Joseph Jordan (1842-1901), the first African American to be ordained as a minister by the Universalist denomination, founded the First Universalist Church of Norfolk, Virginia in 1887 and initiated an educational effort for African American children in Norfolk and vicinity. The missions and schools that were his legacy served thousands of children and families in eastern Virginia over the period of a century.
Joseph Jordan (pronounced “Jerden,”and sometimes mistakenly referred to as “Joseph H. Jordan” in published references) was born in June 1842 a free man in West Norfolk, Virginia, on the Elizabeth River a little downstream from the city of Norfolk, one of several children of Elizabeth Jordan. From an early age he took up the trade of oysterman, as did many other free Blacks of the time. When he was 21, he moved to Norfolk to seek greater opportunity. There he married Indianna Brown, also free-born. The couple had three children, only one of whom, Thaddeus, lived to maturity. Some years later Indianna left to go on her own, taking Thaddeus with her. The Jordans were divorced in 1890.
Jordan several times changed occupations—becoming a laborer, a grocer, and finally a carpenter. As a carpenter he earned enough money to buy or build several houses in the Norfolk suburb of Huntersville. He was then able to live off the rent. Literate, skilled, and a property owner, Jordan was among the elite of his race and poised to become a leader in his community.
Jordan felt deeply about religion. By 1880 he had been ordained a Baptist minister. A few years later a Methodist colleague gave him Thomas Whittemore‘s The Plain Guide to Universalism, 1840, and asked him what he thought of it. The book made an immediate, powerful, and lasting impression on him. Whittemore’s book explains the goodness of the universe, the loving parental guidance of the Almighty for all of humanity, and the promise of salvation for all. It is not known which passages particularly attracted Jordan, but Whittemore makes it clear that Universalism was not a religion for the bigoted, but for those who could accept that God’s love is extended equally to all—the powerless and the powerful, the oppressed and their oppressors. By contrast the prevailing attitude among Blacks in the 1880s, as subjugation and segregation became increasingly implanted in Southern society, was that white oppressors would surely suffer in hell. Jordan was ready to devour all he could find on Universalism. He soon added John Bovee Dods’s sermons to his growing library on his new faith.
No longer able to preach the Baptist faith, Jordan continued to ply the carpenter’s trade while he pondered what to do. In 1886 he went to Philadelphia, where he knew there was a significant community of Universalists, and called on Edwin C. Sweetser, minister of the Universalist Church of the Messiah. Jordan remained in Philadelphia seven months, studying and worshiping under Sweetser. Their mutual respect increased and approached friendship. Studying with Sweetser deepened Jordan’s faith and led him to explore the theological writings of Universalist ministers Alonso Ames Miner and Thomas Baldwin Thayer, among others.
Returning to Norfolk, Jordan began to preach the Universalist faith to anyone who would listen. He rented a room at 42 Lincoln Street as a chapel, which shortly was packed with worshipers. Employing his skill as a carpenter, he fashioned a pulpit. He and his congregation of twenty families formally organized themselves as a Universalist mission on June 29, 1887. Yet parents increasingly came to the mission pleading for Jordan to establish a day school to help their children gain better opportunity in this world. Jordan agreed to do all he could to meet this urgently-pressed need, and do so within the Universalist church.
Jordan then asked Sweetser whether he could become a recognized Universalist minister. Sweetser referred the issue to the Universalist General Convention, which issued Jordan in 1888 a formal licence to preach for one year, a normal step toward ordination. The following year a Universalist Ordaining Council of three ministers (including Sweetser) and four lay persons met with Jordan in the Church of the Messiah to examine his fitness for the Universalist ministry. The council found him to have a “clear and bright mind” and to be “free alike from pretension and from abjectness.” “He believes in us, and knows why” the council concluded, and his candidacy proved to be “exceedingly satisfactory.” Upon unanimous recommendation, the next day—March 31, 1889—Jordan was ordained as a Universalist minister at a ceremony in the Church of the Messiah. The Universalist denomination had welcomed its first African American minister.
