

27. Diaries, II:315 (9 November 1827); II:318 (19 November 1827); and II:318 (20 November 1827).

28. A.L.S., Harry Croswell, et al., Letter Testimonial for Jacob Oson, 4 December 1827, in Standing Committee Papers, Library and Archives, Episcopal Diocese of Connecticut, Hartford.

29. A.L.S., John M. Garfield and William T. Patten to the Rt. Rev. Bishop Thomas C. Brownell, 15 January 1828, in Standing Committee Papers, Library and Archives, Episcopal Diocese of Connecticut, Hartford.

30. Episcopal Watchman (Hartford), I:49 (25 February 1828), 386 and 391. William R. Hutchison, in his essay, "New England's Further Errand: Millennial Belief and the Beginnings of Foreign Missions," Proceedings of the Massachusetts Historical Society 44(1982), 49-64, views the early 19th-century missionary enterprise, especially in its New England version, as being a restatement of the optimistic 17th century "errand into the wilderness" turned eastward. "The predominant tone," he writes, "is best represented in a God of yearning compassion and in an elect people who, already blessed, act out of gratitude more than out of need for repentance or expiation" (p. 57). Among some Episcopal clergy committed to African missions, there was a different impulse, viz., recognition of the need for national repentance and expiation which impelled the denomination to action. Jonathan M. Wainwright, Rector of Christ Church, New York, restated this theme in his Discourse on the Occasion of Forming the African Mission School Society, Delivered ... Aug. 10, 1828 (Hartford: H. & F. J. Huntington, 1828): "Africa I regard as a region of peculiar interest to us, and one which presents to us peculiar obligations to care for its moral and religious improvement. We are indeed separated from it by an immense ocean, but we have taken its children from their homes, we have held them in bondage, we have obtained large portions of our temporal comforts and luxuries from the labour of their hands. We are all, to a certain degree, involved in the guilt of injustice towards this much suffering people. I say we, for I cannot on this point make a line of distinction. I would indeed on every point forever forget the terms north and south, as terms of national distinction, but most assuredly upon this. For here we are under a like condemnation. Slavery once polluted the now free and untrammelled states of New England .... Let us not then boast of our exemption from responsibility, and from whatever may be the criminality of possessing a slave population .... If we can send [the Africans] back with the Gospel of Christ, and thus give them as a reward for their extorted labours and long continued sufferings, the pearl of great price, our guilt will be lessened, and our condemnation will be taken away" (pp. 17,18 and 24). To be sure, this line of reasoning led Wainwright and the majority of Episcopal clergy to support colonization rather than emancipation, as the immediate solution to the national calamity of slavery.

31. Oson's selection for the mission field in Liberia was reported in the African Repository III:9 (November 1827), 270-71. His predecessors were Absalom Jones (1746-1818); Peter Williams, Jr., (1786-1840); William Levington (1793-1836); and James C. Ward ( -1834).

32. Weller to Bickersteth (quoting Croswell), op. cit.

33. The obituary notice was published in the Episcopal Watchman II:27 (20 September 1828), p. 214, and reprinted in the African Repository IV:9 (November 1828), 283-84. From it, we learn that Oson had expressed an interest as early as 1810 to enter the ministry and that from the moment Liberia was established, he had hoped to be able to go there as a missionary. His one regret as death approached, according to Croswell, was "that he was never to be permitted to see Africa." Idem. An obituary in the Connecticut Journal (16 September 1828) states that Oson was 65 years of age at his death. In the New Haven Vital Records, however, he is listed as having died at age 62, which would place his birth around the year 1766. The cause of death was listed as Scirrhus Pylorus or stomach cancer.

34. "The wife of Jacob Oson, aged 49" is listed as having died 11 December 1820, in Families of Ancient New Haven, v. VII, comp. by Donald Lines Jacobus (New Haven, 1931), pp. 2056, 2057. Also listed as deceased that year were "An infant of Mr. Oson, April 18," and "A son of Mr. Oson, aged 17, May 17." Sarah Way was probably the daughter of John and Nancy Way, Connecticut "mulattoes" who were ordered out of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts prior to 10 October 1788. The law had been passed to prevent free Negroes from the South from settling in Massachusetts. See George Washington Williams, History of the Negro Race in America II (New York: G.P. Putnam's Sons, 1883), p. 130. The wedding is reported in Diaries I:96 (15 November 1821).

