Universalism and Black History

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

Black and white headshot of Rev. Joseph F. Jordan (1863-1929)
Rev. Joseph F. Jordan (1863-1929)

Joseph Jordan, the first Black man to be ordained in the Universalist denomination, began his religious calling as a Baptist minister. However, after reading a book by Thomas Whittenmore, titled, The Plain Guide to Universalism he decided to become a Universalist. “Whittenmore’s book explained the goodness of the universe, the loving parental guidance of the Almighty for all humanity, and the promise of salvation for all.”1 God’s love was for everyone. This contrasted with the attitude among many Black people in the 1880s that white oppressors would surely suffer in hell. What might have spoken to Joseph Jordan to call him away from the teachings of his upbringing? What meaning did it hold, given the history of slavery and racism in the United States? But Jordan was converted and reached out to Universalist minister Reverend Edwin C. Sweetser in Philadelphia, who would mentor him in his new faith.

In 1889 Rev. Joseph Jordan was ordained. He took the Universalist message out to serve his community and established a mission in a Black suburb of West Norfolk, Virginia. “With contributions from Universalists all across the nation, in 1894, he built a chapel and school… The Universalist Church of Norfolk was a success, but even more so was the associated school, as educational opportunities for Black children in those days were very limited. Over 200 children from many religious backgrounds were soon enrolled.”2

Another school was established by Rev. Jordan’s friend, Rev. Thomas Wise, the second African American to become a Universalist minister, in the nearby town of Suffolk. After Rev. Jordan died in 1901 and his Norfolk school closed, the missionary work of educating and lifting up the Virginian Black community continued. Despite prejudice by some of the white Universalist leadership, the missionary work was sustained by another Black minister, the Rev. Joseph Fletcher Jordan (no relation to the first). He took over leadership of the school in Suffolk, along with his wife, Mary J. Jordan. Mary brought her education and training to teach both academic and practical skills to the children. And, she never turned a child away. The school developed a reputation of rigorous academics and of “building the character and nurturing the self-worth of each child.”3

Eventually, one of Mary J. and Joseph F.’s daughters, Annie B. Willis would become the principal of the Suffolk school. She was much loved for her commitment to quality education and her loving care of her students and their families. The Great Depression would bring dramatic changes to this work and how the Universalist denomination supported it. These changes were fueled in part by the Great Depression. Factories closed and the Black community struggled to feed themselves let alone pay to tuition. The Universalist denomination also decided to make the school a community center and offer more social services rather than academic and spiritual education. Annie Willis became a worker for the denomination and was not consulted concerning the decisions made. The Universalist denomination “never recognized that these measures reinforced white haughtiness and Black disempowerment.”4 Willis continued her work through the merger of the Universalist and Unitarian churches, retiring in 1974, virtually forgotten by the UUA.

Universalism, like Unitarianism, suffered from racial prejudice and paternalism. Despite the exceptional missionary work of Joseph Jordan, Thomas wise, Mary and Joseph F. Jordan, and Annie Willis, Universalism as a religion, did not spread widely amongst the Black community. The message of universal salvation could not be reconciled with the experience of slavery, life under Jim Crow laws and other forms of racism. Where was the justice in the suffering of Black people? Is it in this world—in the expansion of democracy, in decriminalizing immigration and detention, in liberating people’s bodies from fear and violence?

1. Morrison-Reed, Mark D., Darkening the Doorways: Black Trailblazers and Missed Opportunities in Unitarian Universalism (Boston: Skinner House Books, 2011), 93. 
2. Coastal Virginia Unitarian Universalists, Our History: Universalist Rebirth 1887-1929https://c-vuu.org/about-us/our-stories/history/ (accessed 12 February 2021) 
3. Morrison-Reed, Mark D., Darkening the Doorways, 105. 
4. Morrison Reed, 122. 
5. Morrison Reed, 145. 
General: https://www.uua.org/re/tapestry/youth/virtueethics/workshop4/building-respect