UU Minute #82

Unitarians and Slavery: Leaders Amid Resistance

Unitarians were among the leaders in the movement for abolition of slavery. Joseph Priestly, then in England, preached a sermon denouncing the slave trade as early as 1788. Unitarian minister Rev. Charles Follen was a leading abolitionist in the 1830s. But monied interests in the North supported the slavery in the South. So Rev. Follen’s abolitionism led to his dismissal from the New York City congregation now called All Soul’s Unitarian. When Follen died in 1840, pro-slavery members of William Ellery Channing’s Boston congregation refused Channing’s request to host a memorial service for Follen.

A few years before that, in 1836, Rev. William Henry Furness, minister of First Unitarian Church of Philadelphia preached an abolitionist sermon to his congregation. Reverend Furness had begun serving that congregation (the congregation that Joseph Priestley had founded in 1796), when he was 22-years-old, and was 34 the day he stepped into their pulpit to preach abolition.

He knew it would be divisive. One of his most prominent members held 300 people enslaved. Furness’s stance split the congregation in half. Membership plummeted. Furness thereafter had armed guards at his side as he preached.

Later, Unitarian minister Theodore Parker encountered considerable controversy when he also began speaking against slavery and became a leading figure in the abolition movement. Parker took to keeping a pistol in his pulpit for his protection.

Many Unitarians – clergy and layfolk – committed their lives and fortunes to the cause of abolition. Yes, Unitarians were rancorously divided over the issue of slavery. Yet we were at least divided: while some other churches of the time were unified in support of slavery, many Unitarians were leading this denomination and this country toward a new moral awareness.

NEXT: Universalism: Beginnings

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