Monthly Archives: May 2009

Broken Rule

Will Shetterly posted a link to “13 Tips For Actually Getting Some Writing Done.” So I had to go read it.

Here’s the rule I consistently break:

“3. Don’t binge on writing. Staying up all night, not leaving your house for days, abandoning all other priorities in your life — these habits lead to burn-out.”

OK, I don’t stay up all night, and I do leave the house, but I have been putting in way too much time on this book project I’m trying to finish. Thankfully, it’s almost done. It will be done by Friday. Then I will get back to normal. Whatever “normal” is.

William Jackson and the Fugitive Slave Law

Yeah, I know I’m posting too much about Rev. William Jackson, and some of you will be bored with this post. But there’s a few of us who think Jackson is one of the most interesting people who intersected with mid-19th C. Unitarianism, so I’m going to rick one more post.

When the Fugitive Slave Law was enacted in 1850, Jackson was minister of a Baptist church in Philadelphia. He almost immediately committed civil disobedience, and here’s how told the story years later:

“William Taylor was the first fugitive slave that had been arrested following the passage of this law. Recognizing the ‘Higher Law’ as being in force by Divine Authority and being superior to the Decree of a wicked Judge, and feeling a kindred sympathy with my brother as being bound with him, I felt morally and religiously impelled to strike for his freedom. The whole community had been thrown into the most terrible excitement over the arrest of Tayloer, the fugitive slave. Whereupon I felt myself nerved with moral and physical courage to do my duty, and save a brother man from perpetual and cruel bondage. Hence, as the leader of a band of brave men, we went forth and rescued the prisoner from the clutches of the Marshall. We arrayed him in the attire of a woman, and successfully landed him in a few hours on the shores of Canada, where he found shelter and friends in the city of Toronto. As the leader of the rescuing party, I was duly arrested and incarcerated in the city jail.

“On learning of my imprisonment the colored people immediately assembled themselves together in their Churches, like those of old when Peter was imprisoned, where prayer was offered for my deliverance. A party of my friends and the members of my Church had met at the Parsonage… where they fervently invoked the blessing of God upon their imprisoned pastor, and earnestly prayed for his deliverance. Strange as this remarkable interposition of Providence in answer to the prayer may appear to some, I was soon released from the Jail by a writ of Habeas Corpus from Judge [King] obtained through the efforts of the Rev. Edgar [Levy] of the First Baptist Church, West Philadelphia, and [William W.] Keene and [Major] James M. Linnard, and presented to my people at the very time they were praying for my deliverance. It was certainly the most remarkable coincidence, how God in his mercy seemed to manifest himself in my behalf by putting it in to the hearts of these men to use every effort, at this unusual hour of the night, to secure my release from prison. Though it had been indicated by the officer at the time of my arrest that I should try to get bail, I surrendered myself up at once and made no effort in that direction, for I regarded it as no disgrace to be arrested and imprisoned under this infamous and inhuman law, or for advising my fellow men ‘that if they would be free themselves they must first strike the blow.’  ”

I like the fact that Jackson refused to get bail. It gives a good measure of the man.

All posts on William Jackson.

More on Rev. William Jackson

Two days ago, I presented some primary source material on the first African American Unitarian minister, Rev. William Jackson of New Bedford. Today I turned up another primary source that tells about Rev. William Jackson’s appearance before the Autumnal Convention of the American Unitarian Association in October, 1860. The following report is excerpted from a much longer report published in the New Bedford Evening Standard for 11 October 1860, p. 2, and offers significant new information:

Rev. Mr. Jackson, pastor of the Salem Baptist church (colored) [sic] of this city, addressed the Convention saying that he subscribed entirely to the doctrines advanced in the discourses which had been delivered before the body. He avowed himself as a convert to the doctrines of liberal Christianity [i.e., Unitarianism], and should endeavor in the future to advocate those sentiments from his pulpit.

Rev. Mr. Potter, of this city, bore testimony to the character and integrity of Mr. Jackson. He suggested that a collection be taken up in aid of Mr. J’s church, which was somewhat in debt.

The report of the Committee upon the Address to the Unitarians of England was taken from the table [this report was on the subject of antislavery efforts in the U.S.], and after a slight modification it was accepted.

The collection taken up yesterday in aid of Rev. Messrs. Foster and Brown, of Kansas, was announced to be $300; and that in aid of Mr. Jackson’s church to be $49.46.

Here’s the new information:

  • Jackson is reported as saying he listened to the proceedings of the Autumnal Convention, and that he agreed with Unitarian thought.
  • Jackson is reported as saying that he was a “convert” to Unitarianism. Unlike the other account, he does not state that he was converted during the Convention; there is no time attached to his conversion.
  • Jackson pledges to preach Unitarian thought from his own pulpit in the future.
  • According to this report, Jackson did not ask for money himself. Instead, it was William J. Potter, the minister of the existing Unitarian church in the city (then called First Congregational Society; the church in which the Convention met) who asked the Convention to take up a collection to aid Jackson’s church.
  • A more precise amount is is given for the proceeds of the collection for Jackson.
  • There is no mention of any additional money collected, as in the other primary source, although that might be due to the fact that such additional collection might have taken place after the reporter left to write the story.

