Morehouse College, Atlanta
Samuel Cornish was born in Sussex County Delaware in l795 to a family of Black Americans. In 1815 at the age of 20, he moved to Philadelphia, where he was picked to be tutored for the gospel ministry by members of Philadelphia’s Presbyterian leadership. The leader of these tutors was a man by the name of John Gloucester, an African-American minister who had come north from Nashville, TN to found the first black Presbyterian church in the United States (First African Presbyterian Church). Gloucester himself was privately tutored in Philadelphia by the great theologian Archibald Alexander, then pastor of Third Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia, who in a couple of years would begin Princeton Theological Seminary. Cornish gained pastoral experience filling in for Gloucester at First African Presbyterian. Rev. Gloucester was gravely during this time with tuberculosis, which eventually killed him (in 1822).
Sam Cornish was formally licensed to preach in Philadelphia in 1819, and then spent a year as a Presbyterian missionary to slaves in Maryland’s Eastern Shore. In 1820 he was recruited by New York City evangelical Presbyterians to move to New York City to minister to poor blacks in the Bancker Street (now Duane Street) area of lower east side Manhattan. To give you an idea of the type of area in which Cornish was moving, in the late 1820s, the Bancker family took their name off the street because the neighborhood was declining so rapidly.
Cornish set up a rough-hewn church, held two or three services there on Sunday, conducted a Sunday school, gave theological lectures, held prayer meetings and visited families in their homes. In 1822, the year John Gloucester died, Samuel Eli Cornish became the Rev. Samuel Eli Cornish as he was formally ordained by the New York Presbytery and drew together 24 initial members into the New Demeter Street Presbyterian Church, the first African-American (“colored”) Presbyterian church in New York City. Two years later, in 1824, with loans from the New York Presbytery and financial aid from Jacob P. Lorillard, New York City tobacco merchant, Cornish built and settled into a brick home on Elm Street near Canal Street in lower Manhattan with his new wife, Jane. The house also served as the church building. Elm Street is now Lafayette Street and there is an African-American burial ground and monument in the immediate area open to all visitors.
Rev. Cornish soon tested the limits of white Presbyterian support when he refused to draw sharp lines between his theology and his political concerns. Preaching and writing out of a Christian worldview, Cornish began speaking out against the American Colonization Society (ACS), which was organized to transport and settle free blacks to west Africa.
In l827, when he was 32, he met with a small group of prominent black pastors in the New York area, and in March the group launched Freedom’s Journal, the first black newspaper in the United States. Three months later, by July of 1827, Freedom’s Journal had over 1200 paid subscribers ($3/year) with perhaps several more thousand reading at least parts of each weekly issue. Eventually, the paper would be distributed in 11 states, Haiti and Europe by a team of sales agents numbering at times 45. It was funded by advertisements (costing from 25 to 75 cents) from local black businessmen, as well as subscription revenue.
Freedom’s Journal covered activities in the African-American United States community. Its pages presented a portrait of the African-American community strikingly at variance with the picture promulgated by the mainstream press, which was owned, operated and edited by white Americans. Here are six examples of how Cornish improved the truthfulness of the flow of information in the young America:
1) The mainstream press had maintained that the black community was rougher and more immoral than the white community. Cornish thought otherwise, and through his investigative reporting noted, among other verifiable facts, that whites constituted a proportionately larger percentage of the poor and violent than blacks. It wasn’t that Freedom’s Journal denied the existence of a rougher element in the black community; it was that there needed to be contextual reporting. As a Christian, Cornish deplored coarse conduct by unrefined and uneducated blacks and whites.
2) He believed black and white Americans should be edified through the church and the school. Indeed, Cornish hailed education and Christian conversion as a way to overcome economic deprivation. Freedom’s Journal exhorted its readers (overwhelmingly black) to eschew “loose and depraved habits” and cultivate sobriety, industry, honesty and self-discipline. Cornish courageously condemned fellow Presbyterians (who were financially supporting his Demeter Street congregation) for excluding blacks from some church-connected schools. In short, he favored edification over exile to Africa.
