Samuel Eli Cornish could rightly be considered one of the most profound trailblazing figures in American history. Cornish was a principled abolitionist, editor of the first Black newspaper in the United States, one of the first Black Presbyterian ministers, and the founder of one of the first Black Presbyterian churches in the United States.
Called to the Ministry
Born c. 1795 to a free Black family in Sussex County, Delaware, Cornish quickly felt a call to not only follow Christ but to also serve in pastoral ministry. At the age of 20, Cornish matriculated into Augustan Hall in Philadelphia, a seminary founded by the Rev. John Gloucester, one of the first ordained Presbyterian minsters in the United States.
In 1817, Cornish took the first step toward ordination in the Presbyterian church by coming under the care of the regional network of churches (“presbyteries”) in the Philadelphia area. Amid an 18-month internship, Cornish persevered through rigorous theological training that culminated in a public examination by the Philadelphia presbytery in 1819. In fact, Cornish was ordained in the same year and presbytery as Charles Hodge, a Presbyterian scholar whose works have remained highly influential in the Presbyterian church in the United States.
After passing his examinations, Cornish and his family moved to New York City, where he organized the first Black Presbyterian church there, New Demeter Street Presbyterian Church. After founding this congregation, Cornish went on to serve as a minister at First African Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia and Emmanuel Church in New York City. Cornish stood upon the shoulders of Gloucester and left a legacy for Black ministers in the Presbyterian church such as Theodore Sedgwick Wright, who succeeded Cornish at New Demeter Street Presbyterian Church.
Outspoken About Racial Injustice
Cornish self-identified as Evangelical, Calvinist, Black, and American. Because of this, he was very conscious about the long shadow of racial injustice, not only in the United States but in the Presbyterian church in the North. His outspokenness about racial injustice caused tensions and fractures with his White northern Presbyterian peers and mentors, including Archibald Alexander and other prominent scholars at Princeton Theological Seminary. In fact, his own children experienced deep racial prejudice when they attended White churches in New York City and were forced to sit in segregated pews.
In 1828, a group of Black women founded the African Dorcas Association in New York City. Inspired by the story of Dorcas in the book of Acts, this group of women sewed clothes for Black children in the city to have appropriate school attire to make education more accessible. Because there was still prejudice and stigma at that time for an association to be run entirely by women, Cornish offered to serve on the association’s initial board in order to continue its operations. He worked alongside Henrietta Green Regulus Ray, a prominent and active abolitionist.
In 1833, Cornish became one of the founding members of the American Anti-Slavery Society along with William Lloyd Garrison. However, Cornish and Garrison gradually had greater disagreements about the place of religion and women’s rights in the abolitionist movement. The breaking point occurred in 1840 when Cornish left the American Anti-Slavery Society to join the American and Foreign Anti-Slavery Society.
Trailblazing in Print
In 1827, Cornish partnered with John Russwurm to edit Freedom’s Journal, the first Black newspaper in the United States. Founded by Peter Williams, Jr., a Black Episcopalian priest and abolitionist, and William Hamilton, son of the founding father Alexander Hamilton, Freedom’s Journal directly opposed New York newspapers that encouraged slavery and propagated racist stereotypes of Blacks. It was also a staunchly anti-African colonization publication, opposing the idea that free Blacks should emigrate to Africa rather than remain in the United States. Unfortunately, Cornish left the paper in 1827, at which point Russwurm began to steer it toward an African colonization ideology, which led to a loss of much of Freedom’s Journal’s readership and support. After Russwurm himself emigrated to Liberia in 1829, Cornish returned to the paper and renamed it The Rights of All and attempted to bring it back to its original vision and mission. Sadly, the revived paper folded within a year, but it influenced the launch of over 40 Black-owned and operated publications throughout the United States by the start of the Civil War.
Tragedy and Resilience
Sadly, Cornish’s family suffered greatly in the years following 1838 until the minister’s own death in 1858. In 1838, Cornish’s 10-year old son, Samuel, Jr., died by drowning. Within six years, Cornish’s wife, Jane, died young, and his older daughter, Sarah, died at the age of 22 in 1846. Cornish’s younger daughter, Jane, died at age 22 in 1855 after being declared legally insane. It is unclear whether Cornish’s only other child, William, survived since no records are available. Cornish died in 1858 at the age of 62 after years of continuing to preach as a minister in the Presbyterian church in New York City and Brooklyn.
Cornish’s life stands as a testimony of a man who truly believe that “with God, all things were possible.” In a time when racial prejudice and injustice were explicit and palpable in American society at large and even in the Presbyterianism he hailed from, Cornish believed that God could make a way where there seemed to be no way. A trailblazer in the spheres of gospel ministry, publishing, and abolitionist activism, Cornish deeply influenced Black Christian thought and practice throughout his life and the years following his death. While the long shadow of racial injustice is cast into the present, Christians are able to stand upon the shoulders of leaders like Cornish to learn how to fight for what is true, good, and beautiful.