Like the other primary source, this source contains no report of any welcome from the gathered members of the American Unitarian Association.

UU joke

So this joke was originally about two rabbis. With some tweaking, it can be a joke about Unitarian Universalists.

These two old Unitarian Universalists had been arguing for years about religion. They were both agnostics, and they would meet once a week, sit on a park bench, and go over the arguments for and against God. They had been meeting like this for fifty years, they had never made any progress in their arguments, but still they kept at it.

Finally, God got sick of hearing these two argue. So one week, God appears in front of their park bench and says, “I can tell you the one logically valid argument for God’s existence, because I’m God.”

“Look, pal,” says one of the old Unitarian Universalists, “I don’t care who you are, go away and don’t spoil our fun.”

Research into the first African American Unitarian minister

Sometimes when you’re doing research, you have to go back to primary sources. I’ve been researching Rev. William Jackson, an African American minister, who had charge of the Salem Baptist Church in New Bedford from 1858-1870. Jackson was an important figure in the history of African American antislavery activism here in New Bedford, which is why I first started paying attention to him. He was also the first known African American minister to proclaim himself a Unitarian to the American Unitarian Association (AUA), and today we would say that he was treated badly by the AUA. But just what do we mean when we say he was treated badly? Here’s what Mark Morrison-Reed says in his superb study Black Pioneers in a White Denomination:

Egbert Ethelred Brown wasn’t the first black minister to proclaim himself a Unitarian and suffer because of it. Our earliest opportunity to spread Unitarianism into the black community came in 1860 when a Rev. Mr. Jackson of New bedford presented himself to the Autumnal Convention of the American Unitarian Association and testified to his conversion to Unitarianism. He went on and “stated the needs of his church, and the Unitarians took a collection, which totaled $49. A few dollars were added to this amount and he was sent on his way.” Douglas Stange reports this happening in his book Patterns of Antislavery among American Unitarians, 1831-1860, and concludes, “No discussion, no welcome, no expression of praise and satisfaction was uttered, that the Unitarian gospel had reach the ‘colored’.” [Mark Morrison-Reed, Black Pioneers in a White Denomination, 3rd ed., Boston: Skinner House, 1994, pp. 183-184.]

So I got Stange’s book. Morrison-Reed is quoting directly from Stange; that is to say, Morrison-Reed accepts Stange’s interpretations of the primary source materials which Stange consulted. This is perfectly adequate for Morrison-Reed’s purposes; Jackson is really a side issue for his book. But I wanted to read Stange, and here’s what he has to say about this event:

But what happened when a white church had the opportunity to wait upon a black [person]? This opportunity actually occurred at the Autumnal Convention in New Bedford in 1860. A Reverend Mr. Jackson, the “colored minister of New Bedford,” intruded upon the Convention to testify to his conversion to Unitarianism. Since he was perhaps the “only colored minister” (and indeed the first black Unitarian minister in America), he requested their kind and patient attention. After he had stated the needs of his church, the Unitarians took a collection, which totaled $49. A few dollars were added to this amount and Mr. Jackson was sent on his way. No discussion, no welcome, no expression of praise and satisfaction was uttered, that the Unitarian gospel had reached the “colored.” In truth, the antislavery forces had lost the battle, perhaps because many of them had never begun to wage it. [Douglas Stange, Patterns of Antislavery among American Unitarians, 1831-1860, Rutherford, New Jersey: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1977, pp. 226-227.]

But here again, Jackson is just a side issue, and Stange actually tells me very little about Jackson (and for what it’s worth, $49 would be about $1,100 in 2007 dollars). So I decided to go back to the primary source material. Stange cites the 20 October 1860 number of the Christian Inquirer, a Unitarian newspaper of the day. The first two pages of the 20 October 1860 issue are pretty much filled up by the long story on the Autumnal Convention. I read through most of it, to get a flavor of the convention. Jackson doesn’t appear until the last day of the three-day convention. To give you a flavor of what the convention was like, here’s what the Christian Inquirer says about the two speakers who precede Jackson, followed by the actual report of Jackson’s appearance:

Rev. Charles Lowe thought that we now had got upon something practical. We are in the way to do something for our [Unitarian] cause. We have made, he thought, a mistake hitherto in our methods of appeal. We have forgotten those among the people who could do but little, and resorted principally to the rich to obtain what we want. This is not the way other sects do, and it is not the way we ought to do. They collect from all, and even if the sums are small, these little rivulets swell the general stream, and a vast volume is poured forth at last. Let us ask all to give; the two mites are as acceptable as well as the rich men’s offerings.

