Gettysburg Seminary Commencement Address
Michael Cooper-White, President
May 13, 2011
Note: The year of 2011 marks the 200th anniversary of the birth of Daniel Alexander Payne, who received his initial theological education at Gettysburg Seminary during the mid-1830’s. First African-American to study theology in a Lutheran Seminary, Payne went on to a distinguished career as pastor, bishop in the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church, and founding president of Wilberforce University in Ohio. Payne Theological Seminary is named in his honor. The class of 2011 committed themselves to raise a permanent endowed scholarship in Payne’s honor, in order to enable future AME and other students to follow in the tradition of this great Church leader, who journeyed to the White House in 1862 to encourage President Abraham Lincoln to emancipate the slaves in our nation’s capital city.
Yes, indeed, that illustrious one who received his theological education and a good measure of pastoral formation here at the hands of our founder, Samuel Simon Schmucker, whom he regarded as his “venerable preceptor,” is the one in whose honor you have dedicated a major portion of your class gift. Throughout this past year we have been celebrating the incredibly rich and too-long overlooked legacy of Daniel Alexander Payne. While Daniel Payne has been dead for well over a century, I think I can speak on his behalf and thank you for helping to honor his legacy. I am even more confident I can speak on behalf of future students who will benefit from a Payne scholarship created by your generosity. Thank you for your several class gifts!
I suspect we can only begin to imagine the pathos of the conversation when Daniel Payne journeyed to Washington and went eyeball to eyeball with Abraham Lincoln. We might imagine Payne recalled a Luther quote likely passed along in his studies with Samuel Simon Schmucker, from the Heidelberg Disputation: “Mr. President, a theologian of glory calls the good bad and the bad good. This apartheid we call slavery is evil and not one shred of good is in it. A theologian of the cross calls a thing what it really is, and you must, dear Mr. President, you must do the right thing.” Public theologian par excellence, old brother Payne, was he not?
At a crucial point in his young life, Payne had to leave his beloved South Carolina when the state went crazy and closed down his school for little Black children. His dreams dashed and vocational calling seemingly smashed, near to utter despair, Payne cried out in a poem, expressing the hope that somehow in some way he could still live “a useful life.”
Daniel Alexander Payne’s last name ends with a letter that appears in each of his three names for a total of four times—the letter “e”. I want to share, in a half-dozen e-words, traits that I believe describe who Payne was, and that I am confident you will continue to embody in your lives and ministries—wherever they may find you in the years and decades to come.
Evangelical: Above all, Daniel Alexander Payne was a servant of the evangel, the Gospel. Lifelong student of Scripture, person of deep spiritual and devotional life, Payne ever and always took it to the Lord in prayer. He kept going back again and again to the Good News of Jesus Christ, a word of liberation for all people. Payne’s evangelicalism bears no resemblance to that espoused by many among us who today call themselves “evangelicals.” I think you would agree that as theologians of the cross who call things as they are, it’s time to redeem the word, reclaim it for the broad middle, not extreme conservative fringes of the Christian movement in our time.
Ecclesiology: That simply means “doctrine or theology of the Church,” for those of you unversed in seminary lingo. Payne was a churchman through and through. Ordained by Lutherans, he migrated among denominations for a time, but settled in for the long haul with the African Methodist Episcopal Church. A few years ago, one of our AME students taught me that our two churches have identical definitions of the nature of the Church; the following paragraph appears in both ELCA and AME constitutions word-for-word:
The Church exists both as an inclusive fellowship and as local congregations gathered for worship and Christian service. Congregations find their fulfillment in the universal community of the Church, and the universal Church exists in and through congregations. This church, therefore, derives its character and powers both from the sanction and representation of its congregations and from its inherent nature as an expression of the broader fellowship of the faithful. In length, it acknowledges itself to be in the historic continuity of the communion of saints; in breadth, it expresses the fellowship of believers and congregations in our day.
Daniel Alexander Payne recognized the importance of orderly church leadership by learned clergy and other rostered leaders who understand we are never “free agents” who go it alone. Rather, we lean on each other and the laity for collegial support, and sometimes correction that will enable us to flourish and keep us from going astray.
Education: Pastor, poet, prophet to the president—these and many other appellations apply to Daniel Payne. But above all he is remembered and revered as an educator. When a small faltering institution in Ohio was near bankruptcy and up for sale, Payne seized the moment and purchased Wilberforce University, launching it to become a powerhouse institution. He recognized the value of lifelong learning, which we trust you too have come to embrace. In the last gathering of the senior spring Integrative Seminar, the Rev. Keith Hayward shared that when he announced his plans to come to seminary, some of his friends and colleagues discouraged him. “You’ll lose your fire if you subject yourself to a seminary,” they warned Keith. Now at the end of his years at this school, brother Hayward reflected: “What happened here instead,” he said with some emotion, “is that you ordered my fire.” “You ordered my fire.” If it is stewarded wisely, education does not diminish enthusiasm or passion, but orders and disciplines our passions so that they are directed in focused directions and powerful ways.
Ecumenical: Again, flowing from his understanding of the Gospel and church, i.e. from his evangelicalism, ecclesiology and commitment to education, D.A. Payne was a thorough-going ecumenist. Perhaps he learned at least a bit of that as well in his brief sojourn at Gettysburg. The biography of our founder, and Payne primary preceptor, Samuel Simon Schmucker is entitled “Pioneer in Christian Unity.” Schmucker got himself in a whole lot of controversy with fellow Lutherans who thought he compromised too much of what it meant to be a true, pure Lutheran. But Payne clearly recognized that the Gospel is to be found in churches of all denominations, and that as Christians work together and focus on what unites rather than those things that divide us, God will be pleased and the world will be better served. This class has been a particularly ecumenical one, and we express a special word of thanks to you for sharing the richness of your various traditions. We also beg forgiveness from some of you for those times when we have failed in our hospitality and been insensitive as an institution.
Emancipation: Another e-word to describe Payne’s convictions and impact. As already mentioned, he met with the one called the Great Emancipator, Abraham Lincoln, and may have helped the president do what Lincoln became convinced was simply the right thing. Through education, Payne’s life and legacy have liberated thousands upon thousands from lives of ignorance and liberated them into full lives of leadership and lasting contributions.
Ethics: A final word to describe this great saint of the Church and leader among women and men of his time and every time is ethics. What does the Gospel mean as we seek to live it out? Impeccable in his own ethical conduct, Payne was a model for others in his time and in our own. In the end, he never ceased to strive for that which he espoused in that little poem penned during the time of crisis following the closing of his school in South Carolina:
“A useful life by sacred wisdom crowned, Is all I ask, let weal and woe abound!”
In summarizing the life of Daniel Alexander Payne, let it finally be said that there was a kind of electrical energy of the Spirit pulsing throughout the life span of this saintly man of enormous eloquence and elegance. He aspired to live a useful life. In the end it was far more. It was an elegant evangelical life. May you—the Gettysburg Seminary class of 2011—step into the future confident that you are capable of, indeed, you are called to the same!