Samuel Eli Cornish was born of free and of respectable parentage in l895 in rural Sussex County in Delaware. Little is known of his early life except that he had two brothers, both ministers in the African Methodist Episcopal Church, and that his mother, an educated and refined parent, contributed much to the learning of her offspring.
At age 20 Cornish left the family farm to teach the early grades in a Philadelphia school for Blacks and two years later was licensed as a Presbyterian minister. He served first as a missionary to slaves in Maryland and then moved to New York to head an urban mission in Lower Manhattan. There he faced the hopelessness and abject poverty that had become a persistent fact of life for many in the city's large Black population.
Cornish married Jane Livingston, a woman of culture and means, and fathered her children. He founded the city's first Black Presbyterian church near the mission and became its pastor. After Freedom's Journal was under way, he continued his periodic travels as a missionary but found it necessary to give up his pastorate in order to devote adequate time to the newspaper.
Like other Black antebellum leaders Cornish did whatever was possible, for a Negro in the North, to eliminate slavery. To this end he had become a founder of the American Anti-Slavery Society, the New York Anti-Slavery Society, and the Union Missionary Society. For many years he served on the governing bodies of these and other abolition organizations.
At the same time his voluntary work among Blacks in the human wastelands of Philadelphia and New York had convinced him that an overwhelming task lay ahead in improving the living conditions and moral standards among the jobless, uneducated, and miserably quartered Blacks existing literally right under his nose. Moreover, Cornish realized that if life for the majority of free Negroes in non-slave states did not improve, then emancipation could mean merely the transfer of bodies from one form of serfdom to another.
He saw hope in journalism. For he knew that newspapers, along with pamphlets and tracts, had played a major role in developing a sense of unity and purpose among the colonies. Through slogans, cartoons, and forceful rhetoric, newspapers were instrumental in bringing colonial delegates together at Philadelphia in l776 to pound out a Declaration of Independence. The example of the Patriot news journals was not to be ignored; in fact, it deserved emulation.