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.

  • Rev. William Jackson started the Salem Baptist Church in 1857. Jackson’s congregation bought a building that had just been vacated by a short-lived non-denominational liberal church that had started life in 1845 with a Christian Connection minister, and ended life in 1854 with a Unitarian minister. The people in this liberal church were not nearly so wealthy as the people in the rich Unitarian church on Eighth St.; and their denominational affiliation was somewhat ambiguous (though I claim them as Unitarian).
  • This church building stood on Sixth St., just two blocks down from the Unitarian church on Eighth St. (for those of you who live in New Bedford, it stood where Converse Photo is now, right next to the Dunkin Donuts on Sixth and Union). Since the Autumnal Convention of the AUA was held in the Unitarian Church on Eighth St., all Jackson had to do was walk two blocks up the hill.
  • As an abolitionist and sometime conductor on the Underground Railroad, Jackson probably would have known (at least in passing) the several white Unitarians from the Eighth St. church who were abolitionists. One interesting question is whether Jackson knew Rev. John Weiss, an white abolitionist who had been the Unitarian minister at the Eighth St. Unitarian church until 1858, when he left to become the Unitarian minister in Watertown (Mass.).
  • Good documentary evidence exists that would allow substantial further research into Jackson. Jackson left behind a typescript memoir of his life (I have a photocopy) which contains no mention of Unitarianism. Jackson also left behind a journal, which is in the possession of one of his descendants (I have not seen the journal). And there is at least one extant photograph of Jackson.
  • According to the New Bedford Historical Society, which researches the history of people of color in New Bedford, Jackson was converted to Unitarianism by Frances Ellen Watkins Harper. I suspect the documentary evidence for this assertion may be found in Jackson’s journal. Harper did visit New Bedford a number of times to lecture, beginning in 1854.

If you’ve gotten this far, I’ll say one last thing: I’d be happy to communicate with serious researchers (i.e., academics, independent scholars, or grad students) who might want to publish a paper on Jackson and Unitarianism.

2 thoughts on “Research into the first African American Unitarian minister

  1. Dan

    Bill @ 1 — Good point. Some of that work has been done for overseas Unitarians and Universalists (e.g., the books Unitarians in India and Maligiplay Universalists), but we could use lots more research into Unitarian, Universalist, and Unitarian Universalist encounters with persons of non-European descent within the United States.

Comments are closed.