3) For almost 10 years the city’s mainstream white press had cooperated with the American Colonization Society by refusing to print the anti-colonization resolutions passed by black gatherings in New York City. The New York press argued that the humane solution to the American slavery issue was black exile to west Africa, to Liberia, Africa to create a new liberated colony. Cornish rejected colonization because he believed it was based on the conviction that Black-Americans could never win the respect of their white countrymen: “To concede so much to prejudice is to deify prejudice.” Cornish presented arguments from a Christian perspective on the color of humankind in the creation account, the genealogical descent of black people in the Bible, and the ethnological status of the Biblical Egyptians. He argued that he was not from Africa but from Delaware, and thus was more American than many European whites who came from immigrant families.
4) Freedom’s Journal ran inspirational biographies, published articles on the black revolution in Haiti (which it supported), and stated that “everything that relates to Africa, shall find a ready admission into our columns.”
5) Freedom’s Journal did not hesitate to criticize whites and denounce racism. The paper called for the abolition of property requirements for black voters. While Cornish did not advocate a slave rebellion, his 1827 call for immediate abolition of property requirements for African-Americans voters, was an advanced position—one that not even the white William Lloyd Garrison would adopt for another three years (1830).
6) Most controversially in the early 1820s, Cornish demanded the immediate abolition of slavery.
The discussion of racial subjects in Freedom’s Journal set the broad outlines for African-American discourse on these subjects for decades. Indeed, within thirty years there would be over forty black-owned and edited newspapers in the United States.
Influential white Presbyterian clergymen were upset by Cornish’s denunciation of the American Colonization Society and by what they deemed his insufficient appreciation of their altruism. This created an awkward situation at a time when Cornish was visiting white congregations to solicit funds for his New Demeter Street Presbyterian congregation.
In September 1827, having completed his agreed-upon six months as managing editor, Cornish resigned from Freedom’s Journal and accepted a position as agent of the African Free Schools, in which he was to visit black families and impress upon them the importance of education, if need be, in separate black schools.
Several months later, in 1828, Cornish also withdrew as pastor of New Demeter Street Presbyterian Church and became an itinerant preacher and missionary.
In 1830 he returned to Philadelphia and briefly pastored his old congregation at First African Presbyterian Church, where he had gotten his start over a decade earlier under John Gloucester.
Cornish was succeeded at New Demeter Street Presbyterian Church (later named Shiloh Presbyterian Church) by Theodore Sedgwick Wright (b. 1797). In 1825, Wright had been admitted into Princeton Theological Seminary, where he served as a Freedom’s Journal sales agent. At Princeton, Wright studied under the prominent scholars Archibald Alexander (1772-1851), Samuel Miller (1769-1850) and Charles Hodge (1797-1878). Alexander, Miller and Hodge were men of deep personal piety whose formal theology combined emphases of Calvinism and the Scottish philosophic school of common-sense reasoning. Upon graduating in l828 (as the first African-American alumnus of a theological seminary in the United States and only the third alumnus from a U.S. college), Wright joined the Presbytery of New York and Cornish lobbied for Wright to follow him as the pastor of New Demeter Street Presbyterian Church. Later, Wright would return the favor by calling Freedom Journal’s a “clap of thunder” as a forum for free black thought.
Freedom’s Journal, meanwhile, had fared poorly after Samuel Cornish left. In l828, it ceased publication after a little over a year and 103 issues. Noting this, Cornish started a new paper to replace Freedom’s Journal called the Rights of All, but it lasted only six months. Before its demise, however, Rights of All blasted the colonization movement as being sub-Christian.
White New York City evangelicals joined the black anti-slavery ministers, in part, because they felt comfortable with their conservative religious values, as well as their shared belief in temperance and self-improvement. In l833 for instance, Rev. Cornish and Rev. Wright founded the Phoenix Society of New York, declaring that the condition of “people of colour” could “only be meliorated by their being improved in morals, literature and the mechanical arts.”
This unusual degree of friendship between middle class black and white evangelicals in New York City helped galvanize the anti-slavery movement. In 1833, Black evangelical ministers in New York, including Cornish, were brought together with white evangelical ministers by New York silk merchant Arthur Tappan (brother of Lewis Tappan, and an early funder of the Sunday school movement) to lead an integrated anti-slavery organization called the New York Anti-Slavery Society with its own publication, The Emancipator.
