Jabez Thomas Sunderland (February 11, 1842-August 13, 1936) was a Unitarian minister and reformer. Attempting to influence the direction of American Unitarian development, he unsuccessfully opposed Jenkin Lloyd Jones in the Western Unitarian controversy of the 1880s. His lasting importance followed from two lengthy visits to India. Sunderland’s assistance to liberal religious movements in India and his later support for the Indian freedom movement were of historic consequence.
Jabez was born in Yorkshire, England, the fifth child of Thomas Sunderland, a farmer, and Sarah Broadhead, a trained weaver. His parents were Methodist. Sarah taught Sunday School and was a church leader. Unable to make an adequate living on their Yorkshire farm, Thomas and Sarah in 1844 followed other members of the Broadhead family to Busti in western New York State. Thomas became ill shortly after they arrived. Medical treatment worsened his condition and made him an invalid until his death in 1849. Sarah ran the farm and supplemented the meager family income with her weaving.
In 1852 the family joined a Baptist church. Jabez attended district schools in summers and winters and at 14 enrolled for a term at Jamestown Academy. A year later he left home to stay with relatives in Iowa. Already planning to study for the ministry, he joined a local Baptist church and attended college in Burlington, Iowa.
During the Civil War Sunderland served with the Seventh New York Heavy Artillery which defended Washington, D.C. until 1864 and then took heavy casualties in battles near Petersburg, Virginia. Able to resume his education, he graduated from the University of Chicago (B.A., 1867 and M.A., 1869) and the Baptist Theological Union (B. Th., 1870). Still in seminary, he served a Baptist congregation in Omaha, Nebraska and afterward another in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, 1871-72, although his theological ideas had begun to change by the time he entered the ministry. He had become acquainted—most probably in his university years—with Unitarian Transcendentalist authors. He later described himself as “a radical of the Theodore Parker and Emerson type” and, emulating Parker, argued, “The foundations of religion are not in a book. They are rather in the soul of man.”
In 1871 Sunderland married Eliza Jane Read, also a Baptist with liberal religious ideas. Together they joined the Unitarians in 1872. As a converted clergyman Sunderland was recommended to a small New England congregation, the Unitarian church in Northfield, Massachusetts, which he served, 1872-76. He returned to the midwest as minister of the Fourth Unitarian Church of Chicago and, in 1878, was called to the Unitarian church in Ann Arbor, Michigan. In Ann Arbor he was also engaged as a missionary by the American Unitarian Association (AUA). He traveled around Michigan, preaching and gathering churches.
During his early years in Ann Arbor, Sunderland cooperated with the influential Wisconsin minister, Jenkin Lloyd Jones, who was both Secretary of the Western Unitarian Conference (WUC) amd editor of the radical Chicago-based journal, Unity, to which Sunderland contributed. In 1882, however, Jones proposed for the Conference a non-theological banner: “Freedom, Fellowship and Character in Religion.” To Sunderland this wording was too like the motto of the Free Religious Association and did not communicate the Unitarians’ “historic connection with a great past—with what is highest, sweetest, most vital in Christianity.”
Sunderland became Secretary of the WUC in 1884 and began a campaign to relate the Conference more closely with the explicitly Christian American Unitarian Association (AUA) and also to lead the Conference to adopt a statement of theological principles. He justified his efforts in his annual report of 1885, writing, “We have tried to make our movement so broad that its constant tendency has been to lose all cohesiveness, or significance, or inspiration, or power, or value.”
In 1886 he helped to found a new journal, the Unitarian, an alternative to the non-traditional Unity. Brooke Herford and Sunderland served as editors of the Unitarian, Sunderland until 1895. The magazine, its editors proclaimed, would “hold to our old freedom from dogmatic creeds and yet stand clearly for belief in God and worship and the spirit of Christ.”
Sunderland brought simmering differences to a head in 1886 when he issued a pamphlet, The Issue in the West, in effect, a manifesto. He asked whether Western Unitarians were truly ready to give up the Christian and theistic character of their historic roots and declared that unless Unitarians could show they stood for something more than generally accepted ethical principles, their churches were doomed. “By hauling down our Theistic and Christian flags,” he wrote, “and running up in their place the Ethical only, I am convinced we should seal the fate of Unitarianism in the West.”
In 1886 the WUC met in Cincinnati. Sunderland moved a resolution, “That, while rejecting all creeds and creed limitations, the Western Unitarian Conference hereby expresses its purpose as a body to be the promotion of a religion of love to God and love to man.”
