Egbert Ethelred Brown

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Brown, Egbert Ethelred (11 July 1875 - 1956)

A noted African American, a Unitarian preacher, Brown established the Harlem Community Church, later named Harlem Unitarian Church, in New York at 175 West 137th Street, serving as its minister from 1920 to 1956.

A Jamaican, he preached there from 1908 to 1920 but moved to New York when he was dismissed from a civil service job. Although he received some support from John Haynes Holmes, Brown was told by President Franklin Southworth of the Meadville Theological School that “as there was no Unitarian Church in America for colored people, and . . . as white Unitarians require a white minister he was unable to predict what my future would be at the conclusion of my training.”

His Harlem church had many financial problems and met at the American West Indian Association Lodge Rooms, the YWCA, or the YMCA (where a plaque was installed in 1994 by the Fourth Universalist Society of New York).

Brown is described in the Rev. Mark Morrison-Reed’s Black Pioneers in a White Denomination.

"A Black Pioneer in a White Denomination"

Ellen Rowse Spero, on 5 and 19 February 2006, gave the following two-part sermon, "A Black Pioneer in a White Denomination," at 1st Parish Unitarian Universalist Church in Chelmsford, Massachusetts:

Because of Unitarian Universalism’s emphasis on the freedom of individual belief and conscience, and because we do not have one set of closed scripture or sacred stories, we look to the stories of the lives of individual Unitarians, Universalists and Unitarian Universalists as one source of spiritual inspiration and ethical guidance. We do biography as theology well. We praise those who have pushed against the prevailing prejudices and attitudes of their day to urge humanity toward freer, more rational, more enlightened and perhaps more compassionate living: Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, Clara Barton, Theodore Parker, to name a few. The real challenge lies in listening also to those whose stories reveal where we have failed to live according to our convictions.
Few Unitarian Universalists know of the Reverend Egbert Ethelred Brown. There are lots of reasons why, I imagine. His story is a complicated one, he is as more a tragic figure as a heroic one. In part because of his own character and in part of because of the racial and class prejudices of the members of the American Unitarian Association. It is not the kind of story where we feel we can pat our Unitarianism on the back and say, "see how great it is, this tradition we are part of." And yet, Rev. Brown’s story is inspirational and it is important for understanding our tradition, not just then but now. It speaks to one of the core values of Unitarianism: freedom and how we understand it and live it as a conviction in community. Rev. Brown’s story is also inspirational because it is about being a pioneer: one who enters unknown, even hostile, territory and struggles to make a life in it. The Rev. Egbert Ethelred Brown was a black pioneer in a white denomination. He was the first black Unitarian minister who set out to bring the message of liberal religion to his community and to try to educate the American Unitarian Association about the potential for liberal religion in the Jamaican and American black community.
Egbert Ethelred Brown was born on July 11, 1875 in Falmouth, Jamaica, the oldest of five children. His call to ministry came at a young age. As a child, he liked to organize services for his siblings and friends and preach to them. He wrote:
There was a coincident with childish experiments in making speeches, an abnormally religious temperament. In all other respects I think I was a normal boy, but at times I was seized by a religious fervor which I now know was abnormal. My favorite hymn was, "O Paradise ’tis weary waiting here." I sang it often and as I sang, my face was bathed in tears. Why should a boy have chosen a hymn so other-worldly?…I somewhat outgrew the abnormal religiousness of my youth. (p. 33-34)
