Crane was born on May 6, 1790, in Newark, New Jersey, and was the son of Rufus Crane and his second wife, Charity Campbell Crane. His parents had few resources except a sense of their families’ former prominence in New Jersey history and their evangelical faith. Crane’s formal schooling lasted only a few years, but he became an avid reader. His conversion experience in 1807 sharpened his desire for knowledge, and he developed a lifelong interest in Christian missions. Crane learned the shoemaker’s trade and in November 1811 joined an elder brother in Richmond, Virginia, to sell a consignment of shoes. He returned to Newark to marry Lydia Dorsett, of Perth Amboy, New Jersey, on July 9, 1812. They lived in Richmond, where he became a successful merchant. Their four daughters and five sons included William Carey Crane, who became a prominent Baptist minister and president of Baylor University.
Crane and his wife joined the First Baptist Church. He persuaded William Sands to launch the Baptist Religious Herald in 1828 and financially supported the paper during its early years when it failed to make a profit. From 1830 until at least 1832 Crane was a trustee of the Virginia Baptist Education Society, which purchased land and organized the Virginia Baptist Seminary (later the University of Richmond). In 1816 he helped organize a Sunday school, which met in a shoe store and later in the First Baptist Church. The opposition of some Baptists to Sunday schools led to a rupture in the church and the founding in 1820 of the Second Baptist Church, of which Crane was a member and which included black as well as white members.
Crane’s concern for missionary work began to focus on Africa, and he assisted in organizing the Foreign Missionary Society of Virginia in November 1813. He and Lott Cary, a free black member of the church, founded the Richmond African Baptist Missionary Society in April 1815. Crane has often received credit as the primary founder, but he maintained that the society owed its origins more to Cary than to himself. Crane became the president and corresponding secretary and Cary the recording secretary. One of Crane’s brothers was also active in the society, and Crane’s wife directed the Richmond Female Missionary Society from 1823 until her death on September 26, 1830.
About 1815 Crane began leading a night school for the African American members of the church. Often he read to the students from current newspapers. One news item about African American Baptists in Sierra Leone inspired seven men and women, meeting in Crane’s house, to form themselves into a Baptist church, with Cary as pastor, and to make plans to immigrate to Liberia. A member of the American Society for Colonizing the Free People of Color of the United States (popularly known as the American Colonization Society) since shortly after its founding in December 1816, Crane hoped that colonization of free blacks in Africa would provide an expanded opportunity for missionary activity and also offer a means to end slavery in the United States through emancipation and emigration. Crane helped found the Richmond and Manchester auxiliary of the colonization society in 1823, served as one of its managers, and worked for ten years to send money and supplies to Liberia and promote the colony’s interest among free blacks in Richmond.
More than a decade of work supporting emigration led Crane to conclude that few free black Virginians were interested in Liberia. He and others in sympathy with African Americans were becoming politically isolated in Virginia and losing the support of their church congregations. Crane realized that colonization would not end slavery and was beneficial only in demonstrating that African Americans could govern themselves and perhaps disrupt the continued exportation of slaves from Africa. By 1833, after an indecisive debate about slavery in the General Assembly, Crane wrote, “I must say, frankly, that I can see no possible ultimate remedy for this evil, but for the white man, in this boasted land of liberty, to lay aside his pride of color, and to admit what was never denied till within the last few centuries, that ‘God has made of one blood all nations of men,’ that ‘all men are born free and equal,’ and without any regard to complexion, all naturally possess the same inalienable rights.” He predicted that unless slavery were abolished, “possibly nullification, or some similar ground of fanatical discord, may array North and South, anti-slavery and pro-slavery, in a deadly strife, such as may break up the bonds of our Union in scenes of blood and ultimately thus break off the shackles of the slave.”
On July 20, 1831, Crane married Jean Nivin Daniel, a sister of Raleigh T. Daniel, who later served as Virginia’s attorney general, and niece of Peter V. Daniel, later an associate justice of the U.S. Supreme Court. They had four daughters and four sons. Discouraged after his work in Richmond for colonization, and fearing that slavery would divide the country, Crane moved to Baltimore in 1834 and entered the wholesale leather business and later the manufacture of boots and shoes. In 1845 he joined several other men in incorporating the Chesapeake and Liberia Trading Company in order to trade goods between Baltimore and the west coast of Africa.
Crane continued to help form both white and black Baptist churches. In his first year in Baltimore, he invited Moses Clayton, a free black carpenter and Baptist preacher in Richmond, to become the minister to black Baptists in Baltimore, where Clayton organized the First Baptist Church Colored in 1836. Clayton and Crane assisted Noah Davis, an enslaved preacher in Fredericksburg, in raising money to purchase himself. Once in Baltimore, Davis organized the Second Baptist Church Colored (later called the Saratoga Street African Baptist Church). The new church sponsored a high school for blacks, for which Crane helped finance the construction of a four-story building. He rented the ground floor, the church met on the second floor, the school used the third floor, and the fourth floor contained rooms to be rented to civic groups. The school did not last, the rooms could not be profitably rented, and in the face of increasing hostility to free blacks in Baltimore, Crane was left with an almost empty building. Regular in attending the triennial General Missionary Convention of the Baptist Denomination in the United States of America for Foreign Missions (after 1845 the American Baptist Missionary Union) for more than thirty years, he remained active in both the northern and southern branches of the Baptist Church after the denomination split in 1845, including service as a vice president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Board of Foreign Missions for about a dozen years.
Although Crane opposed slavery and manumitted the few slaves who came under his control from his second wife’s family, he did not consider himself a northern-style abolitionist. His religious beliefs made it possible for him to see African Americans as his spiritual equals and black Baptists as his true brothers and sisters. In his pamphlet Anti-Slavery in Virginia: Extracts from Thos. Jefferson, Gen. Washington and Others Relative to the “Blighting Curse of Slavery” (1865), based in part on writings completed while he lived in Richmond early in the 1830s, Crane was as severe in his criticism of abolitionists as he was of secessionists. He regarded slavery not as a sin of individuals but as an institution created by unjust public policies. Crane, one of the purest examples of evangelical conscience yoked to the pragmatism of the small businessman, died at his Baltimore home on September 28, 1866, and was buried in the city’s Green Mount Cemetery.