William Saunders Crowdy (1847-1908) at the origins of Black Hebrews
Translation from French: Olivier Maheo
Antisemitism seems to be on the rise in the US, according to the Anti-Defamation League’s last assessment. Last week, on the eve of Thanksgiving, Trump had an explosive lunch with Ye (as Kanye West now chooses to be called) and Nick Fuentes, both known for their antisemitic stance. On a livestream Nick Fuentes, compared Jews burnt in concentration camps to cookies in an oven. Kanye West wrote on some social media “I’m a bit sleepy tonight but when I wake up I’m going death con 3 on Jewish people The funny thing is I actually can’t be Anti-Semitic because black people are actually Jew”. “Death con 3” appears to be a mistaken use of the US military heightened alert status DEFCON 3, and this post is an open threat to Jews. Birds of the same feather flock together.
His allusions to black people as the first Hebrews refers to the theology of the Black Hebrews, this African American religious group which first appeared at the end of the Nineteenth century. We chose to translate another article by Baptiste Bonnefoy, published in French in March 2021, about William Saunders Crowdy (1847-1908) and the origins of the Black Hebrews.
In a recent book, Jacob S. Dorman has shown that most of the Black Hebrew communities created on the East Coast of the United States during the interwar period were the direct heirs of the Church of God and Saints of Christ, created in 1897 by the African-American prophet William S. Crowdy.1 Crowdy appeared to be the missing link between the African-American theologies of the 19th century and the Black Israelites of the 1920s and 1930s. This is why we are devoting this note to his eventful career.2
William Saunders Crowdy was born in 1847 on a Maryland plantation where he worked as a slave until he was 17.3 Maryland had joined the Union at the beginning of the American Civil War and was thus excluded from the Emancipation Proclamation of 1862. However, by 1863, many slaves abandoned the plantations and joined the Union army. Among them was young Crowdy, who in December enlisted in the 19th Infantry, one of six colored regiments formed in Maryland during the Civil War.4 In 1867, the regiment was discharged and Crowdy re-enlisted for five years. He became a sergeant-cook in the 9th Cavalry, one of the first segregated regiments in the army in peacetime.5 These colored cavalrymen, nicknamed buffalo soldiers, participated in the Texas Indian Wars against the Apaches and Comanches.
Demobilized in 1872, Crowdy continued to work as a cook, now for the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway. For more than twenty years he worked mainly for this large railroad, in Colorado, Missouri, Iowa and again in Missouri. During this time, he married Lovey J. Higgins, a young African-American widow, with whom he had two sons, Isaac (1883) and August (1885). On December 2, 1889, the family took part in Harrison’s Hoss Race, a scramble for land in the Oklahoma country that had been ceded to the United States by the Creeks and Seminoles at the end of the Civil War and opened for settlement on April 22.6 That year, thousands of settlers arrived in Guthrie, the capital of Oklahoma, attracted by the 800,000 acres of land available. Among them were many former slaves seeking land and freedom.7 There, Crowdy benefited from the Homestead Act of 1862, which allowed settlers in the American West to claim ownership of land they had occupied for more than five years, up to a limit of 160 acres (65 ha). Thus, in 1897, Crowdy became the owner of 160 acres of land located about 20 kilometers southeast of Guthrie.8
Charismatic and with his veteran background, Crowdy quickly established himself as a notable figure in the black community of Guthrie. Soon after his arrival he was appointed captain of the 1st Colored Company of the 1st Oklahoma National Guards.9 As a captain, he began holding regular political meetings for black voters at the East Guthrie Baptist Church, where he was a deacon, or at his restaurant, the Turf Exchange.10 He also became assistant fire chief of Guthrie in 1895.11 Finally, in 1897, he co-organized with Dr. B. Garrett the local chapter of the Ex-Slave Pension Association, a movement that appeared a year earlier in Kansas and that demanded financial compensation for former slaves.12 This politicization of Crowdy allows us to understand his connection with the Church of the Living God C.F.W., created in 1889 in Arkansas by William Christian, and which already had four communities in Oklahoma at the beginning of the 20th century.13
Crowdy was ordained as a minister of the Church of the Living God on August 17, 1897.14 Three months later, on November 22, 1897, he claimed to have received a divine revelation:15
I, William S. Crowdy, am a prophet of God sent to the whole world. But it seemed very hard for me to understand that I must talk to the general world at first. When afterwards I heard a voice speaking unto me saying: As he had so said to Ezekiel, Son of man, I send thee to the children of Israel, and to all nations of the earth that hath rebelled against me: They and their fathers have transgressed against me, even unto this very day, for they are imprudent children and stiff-hearted. I do send thee unto them and thou shalt say unto them, thus saith the Lord God, not Elder Crowdy or any other man or minister, but thus saith the Lord God who is supreme above all and in all, whether they will hear or whether they forbear, yet shall they know there hath been a prophet among them.16
According to Crowdy, God entrusted him with the seven keys to his church. The first key is the name of the church: the Church of God and Saints of Christ. The second is the prohibition of wine. The third is the imposition of bread and water for the Eucharist. The fourth is the washing of the feet between the members. The fifth is the prayer of the disciple, which is the Lord’s Prayer. The sixth is the holy kiss and the seventh is the observance of the ten commandments and the Sabbath day.