Because Ethelred was the eldest, his education suffered somewhat. He was a bright and accomplished student and placed third in the Jamaican civil service examination. But his father was not as financially secure enough for Ethelred to pursue higher education in theology or law. By the time his younger brothers were ready, his father had become prosperous and one brother became an important lawyer and the other the first black canon in Jamaica. Instead, Ethelred entered the civil service as a clerk of the treasury, where he worked from 1899 until 1907 when he was abruptly asked to leave. Although there is no public record of this, Ethelred apparently secretly borrowed money from the treasury with the intention of paying it back. A young husband and father with four children who had steep education tuition fees, he found himself in growing debt and acted in a panic. It was discovered before he was able to pay it back. His father and brothers paid off the debt quietly to avoid scandal, with the provision that Ethelred be dismissed immediately. At aged 32, Ethelred Brown suddenly found himself without the security of the civil career he believed he would have until his retirement. He took this crisis as an opportunity to discern what he really wanted to do and recalled his childhood call to ministry.
Ethelred had been an active church member most of his life. But in returning to his call to ministry, he realized that he needed to become ordained in a tradition grounded in a theology he truly believed. As a youth, it hit him one Easter Sunday, as the priest and congregation recited the Athanasian Creed, that he did not believe in the doctrine of the Trinity. Later that same afternoon, he visited an uncle who had a copy of William Ellery Channing’s famous speech defining Christian Unitarianism sitting on his table. His uncle was a closet Unitarian and tried to dissuade his nephew from adopting beliefs he knew would be unacceptable to the family and to the community. But Ethelred insisted, so his uncle lent him the sermon to read as well as a copy of the Unitarian hymnal. He wrote:
I followed up by reading other Unitarian literature and as a result I became a Unitarian without a church. For some years I attended no church, and then on a Sunday morning in 1895 I was drafted to take the place of the sick organist of the Montego Bay Wesleyan Methodist Church. On that day I began four years of service as an organist of that church. On my transfer to Spanish Town in 1899 I was placed in charge of the choir of the Wesleyan Church of that town. Thus for nearly twelve years I forgot my Unitarian theology as I engaged in these services…Then came. . . the year of decision. . . . With that call came a very urgent and important question, namely this - into the ministry of which denomination should I enter? (pp. 36-37).
He seriously considered entering the ministry of the African Methodist Episcopal Church. But he also sent a letter, addressed "To any Unitarian Minister in New York City," requesting information about entering the Unitarian ministry. The same day the AME church welcomed him, he received a reply from the President of Meadville Seminary, Franklin Southworth, that was less supportive:
The mail which brought a reply form the Bishop of the AME Church which was practically an acceptance, brought also a reply from President Southworth. The latter informed me that the school did not conduct a correspondence course, and that therefore I would have to come to Meadville. And that as there was no Unitarian Church in American for colored people, and that as white Unitarians required a white minister he was unable to predicted what my future would be at the conclusion of my training. The issue was clear; the conflict was short but sharp. (pp. 37-38).
A reply like that he received from Southworth would have discouraged most from even attempting to enter the Unitarian ministry. But the tenaciousness that was such a mark of Brown’s character, a double-edged sword that brought out the pioneer and the tragic in him, rose to the surface and led him to choose the much harder path. He withdrew his name from consideration from the AME Church and continued to correspond with Southworth until he was accepted as a special student at Meadville. It is here that a gap in the ideals and the reality of Unitarianism revealed itself: while in theory, Unitarians believed in the equality of man (and I use man deliberately), they also believed their tradition was for a certain class of well-to-do, well-educated, independent and enlightened white men. While Unitarians were very happy to support benevolent causes that benefited the underprivileged: the poor, people of color, immigrants, they did not seek to bring them into the faith. Unitarians did not want to evangelize or to become a popular religion but rather to remain small and comfortable for those already inside. Even today, I hear newcomers say, "I have been Unitarian Universalist all my life. I just didn’t know something like this existed." We do not advertise ourselves in ways that are welcoming. This is a consequence of what the Rev. Mark Morrison-Reed, one of the few life-long African American Unitarian Universalists calls "the liberal fear of mass appeal."
