“The most active spirit in the dissenting group….”

“The most active spirit in the dissenting group”: Universalism, Democracy, and Antislavery in the Hartford of John Milton Niles, 1816-1856. Journal of Unitarian Universalist History, pg. 100-126 (Summer 2015), Robert Reutenauer

The Reverend Daniel Foster was forthright in his encouragement of the freethinking members of the Poquonock Congregational Church in their apparent attraction to Universalism. His liberality soon went too far, however, for the Windsor, Connecticut church elders; in 1783, they asked him to leave its “troubled” pulpit. It was distressing to these Yankees that the Calvinist orthodoxy of human depravity, limited atonement, and the futility of individual action was giving way to the optimism of moral free agency and the simple creed of salvation for all under the care of an eternally benevolent deity.

Soon after the election of Thomas Jefferson to the presidency in 1801, the Poquonock Universalists, by then a majority among the faithful, gained control of the church society, the building, and its funds. Windsor, home of the Poquonock congregation, was one of only a handful of towns in Connecticut to send Jeffersonians to the legislature during the democratic “Revolution of 1800.” Only fifteen or so of these “Jacobins,” in the language of the dominant Federalist Party, held office in the General Assembly in 1799. By 1803, about forty of the two hundred members in the lower house were Jeffersonian Republicans. The near simultaneous emergence of these two developments – liberal religion and “democracy” – was no accident; and in the early life of John Milton Niles, they would together collide with the Connecticut Standing Order.

As a young boy growing up in Windsor, on a farm just south of the fractious Poquonock church, John Milton Niles was an early witness to the on-coming democratic assault on the status of Federalist political, religious, and economic elites. Of five children born to Moses and Naomi Niles, John was the second son, born in August 1787. After Moses died, Niles took responsibility for the farm and his younger siblings, while also attending the local common school and worshipping with the Universalists. By his late teens, he was teaching at the school, work he left in his mid-twenties to study law in the office of a local Democratic- Republican.

After the War of 1812, Niles ventured beyond rural Windsor into the often-hostile Congregationalist and Federalist stronghold of Connecticut. About this time Episcopalians were finally ready to end their erstwhile junior-partner status in the Standing Order. They had become frustrated with the General Assembly’s continued unwillingness to charter an Episcopal college. A scandal in which funds from the Episcopal-chartered Phoenix Bank were reportedly diverted to Yale College was the last straw. Episcopalians joined Methodists, Baptists, and freethinking dissenters like Niles to inaugurate the American Toleration and Reform Party in 1816. Extension of the suffrage to all free white males, religious toleration, judicial reform, separation of powers, disestablishment of the tax-supported Congregationalist Church, and a written constitution to replace the still-operative royal charter of 1662 were the policy goals of this movement.

In support of the cause, Niles issued a reprint of the first American edition of The Independent Whig, a series of anticlerical essays known as Cato’s Letters, authored in 1716 by the British “commonwealth men,” John Trenchard and Richard Gordon. The first American edition appeared in 1724 and was extremely popular and influential among the early revolutionary generation. In his lengthy preface, Niles reminded his readers that the original publication of these essays in London had “brought on the most violent opposition and attacks from the bigots and the legal hierarchy.” To publish them again, here and now, was worth the risk, he contended. Only by “free enquiry” and the “circulation of ideas” can civil liberties exist.

He targeted the clergy, “who in despotic governments …will always be found in league with the oppressor,” calling them the main obstacle to free thought in Connecticut. He accused them of approaching their ministry as “a trade and religion itself as merchandise.” The Congregationalist monopoly on this “trade” in Connecticut was enforced by the state government. He complained of the clergy’s “peevishness of temper, and the extreme impatience with which they hear contradiction. A furious and implacable spirit of persecution,” awaits those who cross them.

The church-state establishment was, according to Niles, the primary impediment to the progressive improvement of society. Both institutions, civil and religious, were corrupt, “leading to superstition and intolerance in the one and oppression in the other.” The remedy, Niles concluded, was “democracy”— popular self-government, within a new constitutional framework.  Sustaining this critique would be central to the life and work of John Niles for the next forty years.

A Democratic Newspaper Editor

In December 1816, Niles moved to Hartford and set up a newspaper printing press. The first edition of the Hartford Times came out on January 1, 1817. The Times introduced itself as a paper “whose principles are those of republicanism… and the encouragement of toleration and of the equality of civil and religious privileges.”

Between January and April of 1817, Niles used the Times to outline a case for the toleration program and against the “steady-habits” tradition in Connecticut politics and culture. The Times editorial column radiated scorn for “those men who have abused the good sense, and unsuspecting confidence of our citizens,” predicting that the “days of their glory are past and the days of their shame are at hand.” Niles took aim at the infamous “Stand Up” Act of 1801, a law requiring voters at town meetings to nominate candidates by openly standing up rather than by secret ballot. The law was “intended to give an undue influence to the rich and powerful; to overcome the poor man and make him silent, and yield his vote in subservience to their will.” Niles considered this “an important link in the chain which has been fabricated by our rulers to fetter the poor and build up a moneyed aristocracy in the state.”

