The need to “Christianize Christianity” is “timely and urgent,” the Rev. Ethelred Brown of the Harlem Unitarian Church said yesterday morning in a sermon at the Unitarian Church of All Souls, Eightieth Street and Lexington Avenue. – from the NY Times, August 8, 1949.
As the children wrap up their unit on black and brown leaders in our Unitarian and Universalist history, I thought I’d share a little about one of my favorites, Rev. Egbert Ethelred Brown. His is a story of perseverance and belief mixed with a desire to create justice.
Ethelred Brown was born 1875 in Jamaica and was a devout man from very early on. He began as an Episcopalian, but found the doctrine didn’t fit him and discovered the American Unitarian Association (AUA). He embraced Unitarian theology, but there was no Unitarian church in Jamaica so when he became a minister he built one!
His journey to become a minister was not easy. The first time he entered the United States to begin seminary at Meadville Theological School, he was deported as a contracted alien. The second time he tried to go to the US, his father took back the money he had given Ethelred for the trip. He finally arrived in the US and began his studies in 1910. In 1912 he became the first black man to be ordained a Unitarian minister. He returned to Jamaica and worked to establish Unitarianism among blacks in his home country.
As a minister in Jamaica, Brown advocated a mix of religion and politics, where he worked with the Jamaican trade union movement and the ethnic struggle in the United States. He was active in his community in support of civil and economic rights for blacks. When he lost his job, he focused on the plight of the working class. In 1919, his work alongside others, pressured the government to pass the Trade Union Law. Brown believed that an increase in wages was the only just method of slowing emigration. Brown and his family soon became emigrants as well, when he lost his job and had no regular employment. Seeing it as an opportunity, he went to America in 1920 and moved into full time ministry.
Once in New York, Ethelred Brown established the Harlem Community Church, which held its first service in March 1921. He worked odd jobs to make ends meet, because the church couldn’t afford to pay him enough. As minister at Harlem Community Church, Brown encouraged close collaboration between the church and politics. In an article by Ken Jones in The Gleaner, Jones writes: Responding to Karl Marx’s reference to religion as “the opiate of the people”, Brown declared, “Religion is not an opiate, but a stimulant … an incentive to noble deeds and a sustaining power in the hour of crisis.”
Throughout his life, Brown traveled back and forth to his homeland, working with organizations to fight for independence from the crown. He worked tirelessly in the US as well, seeing religion and politics as linked. He was often financially challenged. Late in his life, the Unitarian Church in America wrote a hymn in his honor, “I’m on My Way.” If you look in the hymnal you will see that the name of the tune is ‘Ethelred.’ This was a small attempt to honor Ethelred for his struggles starting a black mission church in Jamaica. When he reached the age of 65, he received a small pension from the AUA until he died. Ethelred Brown died in 1956.