Tag Archives: William Jackson

New book: Liberal Pilgrims

What it says on the back cover:

Liberal Pilgrims chronicles the experiences of Unitarians and Universalists from New Bedford, Massachusetts, offering a window on the sometimes unexpected context and development of liberal religion in North America. New Bedford’s religious liberals viewed the world from diverse perspectives, using different symbols, language, and actions to express their religion as they progressed in their pilgrimages — spiritual and religious journeys that that continue to transform the American liberal religious tradition to this day. Their stories remind us of the rich and sometimes disparate origins of liberal religious practice. And their stories challenge today’s liberal pilgrims to continue to seek out new directions for liberal religion, constantly reinventing contemporary liberal religious experience.

“Some stories have never been told in detail before. There’s the story of Reverend William Jackson, the first African-American minister to declare himself a Unitarian when he addressed a meeting of the American Unitarian Association in New Bedford. There are the stories of North Unitarian Church, a church of immigrants, and Centre Church, which changed its affiliation from the Christian Connection to Unitarianism. Other stories include the story of Reverend John Murray Spear, Universalist and abolitionist, minister of an interracial church in the 1830s, who was driven out of New Bedford when he helped free a slave. There’s the story of Mary Rotch, perhaps the most original Unitarian theologian to come out of New Bedford, and a confidante of Ralph Waldo Emerson and Margaret Fuller.

“Each of the 19 chapters tells about a different liberal religious person, community, or art work. By examining how these people and religious communities of the past lived out their religious ideals in their times, we learn more about our own liberal religion in the present day and its potential for the future.”

Yes, it’s now officially published. Yes, it contains the story of the very first African American minister to declare himself a Unitarian. Yes, it contains additional information about Unitarian and Universalist history, much of which has never before published.

And yes, it could use another round of copy editing, but I’m getting ready to move and I just don’t have enough time to go through the book again. But I promise it’s worth reading even with the typographical errors I’m sure are in it.

Go here to buy it. Cheap: $9.46 + shipping (I make no profit on the book). Cheaper still if you buy three or more.

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.

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

More research needed

In tonight’s class for the Underground Railroad Tour Guide training at the New Bedford Historical Society, our teacher Joan Beauboin turned to me and said, “Reverent Harper [I can’t get her to call me “Dan”], you’ll be interested to know that Reverend William Jackson was converted to Unitarianism when — what was her name, now, something Watkins Harper….”

Surprised, I said, “Frances Watkins Harper came to New Bedford?”

Frances Harper was a well-known African American woman who joined the Unitarian church in Philadelphia in 1870, having been attracted to Unitarianism by the many Unitarian abolitionists she had met. Rev. William Jackson was the African American minister of the Second and Salem Baptist churches in New Bedford, known as the fugitive slave’s churches.

“Indeed she did,” said Joan Beauboin. “And she managed to convince William Jackson that he was really a Unitarian.”

Still surprised, I said, “But which church did he join? He didn’t join First Unitarian, did he?” In the second half of the 19th C., the Unitarian church in New Bedford had many of the most powerful and influential and wealthy white New Bedfordites as members; it was very much a white church.

“Well, I don’t know if he actually joined the church,” she admitted. “Perhaps he just considered himself a Unitarian.”

I find it hard to believe that socially-conscious First Unitarian Church would have allowed an African American to rent a pew or otherwise become a formal member. But even if Rev. William Jackson wasn’t a member of First Unitarian, he would have been the most prominent person of color in 19th C. New Bedford to have called himself a Unitarian. This is definitely going to call for more research on my part….