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.

Moses and the Underground Railroad

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) 2008 Daniel Harper.


The first reading is from the Torah, the book of Deuteronomy, chapter 34 in its entirety:

“Then Moses went up from the plains of Moab to Mount Nebo, to the top of Pisgah, which is opposite Jericho, and the Lord showed him the whole land: Gilead as far as Dan, all Naphtali, the land of Ephraim and Manasseh, all the land of Judah as far as the Western Sea, the Negeb, and the Plain—that is, the valley of Jericho, the city of palm trees—as far as Zoar. The Lord said to him, ‘This is the land of which I swore to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, saying, “I will give it to your descendants”; I have let you see it with your eyes, but you shall not cross over there.’ Then Moses, the servant of the Lord, died there in the land of Moab, at the Lord’s command. He was buried in a valley in the land of Moab, opposite Beth-peor, but no one knows his burial place to this day. Moses was one hundred and twenty years old when he died; his sight was unimpaired and his vigour had not abated. The Israelites wept for Moses in the plains of Moab for thirty days; then the period of mourning for Moses was ended.

“Joshua son of Nun was full of the spirit of wisdom, because Moses had laid his hands on him; and the Israelites obeyed him, doing as the Lord had commanded Moses.

“Never since has there arisen a prophet in Israel like Moses, whom the Lord knew face to face. He was unequalled for all the signs and wonders that the Lord sent him to perform in the land of Egypt, against Pharaoh and all his servants and his entire land, and for all the mighty deeds and all the terrifying displays of power that Moses performed in the sight of all Israel.”


The second reading is from an article written by William L. Van Deburg, a professor of history and African American studies at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. The article is titled, “Frederick Douglass: Maryland Slave to Religious Liberal”:

“It would be a mistake to portray [Frederick] Douglass as a piously conservative Christian. His biographers have correctly noted that he was not orthodox in his doctrine. His belief that religion should be used as an instrument for social reconstruction led him to despise the passive attitude shown by many Negro ministers.

“As he progressed in his abolitionist career, Douglass was influenced by those champions of Reason, Transcendentalism, and Unitarianism whose doctrines he had condemned. In and 1848 essay, he noted that the destiny of the Negro race was committed to human hands. God was not wholly responsible for freeing those in bondage. By 1853, he was willing to criticize Henry Ward Beecher’s reliance on God to end slavery. If Beecher had been a slave, Douglass noted, he would have been ‘whipped … out of his willingness’ to wait for the power of Christian faith to break his chains.

“Increasingly, enlightenment terminology crept into Douglass’s writings and speeches. Negroes were adjudged to be ‘free by the laws of nature.’

“The slaves’ claim to freedom was ‘backed up by all the ties of nature, and nature’s God.’ Man’s [sic] right to liberty was self-evident since ‘the voices of nature, of conscience, of reason, and of revelation, proclaim it as the right of all rights.’…

“Douglass was also affected by the words of transcendentalist preacher Theodore Parker. The [Unitarian] minister’s ideas on the perfectibility of man [sic] and the sufficiency of natural religion were eventually incorporated in the abolitionist’s epistemology. In 1854, Douglass noted, ‘I heard Theodore Parker last Sabbath. No man preaches more truth than this eloquent man, this astute philosopher’.”

[in By These Hands: A Documentary History of African American Humanism, ed. Anthony Pinn (New York: NYU Press, 2001), pp. 89-90.]


The great old story of Moses — the story of how Moses led the Hebrew people up out of Egypt, up out of slavery, and on to the promised land, a land of milk and honey — is one of the most inspiring stories in the Bible. It is a story that has inspired oppressed peoples everywhere. And it is a story that has troubled the oppressors mightily, to the point where some American slave owners made special Bibles for their slaves by literally cutting out the book of Exodus, so as not to give their slaves any ideas that the Christian religion promoted freedom. The story of Exodus has been central to the African American church tradition; it is a story that inspired people like Martin Luther King. Exodus is a story that today continues to inspire freedom-loving people around the world:– from the radical Christians in Latin America who engage in liberation theology, to the members of the oppressed Dalit caste in India.

What a powerful story Exodus is! The Hebrews went down to Egypt; and over time Pharaoh, the king of the Egyptians, enslaved them. Then a powerful Hebrew leader rose up, a man named Moses — of course, we now realize that Moses’s sister Miriam was just as important as Moses in leading the Hebrews to freedom, it’s just that she mostly got written out of the Bible, but I digress — anyway, a powerful Hebrew leader rose up, a man named Moses. After a series of personal trials and tribulations, the slave Moses rose to a position of power and influence within the Pharaoh’s court. And then a day came when Moses’s God, the God of Israel, appeared to him and said it was time for the Hebrew people to go free. Naturally, Pharaoah didn’t want the Hebrew people to go free; he wanted to keep his slaves; but with the help of the God of Israel, Moses unleashed a series of disasters on Pharoah and on Egypt. After suffering ten increasingly horrible disasters, Pharoah at last said that the Hebrews could go free.

