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Rev Ethelred Brown: He mixed religion with politics

Published:Sunday | September 4, 2011 | 12:00 AM
The Rev Egbert Ethelred Brown

Ken Jones, Contributor

Egbert Ethelred Brown was essentially an evangelist. A righteous man from the days of his youth, he was first an Episcopalian; then feeling unfulfilled by that doctrine, he embraced the America-based Unitarian Association although it had no church here. He built that organisation in Jamaica, and, in 1912, became the first black man to be ordained a Unitarian minister.

As a confirmed and prominent pastor, Brown advocated a mix of religion and politics, and this led him into the Jamaican trade union movement, the ethnic struggle in the United States, and later secretary of the Jamaica Progressive League for 20 years. It was while in this position that he appeared before the 1938 West Indies Royal Commission led by Lord Moyne, promoting the cause of independence before that body and at meetings up and down Jamaica.

Ethelred Brown was born 1875 in Falmouth and lived there until his family moved to Montego Bay, where he worked in the civil service and played the roles of organist and lay preacher at Methodist churches. His conversion to the Unitarian religion came suddenly on an Easter Sunday. In his own words:

"I was a choirboy of Montego Bay Episcopal Church when the first ray of light broke through my Trinitarianism ... . It was Easter Sunday. We did not as usual sing the Athanasian Creed: it was recited alternately by the priest and the congregation. The strangeness of the Trinitarian arithmetic struck me forcibly - so forcibly that I decided then and there to sever my connection with the church which enunciated so impossible a proposition ... ."

Involvement in community affairs

In addition to his church work, Brown became involved with community affairs. He founded and led the Montego Bay Literary and Debating Society, and years later, helped form the Negro Progressive Association and the Liberal Association in Kingston, both in support of civil and economic rights for blacks. Later he moved to Spanish Town, but when he lost his job, the plight of the working class began to exercise his mind; so he mixed that with his religious fervour.

In 1918-19, there were serious strikes in the island, and the government passed the Trade Union Law in 1919 in response to pressures from Bain Alves, Ethelred Brown and others who were asking that trade unions be given legal recognition. Brown conducted a series of meetings at the Oddfellows Hall on King Street, Kingston. The theme of the lectures was 'Labourers Challenge to the Church', and at the end of each meeting names of workers interested in forming a union were collected. In 1919, the Journal of Negro History published Brown's 'Labour Conditions in Jamaica Prior to 1917', in which he criticised "... the cruel hours and low wages of black workers ... ."

At another stage, Ethelred Brown gave an address he called 'Four reasons why wages should be increased immediately'. His speech ended with advice to workers:

"You must work out your own salvation. I can well imagine a Jamaica, well-developed in its resources - a Jamaica transformed into an industrial hive and yet a Jamaica in which labourers may still be miserably paid. You must organise."

Immediate increase in wages

Brown kept stressing his belief that "... an immediate increase in wages will be the only just and effective method of stemming the extraordinary and undesirable, but under the circumstances inevitable, tide of emigration". Not long after, having a family and no steady employment, he joined the trek, deciding that he would go to America and change his career to full time in the ministry that had occupied his thoughts from childhood.

Shortly after his arrival in New York, Ethelred Brown established the Harlem Community Church, which held its first service in March 1921. To supplement his meagre support from the church, he worked as an elevator operator and at the same time, continued to encourage closer collaboration between the church and politics. Responding to Karl Marx's reference to religion as "the opiate of the people", Brown declared, "Religion is not an opiate, but a stimulant ... an incentive to noble deeds and a sustaining power in the hour of crisis."

When the Jamaica Progressive League was launched by Walter Adolphe Roberts in 1936, Ethelred Brown was the first secretary for the organisation; and he was among the small crusading group that returned to Jamaica to press the case for self-government and join in the formation of the People's National Party (PNP). Like Roberts and Wilfred Domingo, he held meetings, lectured and wrotearticles in furtherance of the aim of the Progressive League to promote "awakening of nationalism in the hearts of the people and a fighting movement to give effect to their aspirations ... ".

In an address given at St John's College in Kingston, he said:

"We are asking for self-government for Jamaica. This will be a unique experiment. It will be an experiment which is going, for the first time, to give a colony of England, not white, the opportunity to show the world that coloured people can govern themselves. It will be the first time that a colony like this has gone right up to England and said, 'We are ready to govern ourselves - give us the right. You have given Canada self-government, you have given Australia self-government, you have given New Zealand self-government; you have given Rhodesia - if you give it to these, who are whites, and refuse it to us who are not whites, then the only answer is that you still believe that black men are different and inferior ... ".

Lambasted imitators of things foreign

At one point he lambasted Jamaicans who, instead of joining the drive for self-determination, preferred "... to ape all things English and refer to England as 'home'. England is not your home, Jamaica is.

"You are not English. By God, you're not! You are not English, you are Jamaican. I was a Jamaican when I was British. I am still a Jamaican now that I am American. I love England - but I love Jamaica more. Hail, to the new Jamaica - the Jamaica that is to be! The Jamaica that will be in truth a Jamaica for Jamaicans!"

In answer, the bogey of dual citizenship was raised, even as it continues to plague the thinking of Jamaicans these days. A prolific letter writer wrote in The Gleaner:

"After reading in Friday's Gleaner a condensed account of the address delivered by the Rev Ethelred Brown to the Jamaica Progressive League, I drafted a letter on his right to appear before the Royal Commission to give evidence and to press for self-government for the island.

"A correspondent in today's issue has questioned this right. A remark by the reverend gentleman disclosed the fact that he is a naturalised American. Having abandoned his country and relinquished all the rights and privileges which are enjoyed under the Union Jack for the Stars and Stripes, he can hardly expect to return to lay down the law for British subjects or British citizens any more than a Cuban, a Panamanian or an American could."

At that time, dual-citizenship disqualification was but a straw blown with the wind by those against Jamaican independence. Little did Brown and the other pioneers of self-government know that when independence was finally obtained, they would be banned from participating in the running of the country.

After strenuous campaigning, Ethelred Brown returned to the United States to carry on his mixed mission of religion and politics. In New York, he worked as chief fund-raiser for the PNP; and in 1952, following the expulsion of the Four Hs, he was invited by Norman Manley to come back to Jamaica to help reorganise the PNP. He came and stayed for six weeks, and at a farewell party at the Bournemouth Club, Mr Manley thanked him for his "... untiring zeal in the interest of his native land ...". He said the PNP owed much to Brown.

Whatever was owed to Ethelred Brown has never been fully paid either by his party or his country. For all his work as a religionist, politician and fighter against racial prejudice, he never accumulated much for himself. More often than not he was financially challenged. In his last days, the Unitarian Church in America produced and named in his honour a hymn called 'I'm on My Way'. Naming the tune 'Ethelred' was described as "... a tiny way to try to make amends for the honour never given Ethelred as he struggled to start a black mission church in Jamaica in 1908." He was given a pension which he enjoyed until his death in 1956.

Ethelred Brown, Adolphe Roberts and Wilfred Domingo are the three men who pioneered Jamaica's march to self-government. Roberts was awarded the Order of Distinction (Commander class) years after his death. The other two got nothing for their legacy; and even if the authorities should choose to properly recognise them when the country celebrates 50 years of Independence, they will never know. However, such a corrective action could give generations of beneficiaries an understanding that, after all, there is value for service and virtue in the spirit of nationalism.

Ken Jones is a veteran journalist and communication specialist. Email feedback to and