A Black Universalist in the 1830s

The sermon below was preached by Rev. Dan Harper at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Palo Alto, California, at the 9:30 and 11:00 a.m. services. The sermon text below is a reading text; the actual sermon contained improvisation and extemporaneous remarks. Sermon copyright (c) 2016 Daniel Harper.

Readings: The readings were three poems by Lucille Clifton, including:

A prose poem from Generations: A Memoir

telling our stories



Sermon: A Black Universalist in the 1830s

The sermon below was preached in honor of Black History Month by Rev. Dan Harper at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Palo Alto, California, at the 9:30 and 11:00 a.m. services. The sermon text below is a reading text; the actual sermon contained improvisation and extemporaneous remarks. Notes appear at the end of the sermon. Sermon copyright (c) 2016 Daniel Harper.

One of the best things about being part of a congregation like this one is that you get to hear other people’s stories. If you join a men’s group or women’s group, if you become a Sunday school teacher, if you simply open yourself to others during social hour, you will hear people’s stories: “When I first met my life partner…” someone will say; or, “When I was in eighth grade…”; or, “When I lived in Virginia….” So begin the little stories about someone else’s life.

No one is going to publish a big fat biography of an ordinary person’s life. Usually, the only time we get to hear the story of someone’s whole life is after they die, at their memorial service. Mostly we hear little pieces of other people’s lives; but if you listen long enough, over the course of years, you will hear enough to piece together — not a biography, but a sort of patchwork quilt of that person’s life.

So it is we can piece together the lives of ordinary people of the past; people who are not powerful, famous, male, white, and highly educated all at the same time. With such ordinary people, we mostly can know only pieces of their stories. But we can fill in the holes between the pieces with questions, and stitch it together, like a quilt, into a whole.

Now I would like to tell you the story of Nathan Johnson, a Black Universalist who lived from 1795 to 1880.

About Nathan Johnson’s early life, we can only ask questions. Who were his parents? Was he born free, or did he emancipate himself from slavery? How did he learn to read? How did he get to the north? He was born about 1795, perhaps in Virginia; [1] or perhaps in Philadelphia, either enslaved or free. [2] The first real fact we know about Nathan Johnson’s life is in 1819, when he was in his twenties, he got married in New Bedford, Massachusetts.

New Bedford in that time was a city with a surprisingly enlightened racial outlook. The Quaker residents of the city had been helping enslaved persons run to freedom since at least the 1790s. [3] The city was a terminus for the Underground Railroad. And in New Bedford, a person of color could do quite well financially: by about 1800, one black man, Paul Cuffee, of African and Wampanoag descent, had amassed a small fortune through shipping and international trade. [4]

Nathan Johnson married Mary Mingo, a free black woman born nearby, in New Bedford on October 24, 1819. Mary, better known as Polly, was ten years older than Nathan, and had been married once before. [5] She had at least two children from her first marriage: Rhoda who was an infant, and Mahala, who about seven years old in 1819. [6]

After their marriage, Polly and Nathan worked as domestic servants for Charles W. Morgan, a young man who had come from Philadelphia to marry the daughter of a wealthy ship owner; perhaps Nathan even came north with Morgan. [7] As was true of many Quakers and ex-Quakers, Morgan was probably involved with the Underground Railroad.

When they began working for the Morgans, Nathan was about twenty-six years old, and Polly thirty-six. What was it like for Polly and Nathan to live and work as domestic servants in the house of a wealthy newly-married white couple? How did Polly take care of her own children, a baby and school-aged child, while also attending to her duties as a domestic? What were their day-to-day lives like? As is so often true of the lives of ordinary people, we know little of their daily life.

We do know something of their religious lives. Polly became a member of First Baptist Church in 1820, a church with a white minister. [8] Presumably Rhoda and Mahala went to church with their mother.

But not Nathan. In February, 1822, he asked to be admitted into membership of New Bedford Friends Meeting, the Quaker congregation. His employer, Charles Morgan, described the scene in a letter: “… my black man Nathan sat during [meeting for] business and towards the close, rose & informed the meeting that he had no wish to intrude, but believed it his duty to become a member of that Society … speaking very well & properly, the request received due notice, and is under care of overseers. I was entirely ignorant of his views or intentions — though he is quite plain & has been very exemplary in every respect for a long time … Frank says they will have a new light in a dark lantern….” [9] I have to explain this last sentence: when Charles Morgan says “new light in a dark lantern,” he is referring to a brewing controversy among New England Quakers between the Old Lights or more conservative Quakers, and the New Lights or liberal faction which included Morgan and his family.

Morgan’s letter tells us that Nathan was well-spoken and articulate; that at age 17 he was treated as an adult; and that he had been attending Quaker meeting long enough to know the ways of the Quakers. It sound like he wore the characteristic plain dress of the Quakers. Finally, we learn that Nathan probably counted himself a part of the faction of religious liberals. For some reason, Nathan was not allowed to join New Bedford Friends Meeting, perhaps because he was black, or because the conservatives didn’t want to let another liberal in. Or it may be that he was already engaging violent anti-slavery activities, in opposition to Quaker pacifism. [10]

It seems unlikely that Nathan continued worshipping with the Quakers for much longer. By about 1824, Charles W. Morgan had joined the Unitarian church in New Bedford, and perhaps Nathan followed his employer to that church. This Unitarian congregation had had a black member as early as 1785. [11] But by 1824, the Unitarians were no longer welcoming towards African Americans: although there were abolitionists in the pews, the congregation was not racially egalitarian. [12]

In this same year, 1822, Nathan first became active in antislavery efforts. [13] In November, he attended a trial where a white slave catcher from the South was trying to prove that a black man was an escaped slave. Nathan saw how the anti-slavery activists protected the rights of the black man: “A person stood behind [the slave catcher] with a heavy pair of tongs in his hand ready to brain him” should he try to abscond with the black man. [14] From this time on, Nathan allied himself with the more active antislavery activists.

