What’s a prophet? Prudence Crandall and the vision of a prophet

What is a prophet?  Today The Episcopal Church is celebrating a provisional saint, Prudence Crandall.  She’s a provisional saint in that we’ve voted her into our calendar once at General Convention, in 2009, but she’s not been endorsed by a second vote yet.  The calendar calls her a “Schoolteacher and prophet,” which seems fitting.  We ought to think of more school teachers as prophets.

What makes a prophet prophetic?  Popularly we talk about prophecy as the ability to see into the future.  Prudence Crandall was not involved in that kind of prophecy.  She didn’t have magic visions.  But she was a prophet, in the sense that Jeremiah, Isaiah, and Jesus were prophets.  So prophesy must mean something else.

Prudence Crandall
Prudence Crandall

Prudence Crandall had a vision of the future.  It wasn’t magic.  Prudence started a school for in 1832 in Canterbury, Connecticut.  In 1833 she admitted her first black student, and taught the first integrated classroom in America.  Almost all her white students dropped out.  Undeterred, she opened a new school, “for Young ladies and Misses of color.”  Her new school was attacked, literally.  The windows were broken.  The well was poisoned.  In the end, the townsfolk burned the school to the ground.

Ms. Crandall caught a vision that compelled her to walk forward.  I think that’s what makes her a prophet.  In the Gospel of Luke Jesus tells his disciples, “No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the Kingdom of God.”  Prudence Crandall is a prophet because she looked forward.  She had a vision of an integrated classroom, of a society where peace was not the absence of conflict, but the presence of justice.  (See Dr. King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” on negative peace vs. positive peace.)

Prudence Crandall walked forward.  She took small steps forward, toward a future vision of a just community.  That’s what it means to be a prophet, and why we ought to look to more schoolteachers for prophecy.  Keeping our vision forward, always forward, not trying to restore the passive peace that was before, but seeking to build the just community of the Kingdom of God.  That’s prophecy.

Published by Mike Angell

The Rev. Mike Angell is rector of The Episcopal Church of the Holy Communion in St. Louis.

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