In 2005, the World Journalism Institute (WJI) created a memorial lecture series honoring Samuel Eli Cornish, a black evangelical Presbyterian minister who, in 1827, founded the nation’s first African-American newspaper. The institute invited prominent black Christian journalists to address the WJI students. Why is the life of this minister/journalist, who died more than 150 years ago, relevant to the Presbyterian Church in America today? 

A few highlights: 

1. The Rev. Cornish was the first black man to undergo the normal exacting theological training and testing procedures required for Presbyterian ordination, under the personal tutelage of the Rev. Dr. Archibald Alexander, one of the founders of Princeton Theological Seminary. 

2. Cornish was founder of the first black Presbyterian church in New York City in 1821 and the second black Presbyterian church in America. 

3. Cornish was the fountainhead of most of the early 19th-century organized efforts to free and then minister to black Americans. In 1833, he was a founding member of the American Anti-Slavery Society and in 1835 chaired the New York Committee on Vigilance, which was the model for the later Underground Railroad movement made famous by Harriet Tubman. In 1844, he was one of the organizers of the American Missionary Association, which formed 11 black colleges immediately after the Civil War, including Fisk in Tennessee, Berea in Kentucky, Atlanta in Georgia, Hampton Institute in Virginia, and Howard in Washington, D.C.

Samuel Eli Cornish (left) and his partner, John Brown Russwurm

4. Cornish was the first African-American real journalist. He edited three separate weekly newspapers between 1827 and 1839. Cornish’s first newspaper, Freedom’s Journal, was the beginning of a race-consciousness movement that laid the groundwork for the abolitionist movement. Dr. James McCune Smith, an African-American physician, wrote that Freedom’s Journal “almost began the present anti-slavery movement; it certainly antedated many of its principles.” Historian John Hope Franklin called Cornish “the outstanding black journalist before the Civil War.” So it is not extravagant to assert that the writings of Samuel Cornish set the terms for public discourse on race in America for the next 80 years, until the 20th century.

Self-identified as Black, American, Calvinist

Cornish was born in Delaware’s Sussex County in 1795 to a free black family. As a young man in Delaware, Cornish became a Christian, probably through family influence, and began his education at a school in Wilmington run by the Quaker African School Society. When he was 20 years old, Cornish moved up the Delaware River to Philadelphia, where he attended and then taught at Augustan Hall, a school for black children organized by the Augustinian Society, which had just been formed by the black Presbyterian pastor, the Rev. John Gloucester, and his First African Presbyterian Church, the first black Presbyterian congregation in America. Augustan Hall was to be a “seminary to educate promising African youth for the Gospel Ministry, by giving them a classical and scientific education, preparatory to theology” by “engaging them in the study of the Latin tongue and English grammar, geography, etc.”

Cornish defined himself as an evangelical Calvinist, self-conscious black, and proud American. This was not an easy synthesis.

Cornish showed such spiritual promise that in 1817 he came under care of the Philadelphia Presbytery and began formal theological studies under the Rev. Drs. Archibald Alexander and George Potts, among others. This individual study program included written studies in revealed and natural theology, science, exegesis of biblical passages,  and preparation of sermons and essays, all in a rigorous 18-month internship that was a common type of theological training at the time. His presbytery examination included publicly explaining and defending his answers to the assembled Presbyterian ministers in Philadelphia. The result was a man well trained in theology and eloquence. He passed his exams in 1819, along with a newly minted young Presbyterian minister named Charles Hodge.

Cornish’s desire to be a Presbyterian was unheard of at the time — an African Methodist Episcopal Zionist, maybe, but a Presbyterian? He defined himself as an evangelical Calvinist, self-conscious black, and proud American. This was not an easy synthesis. 

First, as an evangelical Calvinist, there was his stress on order and predictability and carefully prepared sermons that drew from deep systematic theological study of the Bible. Because of his intensive education he knew how to handle the English language.