35. The poem, along with another which William Croswell wrote about Oson soon after his ordination, may be found in Harry Croswell's book, A Memoir of the Late Rev. William Croswell, D.D., Rector of the Church of the Advent, Boston, Massachusetts. By His Father. (New York: D. Appleton & Co., 1853), pp. 44-45. Croswell's visits with Abraham Oson are described in Diaries, I:156 (23 July 1822); I:157 (27 July 1822); I:163 (12 August 1822); and I:163 (13 August 1822). The marriage of Amelia Oson to William Butler is reported in Diaries, I:308 (4 July 1824). The deaths of Oson's grandsons, the children of George Benjamin, are reported in 1:215 (4 April 1823); II:117 (9 February 1826); II:118 (13 February 1826); and II:121-22 (26 February 1826).

36. Brownell (1779-1865), like many prominent New England clergymen and educational leaders, was a vigorous advocate of colonization, and he took an active role in founding the Connecticut Colonization Society, organized in May 1827. Having been the prime mover in the creation of Washington College (now Trinity College), Hartford, Brownell energetically supported the idea of "a school for the education of free persons of colour, with reference to their becoming Missionaries, Catechists, and Schoo1-masters, in Africa," as an extension of the College. Details on organization of the African Mission School Society are found in the Episcopal Watchman II:22 (16 August 1828), 174-175.

37. Diaries, III:207 (4 August 1830). An excellent brief sketch of Jones (1808?-1865) is Hugh Hawkins' essay, "Edward Jones, Marginal Man," in David W. Wills and Richard Newman, eds., Black Apostles at Home and Abroad; Afro-Americans and the Christian Mission from the Revolution to Reconstruction (Boston: G. K. Hall & Co., 1982), pp. 243-253. Croswell's judgment, at least about the abilities of Caesar, was not shared by the Executive Committee of the Domestic and Foreign Missionary Society. They interviewed both Caesar and William Johnson in New York in September 1830 and concluded "that Mr. Caesar does not appear sufficiently well prepared for the profitable exercise of his ministry; and that Mr. Johnson is utterly destitute of those qualifications, which a teacher in the humblest elementary department ought to possess." Episcopal Church Archives, RG 41-28, 27 September 1830. The Committee refused to send either Caesar or Johnson to Africa under their auspices.

38. Diaries, IV:24 (1 May 1832).

39. Diaries, VI:300 (13 June 1840); and VI:303 (23 June 1840). William J. Moses, author of the superb biography Alexander Crummell: A Study of Civilization and Discontent (New York: Oxford University Press, 1989), could find no evidence that Crummell ever formally matriculated at Yale Divinity School.

40. The presiding bishop in New York, Benjamin T. Onderdonk, provided a tendentious account of the episode in a long letter to The Churchman in late October 1839, but the paper refused to print Crummell's reply to the bishop, which was carried in the Colored American. See The Churchman IX:22 (10 August 1839), 87; IX:23 (17 August 1839) , 91; IX:25 (31 August 1839) , 99; IX:26 (7 September 1839), 102-103; IX:27 (14 September 1839), 107; and IX:34 (2 November 1839), 133. Crummell's reply, with texts of correspondence between Crummell and Onderdonk, was published in the Colored American in a communication dated 2 December 1839. Croswell's son, William (also an Episcopal priest), had been an intimate friend of Doane's ever since the two had co-edited the Episcopal Watchman in Hartford in the late 1820s, and there is no doubt that the senior Croswell was familiar with the details of Crummell's case.