The leaders of the AUA, particularly its President Samuel Eliot and its secretary, Louis Cornish, would over the years offer Brown mixed messages, encouraging him but in the condescending way that one might encourage a child to do something they believe he or she will never really accomplish. Meanwhile, among themselves, they would decry his plans as unrealistic and a drain on resources better used for truly successful ventures. Then when Brown would cross a boundary that disturbed them, these leaders would respond with an abrupt harshness that took Brown by surprise. They expected Brown to hear not the encouraging words but the "but" that followed. They did not realize Brown’s tenaciousness and tendency to hear what he wanted to hear until it was too late. And they never saw and trusted in the truth and the depth of Brown’s call to Unitarian ministry. While Franklin Southworth would be able to overcome his racial prejudice to support Brown, Eliot, Cornish, and others could not. Just as Brown could only hear what he wanted to hear, they could only see what they wanted to see.
Brown would need to be tenacious and to trust the truth of his call for he would get hit from both sides. In Jamaica, his church community did not take well to his Unitarian theology and refused to give him their intended farewell gift. His family suddenly withdrew promised financial support for his passage to the United States. It took him three years and three tries to get over the immigration and financial hurdles just to get into the United States to go to Meadville Seminary in Chicago, leaving his family behind in a precarious financial situation. Finally, in 1910, he made it to Meadville. In seminary, he experienced what Morrison-Reed believed to be the happiest times in his experience as a Unitarian. There, he did very well in his studies and made friends with his colleagues. He finally found a place where he could express his theology and did not seem to encounter the same level of prejudice that he would in the larger Unitarian denomination. One of his most constant supporters was President Southworth. Upon his graduation in 1912, he was ordained by a group at Meadville with the intention of his returning to Jamaica to start a Unitarian church there. He came back to Montego Bay, full of energy and optimism, with a fund started by President Southworth and promises from the AUA for further financial support.
Unfortunately, the reality of the situation did not meet his exuberant expectations nor match his optimism. While the AUA and the British and Foreign Unitarian Association gave grants to Rev. Brown, they saw it more as a humanitarian mission and never supported Rev. Brown’s attempt to start a truly viable Unitarian congregation amongst the Black community in Jamaica. Brown, for his part, looked only at the encouraging words and ignored the veiled hints that perhaps this was not working out. When his attempts to start a Unitarian congregation in Montego Bay failed, Brown moved it to the larger city of Kingston. Just as he found land to build a church in 1915, the AUA cut off funds. Brown wrote: "I very soon learned that the men who directed the affairs of the AUA were not like the men at Meadville…They were ’business’ men." (p. 49). Brown boarded a ship for Boston to speak to the AUA directors face to face. He succeeded in convincing them to renew their financial commitment but he alienated Samuel Eliot and Louis Cornish for good. In 1917, Eliot once again cut off funding for Brown’s Kingston congregation, this time for good. The news was leaked to the Jamaican newspapers so that Rev. Brown was publicly humiliated and his work further undermined. Rev. Brown and his congregation struggled on for three more years. Because Brown had to work another job as an accountant to support his family, he was never able to give full attention to getting the congregation on solid ground. He also encountered a racial prejudice within his own community. He was very dark-skinned and in the hierarchy within Black Jamaican society, he was viewed as "not white enough" to earn the kind of respect and leadership building a new community would require. In 1920, he understood that his dream of establishing a Unitarian congregation in Jamaica would never be realized.
But in foregoing that dream, Rev. Brown did not give up on the idea of bringing Unitarianism to the Black community or of being a Unitarian minister. His tenaciousness served to inspire him to come at his hope from another angle. He sold everything, packed up his family and moved to New York City to start a new Unitarian congregation in the heart of the American Black community, in Harlem.

