One of the best things about being part of a typical UU congregation 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.
We can also piece together something of 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.
This, then, 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;  or perhaps in Philadelphia, either enslaved or free.  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.  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.  Continue reading “A Black Universalist in the 1830s”