On April 15, 1817, the Times proclaimed “Toleration Triumphant.” Oliver Wolcott, Jr. had become governor by a slim margin and the reformers had gained a large majority in the Assembly. While the “backbone of the Federal party was broken” in the election, wrote Niles, “the political change which has taken place… is at present merely personal, being only a change of men.” Niles was clear that the Times would keep up its fervent advocacy for democratic change: “The people have no prejudices or attachments to men…only to the cause; and in this they have been zealous, uniform, and ardent and will so continue.”

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“It’s a Heart Problem.” Reverend Dr. Barber’s Long Summer

President’s Column.
Unitarian Universalist Church in Meriden
Robert Reutenauer. October 2016

A dozen members of our congregation joined a packed auditorium for the Reverend Dr. William J. Barber’s rousing oratory— “It’s a Heart Problem”— at Central CT State University on September 8. Reverend Barber’s North Carolina “Moral Monday” movement, which inspires duplication as he travels the nation, has become a force in many of our lives in a very short time. Our anti-racism ministry is key in helping us realize our mission. Angie Swimage-for-website-due-justice-9-8anger leads these efforts, and has done a wonderful job making sure that we  are practicing loving community, advancing justice, and nurturing spiritual growth while we are at it!  Witness our church’s deep involvement in Moral Monday CT and the newly formed  D.U.E. Justice group that sponsored his talk.  UUCM was well represented for the National Day of Action/Moral Monday CT demonstration in Hartford on Monday, September 12.

Reverend Barber spoke at the UU General Assembly this summer and later at the Democratic National Convention. Many of us watched on live feeds or streamed later.  It’s a Heart Problem,” he repeated convincingly all summer long while calling attention to how extremists expect to remake America by defunding state government in the interest of wealthy people and corporations. They hope that curbing federal health care and unemployment benefits to millions of qualified people in the states will be accepted as necessary for a healthy business climate. Cuts in public education, deregulation of polluting industries, denial of equal protection for gay and lesbian people, skyrocketing incarceration, and suppression of voting rights of minorities are key planks of this agenda.

The recent and continuing North Carolina experience of fight back against this well funded extremism is detailed in  Reverend Barber’s 2016 book The Third Reconstruction: Moral Mondays, Fusion Politics, and the Rise of the New Justice Movement.  The book has been a “common read” for our Anti-Racism work this summer. What we learned from the book will no doubt feature in the “Revolutionary Conversations” series led by Bishop John Selders, a close Barber ally, at UUCM this Fall.

What does a 21st century social justice coalition look like? This is the question he asks in the book and that his organizing and preaching answers.  First, it must be a moral movement.  “We cannot let narrow religious forces hijack our moral vocabulary,” he charges.  “At the heart of all our religious traditions are truth, justice, love, mercy.”

It must be a broad and unified movement of justice loving people united in a coalition and committed to each others issues and to a strategy of “fusion” that can make real the promise of democracy. “We cannot come together to work for the common good by ignoring our deepest values…. We stand together where our values unite us and learn to respect one another where our traditions differ.” All manner of people are welcomed
— religious and secular, union members and merchants, immigrant rights activists and environmentalists, gay and straight, young and old, rich and poor, employed and unemployed, of all national origins, racial, ethnic and cultural identities.  No one says it will be easy.

It takes a long time to make history.  “Faith-rooted moral battles do not advance on schedules that make sense to us,” he writes partially as explanation for his title : The Third Reconstruction.  The First Reconstruction followed the Civil War emancipation of four million enslaved people, new constitutional guarantees of equal protection and full citizenship rights including voting. The Second Reconstruction defines the civil rights era when federal laws (1964, 1965, 1968) were enacted to bring these constrevdrbarberitutional guarantees (13th, 14th, 15th)  to life. One hundred years later. And we are still counting and being counted.

Resistance is our confirmation. We have enemies and they are powerful.  Extremist reactionary measures and violence rolled back  gains in economic and racial pr
ogress of the first two Reconstructions.  Barber delights in reminding us that the the “good news” of the bible  “ends not with Jesus taking Jerusalem through a popular uprising”  but his execution as an enemy of the state.  Two thousand years later and the world’s bequeathed from Rome and Israel measure calendar time by the date of that execution! Nonviolent civil disobedience in the face of similar dangers, he exhorts,  “is a tool to demonstrate our capacity for struggle” tomorrow and over the long haul of the Third Reconstruction.

“Cause and Consequence”

Bronterre O’Brien (1805 – 1864) was an Irish Chartist leader, reformer and journalist. Chartism was a working-class movement for political reform in Britain. It took its name from the People’s Charter of 1838 and was a national protest movement. Support for the movement was at its highest in the 1840s, when petitions for universal male suffrage signed by millions of working people were presented to the House of Commons.

“Knaves will tell you that it is because you have no property, you are unrepresented. I tell you on the contrary, it is because you are unrepresented that  you have no property. Your poverty is the result not the cause of your being unrepresented!”   Bronterre O’Brien  

O’Brien’s powerful rhetorical untangling of cause and consequence in matters “political” and “economic” were featured instructively by the historians who, following EP Thompson’s Making of the English Working Class (1963) crafted a  “new social history” from the voices of those at the bottom looking up.  Thompson’s wife Dorothy and his student Gareth Stedman-Jones did most to bring us Chartist O’Brien’s calls to clarity and action.

Pleased to see this kind analysis alive in a recent LA Times piece.

“Economic inequality is the cause and the consequence of our racial problems”
July 11, 2016 Michael Hiltzik LA Times