In 1837, with ink still in his blood, Cornish started yet another newspaper called Colored American. The Colored American was America’s most important African-American newspaper between 1839 and 1842. It was published in New York City (9 Spruce Street) but circulated in free black communities up and down the northern Eastern seaboard. The paper, heavily subsidized by Arthur Tappan, editorialized in the first issue on a suitable name for the African American community:
“Let us and our friends unite in baptizing the term ‘colored Americans’ and henceforth let us be written of, preached of, and prayed for as such. It is a true term, and one which is above reproach. Our brethren in Philadelphia are quarreling over trifles, while our enemies are robbing them of diamonds and gold…. While these sages are frightened to death at the idea of being called ‘colored,’ their friends and foes …call them nothing else but ‘negroes,’ ‘negroes,’ the ‘negroes of Pennsylvania.’ You are ‘colored Americans.’ The indians are “red Americans” and the white people are “white Americans” and you are as good as they and they are no better than you – God has made all of the same blood.” (“Our Brethren in Philadelphia,” 3/15/1838).
Cornish’s Calvinist theology shaped his social and political philosophy for he was more conservative in his views than many of his younger contemporaries. For example, in an 1837 Colored American editorial he was part of a minority opposing the use of demonstrations and force to resist the enforcement of the fugitive slave laws which required escaped slaves to be returned to their state or territory of origin. His theological understanding of the common fall and offer of redemption to all men caused an increasing divide between the pioneer spokesman and his acolytes.
Ever the family man, in 1838 Cornish moved his family across the Hudson River to Belleville, New Jersey, hoping to raise his children in an environment less prejudiced than New York City. The story is told that Cornish was refused a cup of tea in a restaurant patronized by the editors of the American Bible Society, the Track Society and writers of the New Evangelist on the excuse that the restaurant’s customers would not put up with with drinking with a negro (Sojourner Truth: A Life, A Symbol, Nell Painter, 1997).
All was not well, however, in Belleville when tragedy struck, as his younger son Samuel drowned later that year. At the same time, the Colored American was in financial straits and Cornish’s salary went unpaid. He eventually resigned the editorship in the middle of 1839, and the Colored American ceased publication on Christmas Day, 1841 after 2 ½ years of publishing.
Around 1840, Cornish moved south to Newark, New Jersey, where he pastored yet another church for a brief time.
In 1844, after his wife Jane died, Cornish moved his family back to New York City where he organized Emmanuel Church, which he pastored for three years, until 1847. His older daughter, Sarah, died in 1846, and his younger daughter, Jane Sophia Tappan (named after Arthur Tappen), became very ill in 1851 and died insane in 1855. Ironically, Samuel’s oldest son, William (born in 1826) immigrated to Liberia in 1846 as a teacher and lived in Maryland County in southern Liberia until he died.
In 1855, Cornish, in very poor health himself, moved to Brooklyn, where he died in 1858 at the age of 62.
Historians argue that Samuel Cornish was primarily an anti-slavery activist and leader. And he was. But he was more.
So why does a journalism organization like the World Journalism Institute which equips journalists who are Christian to enter the mainstream newsrooms celebrate the life and example of Samuel Eli Cornish by naming a lecture series after him? A capstone feature at many of our conferences we have had Star Parker, Karima Haynes, John Fountain, Herb & Myra Lowe and Mizell Stewart all deliver Cornish Memorial lectures which are available to interested parties (except for Parker’s lectures).
And why should today’s Christian journalist appreciate the churchman Rev. Samuel Eli Cornish?
Let me offer four reasons he is important to you and I:
1) Cornish was a journalist who was a Christian who had the courage and convictions to engage the media culture of his day in order to report the truth to his community.
2) Cornish was a man who loved the church and was never far from ministering to his community, even as he was reporting, editing and publishing newspapers.
3) Cornish was a journalist who believed that his theology informed his worldview and he boldly but lovingly acted on those Christian assumptions.
4) Those of us in the media who trace our theological understanding back to the 19th century Princeton Theological Seminary worthies are encouraged to know that one of us media types moved in those distinguished circles at the very beginning of that great institution and black journalism.
We Christians in the media can take appropriate inspiration in this man’s effort to integrate his Christian convictions and the high calling of journalism. If you are a journalist and a Christian, the legacy of Samuel Eli Cornish should be an encouragement to you.