Suffering for Blasphemous Libel


as preached at the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Houston, May 7, 2023

For the second Sunday in a row, it is unfortunately necessary to pause at the beginning of the sermon and acknowledge that there has been a mass shooting in Texas. This time it was in Allen. The names of the nine dead had not been released at the time I finished preparing my remarks this morning. Since we cannot honor them with their names we will instead pause now to ring the sanctuary bell nine times.

There is little to be said that has not been said. But, I think we should recognize how profoundly this epidemic of gun violence is impacting all of us. It is a rare person now who has not been directly effected by it, has not lost a loved one because of it.

In the United States, the richest country in the history of the world, our social fabric has been rent and rendered. We know this because in the last years, life expectancy has been falling. Isolation and mental health problems are increasing. The policy choices elected officials make and the court rulings judges decide are having a devastating impact.

Life expectancy in the United States is now behind Cuba and Estonia. It is essentially tied with Panama. These are not rich countries. And yet, those countries have figured out ways to structure their societies so that life for most people is longer and of a higher quality. These include measures like single payer health insurance, investing in mass transit and walkable cities instead of highways and automobiles, and limiting access to guns.

Years ago, when I was in my early teens, a friend of my parents said something about all of this which I will never forget. He was professor of what used to be called Sovietology–the now largely defunct field devoted to the study of the Soviet Union. He had been to Moscow many times, spoke and read the language fluently, and was intimately acquainted with the political analysis produced in the great Russian universities.

We were at a family dinner party–and those of you with kids might take this as a reminder that children are always listening–and my parents, their friend, and his wife were having a heated discussion about the impending collapse of the Soviet Union. My parents’ friend, the professor, made his statement. It went something like this, “The Soviets have long believed that they do not have to do anything on their own to win the Cold War. They just need to wait long enough and United States will collapse on its own accord. They think that our urban policy is so bad, with its preference for suburbs over center cities, our racism so pronounced, and public policies so discriminatory and cruel that it is only a matter of time before everything falls apart on its own accord.”

It seems sometimes, especially on a Sunday like today where, for the second time in two weeks we have had to pause to acknowledge the dead, that my parents’ friend’s observation was nothing short of prophetic. Because, of course, things in some ways are even worse than we think. The combination of discriminatory health care, gun violence and two other epidemics which we do not speak about enough–opioid, 110,000 lethal overdoses last year, and traffic deaths, almost 43,000 fatal car crashes–have created a situation where a five-year-old boy has a 1 in 25 chance of not living until forty. In some Southern states life expectancy has fallen so much that residents live shorter lives than the majority of places on the planet. The average life expectancy in Mississippi, to pick the most troubling example, is now but a scant 72 years, placing it on par with poor countries like Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan. Amongst African Americans and indigenous people the situation is even worse. The systematic racism that underlies so much of this is resulting in a situation where the Black maternal death rate, deaths in childbirth, is twice that of White women–and is higher than the maternal death rate in countries like Egypt or Mongolia.

All of these things are interrelated. The placement of guns over the sanctity of human life is a direct result of structures of white supremacy. The second amendment was crafted to so that slave owners could quickly, brutally, and efficiently organize armed violence to crush rebellions and resistance from the enslaved.

I say all of this, because of course, thoughts and prayers are not enough. They have never been enough. Religious communities, churches, mosques, synagogues, temples, but especially Unitarian Universalist communities, must speak out. If our faith is to mean anything then it must mean the constant assertion that there is a better way, that we can make a better way, that we can find a way out of no way.

The English artist William Morris wrote of bringing the news from nowhere, imagining the better world that could be made and then helping that world come into being. Bringing the news from nowhere, that is one of the charges we take up when we speak of widening love’s circle. Things do not have to be the way they are. More people can be brought into the circle of love, compassion, and concern. It does not take bold acts of imagining to know this. We need merely look outside the country’s narrow borders to see that it is possible.