The Rev. Joseph Jordan returned to Norfolk with crates of books and hopes that the Universalist faith would spread ever more widely in the African American communities of the South. The Universalist General Convention quickly admitted his church into fellowship. The Lincoln Street house soon bore a sign proclaiming “The First Universalist Church of Norfolk.”
The rented chapel room was soon so crowded that a larger space was needed. The congregation was unable to afford a church of its own. In 1893 Jordan addressed the General Convention held in Washington, D.C. on the need to fund a building in Norfolk. Donations added up to $2,758, enough to build a church and provide for some of its furnishings. The new building, containing a sanctuary and church school room, was dedicated in November 1894. It was located on Princess Anne Avenue in the heart of the black community of Norfolk. Sunday evening worship attracted up to 35 congregants. The church was occasionally attended by white Universalists, who were without a church of their own in Norfolk.
Jordan was pleased that the new building provided for a well-appointed day school to meet the needs of the educationally-denied black children of Norfolk. In his estimation church and education went hand-in-hand to help people live life with dignity, purpose, and effectiveness, and to empower them and their community. In the new building he and his assistants taught day school to 90-100 community children during the week.
Universalist missionary Quillen Shinn organized a chapter of the Young People’s Christian Union in the church and envisioned great plans for expansion of the “mission to the Colored people.” “No man can be a Universalist whose love did not take in all races and colors of men,” Shinn proclaimed, adding that “if the glad [Universalist] message had been understood and obeyed, [Black people] would never have been slaves.” Radical equality through mutual love and respect was a most challenging doctrine for the Jim Crow South of the time.
By 1900 day school attendance had settled down to an average of 50 pupils, served by a staff of three teachers. Desire for education by African American parents in Norfolk remained high. Despite other private and church-sponsored schools for Blacks, demand always outstripped opportunity. Universalism as a faith, however, was radical in its social implications and debated in the local Black press. As a local institution, The Universalist church seemed a challenge to the established Black churches, and as a national institution, it was white and segregationist. Jordan’s congregants tended to be from among the more independently-minded new residents of Norfolk, people who were attracted to the city from the rural South and were likely to move on to northern cities in search of greater opportunity. Regular subsidies by the Universalist General Convention kept the church open and the day school going. Nevertheless, while the day school remained strong, the congregation lost key lay people and withered.
In 1896 Jordan married Mary Elizabeth Clark, 27 years his junior, and a teacher in his school. Their son, born later that year, was named Richard Sweetser Jordan, in honor of Jordan’s Universalist mentor. Joseph Jordan died on June 3, 1901, at age 53* of an unknown disease. The funeral was held in the church he had founded, his colleague and successor, Thomas E. Wise, officiating. Ministers from other Black churches attended, suspicion about the foreign and strange Universalist faith having somewhat lessened. The following year the young Richard Sweetser Jordan died of tuberculosis, and his mother of the same disease the year after that.
With the passing of his immediate family, proceeds from Jordan’s estate went to the Universalist General Convention. These were used to support the growing Universalist mission in Suffolk, Virginia, a daughter mission created by the Norfolk church. Without steady leadership, the First Universalist Church of Norfolk and its day school declined and in 1906 were closed. Attempts over the next decade to revive a Norfolk congregation of African American Universalists failed. The church building that Jordan had lovingly built was sold and became a billiard parlor. Yet the Suffolk mission grew, prospered, and remained, until its close in 1984, a vital legacy of Joseph Jordan’s calling to the Universalist faith and to his people.
It should be noted that Joseph Jordan was not a relative of Joseph Fletcher Jordan, the Universalist denomination’s third African American minister, who in 1904 became minister of the Suffolk mission church and principal of its associated day school.
A prime source of information on Joseph Jordan is the denominational newspaper, the Christian Leader, later the Universalist Leader. Other sources include the records of the Universalist General Convention and the Shinn papers in the Unitarian Universalist Special Collections, Andover-Harvard Theological Library, Harvard Divinity School, in Cambridge, Massachusetts; United States census records; and local official records. No writings of Joseph Jordan have yet been found. His story is briefly told in Russell Miller, The Larger Hope, vol. 2 (1986).
Article by Willard C. Frank, Jr.
Posted March 17, 2003
*Age calculation incorrect, it should read 58 or 59. Changed 12 May 2011