First Parish Church of Groton
February 28, 2016
Imagine the most notorious train cargo of its time. The body of a man executed for treason. Imagine half the populace is simmering with vengeance and the other half – or perhaps not even that many – grieving the loss of a hero, whose passion for a righteous heaven on earth had enflamed their own. And now, he had failed in his tragic, violent mission to free the slaves.
Imagine decoy boxes that look like coffins but don’t contain the body. Imagine careful attention to routes, even in the North, for even there this man has enemies. Imagine making the slow journey from Charlestown, Virginia to North Elba, New York – in the uppermost corner of the Eastern part of the state, nearly to Canada.
Now imagine that you are an admirer of this man who sought to free the slaves by any means possible as you, too, had done within your own realm. Imagine you are in Burlington, Vermont, and the train has just past to the south of you. You just might be able to attend the funeral of this martyr if you leave NOW. Imagine with you a fierce friend and a long horse ride. Imagine a stormy night, that Lake Champlain is between you and your destination, not to mention a ferryman who refuses you passage because of the purpose of your ride.
Imagine you are the Reverend Joshua Young.
Unitarians and Universalists have a mixed historical record on the abolition of slavery. We moderns have a tendency to shed light on those of our religious Abolitionist ancestors who took the anti-slavery side. We tend to keep in the dusty corners those who advocated only gradualism, or who kept silent and profited from the cotton economy just as much as plantation owners in the South. Sometimes more so.
Among those who supported the swift elimination of the institution of slavery, there were fringe elements. The ultimate embodiment of this was John Brown – not a Unitarian, but materially supported and lauded by many in our ranks, including Thoreau and a group of wealthy men called the “Secret Six.”
John Brown is by all accounts a controversial figure – even now, 157 years after his raid on Harpers Ferry. People have strong feelings about what he did – not only in Harpers Ferry, but earlier, in Kansas, when he and his followers, fighting for Kansas not to become a slave state, killed five people who supported the other side. Brown’s attempt to foment a slave rebellion at Harpers Ferry is considered by many, at best, misguided, and at worst, cold-blooded murder.
This sermon is not intended to persuade you one way or another about Brown. I will share that I am bound to the holy ground of Harpers Ferry and sacred confluence of the Potomac and Shenandoah Rivers where Harpers Ferry is situated. If you have never been there, and you the chance, I urge you to visit. The history is compelling and the landscape stunning. So this sermon is not about John Brown, but about the man who buried him with honor and dignity, providing pastoral solace to his grieving family.
Reverend Joshua Young’s small part in the John Brown narrative is not widely known. No entry for his story can (yet) be found on Wikipedia. His name is not in the go-to book on the topic of those who financially supported John Brown’s quixotic mission. Even the online Dictionary of Unitarian & Universalist Biography does not have an entry.
His story can be found in historical records about the Underground Railroad, in primary texts pieced together from the late 19th century, and in the troves of lay historians connected with two of the congregations he served, three of whom I thank: Elizabeth Curtiss in Burlington, Melinda Green and Steve Burne here in Groton.
The basic statistics of his life: he was born in 1823 in Maine; attended Bowdoin, then Harvard where he prepared to become a Unitarian minister. He graduated in 1848, married Mary Plympton the next year, and took his first pastorate in Boston, where he and Mary also had a co-ministry as conductors on the Underground Railroad. Young was a member of the Boston Vigilance Committee, known for its active resistance and interference with the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 (put forward, the record will note, by Unitarian president Millard Fillmore).
In 1852, the Youngs settled Burlington, Vermont, where Joshua was called as the Unitarian minister there. The Youngs continued their activity as Underground Railroad conductors. Burlington had become an important location on the path to freedom as it became essential to move once-enslaved African Americans up to Canada, since the North was no longer safe. This was proved by the rendition of many African Americans who had escaped the South and had come to the North , including Anthony Burns.
Anthony Burns was an escaped slave from Virginia who had been living in Boston since March, 1854. Complying with the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850, the authorities in Boston arrested Burns on May 24. Two days later, members of Tremont Temple (a Black church in downtown Boston), members of that Boston Vigilance Committee, involving several Unitarian ministers, and a crowd that swelled to 2,000 unsuccessfully attempted to free Burns from jail. In the process, a deputy was stabbed and killed. On June 2, with 50,000 people lining the streets (hopefully in disgust), Burns was led in shackles to the ship that returned him to captivity.
It just so happened that Young, and nearly every other Unitarian minister in the region, was in Boston for professional meetings and witnessed this unjust act of rendition. Within a fortnight, Young was back in Burlington preaching that the Fugitive Slave Law was “wicked and infamous – a dark deed of sin – an act of treachery” and that disobedience to this human-made law was obedience to God. He preached,
“I have come back to fulfill a vow I then and there laid upon my soul, to plead the cause of the slave – the cause of human rights and liberty, with renewed zeal; to give whatever of talent God has bestowed on me, and whatever of influence I am permitted to exert, to the agitation and discussion of this evil, wrong, crime against man, sin against God – American Slavery.”
I will let you know that Anthony Burns’ freedom was purchased by the Twelfth Baptist Church of Boston, a different Black church, for $1300 and within a year, he was back in Boston. Fast forward several years: it is now 1859…
That Young ended up officiating at the funeral of John Brown contains both elements of fate and serendipity. Like much of the nation, Young’s attention was drawn to the violent drama that took place at Harpers Ferry, West Virginia in the middle of October, when John Brown and his band of raiders attempted to foment a slave revolt to bring to an end American slavery. Most of Brown’s co-conspirators, including his sons, were killed in the unsuccessful attack. Those captured alive, including Brown, were brought to trial. Once Brown was executed, his body was transported by train to the small community of North Elba, New York, where the Brown family had a farm.