By the time Nathan was in his early twenties, he and Polly were doing well financially. They owned a house and several commercial properties; Polly opened a confectionary shop on the other side of their house. [15] Their businesses kept growing; by 1829, they had added a bathing house and rental apartments to their holdings. [16]

In his prosperity, Nathan was also becoming more radical. In April, 1827, he was accused, along with several other men, of entering a house at night, and severely beating a person of color named John Howard, who was visiting New Bedford. At Nathan’s trial, no one would testify against him, so the charges were dropped. The white abolitionist Samuel Rodman told his diary what was really going on: John Howard was hardly an innocent victim, but rather someone who had come to New Bedford “to get information of run-away slaves.” [17] Nathan had come far from Quaker pacifism. By 1833, Nathan had become a Universalist, who met in the old Quaker meetinghouse, which he now owned; the New Bedford Universalists at that time were mostly radical anti-slavery activists. [18]

At the 1830 U.S. census, Nathan, Polly, and Polly’s daughters Rhoda and Mahala were the only ones living in their house. [19] For Nathan and Polly never had any children of their own. Did Nathan regret not having children of his own? What sort of relationship did he have with Rhoda and Mahala? — he would have been the only father Rhoda ever knew, but what about Mahala? Once again, we have no answers to the most important questions.

Though we know so little of Nathan’s family life, we know more about the confectionary business. The wealthiest families in the city — and at this time, New Bedford was the richest city in America — purchased sweets from the Johnsons. Polly was rumored to have learned some of her cooking secrets in France, and charged accordingly. Her molded ice cream alone was worth two dollars a serving — at $45 each in today’s dollars, that was expensive ice cream! [20] For his part, Nathan carried on an international trade in sweets and nuts to supply the business. One of the items that they sold was “free-labor candy,” that is, candy made by free black workers, as opposed to slaves. Nathan and Polly were doing so well from their business ventures that they rode to and from anti-slavery meetings in a horse and carriage. [21]

And then, in September, 1838, came a most momentous occasion, though probably Nathan and Polly Johnson didn’t realize it at the time. Some white anti-slavery activists brought a young couple who had escaped from slavery to the Johnsons. [22] The man was named Frederick Johnson, but because there were so many Johnsons in New Bedford, Nathan suggested this man change his name to Douglass. [23] Yes, the famous Frederick Douglass got his new name from a Nathan Johnson, a black Universalist!

Frederick Douglass described his new friend thusly: “I will venture to assert that my friend Mr. Nathan Johnson … lived in a neater house; dined at a better table; took, paid for, and read, more newspapers; better understood the moral, religious, and political character of the nation,– than nine tenths of the slaveholders in Talbot county, Maryland.” [24]

At some point, Nathan brought Frederick to the Universalist church. One day, Rev. John Murray Spear, the white minister and radical abolitionist at the Universalist church, discovered Douglass debating the doctrine of universal salvation in the church building; Douglass, I am sorry to say, argued for the existence of eternal damnation. [25] But Spear saw that this young man had exceptional rhetorical ability, and was one of those who encouraged Douglass to become a public speaker. [26]

It should be noted that few Universalist churches were as egalitarian and racially tolerant as the one in New Bedford. Indeed, the New Bedford Universalists sometimes became frustrated with their co-religionists. When the Universalist Anti-Slavery Convention, of which they were founding members, proceeded more slowly than they liked, they shrewdly invited Frederick Douglass to accompany them to a meeting of the convention in the fall of 1841, and Douglass’s oratory convinced the delegates to censure the Southern Universalist churches that supported slavery. [27]

In 1841, John Murray Spear resigned as the minister of the Universalist church, because the congregation was unable to pay his salary [28]. The congregation’s poor financial situation was probably due in part to the Panic of 1837, a serious recession that lasted through the 1840s. Nathan and Polly’s financial situation also grew slowly worse through the 1840s. By the late 1840s, they were in debt to creditors. [29]

In the midst of this ongoing financial malaise, gold was discovered in California. In the Dec. 21, 1848, issue of the New Bedford Mercury, an article appeared that must have electrified the African American community of New Bedford, telling how an African Americans had become rich in the gold fields of California. [30] Nathan Johnson joined a mining company, the Belle Company of New Bedford, left New Bedford on April 3, 1849, and arrived in San Francisco on September 27. [31]

When he went to California, he left Polly in control of real estate valued at $15,500, and personal property valued at $3,200; [32] for a total value of $540,000 in today’s dollars. Yet in another three years, Johnson was declared insolvent, and Polly had to sell their house to a white anti-slavery activist.

I have been unable to find any record of what Nathan did while in California, or where he lived and worked. [33] Where did he live while he was in California? One place he might have lived early on is along the Yuba River, in a racially mixed community of men called “Negro Bar”; many of those men were from New Bedford. [34] But that is just a conjecture.

Whatever he did, he apparently did nothing to better his financial situation. But if he wasn’t making money, why did he stay in California? Perhaps, if he was indeed a self-emancipated slave, after the passage of the Fugitive Slave Law in 1850 California was safer for him than Massachusetts. [35] Perhaps he was one of the many men who did not succeed as miners, and became financially destitute; the meager evidence we have points to this as a likely possibility. [36]

As far as his religious views, Nathan was no longer a Universalist but a spiritualist [37]; perhaps because so many spiritualists were anti-slavery activists. [38]

Meanwhile, back in New Bedford, Polly continued working as a confectioner. She made enough money without any help from Nathan to get her house back by 1859; she paid off that mortgage by 1870. [39] When she died on November 19, 1871, at 87 years old, she left her estate to her daughter Rhoda and her granddaughter Mary. But she also left a pension to Nathan, provided he came back to New Bedford within two years of her death. And so Nathan returned to New Bedford in early 1873. [40]

Nathan was about 78 years old when he finally returned to New Bedford, having lived in California for more than 23 years. What made him finally return? Was the modest pension enough to bring him back? Or perhaps the thought of seeing his step-daughters and step-grandchildren? Had he finally forgotten the shame of his financial ruin? There is no way to know for sure.

When he returned to New Bedford, he lived in the basement of his old house, while Rhoda and her family lived upstairs. He died on November 11, 1880, in New Bedford. [41]

There you have it: a brief portrait of the life of an ordinary person. Born in obscurity, married as a young man, he helped his wife raise two daughters. He became financially successful, but at age 54, faced with mounting debt, he had to begin again, making a five month voyage in a wooden ship around Cape Horn in the dead of winter, to join the California Gold Rush. He didn’t make his fortune, but stayed in California for 23 years, until he was 78. He finally returned home to live out the last few years of his life in a basement apartment.