41. For details of the stormy relationship between Crummell and the vestry of Christ Church, Providence, see the Christ Church Records, Rhode Island Historical Society, Providence. Crummell at one point threatened to resign from Christ Church because of the "base treachery and want of principle" of some members of the vestry. Matters were temporarily patched up, but three months later, the vestry locked the doors against Crummell and he left the employ of the church. See A.L.S. Alexander Crummell "To the Vestry of Christ Church," 13 June 1842; and Minutes of the Vestry of Christ Church, entry for 27 October 1842.

42. William E.B. DuBois, Darkwater; Voices from Within the Veil (New York: Harcourt, Brace and Howe, 1920), p. 8.

43. Getlein, op. cit., p. 96.

44. Diaries, VII:399 (12 March 1844); VII:407 (28 March 1844); VII:427 (29 April 1844); and VII:428 (30 April 1844).

45. Diaries, VII:447 (7 June 1844). Vibbert was Croswell's assistant at Trinity Church.

46. Warner, op. cit., 87.

47. Diaries, VII:441 (27 May 1844). Berry (1813-1887) was ordained in 1847 and eventually came to St. Luke's Church in 1860, after Croswell's death. William Douglass (1805-1862) was rector of St. Thomas' Church, Philadelphia; Augustus W. Hanson (1814?-1863) was in Gold Coast; Elie W. Stokes (d.1867) was on his way to Trinidad; Alexander Crummell was the fourth ordained clergyman.

48. Diaries, VIII:27 (24 October 1844); VIII:28 (25 October 1844); and VIII:53 (23 and 24 December 1844).

49. The earliest references to Stokes are found in Diaries VIII:157 (10 July 1845); VIII:165 (24 July 1845); and VIII:167 (28 July 1845). Details of Stokes' early activities in Maryland and the West Indies are found in Elie Worthington Stokes to Bp. W.R. Whittingham, A.L.S. 24 October 1843; Stokes, Annual Report to Bishop William R. Whittingham, 1843; Stokes to Whittingham, A.L.S. 19 March 1845 (dated Port of Spain, Trinidad); and The Rev. G.W. Chamberlain to William Rollinson Whittingham, A.L.S. 10 June 1845, all in the Maryland Diocesan Archives, Baltimore. Stokes, whose first name is often spelled without the last "e", is credited by George F. Bragg, Jr., as being the founder of St. Luke's, New Haven. He was, in fact, its first settled rector. Bragg, History of the Afro-American Group (Baltimore, Church Advocate Press, 1922), p. 106.

50. Entry for 14 July 1845, St. Luke's parish Record, Minute Books, 1844-1896, housed in St. Luke's Church, New Haven, Connecticut.

51. Diaries, VIII:195-196 (18 September 1845).

52. Diaries, VIII:207 (14 October 1845); VIII:246 (17 January 1846); and VIII:246-247
(19 January 1846).

53. Diaries, IX:141 (31 January 1849).

54. Diaries, X:25 (6 June 1850).

55. Diaries, XIV:77 (18 September 1857). Croswell's negative opinion of Stokes was shared by many others, including Alexander Crummell. Writing to the Secretary of the Domestic and Foreign Missionary Society from Liberia in 1856, where he was himself a missionary, Crummell said "The Revd. Mr. Stokes is here again, and is mischievously at work among our members. With some few, whose cupidity he can gratify, he will have a measure of success. He comes out, as he declares, under the patronage of the Bp of Glasgow and other Scottish Ecclesiastics; and he evidently has large means at his command." A.L.S. Alexander Crummell to P.P. Irving, 10 January 1856, in Liberia Papers, RG 72-2, Episcopal Church Archives, Austin, Texas. Despite a stormy relationship with the Episcopal Church and with his Liberian colleagues, Stokes died as an Episcopal missionary in Crozerville, Liberia, on February 26, 1867. See the obituary notice by A.F. Russell in The Spirit of Missions 22 (1867), pp. 542-43.

56. Warner, op.cit., p. 90, and letter to the Colored American dated 25 September 1838 in Amos G. Beman Papers, Scrapbooks II:126, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University. Another clipping in scrapbook lists Green as vice president of an Emancipation Demonstration committee commemorating the abolition of slavery in the District of Columbia (Beman Scrapbooks II:139-140).