Bringing the news from nowhere, the announced title of my sermon is “Suffering for Blasphemous Libel.” It is the first in a series on expanding the horizons of Unitarian Universalism and encouraging the congregation to vote to adopt the proposed Eighth Principle.

When I selected it my intention was to share with you something of the story of a Unitarian minister who understood the purpose of our faith to be bringing the news from nowhere. And that is what I shall do. It is likely that you have not heard of the Rev. Robert Wedderburn before. He is not one of the canonical figures of our tradition.

This Sunday marks the 224th anniversary of William Ellery Channing’s sermon “Unitarian Christianity,” often understood as the start of organized Unitarianism as a movement in the United States. I almost certain that at least a few of my colleagues are marking the occasion from their pulpits. I, instead, would like to direct our attention to Wedderburn. His life and ministry have much to teach us about the nature of Unitarian Universalism, the challenges we face, and the resources within our history to bring the news from nowhere.

Wedderburn was the first Unitarian minister of African descent. He was born in Jamaica–the same country that Harry Belafonte’s parents came from–in 1762. Active in London from roughly 1802 to 1828, he was a proto-Pan-Africanist, abolitionist, working-class radical, and revolutionary.

That paragraph, in and of itself, deserves commentary. Scholars of Unitarian Universalism have long argued that it has historically been “a class-bound faith” and “a white denomination.” And while congregations like this one are proud of their support of the civil rights movement and decisions of many of our Southern churches, such as the one made by First Unitarian Universalist, to desegregate in the mid-1950s, it has long been understood that the first Black Unitarian or Universalist ministers did not serve until the late nineteenth or early twentieth centuries. The Universalist Joseph Jordan was ordained in 1889. And the Unitarian Egbert Ethelred Brown was ordained in 1912.

Wedderburn, however, published his first denunciation of the Trinity in 1802. That is seventeen years before Channing’s sermon “Unitarian Christianity” and, for those of you who are students of Unitarian history, three years before the Ware controversy rendered Harvard a de facto Unitarian institution. His presence in the great cloud of witnesses that comprise our tradition challenge us to reconsider the nature of Unitarian Universalist theology and institutions. It highlights the need for us to adopt something like the Eighth Principle as a guiding rule for our communities.

But, before we tend to those challenges, let me briefly turn to Wedderburn’s biography. For he has been left out of Unitarian Universalist history and few of us, I suspect, know much, if anything, about him.

His name first came to my attention not because of his Unitarianism but because of political radicalism. Many of you probably know that one of my scholarly interests is in Pan-Africanism and that for the last year Sadé and I were Community Stories Fellows with the Crossroads Project, housed at Princeton University, for an effort we have been working on called “Religion in Houston’s Pan-African Community.” Pan-Africanism might succinctly be described as the belief that people of African descent form a global community with shared political interests and cultural roots.

I came across Wedderburn’s name in my efforts to understand the movement’s origin. It is pinned by some scholars on David Walker’s 1829 text “An Appeal to the Colored Citizens of the World.” Other scholars have looked further back in time and select earlier texts such as Wedderburn’s 1824 “The Horrors of Slavery; exemplified in the Life and History of the Rev. Robert Wedderburn” as influential in the development of Pan-Africanism.

In researching Wedderburn’s life, I learned that he had been imprisoned in 1820 for two years–not an uncommon fate for political radicals of his generation. But what surprised me was why he had been imprisoned. Rather than explicitly being charged with sedition and encouraging the overthrow of British cabinet–activities he regularly engaged in–he was convicted of “blasphemous libel.”