The only reason we know anything about Nathan Johnson is because he and his wife Polly happened to befriend Frederick Douglass at the end of his journey on the Underground Railroad. This is often the fate of ordinary people: we only know about them when they brush up against someone famous. But isn’t Nathan Johnson worthy of our attention, even though he was ordinary? Ordinary people are equally human as great people; the old-time Universalists would say: we are all equally worthy of God’s love. And this is why ordinary people like Nathan Johnson fight so hard at great personal cost for true equality — for the anti-slavery movement then and Black Lives Matter now — because we are all equally worthy of love.

I’ll leave you with Nathan Johnson’s own words. There is at least one surviving letter from him, addressed to abolitionist Maria Weston Chapman, in which he tells Chapman that he supports the anti-slavery periodical called “The Liberty Bell,” [42] and then he says:

“I hope its notes may sound till all the People are roused, and gathered in their might, to Battle for Liberty.”


1. Earl F. Mulderink, “‘The Whole Town Is Ringing with It’: Slave Kidnapping Charges against Nathan Johnson of New Bedford, Massachusetts,” The New England Quarterly, vol. 61, no. 3 (Sep., 1988), p. 343.

2. Kathryn Grover, The Fugitive’s Gibraltar: Escaping Slaves and Abolitionism in New Bedford, Massachusetts (Amherst, Mass.: University of Massachusetts Press, 2001), p. 94.

3. Kathryn Grover, “Fugitive Slave Trade and the Maritime World of New Bedford” (National Park Service, New Bedford Whaling National Historical Park, 1998), pp. 6-7.

4. Robert C. Hayden, African Americans and Cape Verdean Americans in New Bedford: A History of Community and Achievement (Boston: Select Publications, 1993), p. 67.

5. New Bedford Historical Society Web site, ”Mary J. ‘Polly’ Johnson,”
http://nbhistoricalsociety.org/Important-Figures/mary-j-polly-johnson/ accessed Feb. 12, 2016.

Also: Mulderink, p. 343; Grover, Fugitive’s Gibraltar, p. 94.
6. Kathryn Grover and Carl J. Cruz, “A haven for all in need,” New Bedford Standard Times, Feb. 27, 2000.

7. Grover, Fugitive’s Gibraltar, p. 94.

8. Mulderink, p. 352.

9. Letter quoted in Grover, Fugitive’s Gibraltar, p. 102.

10. Graham Russell Gao Hodges makes this assertion: “At one point, he asked to join the local Quaker meeting and received careful consideration, but his street rowdiness surely disqualified him”; in David Ruggles: A Radical Black Abolitionist and the Underground Railroad in New York City (University of North Carolina Press, 2010), p. 30.

However, I can find no record of Nathan Johnson’s involvement in more violent anti-slavery activities prior to late 1822, after he would have been rejected by the Friends Meeting as a member.

11. Dan Harper, Liberal Pilgrims: Varieties of Liberal Religious Experience in New Bedford, Massachusetts (New Bedford: Fish Island Books, 2009), p. 56.

12. Harper, p. 75

13. Hodges, p. 30.

14. Grover, Fugitive’s Gibraltar, p. 94.

15. Grover and Cruz.

16. Grover, Fugitive’s Gibraltar, p. 112.

17. Rodman’s diary is quoted in Grover, Fugitive’s Gibraltar, p. 112.

18. Grover and Cruz.

The extant records of the old Universalist church do not mention Johnson’s name. See: bMS 214 in the Manuscript Collection at Andover-Harvard Library.

The records that do exist from the 1830s are those of the business side of the congregation, called the “society,” which in those days was separate from the religious side of the congregation, called the “church.” It is possible that Nathan was a member of the church but not the society, but the written records of the church (if indeed they were ever kept in writing) no longer exist.

John Buescher points out that “the constitution of the church … had no exclusionary provision.” John B. Beuscher, The Remarkable Life of John Murray Spear, Agitator for the Spirit Land (Notre Dame, Indiana: University of Notre Dame Press, 2006), p. 22. The congregation’s constitution may be found in: Record book of the Universalist Society, bMS 214/1 (2), Andover-Harvard Theological Library.

At the same time, the white New Bedford Universalists who controlled the congregation still harbored racial prejudice. In January, 1837, the society voted “that no transfer of pews shall be made to persons of color” (Record book of the Universalist Society, bMS 214/1 (3), Andover-Harvard Theological Library). Perhaps Nathan Johnson already owned a pew at that time; whether or not he did, after that date, no other person of color could purchase a pew.

19. Grover and Cruz.

20. New Bedford Historical Society Web site, “Mary ‘Polly’ Johnson.”

21. Grover, Fugitive’s Gibraltar, p. 138.

22. Grover and Cruz.

23. Frederick Douglass, My Bondage and Freedom (New York: Miller, Orton, and Mulligan, 1855), p. 343.

24. Frederick Douglass, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass An American Slave (Boston: Anti-Slavery Office, 1849), pp. 114-115.

25. However, for an account of how Douglass’s theological views liberalized to the point of a humanistic theology, see William L. vanDeBurg, “Frederick Douglass,” in Anthony Pinn, editor, By These Hands: A Documentary History of African American Humanism (New York: New York University Press, 2001), pp. 89 ff. (Among other liberalizing influences: Douglass went to hear Unitarian minister Theodore Parker preach in 1854.) By 1870, Douglass was espousing a doctrine that placed ultimate responsibility for ending slavery and racism on humankind, rather than relying on God to intervene. For this, Douglass was accused of apostasy; one clergyman wrote, “We love Frederick Douglass, but we love God more.”

26. Beuscher, p. 171.

27. Russell E. Miller, The Larger Hope: The First Century of the Universalist Church in America, 1770-1870 (Boston: Unitarian Universalist Association, 1979), pp. 592-595.

