Ethelred Brown, John Haynes Holmes and Why Congregational Polity Is Always Modern

I love reading about U/U/UU history. And I think that if one takes a look at UU history, then one can see that the number one advantage that congregationalism has over the other forms of polity is that those in the minority (of whatever stripe) always have rights.

Here’s one example:

“To any Unitarian Minister in New York City,” begins the nearly 60-year relationship between Ethelred Brown and the American Unitarian Association, which started in 1900.

The letter Ethelred wrote ended up in the hands of Rev. Frank Southworth, President of Meadville Theological School in Pennsylvania. Southworth responded to Brown that he would be welcome at Meadville however there were no “colored” Unitarian churches in the United States and white Unitarians only wanted to deal with white ministers. Even with that discouragement, and several botched attempts, Ethelred began his studies at Meadville in 1910. At the end of his studies in 1912, the school ordained him and he returned to Jamaica with hopes of starting a Unitarian church in Montego Bay, not too far from his birthplace in Falmouth.

Ethelred spent eight years trying to plant a Unitarian church in Jamaica; first in Montego Bay and then Kingston. But after receiving little support or understanding from either the AUA or the British and Foreign Unitarian Associations, Ethelred and his wife boarded a boat and headed to New York City. In a letter that he wrote talking of the help (or lack thereof) that he received, Ethelred said, “No missionary Association could have done any less, and dozens have done infinitely more.”

Life was no easier in New York for Ethelred on the AUA front either. Ethelred established the Harlem Community Church within days of his arrival in New York-the first service was held on March7, 1921. As all missionaries do at the beginning of their mission, they have to ask for donations of supplies and such. Since relations between Ethelred and the AUA were contentious at best, Ethelred did his solicitation outside of the normal system. When word of his solicitations were received in Boston (at AUA headquarters), there began an active campaign to discredit Ethelred and the work that he was doing in Harlem.

After five years, and having only the support of John Haynes Holmes (minister of the Community Church of New York), Ethelred received a letter from the AUA stating that, since the Harlem church was “not in sympathy with the Unitarian spirit and purpose,” and as he was not employed full-time as a minister, that the Ministerial Fellowship Committee saw no reason to keep him on the list of fellowshipped ministers unless he showed them otherwise. As you can see, this became a no-win situation. How could Ethelred ever gain employment as a full-time minister if no established Unitarian church was willing to have an African American as their minister AND the AUA would not give him monetary assistance in his missionary efforts? And the Harlem Community Church was set up as a Unitarian congregation, so how could it not be “in sympathy with Unitarian spirit and purpose?”

While this attempt at removing Ethelred from the fellowship roll was unsuccessful (as was a second attempt in 1928), the third attempt was successful and Ethelred was removed from the fellowship roll in 1929. It was only through the help of the ACLU and their threat of a lawsuit that Ethelred was able to have his fellowship reinstated-six years later, in 1935.

The Harlem Community Church-later the Harlem Unitarian Church-continued to exist under Ethelred’s leadership until after his death in 1956.

Imagine what would have happened to Ethelred Brown had the AUA been an actual denomination and that denomination was set up in Episcopal or Presbyterian polity.

And lest you think that I’m only talking about racial minorities, think again.

John Haynes Holmes (same one as mentioned above) was in a minority position in the AUA; he was a pacifist and against United States involvement in World War I. At the General Conference of Unitarian and Other Christian Churches that took place in Montreal in 1917, JHH came head-to-head with William Howard Taft (yep, the former President of the US). Taft won the day that day. Yet Taft and his compadres couldn’t make the Church of the Messiah (which eventually becomes Community Church of New York)  run JHH out of the pulpit; as the deacons of the church had re-affirmed the freedom of the pulpit just a few months before. Taft and his compadres were able the next year to bring to a vote that would take away AUA funds from any church that had a minister that dissented on the issue of US involvement in World War I. [If anybody could point me to where the actual result of the vote is, I would be everso grateful.]

Imagine what would have happened to JHH had this occurred in the Methodist Church instead of amongst the Unitarians. Taft and his compadres could have gone to the District Superintendent that would have been over JHH and had him removed from the pulpit; never to be able to return to it.

Some have asked what is the use (or helpfulness) of congregational polity in the modern world. Only somebody who has never been a minority in any way could ask that question with a straight face. There is a reason that there are more “out” lgbt (plus qqi) ministers in congregational polity churches than in the other systems. There is a reason that there are more known ministers of minority theological and political positions in congregational polity churches than in the other systems. Congregational polity means that those in the minority have just as much right and access to the pulpit as those in the majority. In the other polity systems relationships can be triangulated more easily because there is a third party on the outside whose interests are always the majority’s interests.

Congregational polity will always be modern because there will always be a minority; there is always going to be dissent. And only in congregational polity can retribution only be brought because of action; not because of a thought or because of who a person is.

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2 thoughts on “Ethelred Brown, John Haynes Holmes and Why Congregational Polity Is Always Modern

  1. The Baptists use Congregational polity; the Episcopal Church does not. Your argument that polity favors the minority is as silly as every other duck you have set up to be shot down. Polity does not matter half as much as theology, as your own story illustrates. A black minister might have had trouble finding work when each congregation set its own standards, but the theologians knew that he deserved a chance to learn and prove himself. Theology trumps governance every time.

    You have, at least, made an attempt at answering my question, but you’ve failed to back up your assertion, again, with any sustainable facts.

    Again, I am not asking that we do away with polity. I am asking that we enter a covenant that sets certain standards of education and/or training. Your own story shows that, in reality, we’ve always had them, I am just asking that we try to come to an agreement on what they should be and how to make them available to the people that congregations call, if they don’t already have them.

    I know you are eager to win some kind of victory, but you are completely distorting my position and making up arguments against a fictional opponent. Feel free to continue, but you will not get any further reaction from me.

    • Thomas – just at the definition of terms level, first.

      1. I don’t see how “enter into a covenant that sets certain standards” does not equal “creed’ and/or “dogma” (dogma in the literal sense of “right-thinking.”)

      2. The power of some body to Impose such standards on who is called is non-congregational polity.

      One can think that both 1 and 2 are good ideas (some churches do.) But that’s not this tradition. One fundamental thing that defines this tradition is that it thinks that both 1 and 2 are bad ideas, with at least two millenia of history behind it.

      This is independent of whether Kim’s current example is the best or not. Personally, I think what I understand about the treatment of Theodore Parker by all the ministers counts as a good example.

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