Above: James Solomon Russell
Image in the Public Domain
JAMES SOLOMON RUSSELL (DECEMBER 20, 1857-MARCH 28, 1935)
Episcopal Priest, Educator, and Advocate for Racial Equality
The feast day of James Solomon Russell in The Episcopal Church is March 28. However, as the rules of my Ecumenical Calendar of Saints’ Days and Holy Days stand, the maximum number of commemorations per day is four, and I have four of them on March 28 already. Therefore I transfer this feast to March 27.
Russell, born a slave near Palmer Springs, Virginia, on December 20, 1857, attended Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute, Hampton, Virginia, when family finances permitted him to do so. Sometimes our saint had to work as a teacher between periods of being a student. He also taught after completing his studies at Hampton. In the 1870s Russell attended annual conferences of the Zion Union Apostolic Church (an 1869 offshoot of the African Methodist Episcopal Church), called the Reformed Zion Union Apostolic Church since 1882. In 1878 he served as the recording secretary of the annual conference. Later that year, after receiving a copy of The Book of Common Prayer (1789), he decided to become an Episcopalian.
Russell studied for ordained ministry. He was the first student at St. Stephen’s Normal and Theological Institute (later the Bishop Payne Divinity School), Petersburg, Virginia. In 1882, after four years of study, he became a deacon.
Russell served at Lawrenceville, Virginia. There, in 1882, he founded a congregation, which became St. Paul’s Church the following year. Also in 1882 (on December 20, to be precise), he married Virginia Michigan Morgan, his wife until she died on July 2, 1920. They couple had two sons and four daughters. In 1883 the Russells founded the parish school. Four years later our saint became a priest. In 1888 he founded St. Paul’s Normal School, which expanded its programs and changed its names over time, ultimately becoming St. Paul’s College, which closed in 2013. Russell served as the principal and chaplain of the school until he retired in 1929. He also supported efforts to help African-American farmers improve their economic status, as in the St. Paul’s Farmers’ Conference (1905).
Russell recruited African-American priests. Due to his efforts as the first Archdeacon for Colored Work in the Diocese of Southern Virginia (from 1893), that diocese had the largest African-American population of any diocese in The Episcopal Church.
Russell received two offers to become a Suffragan Bishop and rejected all of them. The first came from the Diocese of Arkansas in 1917; the second came from the Diocese of North Carolina the following year. Our saint cited the importance of his work in Lawrenceville when he rejected those offers. He also objected to the fact that African-American bishops were subordinate to their white counterparts. The position in Arkansas went to Edward Thomas Demby, V (1869-1957). Henry Beard Delany, Sr. (1858-1928), accepted the position in North Carolina. Russell’s objection eventually led The Episcopal Church to correct that injustice. [Aside: I did detect the typographical error–1927 for 1917–in Russell’s biography in A Great Cloud of Witnesses: A Calendar of Commemorations (2016).]
Russell, citing his age, retired at the end of 1929. His son, James Alvin Russell, Sr., succeeded him in the leadership role at the school immediately; he retired in 1950. James Alvin Russell, Jr., served as the President of St. Paul’s College from 1971 to 1981.
Russell asked the Diocese of Virginia to allow full representation of the clergy, regardless of race, at its convention in 1933. His request met with rejection.
Russell died at Lawrenceville on March 28, 1935. He was 77 years old. His autobiography, Adventure in Faith, debuted in print the following year.
The Episcopal Church, which has been honest about its institutional sins of racism, has made much progress since Russell’s time. Michael Curry, an African American, became the Bishop of North Carolina, in 2000. Fifteen years later he resigned that position to become the Presiding Bishop of the denomination.
The Diocese of Southern Virginia designated Russell a local saint in 1996. The General Convention of The Episcopal Church included him on the denominational calendar of saints in 2015, as evident in his inclusion in A Great Cloud of Witnesses (2016).
KENNETH RANDOLPH TAYLOR
FEBRUARY 5, 2017 COMMON ERA
THE FIFTH SUNDAY AFTER THE EPIPHANY, YEAR A
THE FEAST OF THE MARTYRS OF JAPAN, 1597-1639
THE FEAST OF SAINT AVITUS OF VIENNE, ROMAN CATHOLIC BISHOP
THE FEAST OF SAINT JANE (JOAN) OF VALOIS, COFOUNDER OF THE SISTERS OF THE ANNUNCIATION
THE FEAST OF SAINTS PHILEAS AND PHILOROMUS, ROMAN CATHOLIC MARTYRS
God, font of the resurrected life, we bless you for the courageous witness
of your deacon James Solomon Russell, whose mosaic ministry vaulted over adversity;
allure us into the wilderness and speak tenderly to us there
so that we might love and worship you as he did,
sure of our legacy of saving grace through Jesus Christ,
who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, always and ever. Amen.
1 John 4:13-21
—A Great Cloud of Witnesses: A Calendar of Commemorations (2016)