28. Harper, p. 12.

29. Grover, Fugitive’s Gibraltar, p. 209.

30. “On a September day in 1848 a black man was walking near the San Francisco docks, when a white man who had just disembarked from a ship called to him to carry his luggage. The black cast him an indignant glance and walked away. After he had gone a few steps, he turned around and, drawing a small bag from his bosom, he said, ‘Do you think I’ll lug trunks when I can get that much in one day?’ The sack of gold that he displayed was estimated by the white man to be worth more than one hundred dollars.” Rudolph M. Lapp, Blacks in Gold Rush California (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1977), p. 12.

31. Passenger lists from the New York Herald of April 7, 1849, excerpted on “California Bound SF Genealogy” Web site, http://www.sfgenealogy.com/californiabound/cb092.htm accessed Feb. 12, 2016.

Nathan Johnson is also listed as a passenger aboard the ship America from New Bedford, Mass., departed April 3, 1849, Charles Warren Haskins, The Argonauts of California (New York: Fords, Howard & Hulbert, 1890), pp. 468-469. Haskins lists 35,000 people who were “the first to venture forth in the search for gold.”

For more about the voyage of the ship America, see the Sea Captains — Ship Passengers: The Maritime Heritage Project Web site, “San Francisco 1800-1899, Charles P. Seabury,” http://www.maritimeheritage.org/captains/seaburyCharles.html accessed Feb. 12, 2016. This Web site states that the log book for this voyage is now in the New Bedford Whaling Museum. The log book takes note that a black preacher was on board who led services on April 8, and that many of those attending the service were also black.

32. Mulderink, p. 357; Grover, Fugitive’s Gibraltar, p. 135.

33. Nathan Johnson is not mentioned in Delilah L. Beasley, The Negro Trail Blazers of California: A Compilation of Records from the California Archives (Los Angeles: 1919). But it is not out of the question that documentary sources on Johnson’s stay in California may someday be found.

34. “In one community of the Yuba River, known at times as ‘Negro Bar’ and at other times as ‘Union Bar,’ several of the members, both black and white, were from New Bedford. There were about thirty whites and ten Negroes in this community, according to William F. Terry, a New Bedford white man who kept a diary.” — Quoted in Lapp, p. 61.

The 72-page William F. Terry diary is in the Bancroft Library at U.C. Berkeley (call number BANC MSS C-F 217); perhaps an interested scholar will read it to see if it mentions Nathan Johnson.

35. “By 1851 the panic over hunters of fugitive slaves reached Massachusetts and the New Bedford Mercury [March 18, 1851] openly advised its black readers to consider California as a place of refuge.” — Lapp, p. 19.

36. For one possibility, we can turn to the downward trajectory described by Mark Twain, once a white man lost his job in San Francisco in the 1860s: “After losing his [job], he had gone down, down, down, with never a halt: from a boarding house on Russian Hill to a boarding house in Kearney street; from thence to Dupont; from thence to a low sailor den; and from thence to lodgings in goods boxes and empty hogsheads near the wharves. Then, for a while, he had gained a meagre living by sewing up bursted sacks of grain on the piers; when that failed he found food here and there as chance threw it in his way.” Mark Twain, Roughing It (New York: Hippocrene Books; replica edition of the first edition: Hartford, Conn.: American Publishing Co., 1872), p. 430.

37. Grover, Fugitive’s Gibraltar, p. 282.

38. In mid-twentieth century study, G. K. Nelson asserts: “Spiritualism was associated with the Anti-slavery movement.” G. K. Nelson, Spiritualism and Society (Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1969), p. 26.

For a more extended argument on the relationship between spiritualism and various reform movements including the anti-slavery movement, see John Buescher, The Other Side of Salvation: Spiritualism and the Nineteenth-century Religious Experience (Boston: Skinner House, 2004).

Spiritualists themselves claimed most of them supported the anti-slavery movement: “It is patent to every American Spiritualist that the great majority of the believers, save and except the residents of the Gulf States, were more or less in favor of anti-slavery.” Emma Hardinge, Modern American Spiritualism: A Twenty Years‘ Record of the Communion Between Earth and the World of Spirits (New York: the author, 1872), p. 460.

39. Grover and Cruz.

40. Ibid.

41. Grover and Cruz; Mulderink, p. 357. Grover, Fugitive’s Gibraltar, shows Nathan Johnson’s gravestone in Oak Grove cemetery, p. 282; the epitaph reads, “Freedom for all mankind.”

42. The letter, dated November 14, 1844, is in the Boston Library Rare Books Collection, and is quoted in Mulderink, pp. 356-357.

John Murray Spear, Universalist and Abolitionist

This sermon was preached by Rev. Dan Harper at First Unitarian Church in New Bedford. As usual, the sermon below is a reading text. The actual sermon as preached contained ad libs, interjections, and other improvisation. Sermon copyright (c) 2007 Daniel Harper.


The first reading is rather long, and is from a sermon preached in 1774 by Elhanan Winchester, one of the earliest Universalist preachers in this country — he was preaching Universalism before John Murray arrived from England.

“There is one abomination… that prevails in this country, that calls aloud not only for sighing and crying, but for a speedy reformation and turning therefrom, if we desire to prevent destruction from coming upon us; I mean, the SLAVE TRADE….

“The very principle upon which it is founded, from which it springs, and by which it is carried on, is one of the most base and ignoble that ever disgraced the human species:

“WHICH is, Avarice. This mean and unworthy passion certainly had has a principal hand in this disgraceful traffic; no one can pretend that benevolence ever had, or ever can have, a hand in such a most infamous commerce. Avarice tends to harden the heart, to render the mind callous to the feelings of humanity, indisposes the soul to every virtue, and renders it prey to every vice. Ought we not to be ashamed of such a commerce, that has it rise from no better principle than mere selfishness or covetousness?…

“HAVING considered the principle from whence it originated, and to which its existence is owing, I pass to mention the horrible manner in which it is carried on. And here almost every vice that blackens and degrades human nature is employed; such as, deceiving, perfidy, decoying, stealing, lying, fomenting feuds and discords among the nations of Africa, robbery, plunder, burning, murder, cruelty of all kinds, and the most savage and unexampled barbarism.