And so the Hebrew people packed up and left Egypt. Almost before they were out of sight, Pharaoh regretted his rashness, freeing his slaves!, and he sent his army out to bring them back. The Egyptian army pursued the Hebrew people to the edge of the Red Sea. Moses and his people were trapped between the Egyptian army and the sea, and just when it appeared that all was lost, the God of Israel opened a path for them across the sea — and then drowned the pursuing Egyptian army.

So far, the God of Israel comes across as pretty remarkable:– a God who inflicts disasters on your enemies, up to and including drowning pursuing armies. If you were one of the hundreds of thousands of enslaved Africans in the United States in the early 19th century, the God of Israel might be your kind of god, a god you would want to have on your side:– a god who could lead you out of the horrors of the life you were in; a god who could get you across the Ohio River while drowning your pursuers behind you; a god who was unequivocally on the side of the oppressed peoples of this world.

You will notice that I said, the God of Israel might be the kind of God you want to have on your side. If you read the story of Exodus carefully, you might begin to question certain episodes in that story. Above all, you might have question what happens after God leads Moses and the Hebrew people out of slavery in Egypt. Above all, you might question those forty years God has them wandering about in the wilderness.

Now it is true that many escaping slaves who followed the Underground Railroad to freedom had their own versions of wandering in the wilderness. Harriet Jacobs, in her book Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, tells how she escaped from her master, but then had to live for seven long years in a tiny attic over her grandmother’s house, which she describes as follows: “A small shed had been added to my grandmother’s house years ago. Some boards were laid across the supports at the top, and between these boards and the roof was a very small attic, never occupied by anything but rats and mice. The attic was only nine feet long and seven wide. The highest point was three feet high. There was no admission for either light or air.” Jacobs tells how stifling hot this attic became in the summer, how cold in the winter;– you could say it was her own version of the wandering in the wilderness.

Thus the story of Exodus might help provide meaning to the possible delays and the inevitable dangers that an escaping slave might encounter. And yet, you can’t get around the fact that Moses never made it to the Promised Land. As we heard in the first reading, Moses died before he ever got to freedom; God did not let him get to freedom alive. For someone seeking freedom from oppression, this could be seen as a very serious flaw in the story!

There’s another serious problem with the story of Exodus:– We know perfectly well that it just isn’t that far from Egypt to the Promised Land. The only way it could take you forty years to travel from Egypt across the Sinai Peninsula to the Promised Land of Canaan is if you deliberately went around in circles; or if someone deliberately led you around in circles. Forty years to travel a couple of hundred of miles! — if we only traveled a mile a day, it wouldn’t even take a year to go that distance. Isn’t this the same old thing that oppressed peoples always hear?: “Wait a while, the time isn’t ripe yet.” When you hear that phrase, you can be pretty sure that “wait a while” means “never,” or at least, “not in your lifetime.” Moses lived to be 120 years old, but died before he reached freedom; this is a serious problem with the story of Exodus, a problem that could lead one to question whether the Bible is truly a book of liberation.

Indeed, people like Frederick Douglass began to entertain questions about the orthodox interpretations of the Bible. We heard in the second reading this morning from the distinguished historian William L. Van DeBurg, who tells us that Frederick Douglass drifted further and further from orthodox Christianity over the course of his life. When Douglass first escaped from slavery and came here to New Bedford, he seems to have been fairly close to an orthodox Christian viewpoint. Yes, he hated the blatant hypocrisy exhibited by the some of the Christian slave-owners, enough so that he wrote, “of all the slaveholders with whom I have ever met, religious slaveholders are the worst.” Yet as a slave he had joined a Methodist church in Baltimore, and when he came here to New Bedford he joined an African American Methodist church here; and he was orthodox enough that in his one documented visit to First Universalist Church of New Bedford, he argued forcefully against the heretical doctrine of universal salvation, and he would not join the Universalist church in spite of the fact that his friend and mentor Nathan Johnson was a Universalist.

That was in 1841; yet by 1870, Douglass had drifted far from orthodox Christianity. In a letter he wrote in 1870, reprinted in the anthology By These Hands: A Documentary History of African American Humanism, we discover that Frederick Douglass’s religious journey had taken him far down the path of free thought. Anthony Pinn, who edited By These Hands, points out that by 1870, Douglass had become unwilling “to acknowledge the role of God in the progress of African Americans.” In this 1870 letter, Douglass wrote:

“I have no doubt that the avowal of my liberal opinions will drive many from me who were once my friends and even exclude me from many platforms upon which I was a welcome speaker, but such is the penalty which every man must suffer who admits a new truth into his mind….

“As to my not going far enough, I have to say, that while I am free to follow my convictions wherever they may lead — I deem it wise to avow those which are perfectly formed, clearly defined, and about which I am entirely undisturbed by doubts of any sorts. I bow to no priests either of faith or of unfaith. I claim as against all sorts of people, simply perfect freedom of thought.”