Rev. Alfred P. Putnam, of Roxbury, thought that to do what is desirable we must cultivate the missionary spirit. Other Christian bodies had their monthly missionary meetings. They thus cultivated the spirit of that work. In the late missionary meetings in Boston, what was especially noteworthy was that the action of missions was reflex upon the churches themselves. We should gain a like good from the establishment of such monthly concerts for missions. By such a method of action an unwonted interest might be awakened over the entire Christian body.

Rev. Mr. Jackson, the colored minister of New Bedford, had been converted [to Unitarianism]. He was converted yesterday by the essay. He should preach the Broad Church. He had learned that the religion of Jesus was universal, and gave all the right and privilege of thinking for themselves. As he was perhaps the only colored Unitarian minister, he hoped they would hear from him patiently. He then presented the claims of his church, which was in debt, and desired that some aid might be afforded him to discharge this debt. After some further remarks, a contribution of $49 was taken up, to which more was afterwards added to lift the debt on Mr. Jackson’s church. [Christian Inquirer, 20 October 1860, p. 2.]

The irony is too much: they’re going on about “missionary” work, and then someone pops up to give them a chance to do “missionary” work in the African American community, and they completely drop the ball. So Stange’s interpretation is probably true, but a more nuanced interpretation seems possible.

Now for some background information that might lead to a more nuanced interpretation of the AUA’s treatment of the very first African American Unitarian minister, which I’ll include below the fold.

Continue reading

Spring watch

Today, Memorial Day, is the unofficial first day of summer. We walked over to Fort Phoenix at about five o’clock this afternoon under a cloudless sky, with cool air and a brisk breeze from the northwest. There were a two or three dozen people fishing along the hurricane barrier. Three children in swim suits played along the small sandy beach between the hurricane barrier and the rocks at the base of Fort Phoenix. As usual in the New Bedford area, we saw skin colors from pale white (me) to quite dark, and everything in between; we heard at least three different languages. There were families with children, and groups of elders. It wasn’t crowded by any means, but there were more people walking around Fort Phoenix than I remember seeing before.

When we walk over to Fort Phoenix in the winter time, sometimes we’ll only see one or two other people — so even though the cool air and brisk breeze felt like late spring, it felt like summer with all those people walking around outdoors. I won’t say that spring is over yet, but it’s getting close.


I just got back from visiting a friend in Washington, D.C. Flowers are in bloom everywhere in D.C., it was warm, and the air was full of pollen. Yet I had relatively few problems with allergies.

Then I got back to New Bedford, where it is cool, and not so many things are in bloom. And my allergies got much worse. My allergies have never been worse than while living in New Bedford. I’ve decided that my body does not like the damp, moist climate that you get living right next to the ocean; nor does it like the inevitable mold that you get in the old buildings that make up New Bedford.

I will miss many things about New Bedford when we leave here at the end of July, but I will not miss the allergens.

Spring watch

I went for a walk just before sunset today: a perfect spring evening, blue sky with a few clouds moving in, scent of lilacs in the air, the trees covered with new leaves.

Partway across the bridge to Pope’s Island there was a juvenile gull on the sidewalk. I thought it must be freshly dead because its eyes had been picked out yet; but then it moved its head slightly when I walked past it. Juvenile gulls are hard to identify, but I’d guess this was a first-year Greater Black-backed Gull.

It was still there when I walked back home. Again, it barely moved its head, cringing slightly, when I walked past. It must be in poor health if it sits on the edge of a sidewalk along a well-traveled four-lane road, and doesn’t even get up to walk away when a human approaches it. They say eighty percent of gulls die within a year of being born, and I’d say that gull was right on track for being part of that eighty percent.

Writing project

I managed to get myself involved in a big writing project. This project has been sucking up all my free time. Some people would say that this project is a waste of my time, since hardly anyone will read it once it’s done. There are three reasons why hardly anyone will read this writing project:

(1) This writing project is a book of sermons. People don’t read sermons any more, except maybe seminarians, and of course those high school students who have to read Jonathan Edwards’s sermon about dropping spiders into a fire.

(2) Worse yet, all these sermons are about the history of Unitarians and Universalists in New Bedford. No one wants to read sermons about New Bedford Unitarians and Universalists, except a dozen or so New Bedford Unitarian Universalists.

(3) Worst of all, a potential reader will have to pay for these sermons. (Church budgets being what they are, our church can’t afford to print them in-house.) I will publish them on and sell them at cost, but most people who read sermons are used to having churches give them away for free.

When I am feeling enthusiastic, I think maybe a dozen people might buy this book. Then I remember that these are sermons with footnotes (yes, I have gone back and footnoted everything), and then I think maybe five people will buy this book, and two of those people will be me.

So why am I doing this? Why am I spending hours and hours writing, and rewriting, and fact-checking, and footnoting, and proofreading? Because it’s fun, that’s why. Some people participate in National Novel Writing Month, and they write novels that no one will ever read. Me, I like to write non-fiction, and do footnotes and a bibliography. Everyone needs a hobby, and so what if some of us have a hobby that involves creating books that no one will ever read.