“BLUSH… to think that ye are the supporters of a commerce that employs these, and many other vices to carry it on! Could you but think seriously of the disgraceful and cruel manner in which slaves are obtained, methinks you could not attempt to justify the horrid practice. Numbers are stolen while going out on their lawful business, are never suffered to return home to take leave of their friends; but are gagged and bound, then carried on board the vessels which wait for them, never more to see their native land again, but to drag out a miserable existence in chains, hunger, thirst, cold, nakedness, hard labour, and perpetual slavery.

“THINK, O ye tender mothers, how you would feel, if, when ye should send your little boys or girls to fetch a pitcher, or calabash of water from the spring, you should never see them return again! if some barbarous kidnapper should watch the opportunity, and seize upon your darlings, as the eagle upon its prey! should gag your sweet prattling babes, and force them away! how would your souls refuse to be comforted! such is the pain that many mothers feel in Africa, and God can cause it to come home to yourselves, who contribute to such an abomination as this.”

[From Universalism in America: A Documentary History of a Liberal Faith, edited by Ernest Cassara. Capitalized words found in this edition.]


The second reading is quite short, and it comes from an address which John Murray Spear gave to the Universalist Anti-Slavery Convention in 1840. After summarizing Elhanan Winchester’s anti-slavery sermon, Spear said, “[Universalists should] oppose all monopolies, despise all partiality, break down all unnatural distinctions, elevate the despised classes, and introduce a system of perfect equality.”

[Quoted in Russell Miller, The Larger Hope: The First Century of the Universalist Church in America, 1770-1870, p. 594.]


This is the first in a series of occasional sermons about the history of our congregation. We are the direct institutional descendants of three congregations:– First Congregational Society (Unitarian) of New Bedford; First Universalist Church of New Bedford; and North Unitarian Church (Unitarian). 2008 will mark the three hundredth anniversary of the oldest of our three antecedent churches, First Congregational Society, later First Unitarian; in honor of that anniversary, this fall I plan to tell you about several unsung heroes and heroines from all three of our antecedent churches.

And I decided to start off with the most remarkable minister who ever was called to serve in one of those three churches. John Murray Spear was the first minister of First Universalist Church, when that congregation was formally incorporated in 1835. John Murray Spear was a remarkable man in many ways, both good and at times not-so-good. On the not-so-good side, later in his life he got so far into eccentric and far-out beliefs that he managed to alienate most of his old friends. But on the good side, he was a staunch Garrisonian abolitionist who advocated an immediate end to slavery as early as the 1830’s, when that was not a popular stance; he attracted African American members to First Universalist Church in a day when integrated churches were almost unimaginable, in a day when the Unitarian church in New Bedford kept a segregated pew for African Americans; and history indicates that he befriended and encouraged Frederick Douglass not long after Douglass escaped slavery and came to New Bedford, before Douglass become famous for his oratory.

But let’s begin at the beginning, and our beginning is to understand a little bit about Universalism. As you probably know, or could figure out, Universalism originally was the belief that all souls get to go to heaven; it was the belief that a benevolent God would be too good to allow the existence of hell.

Once the early Universalists in North America reached that conclusion, they quickly went a step further. They pronounced themselves egalitarians, that is, they asserted their belief in the essential equality of all humankind. This radical egalitarianism has stuck in Universalism, and in Universalists, down to the present day. Those of us who call ourselves Universalists today may or may not believe in God, but we most certainly believe in the infinite value of every human being.

It comes as no surprise, then, that early Universalists became active in cause of liberty during the American Revolution. Caleb Rich, one of the earliest Universalist preachers, fought in the Battle of Bunker Hill. Benjamin Rush, one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence, became a prominent Universalist. In 1791, Benjamin Rush wrote, “A belief in God’s universal love to all his creatures… leads to truths upon all subjects, but especially upon the subject of government. It establishes the equality of mankind.” Historian Ann Lee Bressler tells us that Benjamin Rush’s Universalism was “a rational and ultimately cheerful faith well-suited to a free and democratic society.” [Bressler, p. 19] What was true of Benjamin Rush was no less true of other early Universalists.

And those early Universalists were not afraid to apply their egalitarian principles to difficult subjects like slavery. As we heard in the first reading this morning, the Universalist preacher Elhanan Winchester spoke out against slavery in a strongly worded sermon as early as 1774. Along with John Murray, Winchester was one of the two towering figures of 18th C. Universalism; thus his sermon against slavery had a large influence. The sermon was widely distributed, influenced many of his contemporaries, and wound up influencing later generations as well.

Between the late 1700’s and the 1830’s, however, Universalism lost some of its early egalitarianism. By the mid-1830’s, a fair number of Universalists actively supported slavery. Not surprisingly, many of them lived in the Southern states, but there were plenty of northern Universalists who distanced themselves from applying egalitarian principles to enslaved Africans and African Americans. Even among the Universalists who did oppose slavery, many refused to take the hard-line stance of the abolitionists, saying that they didn’t want to anger the southern Universalists, didn’t want to promote divisiveness in the country or in the denomination. Maybe we can better understand this attitude if we remember that through much of late 18th C. and even into the 19th C., Universalists were reviled by the orthodox Christians; to proclaim yourself a Universalist was to risk being ostracized by friends, community, even your own family; to preach Universalism meant risking bodily harm, for there were orthodox Christians who physically assaulted Universalists to prevent the Universalist doctrine of love from being preached. I don’t mean to excuse them, but by the 1830’s, Universalists had begun to achieve a measure of respectability, and so perhaps some Universalists of that time preferred to avoid controversial topics like abolitionism.

Some Universalists may have preferred to avoid controversy, but not John Murray Spear. John Murray Spear was named after the great Universalist preacher John Murray. In fact, as a baby John Murray Spear was dedicated by no less a person than the great John Murray (remember that because of his Universalist beliefs, John Murray did not baptize children to cleanse them of original sin, instead he dedicated them to the highest purposes in life). The great John Murray was willing to take great risks to proclaim his Universalist faith; and perhaps some of that willingness rubbed off on the little baby John Murray Spear, because when that little baby grew up, he turned into a man who was willing to proclaim abolition of slavery at great risk to himself.