Two weeks later, Spero gave the following sermon, a follow-up on 19 February 2006:

When we left Rev. Egbert Ethelred Brown two weeks ago, he had succeeded and failed. He had succeeded in being the first black man to be ordained as Unitarian minister. He had failed to establish a Unitarian congregation in his native Jamaica. There were several reasons. The first and greatest was the racism of the leadership of the American Unitarian Association. Another was Rev. Brown’s tenacity and refusal to listen to what he did not want to hear. One thing I learned early in ministry is that our greatest strength is also our greatest weakness. In the case of an extraordinary minister like Rev. Brown, his tenacity was the source of his heroism and his tragic flaw.
Having accepted the fact that he would not get the necessary financial and moral support, either from the AUA or from his own Jamaican community, to establish a Unitarian congregation, Rev. Brown did not give up, as so many hoped he would. Instead, he sold everything and moved his family to Harlem, to try to establish a black Unitarian church there.
The year was 1920. It was a remarkable time to come to Harlem. The Harlem Renaissance was just under way bringing Black artists, writers, and musicians into the spotlight. New political ideas of socialism and Black empowerment were developing. Rev. Brown founded the Harlem Community Church, on March 7, 1920, in this context. He developed a close relationship with the Rev. John Haynes Holmes, a prominent Unitarian minister, social activist and pacifist in New York City. Holmes would do much to try to support Brown financially and politically to build and sustain his church.
However, Brown found himself up against even more difficult racial hurdles than in Jamaica. Eliot and Cornish continued to prevent any real support from the AUA. And unlike in Jamaica, where Brown could find viable employment that met his trained skills, racism in America prevented him from attaining any meaningful employment. Although he was an accountant, he could only find work as an elevator operator, which could not provide adequately at all for his family. Throughout the 1920’s and 30’s, Brown constantly requested the AUA for financial support. When the AUA refused, Brown appealed directly to his colleagues and other Unitarian congregations. Eliot and Cornish went through the roof. They could not understand how the racial dynamics prevented Brown from supporting himself in any real way. This resulted in his being removed, without his knowledge, from fellowship as a Unitarian minister. When he did find out, he protested to the Fellowship Committee that he had not been allowed to present his side of the story. Only upon a threat of a lawsuit through the ACLU did the Committee reinstate Brown. It was also during this time that Brown’s dream showed its cost to his family. His wife, Ella, distraught over their constant poverty and disappointments of his career, had a nervous breakdown in 1928. His second son was committed to an asylum because of his alcoholism. And in 1929, his eldest son committed suicide. But even as he was caring for his wife and grieving for his sons, Brown refused to give up his dream and continued to commit the majority of his time and resources, emotional and financial, to his congregation.
Brown’s fortunes took a more positive turn in 1937 when Eliot and Cornish’s leadership came to an end and more thoughtful and supportive leaders, like Frederick May Eliot and Dale DeWitt came into the AUA. Brown began to receive the financial and moral support that he needed with consistency. Finally, he was able to give his whole to his church. The Harlem congregation was showing signs of viability. For several years, Brown ran forums rather than the traditional worship services, bringing in dynamic speakers that attracted as many 300 listeners on a Sunday evening. Rev. Brown recognized that the Black community needed to gain political power if it were to experience any kind of significant advancement in their civil rights. He became very involved in socialism and worked for the Socialist party magazine. He advocated for members of his church to create cooperative business enterprises to develop an economic independence that would benefit all. He offered his pulpit as a place for political and civil rights leaders and thinkers to speak. He began a building fund. And he became a popular speaker in his own right, amongst his black and Unitarian colleagues.
As described in the readings by Brown and Morrison-Reed, Rev. Brown was trying to straddle to worlds with his ministry. Brown wanted to integrate the best of what he saw in his two traditions: the spiritual and emotional depth of the black religious tradition with the intellectualism of Unitarianism. Freedom is a central concept in both black and Unitarian theology. However, because of the very different social, economic, and political experiences of these two groups, freedom had and still has a very different meaning. In Unitariansim, growing out as it did from the social and intellectual circles of Boston, intellectual freedom of the individual was the most important: freedom of belief, freedom of speech, freedom of thought, freedom of conscience. In the black religious tradition, growing out of the experiences of slavery and racial oppression, freedom is both an individual and a communal concept. It is not just the mind, but the body, the soul. It is also freedom of community, for a whole people to be a people, seeking freedom from the laws, institutions, and social mores that classified them as a non-people. Brown was a visionary in that he saw how these two different ways of understanding freedom, the individual and the corporate, could complement one another, empowering both.
