Theodore Sedgwick Wright – A Voice for the Slaves

Theodore Sedgwick Wright – A Voice for the Slaves

            Theodore Sedgwick Wright, the first African American graduate of Princeton Theological Seminary, returned to his Alma Mater in 1836 to attend the annual commencement ceremony. He didn’t know, as he entered the hall, what a measure of self-control he would need to exercise.

            Born in New Jersey in 1797 and brought up in Schenectady, New York, Wright struggled – because of his color – to be admitted to an institute of higher learning. He was able to enroll in Princeton Theological Seminary in 1825, thanks to the help of DeWitt Clinton, Governor of New York, and the abolitionist Arthur Tappan.

            Wright graduated from the seminary in 1829 and went on to serve New York's First Colored Presbyterian Church from 1833 to the end of his life.

Dangerous Times

            His 1836 visit was supposed to be a joyous occasion. He had friends to visit and looked forward to the ceremony. He might have held some apprehensions. Only a few months earlier, a group of sixty students had attacked a white abolitionist who was visiting a family in Princeton’s black neighborhood.

            At that time, the leader of the group, freshman Tommy Ancrum, barged into the family’s home, making way for his friends, grabbed the abolitionist by the throat and dragged him into the streets. After going through the man’s papers, the crowd accused him of being an agitator and determined to lynch him.

            They relented only after the victim pleaded for his life, telling them he had a family to support and promising to renounce abolition. To reinforce their message, they burned his papers and paraded him through the streets. The school issued no disciplinary measure for their actions. In fact, the newspapers in the south applauded them, and northern papers praised their restraint.

            This recent act of violence might have been on Wright’s mind when he returned to Princeton. But it was not an isolated occurrence. Mob violence against blacks and abolitionists was common, particularly in college campuses.

            As it turned out, Wright was no exception. Ancrum, who had left the school to take charge of his family’s plantation, was back for his brother’s graduation and noticed Wright in the back of the chapel. Wright had been standing, but decided to sit down after some new benches were brought in.

            At the end of the ceremony, as people prepared to leave, Wright heard a furious cry: “Out with the nigger! Out of the nigger!” Before he could react, he was grabbed by the collar and kicked “two or three times in the most ruthless manner,” while the assailant yelled, “What do you do here? What do you do here? Don’t let me see you here again.”

            When a student restrained him, the assailer revealed himself proudly to his victim: “My name, sir, is Ancrum; my name is Ancrum.”[1]

Commitment to Non-resistance

            Wright gave God the credit for keeping him from fighting back. “Happy am I to say,” he wrote to Archibald Alexander, founder of Princeton Theological Seminary, “that, at that critical moment, I was not left to become recreant to that comforting, but self-denying doctrine of non-resistance, so effective in curbing that vindictive spirit which naturally rises when suddenly assailed. Thankful I am that I was kept from lifting so much as a finger in self-defense, but continued my way out of the house.”[2]

            Once again, Ancrum was not disciplined. In fact, President James Carnahan blamed Wright for sitting down.

            But Wright was careful not to lump the whole institution with a few bad attitudes. “I cherish feelings of profound respect and admiration for my Alma Mater … I always feel, when I am at Princeton, that I am amidst fathers and brothers, in the holy and responsible work to which we are devoted.”[3]

            He went on to express his commiseration of Ancrum, since, “in attempting to degrade me, the rash youth has degraded himself in the eyes of all whose opinions are worth regarding.” He concluded his letter with his readiness to have his actions examined, and his willingness to be “persecuted and frowned upon, because of my identity with a class despised and oppressed, or for my feeble attempts to roll away the mountain obstacles which retard their moral and intellectual elevation … so long as I can stand forth to the view of Infinite Excellence, and of pure minded men.”[4]

Pastor and Abolitionist

            Wright had begun to write for Freedom’s Journal, the nation’s first black-owned and operated newspaper, while he was still a student at Princeton, and continued to write and speak over the course of his life. In 1833, he became co-founder of the American Anti-Slavery Society and of the Phoenix Society (aimed at promoting the education of New York’s African Americans). He also chaired the New York Vigilance Committee, a biracial organization that supported fugitive slaves. In 1846, he joined the executive committee of the American Missionary Association.