(Since this is the first day of Sunday school, I might add here that those of you who are raising your children in this church should be aware that even today Unitarian Universalist kids wind up being staunch egalitarians, who do things like pass up high-paying jobs in favor of work that pays far less but creates justice for all, and spreads good in the world. Consider yourself duly warned. But I digress….)

When John Murray Spear came to New Bedford in 1835, he discovered that New Bedford was notable for its racial tolerance. I will not say claim that it was a fully tolerant city; there was distinct legal and personal discrimination by white folks against people of color; but for its time, New Bedford was a remarkably tolerant place. People of color could earn a decent living in the whaling industry. People of color were accorded a higher level of freedom and respect by white people than in most other places in the United States. And fugitive slaves discovered that the city was a safe harbor for them, where they could blend in to a racially mixed populace, where they could find friendly help, and where they could find secure work.

Spear was already an abolitionist when he came to New Bedford. But he went further than just being an abolitionist; he got to know prominent members of the African American community in New Bedford. For example, Spear got to know Nathan Johnson. Nathan Johnson was a prominent African American citizen of New Bedford who represented the city for a number of years at the annual convention for free people of color; and his house was a stop on the Underground Railroad. Indeed, Nathan Johnson is best known for his role in the Underground Railroad, because in 1838 he took in an escaped slave named Frederick Johnson, and it was Nathan Johnson who helped the now free man to decide to change his name to Frederick Douglass.

The historian John Buescher recently published a biography of John Murray Spear and his brother Charles, and Buescher tells us this about John Murray Spear’s time in New Bedford: “One of Spear’s church members in New Bedford was Nathan Johnson, the gentleman with whom Frederick Douglass lived when he settled in the city after his escape from slavery. In his church one day, Spear found Douglass debating with members of his congregation. They were arguing for universal salvation, and Douglass was arguing for the existence of eternal punishment. Spear was much impressed with Douglass’s abilities and encouraged him to become a public speaker.” [Buescher, p. 171]

This short little anecdote tells us three very important things about this history of our own First Universalist Church. First, we have an important connection to Frederick Douglass, because John Murray Spear was one of those who very early on encouraged Douglass to become a public speaker. Second, Douglass actually came to our First Universalist Church, and although he was misguided enough to insist on the existence of eternal punishment, it is of some interest that he came at all. Third — and this is the most interesting bit of information — Nathan Johnson was at that time a member of First Universalist Church. I’m quite impressed that our own First Universalist Church welcomed African American members that early; to the best of my knowledge, that didn’t happen in First Unitarian until much later.

All this tells us that those early New Bedford Universalists were people of whom we can be proud. They had a religious belief in egalitarianism, and they lived out that belief. Indeed, history tells us that they sometimes became frustrated with other Universalists. By autumn, 1841, the New Bedford church was one of only two Universalist churches in Massachusetts which had adopted official resolutions supporting the abolition of slavery. The New Bedford Universalists publicly expressed their frustration when the local association of Universalists refused to even consider the matter of abolition. And when the Universalist Anti-Slavery Convention, of which they were founding members, proceeded more slowly than they liked, they shrewdly invited Frederick Douglass to accompany them to a meeting of the convention in the fall of 1841. When the convention wavered at the thought of voting for a resolution aimed at the Southern Universalist congregations which supported slavery, Douglass spoke up, and the power of his oratory so convinced the delegates that the resolution passed unanimously.

We can only imagine what it must have been like to be a part of that congregation. Universalists in those days were still fairly pugnacious, still willing to speak out loudly and publicly against the doctrine of eternal punishment; and Universalists in New Bedford made no bones about wanting to abolish slavery. And even though First Universalist had a white minister and a majority of white church members, it appears certain the congregation welcomed both black and white people into their church. I think I would have liked to have been a part of that congregation; they sound like my kind of people.

Unfortunately, John Murray Spear was forced to leave New Bedford in 1841 as a direct result of his abolitionist activities. Sometime in the summer of 1841, a southern slave-holder traveled to New Bedford accompanied by an 18 year old slave named Lucy Faggins. Under an 1836 law, Lucy Faggins technically became free the moment she stepped onto Massachusetts soil. So Rev. Thomas James, minister of the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church, and some other members of the New Bedford Anti-Slavery Society went and attempted to tell her that she was free. Then James and John Murray Spear took out a writ of habeus corpus, with the claim that Lucy Faggins was being unlawfully restrained by her master. The case ended well for Faggins, who achieved her freedom; but it ended badly for John Murray Spear. Susan Taber, who lived in New Bedford at that time, wrote about how once Lucy Faggins had been freed, the pro-slavery faction in New Bedford became determined to ruin John Murray Spear — they threatened Spear with arrest and prosecution, and made his life so difficult that he had to resign his pulpit here and move to the Universalist church in Weymouth. So ended a glorious ministry for First Universalist Church in New Bedford.

After he left New Bedford, Spear continued to work hard for the abolition of slavery. By 1844, Spear was sharing the lecture stage with Frederick Douglass in the “One Hundred Conventions” campaign of the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society. Spear also went on to work with his brother Charles for prison reform. His life embodied the Universalist principle of true egalitarianism.

And so I will end this sermon about John Murray Spear with a quizzical observation: here is a minister from one of our antecedent congregations, a minister who embodied our highest values, and yet his name appears nowhere in this building. We have on our walls here the names of many lesser ministers, and even the names of one or two forgettable ministers. But I would suggest that the story of John Murray Spear as I have told it this morning offers us at least two splendid opportunities as we approach the celebration of the 300th anniversary of the founding of First Unitarian. We could think about how we might celebrate John Murray Spear and the other ministers of First Universalist Church. And we could think about how we might celebrate the fact that Nathan Johnson was an early African American member of First Universalist. I don’t quite know how we will make use of these opportunities. Will we try to get the names of First Universalist’s ministers on the walls of this sanctuary? Will we name one of our rooms after Nathan Johnson? I don’t know how to answer that, but I do know that this congregation is able to come up with amazingly creative ways to take advantage of opportunities like these.

