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Building Respect: Reverend Joseph Jordan (1842-1901)

By Janeen Grohsmeyer.

When Joseph Jordan (pronounced Jerden) was born in Virginia in 1842, slavery was still legal. Most people of African descent were treated as property, like horses or dogs. They were bought and sold; they had no rights. Whether enslaved or free, people of color were not treated with respect.

Joseph had been born free, in a small community on the Elizabeth River. He learned to read and write. At a young age, he began to work on the river harvesting oysters, alongside the men. When he was twenty-one, he moved to the city of Norfolk. Joseph found work, first as a laborer, then as a grocer, and finally as a carpenter, building furniture and houses with his hands.

He married Indianna Brown, and they had three children and built a new life together. The Civil War had ended by now. Slavery was gone, and many other people also needed to build new lives. Joseph worked hard. He bought land and built more houses, which he rented to other families.

But even though people could no longer be bought and sold, true freedom had not yet arrived for African Americans. The laws were unfair, and it was hard for African Americans to find places to live, or good jobs, or schools of any kind. Joseph had become a Baptist minister, and when he preached on Sundays he sometimes spoke of the sins of the white oppressors, and how God would surely punish them by sending them to burn in hell for all eternity.

Then a friend gave Joseph a book, The Plain Guide to Universalism, and he read of God's promise of salvation to all: the powerless and the powerful, the oppressed and their oppressors alike. Universalism said that everyone, no matter who they were or what they had done, was a child of God. Joseph also knew that Jesus had said: "Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you." So Joseph stopped preaching a message of vengeance, and he began preaching a message of respect and love.

Joseph wanted to learn more about the Universalist faith, so he went to Philadelphia to study with a Universalist minister at a Universalist church. The people there treated him as a person instead of a thing, as a fellow child of God, as someone worthy of respect. The seven members of the Universalist Ordaining Council found him to have a "clear and bright mind" and gave him a unanimous recommendation. On the thirty-first of March 1889, Joseph Jordan officially became a Universalist minister, the first African American to be ordained by the Universalist denomination.

Joseph returned to Norfolk, Virginia and opened the First Universalist Church of Norfolk in a rented room. He built the pulpit with his own hands. His friend Thomas Wise, who was the second African American to be a Universalist minister, founded another mission in the nearby town of Suffolk. The congregations grew quickly, and with the help of donations from other Universalist churches, the Universalists in Virginia soon built new meetinghouses and schools.

Dozens of African American children came to learn, for there were few other schools available to them. Joseph knew that education was vital and would help provide people with lives of dignity and purpose. Joseph worked every day, teaching during the week and preaching on Sundays, sharing the Universalist message of God's love for everyone.

Joseph Jordan died in 1901, when he was fifty-nine years old. Over many decades, the churches and schools Joseph Jordan helped build gave thousands of families in Virginia a chance to learn and a place to be treated with respect.

For more information contact web @ uua.org.

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Last updated on Thursday, March 15, 2012.

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