In their two founding texts, published six years apart (in 1896 and 1902), we find the same principles, the same biblical references and the same Masonic symbols. Like Christian, Crowdy drew a direct genealogy between the ancient Hebrews and the African-Americans, descendants of the lost tribes of Israel. From a theological standpoint, Crowdy does little more than substitute for Christian as an interpreter of the divine word. Crowdy does, however, add the observance of Pesach, in connection with the Exodus of Israel from Egypt, a biblical passage most evocative of African Americans.
Crowdy left his family in Guthrie and took the train to Kansas. He preached in El Dorado, Emporia, Topeka and Lawrence, where he gathered his first communities of followers. The method was always the same. He began by preaching on street corners (the street corner orator), then the first conversions opened the doors of the African-American churches in the city. Finally, he organized large ten-day camps in the woods (camp meeting), near a river, in which he baptized hundreds of people. The press of the time never ceases to be amazed at the social and “racial” mix of these first communities.17 It was a wealthy white grocer from Emporia, James M. Groves, who became the first priest and then the first bishop appointed by Crowdy.18
In June 1898, Crowdy held the first general assembly of his church in Emporia.19 There, a woman invited him to preach in Oneida County, New York, where there was a large community of Seventh-day Adventists, who also kept the Sabbath.20 Crowdy came to New York State in 1899, and founded communities in Oneida, Kirkville, Rome.21 He was even more successful when he founded a community in Philadelphia in 1900, then in Newark in 1902.22 At that time, the press systematically compared Crowdy to Alexander Dowie, the other Elijah who founded the town of Zion, Illinois, in 1901.23 The “Negro Dowie” controlled a vast religious community throughout the country, and above all a vast network of small businesses (cafés, grocery stores, barber shops, general stores) and landed properties whose profits began to arouse suspicion. In addition, the communities were noticed in the city by a certain exuberance. In September 1906, members of the Washington church held their annual parade dressed in black tricorns and armed with swords. 24 That year, the church had 48 congregations and 1,823 members, most of them African-American, in a dozen states.25
William S. Crowdy died in 1908 without ever succeeding in creating the biracial church he had called for and which he had begun to form in Kansas. The political and social context of the East Coast, where racial discrimination was much more important, undoubtedly explains this doctrinaire shift from religious universalism to a racialized conception of election in religion. And it is precisely this idea that most distinguishes him from the African-American theologies of the nineteenth century and that profoundly marked the numerous communities of Black Hebrews that developed after the First World War in the large metropolises of the East Coast of the United States.
1. J. S. Dorman, Chosen People : The Rise of American Black Israelite Religions, New York, Oxford University Press, 2013, p. 91.
2. About William S. Crowdy ‘s life: B. C. Walker, Life and Works of William Saunders Crowdy, Philadelphie, Elfreth J. P. Walker, 1955 ; Elly M. Wynia, The Church of God and Saints of Christ: The Rise of Black Jews, New York-Londres, Garland Publishing Inc., 1994 ; Jacob S. Dorman, op. cit.
3. Elly M. Wynia, The Church of God and Saints of Christ: The Rise of Black Jews, New York-Londres, Garland Publishing Inc., 1994, p. 19.