One pamphlet containing an account of the trial is collected in a slim scholarly volume of Wedderburn’s texts that includes “The Horrors of Slavery.” It is the sort of thing that only ever comes to the attention of serious researchers or devoted autodidacts. In it, I came across several Unitarian theological texts. One described how despite “holding forth” in “a licensed chapel” and being “a licensed preacher of the Unitarian persuasion” Wedderburn was jailed for his theological beliefs–he lived at a time when all clergy in England had to obtain a license from the crown to operate. Another was from 1802. In it he claimed that there was only “ONE GOD” and that Jesus was not the same being as God. Instead, and this was not in the part of the text we read, he argued that Jesus was someone who had come under the “Influence” of “the Spirit.” And that anyone who opened themselves so could find the Spirit granting them “Spirit qualities and possesses [them] … with the ability of a God.”

This past summer, when I was on sabbatical, I set out to find out more. Wedderburn, I learned, spent his childhood in the West Indies. He was the child of an enslaved woman, known only as Rosanna, and the Scottish sugar plantation owner James Wedderburn. Theirs was not a voluntary union, which is a challenging thing to mention from a pulpit, and his experiences and the horrors he witnessed led him to place White male sexual violence against Black women at the center of his critique of white supremacy.

Despite, or maybe because of this, he was born free and raised by his grandmother, a renowned Obeah practitioner and fence of smuggled goods called Talkee Amy. By 1778 or 1779 he was in England working as a sailor and then, a few years later, as a tailor. Though he was nominally a Christian in his early childhood, his time with his grandmother meant that much of his religious education was in some of kind of retained African tradition. As an adult, he recalled both her and her religious practices fondly. This perhaps helps to explain why, while he did formally convert to Methodism seven years after his arrival in England, his theology was unorthodox.

And here, as a sometime student of contemporary Yoruba traditions, I cannot help but wonder at the influence of Wedderburn’s grandmother’s influence on his understanding of the Spirit. It reads to me as anti-trinitarian, yes, but I also detect the invocation of some form of spirit possession. Anthony Pinn succinctly describes the dynamic that “occurs through possession” by the loas or deities of Haitian vodou. While it is impossible to know exactly what form of Obeah Talkee Amy practiced more than two and a half centuries ago, it is likely that her engagement with the deities that she knew is similar to the pattern that Pinn relates. During possession, he notes, “the loa manifests and provides information for various persons gathered, reveals their flaws, and suggests alterations in behavior of attitude. … healings take place and social relations are renewed.”

This seems quite similar to Wedderburn’s description of the Spirit. He writes how “if you read the Scriptures carefully, and call upon the God in Christ to instruct you, you shall receive a measure of his Spirit.” This measure of the Spirit is a healing power, “the physician and medicine,” which both reveals the sins, known and unknown, of those it possesses, cleanses them, and renders them immune to “an influence from Satan upon the minds of men.” It is a Spirit available to all, provided that they reject “the doctrine of the Trinity as an error” and come to understand that the same divine element present in Jesus can be experienced by anyone who asserts “ONE GOD, who is the Universal Father, and one Jesus Christ.”

Perhaps I digress. Perhaps not, for as Susan Ritchie has argued, in Europe, Unitarianism emerged through a pattern of “cultural enmeshment,” in which early Unitarians were influenced by both Islam and Judaism in developing their particular understanding of Christianity. In her account, the Unitarian Universalist theological tradition is a form of “hybrid” religious identity that emerged as an effort to reconcile the three monotheistic faiths. In analyzing Wedderburn’s description of the Spirit it appears that his version of Unitarianism was also a hybrid religious identity, though in his case the hybrid derives from the junction of Obeah and Christianity, rather the Abrahamic religions.

The hybrid of Obeah and Christianity that inspired Wedderburn’s Unitarianism was directly connected to his efforts to bring the news from nowhere. He published abolitionist texts calling for the end of slavery in Jamaica and linked the religious to the political in the three chapels he operated in London. In his sermons he linked the freedom of working-class people living in England with the project of emancipation in the Caribbean. His services were sufficiently effective in bringing the news from nowhere and inspiring, in the words of a police spy, “persons of the very lowest description” that the fullest existing accounts of them come not from Wedderburn but from the government agents sent to surveil him.

