Today, Madeline spoke to us about Ethelred Brown, the first person of color to be ordained as a Unitarian Minister. Ethelred was born in Jamaica, and he attended the Episcopalian church in Montego Bay. He was very thoughtful about spiritual matters and when they got around to telling him about the Trinity, Ethelred balked. But where many people find the explanation of the nature of the Trinity troubling, Ethelred felt strongly enough about it to separate from the Episcopal church over the matter. This is never an easy thing to do in a Christian community.
He was given a copy of a sermon by an old abolitionist who had become a Unitarian Minister and decided he would become a Unitarian… even though he had no Unitarian church to attend.
Ethelred always felt like he had a calling as a minister. However, since he was estranged from the Episcopalians, he started working for the Methodists… not as a minister, but as a book-keeper.
Ethelred’s uncle had a booklet with the words, "The Lord our God is one God." Ethelred borrowed the booklet from his uncle. The booklet was by a Unitarian minister in the United States, Reverend William Ellery Channing. After reading it and some other books, Ethelred decided he was a Unitarian. But there were no Unitarian churches in Jamaica, and so Ethelred would have to find his own way.
He got married, and he and his wife had children. When Ethelred was thirty-two years old, he decided to become a Unitarian minister and start a Unitarian church in Jamaica. He didn't even know any other Unitarians. With much difficulty, three years after he had decided to go, he enrolled at a seminary in the U.S. He spent two years learning to be a Unitarian minister, and he was ordained in 1912 as the first Jamaican to go to that school and as the very first black person ever ordained as a Unitarian Minister.
The problem was, race discrimination was still prevalent, even among Unitarians. There were no congregations for him in America. He returned to Montego Bay and tried to start one. That didn’t catch on so he tried again in the capitol, Kingston.
After eight years of frustration, in 1920 he decided to move his family to New York City, and he start a church there. It was the beginning of the Harlem renaissance. The Harlem Community Church never had much money, and didn't get much help from outside the community. His wife became sick, and one of his children died. Besides being a minister, Ethelred had to work long hours at outside jobs.
For the next thirty-five years, Ethelred was the minister at the Harlem Community Church. Over the years, hundreds of people found their way there to pray and learn. He invited many speakers to the church services, many of them were political. He advocated for the poor. He advocated for Jamaican independence.
Unfortunately, when Ethelred died, the church did not sustain itself. It is difficult to survive the loss of such a leader. One of the songs in the Living Tradition hymnbook has a tune named after the Reverend Ethelred Brown. It's called "I'm on My Way."