Universalism for Such a Time as This

This sermon was preached by Rev. Dan Harper at First Unitarian Church in New Bedford. As usual, the sermon below is a reading text. The actual sermon as preached contained ad libs, interjections, and other improvisation. Sermon copyright (c) 2007 Daniel Harper.


The first reading comes from “Treatise on Atonement,” written in 1805 by the Universalist minister and theologian Hosea Ballou. Ballou visited New Bedford in the late 1820’s, and his preaching led to the establishment of First Universalist Church, which merged with this congregation in 1930. In arguing for the truth of the doctrine of universal salvation, Ballou wrote:

“I would argue again, from a reasonable idea, admitted by all, namely, that mankind, in their moral existence, originated in God. Why, then, do we deny his final assimilation with the fountain from whence he sprang? The streams and rivulets which water the hill-country run in every direction, as the make of land occasions. They are stained with various mines and soils through which they pass; but at last they find their entrance into the ocean, where their different courses are at an end, and they are tempered like the fountain which receives them. Though man, at present, forms an aspect similar to the waters in their various courses, yet, in the end of his race, I hope he will enjoy an union with his God, and with his fellows.”

[Treatise on Atonement, 3rd edition, 3.iii.]


The second reading this morning comes from the book “Foundations of Faith,” by the Universalist minister and theologian Albert Zeigler, published in 1959.

“The power of traditional Universalism was that, in its teaching of universal salvation, it spoke to every man of his infinite value. As the ancient Hebrew saw himself to be of divine importance, rescued and chosen by God; as the orthodox Christian found his eternal significance in the sacrifice of the Son of God for his welfare; so the Universalist saw his and all men’s divine stature and destiny in the unfailing love of God. If [the phrase] ‘universal salvation’ does not today carry that message to us, we must find another way to sing the great gospel that every person and what he does and how he does it is of ultimate concern, of infinite significance.”


We call ourselves “Unitarian Universalists,” a cumbersome name that came about in 1961 when the American Unitarian Association merged with the Universalist Church of America. These days, many of us leave off the second half of our name — instead of saying “Unitarian Universalist,” we just shorten our name to “Unitarian.” We call ourselves “Unitarian” not just because it’s a shorter name, but also because some of the old Universalist ideas seem thoroughly outdated.

Take, for example, the idea of universal salvation — the idea for which Universalism was originally named. Back in the 18th C., most people living in British North America, later the United States of America, believed that if you were good you’d get to go to heaven when you died, but if you were bad, you’d spend all eternity in the torments of hell after you died. But in the middle part of the 18th C., a few radical preachers in North America began to question the doctrine of eternal punishment for sin. These radical preachers, people like George DeBenneville in Philadelphia and Caleb Rich in Massachusetts began to teach that God is loving, and therefore God would not condemn anyone to eternal torment; they said that everyone gets to go to heaven. In short, they preached the idea of universal salvation, that everyone gets saved.

When the Universalist preacher John Murray arrived in the New World in 1770, this radical new idea began to spread more widely British North America. John Murray preached about universal salvation through the mid-Atlantic states and New England, greatly raising the profile of the emerging movement.

Murray and other early Universalist preachers faced ridicule and scorn for daring to preach that everyone would be saved. The more orthodox Christians believed you had to threaten people with hell and damnation to get them to behave well; they said that Universalists would destroy society be teaching that hell doesn’t exist — for if the people didn’t believe in hell, then they would indulge themselves in evil and sinful behavior. To which the Universalists drily replied that there was plenty of evil and sinful behavior in spite of the threat of hell, and they pointed out that in general Universalists behaved better, or at least no worse, than the rest of society. The early Universalists were great debaters; they had to be; for wherever they tried to start a new Universalist church, the orthodox Christians would challenge them to a debate.

On one memorable occasion, John Murray was telling a crowd about Universalism when his opponents began throwing stones in the windows. In his autobiography, Murray later recalled, “At length a large rugged stone, weighing about a pound and a half, was forcibly thrown in at the window behind my back; it missed me. Had it sped as it was aimed, it must have killed me. Lifting it up, and waving it in the view of the people, I observed: This argument is solid and weighty, but it is neither rational nor convincing.”

The Universalist movement in America reached its peak in the middle of the 19th C. At one time, it had perhaps the fifth largest membership of any denomination in the United States. But then a funny thing happened. The other Protestant churches began to leave behind the idea of hell. The other Protestant ministers stopped preaching hellfire and damnation, at least, in the larger, more powerful denominations. After 80 or 90 years of debating, the Universalists basically won the debate, and it killed them.

Because of this, because there wasn’t much to distinguish Universalism from other mainstream Protestant denominations, Universalism began a long, slow decline. The denomination declined greatly in power and influence, and in the 1930’s began cooperating more and more with the Unitarians, until finally in 1961 the Unitarian and the Universalist denominations merged.

By the time of that 1961 merger that created the Unitarian Universalist Association, Universalism seemed almost irrelevant. In 1961, the big theological debates were about the death of God, not about hell and damnation. By 1961, probably half of all Universalists were humanists and didn’t believe in God anyway, let alone believe in damnation or salvation. To many Universalists, Universalism seemed little more than a pleasant tradition, a traditional holdover from times long past, charming but more than a little antiquated. Maybe they felt that the belief in hell was disappearing.

But here we are 46 years later, and belief in hell has not disappeared. In a Gallup Poll conducted in May, 2007, 69% of the American population reported that they believe in hell. The current president of the United States and many of our other elected representatives believe in hell, and believe in damnation. If these people believe in hell, that says to me that they believe in a God who is vengeful enough to condemn some human souls to eternal misery and torment. These are people who believe in the power of vengeance, who may believe that vengeance is as acceptable as diplomacy, and who may believe that vengeance is stronger than love and compassion. I sometimes wonder if such beliefs have an influence on foreign policy decisions — I suspect they do have an influence, although it seems to be an indirect influence, an unconscious influence.

And while I cannot prove it, I suspect the widespread belief in hell affects domestic policy decisions as well. Someone who believes in hell believes that some people are disposable. Hell, by definition, is a place where God disposes of some non-trivial number of souls, implying that at least some souls are disposable. If your religion tells you that some people are disposable, I would tend to think that such a belief could influence your decisions regarding domestic policy.

