from the editor
Will we be abolitionists this time?
Sometimes articles can open our eyes on more than one level. This issue's cover story focuses us on the disquieting news of how widespread slavery is today. It's clear that each of us is implicated in buying things with slave labor content, but this morally challenging topic is also tangled in Unitarian Universalist history. Kimberly French, who researched and wrote the slavery coverage that begins here, also sorted through the reasons Unitarian Universalists rightfully take pride in our history of standing up against slavery—and through the reasons not to take too much pride.
French says we rightly claim many nineteenth-century abolitionists: Samuel J. May, Thomas Wentworth Higginson, Julia Ward Howe, Theodore Parker, and Sylvanus Cobb Jr., among others. Many Unitarians and Universalists of the time followed their leadership, often at great personal risk. Parker himself hid and defended fugitive slaves, helped finance slave insurrections, and delivered fiery antislavery sermons. In 1850 a federal grand jury indicted him for obstructing a federal marshal in the case of a fugitive slave in his congregation. In 1843, inspired by Sylvanus Cobb's efforts, the United States Convention of Universalists passed a resolution “to bear testimony against the slavery of the African race. . . .”
Yet, most Boston Unitarian ministers supported the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, which set up federal commissioners to catch and return escaped slaves. And many of the Boston Brahmins at the core of Unitarian membership were, in fact, industrialists who profited enormously from slavery: New England textile mills used slave-grown cotton from Southern plantations. As abolition gained ground among Unitarians, many industrialists left the denomination. Many Southern Unitarians—who owned slaves—also withdrew.
This bit of history has cautionary parallels with twenty-first–century slavery, and again, French found, UUs have much to be proud of: For two decades the UU Holdeen India Program has been at the vanguard of a new abolition movement. The stories of Holdeen and three other UU organizations active in fighting slavery are here.
Contemporary antislavery activists have praised the denomination. “Three groups have been our biggest supporters—blacks, Jews, and UUs,” Charles Jacobs, director of the American Anti-Slavery Group, said at the 2003 General Assembly. “You are an abolitionist church.” And Kevin Bales, a leading slavery researcher and a Quaker, told French: “I have to congratulate UUs. I'm a little embarrassed to say there's no Quakers Against Slavery. And through UU Holdeen, you've been there already for a long time, doing things that really mattered almost before anyone else became awakened.”
But will modern abolition become a broad commitment for twenty-first–century Unitarian Universalists? Again we have a chance to bend the course of history toward justice.
It is my pleasure to announce that with this issue French, a stalwart and frequent contributor, joins UU World 's masthead as a contributing editor.