Unfortunately, he did not know how to make this happen. Even when he had overcome many of the racial and economic hurdles of the AUA and was finally able to give his all to his congregation, he kept tinkering with the worship service and the structure of the life of the congregation. One year, he would go the political-intellectual route, sacrificing the music, prayer, and other emotive practices of his tradition. The next year, he would return to the more traditional services, forsaking the intellectual discourse and debate. He also had a conflict of communities within his church. Brown attracted blacks from both the African American community and from the immigrant Jamaican community. These two groups had different cultures and histories, and sometimes saw things very differently. So while he could get excellent attendance on Sunday evenings and hold rousing talks or sermons, the core group of members, willing to support the church financially and with their time and talent, never numbered more than forty. Rev. Brown was indeed a pioneer, trying to stake out new territory and a new way of doing things. But like many pioneers, he could not always get the land to produce what he wanted or needed. Furthermore, he was a pioneer with a tragic flaw. It would be his tenacity, with which he had kept his dream alive for so long, that would kill it in the end, at least for the Harlem Community Church. It had to be his vision and he could not hear the voices and visions of others.
By 1940, Rev. Brown had become a respected minister and his congregation seemed on the road to viability. The AUA saw the potential of this congregation but they also realized it needed new and younger leadership if it was going to survive. Now that Rev. Brown had reached the age of retirement, the AUA agreed to pay him a pension if he promised to step down and allow a younger minister to lead the congregation to the next level. Brown could not let go and refused to step away, even after he retired. He held on until his death in 1956. Soon after his congregation, which never got a building of its own, closed down. Morrison-Reed writes: "Ethelred Brown is a very human hero. A man torn between diverging duties and drive by self-interest, too. Within the man, beside his laudable hopes there lurked a selfish zeal, a ministerial hubris that put his family’s needs second. It was this hubris that kept him from giving the church over to younger hands that might have been able to sustain it after his death. This is the tragedy. Neither the church nor his family were foremost in Brown’s mind; foremost was his need to fill the ministerial role and to forward his cause. In a way the extent of his suffering, to which the American Unitarian Association contributed, chained him to ministry. He could not discount his entire life’s work by forsaking the cause for which he had suffered. He was trapped both by his old pain and his ever-blossoming hope." (pp. 109-110).
There is so much in Brown’s story from which to learn, not just about race and racism but also about vision, about ministry, about human endurance and frailty, about striving to embody a community of faith that truly reflects and lives its beliefs and values about our human diversity and our unity. As Unitarian Universalists, we have not historically done as well with the issues of race and racism as we have with those concerning sexuality or gender. Some of the reasons why are apparent in the story of Rev. Brown, and some have as much to do with social class as race. Are we doing better than in Brown’s time? Absolutely. We are more diverse than in Brown’s time, in our ministry and our congregations. And we elected the first black president of a majority white denomination, the Rev. Bill Sinkford. But we remain a predominantly white, middle-class religion. In a nation, where this is a shrinking population, we need to think about why.
More and more, people coming to Unitarian Universalism say that they are here for the community. If this is so, then expanding the concept of freedom beyond the individual and the intellectual to one also grounded in community and in justice is something we can learn and embrace from the black religious tradition and from the story of Rev. Brown. As both Brown and Morrison-Reed point out in the readings, religion is at its most ineffectual and its most dangerous when it is one dimensional: individualistic or denying of the individual, only for the head or only for the spirit. The more inclusive we are of the full range of human religious and spiritual experience, the more powerful and truer our faith, the more whole we become, as individuals and as a community, a people.
In the first part of this sermon, I spoke of the call of convictional community: to live as if our convictions, our hopes, our vision of a just, healed and whole world are already true, and not mere ideals waiting for us in some future time or place. Henry Hampton, another black Unitarian Universalist observes: "I am given to talking about dreams because dreaming separates us from other animals, other life forms. I have a favorite line from a play I read years ago, a Chaucerian drama. The line goes, "In dreams begins responsibility." And indeed it’s true. When you dream of something, you can begin to take it upon yourself, to make it yours, change it. But you have to dream first…You have to think of the world as you would really have it. I don’t mean wish it. I mean dream it. And sometimes I think Unitarian Universalists wish more than they dream." (Henry Hampton)
We see from the story of Rev. Brown how the convictions need to be embraced by the whole community, or the dream will be shattered. If diversity is truly a conviction, a dream of Unitarian Universalism, the story of Rev. Brown is a humbling lesson. It teaches us that diversity is not simply about including people of a different race or ethnicity, gender or sexual orientation, class or education in how we already do things. Rather it is in being willing to walk thoroughly in one another’s stories and experiences and to learn to expand our understanding and experiences because of them. True diversity is more than embracing the breadth of humanity. It is also embracing the depth, as scary as that may be. But it is by going into the depths, into "…our deepest experiences of joy and sorrow…" , to quote Rev. Brown, that we experience true healing and transformation. To paraphrase an old Unitarian hymn, may what he dreamed be ours to do.

(See Mark D. Morrison-Reed. Black Pioneers in a White Denomination. Boston, MA: Skinner House Books, 1994; Mark D. Morrison-Reed and Jacqui James. Been in the Storm So Long. Boston, MA: Skinner House Books, 1991; and Juan M. Floyd-Thomas's The Origins of Black Humanism in America: Reverend Ethelred Brown and the Unitarian Church (Palgrave Macmillan, 2008).

{U&U}