            But Wright saw himself first and foremost as a minister of the gospel. He simply believed that slavery and racial prejudice were inconsistent with the teachings of the Bible, and that he had a moral obligation to speak out for those who couldn’t do it for themselves.

            “I am identified with two millions and a half of men, women, and children, whose minds, as well as their bodies, are chained down and crushed by slavery, and who have no power to speak for themselves,”[5] he said in a 1836 speech.

            If they could speak, he continued, they would say, “The spirit of Christianity is the love of God, and God tells you, if you love him, to love your neighbor. We are your neighbors, and you see us down-trodden and poor, and blind, and naked: you see the spirit of oppression abroad, crushing our souls and bodies to the dust, and you hear God commanding you to go to the oppressors, and in his name to call upon them to undo the heavy burdens, and let the oppressed go free. We can’t do it. You have the laws in your hands. We must suffer and be silent—you can speak and undo the heavy burden.”[6]

            He also spoke against the sin of prejudice in churches where people of color were asked to sit far from the whites, as if “the value of the pews would be diminished, if the colored people sat in them.”[7]

            Scriptures taught Wright that God was on the side of the oppressed. He believed abolition was God’s work and had to be fueled by prayer. From the pulpit, he gave his congregants the assurance that they were accepted by God because of Christ’s merits, regardless of their race.

            “Blessed be God for the principles of the Gospel. Were it not for these, and for the fact that a better day is dawning, I would not wish to live,”[8] he said.

            Wright experienced the effects of prejudice in more ways than one. According to an account, his wife, Adaline T. Turpin from New Rochelle, N.Y., died after being exposed to cold weather on the deck of a steam boat, after the crew refused to let her inside the ship because of her color.

            Wright’s color also hindered his efforts of keeping his church financially viable, and ended up damaging his health. “Two or three years ago,” a speaker said in 1847 at Wright’s funeral, “he had to trudge about the city, under the full muzzle of a July or August sun, to beg money in order to extricate this place from pecuniary difficulties.” This happened again later, because he, “on account of his color, could not avail himself of one of the public conveyances.”[9]

            According to an account of Wright’s life, this last exertion caused him to fall ill and hastened his reunion with his wife “in that world where such absurd and inhuman distinctions are unknown.”[10]



[1] Theodore S. Wright to Archibald Alexander, 11 October 1836, in “The Liberator,” 27 October 1836, posted in posted in Log College Press, Theodore Sedgwick Wright, https://www.logcollegepress.com/theodore-sedgwick-wright-17971847

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Theodore Sedgwick Wright, “Speech Regarding Equal Opportunities for Both Black and White Races, the Cruelties of Slavery, and the Need for Christian Interaction in Race Relations,” June 25, 1836, University of Detroit Mercy Black Abolitionist Archives, posted in Log College Press, Theodore Sedgwick Wright, https://www.logcollegepress.com/theodore-sedgwick-wright-17971847

[6] Ibid.

[7] Theodore Sedwick Wright, Speech Regarding the Negative Effects of Prejudice on People of All Races in Terms of Self-Esteem Issues, and Educational and Moral Advancement,” July 8, 1837, University of Detroit Mercy Black Abolitionist Archives, posted in Log College Press, Theodore Sedwick Wright, https://www.logcollegepress.com/theodore-sedgwick-wright-17971847

[8] Ibid,

[9] Ebenezer Davies, American Scenes, and Christian Slavery: A Recent Tour of Four Thousand Miles in the United States, London: John Snow, 1849, p. 241

[10] Ibid., p. 242.