57. Green is mentioned frequently in Croswell's diaries, e.g.,VIII:352-353 (11 September 1846); VIII:361 (2 October 1846); IX:43 (27 April 1848); and IX:43 (29 April 1848). A boot maker by trade, Green is listed as an officer of St. Luke's Church in the New Haven City Directories each year from 1844 until 1865. See also Standing Committee Papers, Personnel Files, Diocese of Connecticut, Hartford.

58. See David M. Dean's excellent biography, Defender of the Race: James Theodore Holly Black Nationalist Bishop (Boston: Lambeth Press, 1979). Also valuable is Floyd J. Miller, The Search for a Black Nationality: Black Colonization and Emigration 1787-l863 (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1975), esp. pp. 107-115 and 161-169.

59. A.L.S. James Theodore Holly to George F. Bragg, Jr., 1 June 1889 in George F. Bragg, Jr., Papers, Moorland-Spingarn Research Center, Howard University.

60. Dean, op. cit., p. 23 and Miller, op. cit., pp. 166-168.

61. Diaries, XIII:11(15 October 1855).

62. The letters testimonial for Holly are located in Archives of the Diocese of Connecticut, Hartford.

63. Dean, op. cit., p. 28.

64. Ibid., pp. 29-30.

65. Ibid., p. 37.

66. Entry dated 24 April 1850, "St. Luke's Parish Record, Minute Books, 1844-1896," in St. Luke's Church Archives, New Haven, Connecticut.

67. Diaries, V:196 (19 April 1836).

68. Diaries, XII:32(22 June 1854).

69. Diaries, III:288 (4 July 1831); V:511 (28 May 1838) ; and III:117 (5 July 1829). A sample of Fisk's opinion on colonization may be found in his Substance of an Address Delivered Before the Middletown Colonization Society, and Their Annual Meeting, July 4, 1835 (Middletown: G.F. Olmested, 1835). Hawks' sermon, Croswell decided, was "declamatory and spirited, but much less calculated for a sermon, than for an oration. -- His extreme anxiety to elevate the pretensions and objects of the Society, carried him a little too far for cool heads and calculating minds -- but it was exactly in the right style for the populace." The North Carolina-born Francis Hawks (1798-1866) was sufficiently pro-Southern that in 1862, shortly after the Civil War began, he resigned his parish church in New York City and moved to Baltimore.

70. Leonard L. Richards, "Gentlemen of Property and Standing," Anti-Abolition Mobs in Jacksonian America (New York: Oxford University Press, 1970), pp. 5, 40, and 138-140. Richards' thesis was anticipated nearly 125 years earlier by the Episcopalian abolitionist, William Jay. Speaking of actions of the Diocese of Pennsylvania in denying Alexander Crummell or any other African American a right to representation in that body, Jay wrote "Ruffian mobs had on several occasions, within the past few years, assailed the unoffending blacks in Philadelphia, sacked their dwellings, and torn down their houses of worship, and all on account of the complexion their Maker had given them. And how was this wicked, cruel prejudice against color, rebuked by the Episcopal Church in Pennsylvania?...[They] were...driven...from the enclosure of the Church, as they had been, by abandoned wretches, from the sanctuary of their own homes. The bishop, clergy, and lay deputies of the Pennsylvania Church, make common cause with the rioters in the streets, in a general crusade against negroes and mulattoes!" William Jay, Miscellaneous Writings on Slavery (New York: Negro Universities Press, 1968), pp. 446-7. Elsewhere, Jay fulminated against "our pro-slavery clergy, our negro-hating clergy, our slave-catching clergy, [who] are the most successful apostles of infidelity in the country." Cited in Bayard Tuckerman, William Jay and the Constitutional Movement for the Abolition of Slavery (New York: Dodd, Mead & Company, 1893), p 146.

71. Entry dated 14 March 1858, "St. Luke's Parish Record, Minute Books, 1844-1896, in St. Luke's Church Archives, New Haven, Connecticut. I am grateful to the rector of St. Luke's Church, Victor A. Rogers, for making these valuable records available to me for research.