In his typically clear prose, Douglass outlines what might be the guiding mantra for many of Unitarian Universalists today: we follow our convictions wherever they may lead; we deem it wise to avow only those convictions which are well-formed; we bow neither to fundamentalist Christians nor to fundamentalist atheists; and we claim perfect freedom of thought. Douglass tells us that freedom from bondage is necessary but not enough; freedom from racism is necessary but not enough; our thoughts too must be free. We must be free in body; we must be free in society; and we must be free in the realm of thought, even if that leads us away from orthodox religion.

The received wisdom has long been that all African Americans, Frederick Douglass included, belong to the Black Church. Through careful research, the African American humanist theologian Anthony Pinn has conclusively proved that there is a strong strain of humanist religious expression in African American life, going back beyond Frederick Douglass at least into the middle 19th century.

Yes, the Black Church has been a key institution in African American life. As Frederick Douglass and other African Americans over the last 150 years have known, the Black Church is one of the key institutions where African Americans could join together in voluntary association in order to have some influence in the wider world. Yet Anthony Pinn has documented how important the humanist strain of thought has been to African Americans. For example, Pinn points out that the anonymous men and women who composed blues songs felt no need to inject God into their songs; the blues are humanist songs, where human beings face life without reliance on the supernatural intervention of a divine being. In many other examples, Pinn documents humanist thought in African Americans from the slave days down through the 20th century.

Why should there be such a strong strain of humanist thought, or at least non-theistic thought, among African Americans? Simply put, for some people the existence of slavery in the United States serves as an acid test for Christian belief systems in the United States. How could a God who is supposed to be a loving God allow the atrocity of chattel slavery to exist? How could a God who is supposed to love all human beings equally allow the evils of racism to permeate every aspect of our culture, even down to this very day? You probably know all the orthodox Christian justifications: that we human beings are miserable sinners who have messed up the world so badly that things like slavery can exist, and it will only be through God that we can be rid of such evils; probably after we die and go to heaven, if indeed we are allowed to be one of the ones who gets to go to heaven. You may even know some of the arguments of black liberation theology: James Cone has famously said that Jesus is black, and other African American Christian theologians have pointed out that it is white Christianity, not God, that is to blame.

But for some people — indeed, for quite a few people of all races — these justifications sound inadequate. For these people, there is too big a gap between the stated moral ideals of orthodox Christianity and the realities of slavery, and the realities of racism. These are the people who turn away from American Christianity: some, like Malcom X, turn to non-Christian religions like Islam; but for many more, the best alternative is humanism or non-theism, that is: the best alternative is to question belief in God.

And there are many who give up on organized religion altogether; but I don’t think that’s the right approach. Giving up doesn’t accomplish anything. Only half of all United States citizens vote — they have given up on participating in the political process — but that accomplishes less than nothing, because all that means is that someone else is going to make your decisions for you. Passivity is rarely a good solution to any problem. Similarly, we see many people who have given up on organized religion; they let the fundamentalist Christians take over the churches, and they let money-grubbing exploiters take over the New Age religious movements, and they let the cults and the Scientologists take over everything else.

Thus I believe with all my heart that there is a place for a religious movement which tells people, not how they might get into heaven later, but rather how we might all get a little bit of heaven into this world right now. This, I believe, is where Moses went wrong. He put too much emphasis on the idea that he would get to go to heaven after he died; which was fine for him I suppose; but if he had paid more attention to getting his people into the Promised Land now, instead of himself into heaven later, all his people could have crossed the desert in six or seven months. I don’t believe that Moses needed to choose between heaven and the Promised Land; he could have had both. The African Americans who escaped slavery on the Underground Railroad to the Promised Land of New Bedford, or one of the other safe havens for escaped slaves: they discovered that if they could snatch an opportunity to ride on the Underground Railroad, they could get to the Promised Land of freedom in their own lifetime, and still be ready to get to heaven after they died.

William R. Jones, an African American and a Unitarian Universalist theologian, wrote an essay back in 1974 in which he showed that the biggest religious difference of opinion is not between people who believe in God, and people who disbelieve in God. The biggest religious difference of opinion is between those people who say trust in God for everything and do nothing for yourself on the one hand; and on the other hand those people who say whether or not you believe in God it is up to us human beings to create justice and righteousness here and now, in this present world.

Moses started out as the second kind of person — he did, after all, get the Hebrews out of Egypt, and that took some doing. But in that forty-year trek across the Sinai Peninsula, it seems to me that Moses wound up trusting too much in God to the point where he didn’t do enough for himself or the Hebrew people.

Frederick Douglass was always that second kind of person. He started out life with a deep and sincere belief in God; but he didn’t let that belief keep him from taking a ride on the Underground Railroad. Later in life, he came to have deep questions about the orthodox Christian God; but he continued to do his best to create justice and righteousness here and now, in his present world.

Here in our church, we don’t care whether you believe in God or not; personally, I find myself like Frederick Douglass, not willing either to avow or disavow a belief in God; like Douglass, “I bow to no priests either of faith or of unfaith.”

Here in this church, it is not your belief or disbelief in God which matter; what matter is whether you and I, like Frederick Douglass, will take it upon ourselves to create justice and righteousness here and now, in this present world.