That they were effective in their surveillance is certain. The reports that they generated formed the basis of much of what can be found about Wedderburn’s theological views. Like many other Unitarians of his day, he argued that “Common sense and reason not Scripture ought to be … [the] guide.” Like many other Unitarians of his day, he denounced the Trinity and rejected atonement theology. Like some other British Unitarians, he was imprisoned for his religious beliefs, for his blasphemous libel.

But, despite these similarities, he was almost entirely ignored by the organized Unitarian movement of his day. The sole passage in the periodical that eventually became the denominational magazine mentioning him is an attempt to cast him outside of the circle. Reviewing a pamphlet titled “The Trial of the Rev. Robert Wedderburn, (A Dissenting Minister of the Unitarian persuasion,) for Blasphemy,” the article claims that despite preaching Unitarianism Wedderburn was little more than “a profane scoffer” and “journeyman tailor” rather than a proper minister.

This effort to cast Wedderburn aside was certainly effective. He makes no appearance in any of the numerous volumes of Unitarian Universalist history or theology. Indeed, the only reference to him in a Unitarian text I can find after 1820 is in an 1860 newspaper where he receives but a single sentence as part of a list of British Unitarians jailed for their beliefs.

This is unfortunate. That such an influential figure on the development of Pan-African thought has gone ignored by our tradition, despite proclaiming it and preaching it for almost thirty years, is a major loss. Restoring him to our cloud of witnesses offers us the opportunity to rethink our theology and hold our institutions–and ourselves–to account. It also offers a reminder that bringing the news from nowhere is an essential part of what it means to be a Unitarian Universalist.

Wedderburn is not the only person in our tradition who has been influenced by Obeah. The Rev. Dr. Sofia Betancourt is the nominee for President of our Unitarian Universalist Association. A proponent of Earth-based spirituality, she has been influenced by it in her efforts to develop the kind of liberating theology we need to help us address the crisis of the hour. She writes, “Obeah … allows us to center [the] Earth … in badly needed ways. It invites us to know as our ancestors did that the land itself offers to us blueprints for survival.”

Restoring Wedderburn to our cloud of religious ancestors, allows for the deepening of such a theological call. It is points to the necessity of something like the Eighth Principle. For it would be an understatement to say that the British Unitarians who rejected Wedderburn were unaware of the need for an explicit commitment to anti-racism to build the Beloved Community. Yes, it is true that some of them were abolitionists. It is also true that others of them were slave holders–this was the early nineteenth-century. But for all of them idea that their beloved tradition of religious freedom and dissent needed to include a commitment “to build a diverse and multicultural” Unitarianism was inconceivable. And our tradition is much poorer for it.

Our tradition is poorer for it, weaker without something like the Eighth Principle, because without it, it is harder to challenge ourselves to truly widen the circle of love and bring the news from nowhere.

Here I return to the disturbing events of the hour–the epidemics we are suffering from. In 1817 White men, like William Ellery Channing whose famous sermon is likely being celebrated this Sunday, equivocated on slavery. They equivocated on justice. Not so with Wedderburn. While proclaiming his Unitarianism, he wrote, that when speaking against racism, white supremacy, and the belief that one human could some how own another, “my fury shall be felt by princes, bidding defiance to pride and prejudice.” He reminded the downtrodden, the oppressed, the enslaved, “I have read the word of God, and it says, the Lord gave the earth to the children of men. You are the children of men as well as others.” He boldly brought the news from nowhere and proclaimed that something so many thought impossible–an end to slavery–not just possible but imperative.

His ministry should remind us that we are called to bring the news from nowhere and proclaim that what seems impossible–an end to gun violence, a reweaving of the broken fabric of society–is not just possible but imperative. It should help us to recall that there is another way. We are called to help bring that way into being. Our religious ancestors, our great cloud of witnesses, demand that we do so. Our proposed Eighth Principle commits us to do so. There is another way. That it may be so, in honor of the Rev. Robert Wedderburn, I invite the congregation to say Amen.

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