Unitarian Universalist Black History: Egbert Ethelred Brown and a Ministry of Justice

A Black man with grey hair and glasses wearing a suit and tie

From the UUC Racial Justice Team in honor of Black and UU history

The Unitarian minister, Egbert Ethelred Brown is a beloved ancestor in Jamaica for his support for civil and economic rights for Black people and for Jamaican self-government. He was also the first Black man to be ordained a Unitarian minister in the United States and began one of the first Unitarian churches in Harlem.

Brown attended the Episcopal church growing up in Jamaica. As a teenager he realized he could not reconcile the idea of one God with the doctrine of the Trinity and eventually found and studied the teachings of Unitarianism. After losing his civil service job in Jamaica, Ethelred Brown followed his call to full-time ministry. He and his family moved to the United States so he could study for the Unitarian ministry at Meadville Theological School in Pennsylvania. In 1912 he became the first Black man to be ordained in the Unitarian church but no American Unitarian congregation would have him after he was ordained, so he returned to Jamaica to establish Unitarianism among the people there. As a minister in Jamaica, Brown advocated a mix of religion and politics promoting trade unions and a living wage for workers. However, financial struggles in Jamaica caused him to return to the United States. The Unitarian association of the day refused to allow him to start his own Unitarian church in Harlem. Instead he founded Harlem Community Church, in 1920, which was Unitarian in its beliefs but was not affiliated with other Unitarian congregations.

The Harlem church was an interracial church and Brown continued to work for justice for Black people and preached equality. He took on the hypocrisy of the Unitarian call of “the brotherhood of all men” while practicing segregation in their churches. “The principle sounded good. Behind them was little conviction. Even in Unitarian leadership… The words had a question mark in the dark backward and abyss of thought. . . My first dream is that one day in the not distant future our Unitarian church will be genuinely interracial—and I mean in their pulpits as well as in their pews.”1

Reverend Egbert Ethelred Brown said, “Religion is not an opiate, but a stimulant. . . An incentive to noble deeds and a sustaining power in the hour of crisis.”2 Social justice work was always an essential part of his ministry in the United States and Jamaica. His ministry exemplified our Unitarian principles of justice, equity, and compassion in human relations and the goal of world community with peace, liberty, and justice for all.

Much later, the Unitarian Church in America named the tune of the hymn “I’m on My Way” “Ethelred” after him and provided him with a pension to partially make amends for how he was treated by Unitarians at the turn of the last century. Reverend Egbert Ethelred Brown persevered despite racist treatment by our church. May we persevere as well, and dismantle racism and other oppressions in our denomination.

1) Morrison-Reed, Mark D., Darkening the Doorways: Black Trailblazers and Missed Opportunities in Unitarian Universalism (Boston: Skinner House Books, 2011), 65-66.

2) Jones, Ken. “Rev Ethelred Brown: He Mixed Religion with Politics.” In Focus | Jamaica Gleaner, September 4, 2011. http://jamaica-gleaner.com/gleaner/20110904/focus/focus11.html.

2 Responses

  1. Nick Barnard says:

    Thank you for this article.

    I deeply appreciate that it shared part of our history which did not live up to our ideals. Sharing complete histories is helpful and necessary.

  2. Margaret Sutro says:

    Thank you for the compassionate and inspiring telling of E.E. Brown’s ministry. Referenced Hymn #116 has verses that Brown & UUC’s own Jamaican-American leader, C. Edgar, embody: “I’m on my way, and I won’t turn back.” Carry on!