4. L. A. Wilmer, J. H. Jarrett, G. W. F. Vernon, History and Roster of Maryland Volunteers, War of 1861-6, Vol. 2, Baltimore, Guggenheimer, Weil & Co., 1899, p. 206-232.
5. NARA, T289, Organization Index to Pension Files of Veterans Who Served Between 1861 and 1900. (Veteran’s widow’s pension). William S. Crowdy, September 4, 1924 ; T318, Index to Indian Wars Pension Files, 1892-1926, Lovey J. Crowdy ‘s pension, Veteran’s widow’s William S. Crowdy, September 4, 1924.
6. The Crowdy family immediately occupies six lots in East Guthrie. Logan County Courthouse (Guthrie, Okla), Territorial records, Roll 26, No. 1091-1093 (1892), 1094 (1893) & Roll 27, No. 1097 (1892).
7. D. Littlefield, L. Underhill, L., ”Black Dreams and ‘Free’ Homes: The Oklahoma Territory, 1891-1894 », Phylon, Vol. 34, No. 4, 1973, p. 342-357.
8. Bureau of Land Management, General Land Office Records, No. OK0060, Oklahoma Volume Patent, Doc. 1555, William S. Crowdy, 22 novembre 1897.
9. Oklahoma State Capital (Guthrie, Okla), August 23, 1890, p. 5 (newspapers.com) ; The Oklahoma Guide (Guthrie, Okla.), Vol. 16, No. 32, January 10, 1907, p. 2 (The Gateway to Oklahoma History).
10. Oklahoma Weekly Capital (Guthrie, Oklahoma), April 19, 1890, p. 8 ; Guthrie Democrat (Guthrie, Okla), Oct. 27 1890, p. 2 (newspapers.com).
11. The Guthrie Daily Leader, Vol. 6, No. 15, June 22, 1895, p. 4 (The Gateway to Oklahoma History).
12. The Daily Oklahoma State Capital, Vol. 9, No. 89, February 22, 1897, p. 3 (The Gateway to Oklahoma History).
13. U.S. Department of Commerce, Religious Bodies 1906, Washington, U.S. Government Printing Office, 1910, p. 96, 208-209.
14. Lincoln County Courthouse (Chandler, Oklahoma), Miscellaneous records, Book 1, Certification of ordination of William S. Crowdy, p. 410.
15. “Weird Religion”, The Broad ax (Salt Lake City, Utah), Vol. 3, No. 50, August 6, 1898, p. 4 (Chronicling America).
16. W. Christian, Poor Pilgrim’s Work in the Name of the Father, Son and Holy Ghost, on Christian Friendship Works, No. 3, Texarkana, Ark., Joe Erlich’s Print.,  ; W. S., Crowdy, The Revelation of God Revealed, Set Forth by Bishop W.S. Crowdy, Philadelphie, Church of God Publication House, 1902, p. 7.
17. El Dorado Daily Republican (El Dorado, Kansas), 13 janvier 1898, p. 4 ; The Kansas City time (Kansas City, Mo), 22 février 1898, p. 5 ; The Wichita Beacon (Wichita, Kansas), 28 février 1898, p. 8 (newspapers.com).
18. NARA, M1085, Investigative Case Files of the Bureau of Investigation 1908-1922, Roll 836, Case 381814, Letter, January 22 1920, p. 2.
19. The Kansas City time (Kansas City, Mo), 26 juin 1898, p. 1 (newspapers.com).
20. Elly M. Wynia, The Church of God and Saints of Christ: The Rise of Black Jews, New York-Londres, Garland Publishing Inc., 1994, p. 30.
21. The Post Standard (Syracuse, NY), 1er mars 1899, p. 11 ; The Evening Herald (Syracuse, NY), 11 août 1900, p. 8 (Old Fulton New York Post Cards).
22. The Philadelphia Inquirer (Philadelphie, Penn.), 31 mars 1901, p. 8 (Old Fulton New York Post Cards).
23. The Guthrie Daily Leader (Guthrie, Okla.), Vol. 27, No. 117, 7 juillet 1906, p. 6 (The Gateway to Oklahoma History).
24. Evening Star (Washington, DC), September 7, 1906, p. 13 (newspapers.com).
25. T. F. Murphy (dir.), “Bulletin No. 32, Church of God and Saints of Christ”, in Census of Religious Bodies 1936, Washington, U.S. Government Printing Office, 1940.