But because I don’t believe in hell myself, I have to admit that I don’t know how such a belief would affect a person’s actions. The real point is that hell has made a come-back in popular culture in the United States. Therefore, I believe it is time for us to dust off our old Universalist beliefs, look them over, and see what parts of Universalism could be useful to us in such a time as this.

Let us begin be stating Universalist beliefs in positive terms. Instead of saying that Universalists don’t believe in hell and eternal damnation, let us state what it is that Universalists believe in. And we may wish to use different language to state our beliefs positively. In 1959, Albert Ziegler said that if the phrase “universal salvation” no longer has much meaning for us, we need to find another way of saying the same thing. With that in mind, let me offer three positive statements of Universalist belief, and then apply them to a current issue in our community.

Albert Ziegler gave one positive statement of Universalist beliefs when he said, “The power of traditional Universalism was that, in its teaching of universal salvation, it spoke to every man of his infinite value.” Today, we would remove the gender-specific language, saying that Universalism speaks to every person, to all people, of their infinite value. A second statement of Universalist beliefs may be found among the so-called seven principles of Unitarian Universalism, the principle that states that we affirm and promote the inherent worth and dignity of all persons. We could put these two statements together, saying: Each and every person is of infinite value, and so we affirm and promote the inherent worth and dignity of all persons. There are no disposable human beings.

And here’s a third way of restating and updating traditional Universalist beliefs: all human beings share in the same final destiny. We heard one statement of that in the first reading this morning. Originally, the phrase “final destiny” was meant to refer to heaven, or final union with God. Today, when we are worrying about the effects of global climate change, when the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists has set its Doomsday Clock a little closer to midnight, when we are engaged in a war that seems to be out of control — today, the term “final destiny” may take on a somewhat different meaning. If our species is going to survive, we had better figure out how to treat each other, and treat the earth, better. As the saying goes, we had better all hang together, or we will all hang separately.

Now let’s apply these issues to a current issue in our community, an issue that has particular relevance to our church. Our church bylaws specifically state that we will not discriminate against persons because of their gender, race, national origin, class, sexual orientation, physical ability. And each week when I read the welcoming words before our worship service, I say, “Here at First Unitarian, we value our differences of age, gender, race, national origin, class, sexual orientation, physical ability, and theology.” On one level, this is simply another way of saying that we value the inherent worth and dignity of all persons. But on a deeper level, this is a pretty radical statement.

Our community, the greater New Bedford region, is a community that, on the surface, is relatively peaceful and tolerant. But like much of New England, there are deep divisions between the people who live in our community. We are divided by age — our youth are divided from older people, sometimes in very public and acrimonious arguments; our elders are often divided from younger people. We are divided by race — while we don’t have much outright racial violence, you can still find lots of racial division and racial discrimination in our community. We are divided by national origin — with the current uncertainty around immigration, and the recent raid at the Michael Bianco plant, our community is divided by national origin. We are deeply divided by class — with physical divisions between wealthy and not-so-wealthy neighborhoods, and psychic divisions because lower income people feel politically voiceless.

I could go on, but you get the point: we have some significant divisions in our community. I hasten to assure you that our community is fairly peaceful, certainly more peaceful than some other cities in Massachusetts. And I hasten to assure you that we a relatively tolerant community; compared to much of the United States, we are quite tolerant indeed. So compared to the rest of the world, you could truthfully say that we’re doing quite well.

And within our church, I think we manage to do better than even the surrounding community. Compared to the surrounding community, First Unitarian is a relatively tolerant place. No, we’re not perfect — far from it — but compared to the rest of the world, you could truthfully say that we’re a fairly tolerant and welcoming place.

But as a Universalist, I want to go further than that. If our community is relatively tolerant compared to the rest of the world, why not take it to the next level? If our church is relatively tolerant compared to our community, why not take it to the next level? We may be good, but surely we can be better. As a Universalist, I am an incurable optimist. I know every person has inherent worth and dignity, and I want to try to live my life as if that’s really true. And I want to hold this up as an ideal for the whole community.

I may be an optimist, but I also want to know how we could make this idea into reality. Speaking realistically, I know we’re not going to completely erase racism, sexism, ageism, homophobia, ableism, or other forms of discrimination in the greater New Bedford area. Nor are we going to completely erase all discrimination within our own church.

Yet I do believe it is possible for us to get better at acting as if each and every person has inherent worth and dignity. I don’t have any final answers, but I believe it would be helpful to talk more openly about the divisions that do exist in the surrounding community. Not that we should indulge ourselves in guilt and shame, for in my experience guilt and shame are not particularly effective ways to change people’s behavior. But we do need to be able to talk openly about continuing racism in our community — discrimination such as racism, sexism, homophobia, discrimination based on economic status, and so on. Thus a key skill for us to practice will be to listen deeply and carefully to one another — for it is impossible someone to talk openly unless the rest of us listen deeply and openly.

I believe that we have to spend more time talking about and examining our religious and theological reasons for ending discrimination. We have some compelling religious reasons to do away with discrimination, not just from our Universalist side, but also from our Unitarian side. I believe, too, that we have to be able to clearly state, in religious terms, why we believe each person has inherent worth and dignity. Once we can talk about our faith, once we can clearly articulate what we value and who we are, it is but a few short steps to living out our values in day-to-day life.

I believe that in this church we have to act always as if all people are valuable. Perhaps this is one of the first steps we can take towards living out our religious beliefs:– to practice living out our religious beliefs here in a relatively safe church community. Racism and sexism and homophobia and classism have been around for centuries, and we’d be naive to think we can put an end to them tomorrow. But as a first step, perhaps we can put an end to them for a couple of hours each Sunday, while we’re here at church.

And so we wind up facing the age-old question: How do we live out our deeply-held beliefs? How do we live out our most cherished values? As you would expect, I don’t have any firm and final pronouncements to offer — no person can tell person exactly how to live out his or her values. But I raise this as an important issue, a key issue for us. And I do believe that the religious insights of Universalism have much to offer us. We know that all persons are of equal value, we know that there are no disposable human beings, we know that all human beings share in the same final destination. Once we are clear about those religious values, all we have to do is figure out how to act upon them.