Joshua Young – racing against time, traveling through a dark and stormy night – arrived four hours before the funeral’s appointed time to find himself the only clergy among those assembled. Reverend Young was enlisted on the spot to conduct the funeral, offering a prayer and benediction under the shadow of the larger boulder that to this day, still marks the gravesite.
Word of the funeral spread quickly, including to Burlington, because the New York Daily Tribune published a transcript of Young’s words, including those spoken directly to the widow to assuage her grief. The minister quoted 2 Timonthy 4, in which he elevated John Brown to martyr, equal to Biblical Paul.
This did not play well back home. Numerous prominent families in his congregation took great umbrage. Six left immediately. Others left at a slower pace. Others practiced social ostracism against him and his wife. Young felt he had no choice but to resign.
Some 40 years later, Young wrote a stinging assessment of the reception he received from the congregation he had served for nearly a decade, noting that he made no apology for his sympathy with a “felon” nor bringing solace to that felon’s family in distress. His letter of resignation included these words:
I rejoice that no graver charge is made against me than that I have pushed the principles of general justice and benevolence too far, further than cautious policy would warrant and further than the feelings of some would go along with me. In every accident which may happen through life, in pain and sorrow, in depression, in distress, I will call to mind this accusation and be comforted.
Described as generally friendly, kind, and gentle, in this particular regard, Young was unrepentant for his role in the John Brown funeral until his dying days.
Not a professional historian, but someone who likes to acknowledge that there is rarely only one side to any story, I will note here that there is dispute between Young’s account, and that of the Burlington church, about what led to his leaving.
Young went on to serve other Unitarian churches: one in Hingham, one in Fall River, and then finally, in December, 1875, he arrived at what would be his final pastorate: twenty-seven years in a sleepy little town you know so well: Groton, Massachusetts. Towards the end of his long tenure serving in Groton, Joshua Young had another opportunity to say words of honor, solace, and witness in North Elba. Forty years after Brown was buried beneath that giant boulder, in 1899, the bodies of raiders at Harpers Ferry were located and disinterred. The locations of the unmarked graves of these men had been either lost or kept secret to protect them from vandals. The bodies were transported north and buried with respect next to Brown.
Five years later, in 1904, two years after retiring from this church, he died. He is buried in Mount Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
As Unitarian Universalists, our faith comes from six sources, the second of which is, “Words and deeds of prophetic women and men which challenge us to confront powers and structures of evil with justice, compassion, and the transforming power of love.” Is it not so cool that one of your very own ministers is one of these “prophetic women and men?” Over 160 years ago, Young preached these words:
To plead the cause of the slave is to plead our own cause, to vindicate your claim and mine to the inalienable rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. (emphasis added)
This is not condescension. This is not Christian charity, though Young understood his abolitionist stance as writ by God and an enactment of his faith.
This is what modern Unitarian Universalists call “collective liberation,” expressed in countless liberation movements over the centuries, uttered, enacted, and embodied right now by those on the cutting edge of continued efforts toward racial justice and liberation from all forms of cultural oppressions.
It is Ubuntu, like Archbishop Desmond Tutu described in our Thought to Begin the Service, a deep-rooted value from among the Xhosa of South Africa: I am because you are.
It is the sentiment expressed by Aboriginal women of Australia, expressed in this quote by Lilla Watson: “If you have come to help me, you are wasting your time; but if you are here because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.”
It is, when it comes right down to it, our seventh principle: respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part. Or as Dr. King said it much more eloquently:
“All [people] are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be, and you can never be what you ought to be until I am what I ought to be…This is the inter-related structure of reality.”
This past Friday evening, the Racial Justice Working Group showed the movie, “Selma,” a Hollywood history of a significant moment in the Civil Rights movement. It was key to bringing the nation to attend to the violence being visited upon our African American neighbors in the South. And it was key in bringing Unitarians and Universalists in large number — two of whom lost their lives in Selma — to finally show up and take part in the struggle for freedom and justice around race lines.
And tonight, Sarah Iacobucci and Jack Wool, members of the Racial Justice Working Group, begin facilitating a six-week small group ministry class on racial justice – there has been so much interest and enthusiasm for this class, it is already full – but they have a wait list, so know that if you are interested, we hope to make another chance to take part.
The struggle for racial justice is not just history. It is about our nation now, how systemic racism is breaking hearts metaphorically and bodies, literally.
It is about police brutality that is visited disproportionately on people of color.
It is about the school-to-prison pipeline – often called “the New Jim Crow” that too many African American people, especially young men, but also young women, experience in our country.
It is the increasing numbers of #BlackLivesMatter signs, hanging from houses of worship, hanging from 133 Unitarian Universalist congregation – many of which have been defaced, vandalized, stolen.
It is about how three times – three different times, so far, the latest time just yesterday — the #Blacklivesmatter signs have been stolen from my yard in liberal Northampton.
Reverend Joshua Young shared his prophetic vision, calling his white congregation to see their own freedom bound up with the yet-to-be freedom of African American slaves:
To plead the cause of the slave is to plead our own cause.
He spoke using the idioms and the social reality of his time.
So, with humility in my heart, and not nearly so eloquently, let me attempt to update his prophetic words to our modern circumstance:
We affirm that all lives matter through our declaration that Black Lives Matter, knowing as we do, all our liberation is bound up together.
May we ever work to get free, together. Amen.