Second, as a self-conscious black American, the reformed doctrine of predestination played a critical role in his worldview, since America was the predestined home for the African-American slaves.

Third, as a proud American, Cornish referred to himself as true-blue American and Washington, Jefferson, Adams, Madison, and others, were his “founding fathers.” He was quick to point out that African-Americans were solid citizens whose families had been in America for decades, if not longer, unlike recent white immigrants.

In 1821 he moved to New York City and circulated easily among white Presbyterians. But he often tested their patience when he spoke out against racial prejudice in the northern Presbyterian Church, thus breaking ranks with his mentor, Dr. Alexander, and other Old School scholars at Princeton Theological Seminary.

Cornish described how his children had once attended a white church in their New York City neighborhood and been relegated to the “Negro pew.” His children returned home to ask their father, “Why do white people hate us so?” In 1838, Cornish complained about the treatment given to his children: “We are making preparation … to educate our children and hide them from that scorching, withering prejudice against their color, which is calculated to chain down their intellect, dry up the charity of heart, and make them haters of God and of man.”

Abolition scholars have maintained that after 1840, Cornish’s moral contribution to American life stopped: “His career ceased almost wholly to have meaning or significance,” and he was referred to as “the token Negro in a white society.” But in the 1850s he engaged the racist northern culture by organizing, writing, and speaking.

The Cornish of the 1850s still had the spark and gifts of vocabulary of the 1820s to chastise and encourage. An example: He attended an early abolitionist meeting in New York City, where Francis Scott Key, the famous Baltimore attorney, evangelical Episcopalian, composer of the words for our national anthem, and a Maryland slave owner, was a featured speaker. Cornish had no use for the legal-beagle, whom he saw as hypocritical and infuriating, and blasted him: “He asserted the impossibility in the very nature of things of black people’s ever having any privileges in this country — they must always be degraded and oppressed. Satan is stronger than the Deity. Is it not hypocrisy for such men to profess a belief in the Bible? Is not F.S. Key a pagan, and his god a bat or a mole? … How dare such a man speak of the triumph of the cross, or the progress of light.”

An Inspiration and Spiritual Prod

On the home front, tragedy struck the Cornish family beginning in 1838 when his 10-year-old son, Samuel Jr., drowned. In 1844, his wife, Jane, died, and his older daughter, Sarah, died in 1846 at the age of 22. Cornish’s younger daughter, Jane Sophia Tappan Cornish, became ill in 1851 and died insane in 1855, also at age 22. We don’t have a record of what happened to son William, but Cornish could very well have been the last member of his family at the time of his death. Cornish died late in 1858, at age 62. George Potts, then 84, the last living Presbyterian worthy who helped educate young Cornish in Philadelphia four decades earlier, preached the funeral sermon.

To return to the question that began this article: Why should we white conservative Presbyterians celebrate the life and example of Samuel Eli Cornish? Historians note that Cornish was primarily an anti-slavery activist and an early leader in the abolitionist movement. And he was that, and that would be enough. There are many more reasons to celebrate the life of this man, but I want to mention only one for our current cultural and ecclesiastical climate:

Cornish faced the racist Northern Presbyterian attitudes set against him. We in the PCA today are as much children of Samuel Cornish as we are of Charles Hodge. But the Cornish legacy is a haunting legacy. According to Scripture (c.f., Nehemiah 9:2; Jeremiah 14:20; 32:18; Daniel 9:16), we have some confessing to do for the sins of our white theological forefathers, but we also have some confessing to do for our lethargy in righting the wrongs we inherited. But even more to the point, we are joined at the hip to the racism and bigotry of our 19th-century Presbyterian worthies. So, to the extent of the hatred and prejudice visited upon Samuel Cornish and his family as he attempted to minister the Gospel of Jesus Christ, we participated in that hate and prejudice. Cornish’s life and words 150 years ago are an inspiration and a prod for those of us in the Presbyterian Church in America in 2018. 

ILLUSTRATION BY Charles Chaisson