Sunderland’s resolution was not adopted, partly because the delegates feared their Secretary was proposing a test for imposing theological discipline, though he intended no such thing. In Sunderland’s liberal estimate, Jones and other radical Unitarians who rejected the label “Christian” were actually liberal Christians. In his view the struggle was not between radical and conservative, but rather “distinctly between radical, broad, progressive, ethical theism—theism in its most advanced and undogmatic form—and non-theism.”
The Sunderland resolution having failed, the Conference adopted a resolution employing non-theistic language offered by William Channing Gannett, one of Jones’s colleagues on the editorial board of Unity. Sunderland soon resigned as Secretary of the WUC and helped to form the Western Unitarian Association, an organization of churches closely aligned with the AUA. The AUA Board, though pleased with the new organization, chose to appoint someone less controversial as their agent in the West.
In 1887 the WUC adopted Gannett’s celebrated statement, “Things Most Commonly Believed To-day Among Us.” Sunderland remained aloof from the Western Conference for several years, regretting its lack of commitment to “pure Christianity,” a term widely used among New England Unitarians to indicate a liberally reformed Christianity, minus the centuries-long “corruption” of orthodox “accretions.” But in 1892, he proposed a compromise. He moved that the Conference add a clause to “Things Most Commonly Believed” declaring that the purpose of the WUC was “to promulgate a religion in harmony with the foregoing preamble and statement.” Acceptance of the amendment marked the end the Western controversy.
The Brahmo Samaj, a Calcutta-based Hindu religious and social reform movement, was founded in 1828 by Rammohun Roy. It had been from its inception closely aligned with British and American Unitarians. In 1895 Sunderland was traveling in Europe and the Middle East. The British and Foreign Unitarian Association recruited him to continue on to India to negotiate a settlement among three factions of the Brahmo Samaj. He not only reunited the factions; he revitalized the movement. He did not set up a Unitarian mission to compete with Brahmo Samaj, but rather arranged that British and American Unitarians should send financial support, books and missionaries to assist with its growth and development. Young Indians were to be educated at Manchester College (Unitarian) in Britain.
Sunderland’s broad conception of Christianity, misunderstood by colleagues whose beliefs were nearly identical with his own during the Western Unitarian controversy, was put to good use as he sought common ground between diverse cultures in India. He wrote, “Our faith is the same, our ideals are the same, our spirit is the same. Our names differ. But in what we are endeavouring to be and do we are one. Even in the matter of the spiritual leadership of Christ, I find, somewhat to my surprise, that there is practically no difference. . . . I find that most of them hold as strongly as we do, that he is the greatest of the world’s prophets and religious teachers.”
Early in 1896 Sunderland made an arduous trip—carried in a basket or climbing over cliff terrain—to a recently organized indigenous Unitarian church in the Khasi Hills of Northeast India. He had since 1887 corresponded with Hajom Kissor Singh, the Khasi Unitarian church founder, and had reported on the progress of the Khasi church in the Unitarian. The first “European” to visit, he initiated the practice of sending Unitarian missionaries to the Khasis, who named their school after him. Khasi Unitarians, honor him as one of the most important figures in their history.
On his first visit to India Sunderland met intellectual and political as well as religious leaders. Among these were Pundita Ramabai, Justice Mahadev Govind Ranade, and Bengali nationalist Surrendra Nath Banerji. He was the first American to attend an annual meeting of the Indian National Congress. When he applied his values of freedom and human equality to the Indian situation, he was frustrated both by the traditional caste system and by British imperial rule.
After an unsuccessful pastorate in Oakland, California, 1898-99, Sunderland spent a year in London, England, 1900-01. He then served in Toronto, Ontario, 1901-07; Hartford, Connecticut, 1907-11; and Ottawa, Ontario, 1912-13. In these years he lectured on Indian religions and Western missions to the subcontinent. His tract, Christian Missions in India, c.1896, was critical of both Christian and general Western influence upon Indian culture. The missionary activity he supported rose above sectarianism.
Sunderland’s broad church theistic theology took form around the idea of evolution. In The Spark in the Clod, 1902, he argued that the theory of evolution does not undermine religion, but strengthens it. He found evolution “profoundly theistic,” making “the universe full of God, as no other theory known to man does, certainly far more than the Genesis theory itself does.” God, instead of being remote and withdrawn, “an absentee God,” is “a creator within . . . in all things from atom to sun.”
Evil Sunderland saw as a consequence of incompleteness in our evolutionary development. “No, it is not a fallen world that we are in, but a rising one.” He held Christianity to be a work in progress, being purified through evolution. Its purpose is to “enable men to become workers with God,” co-creators in an evolving faith. He believed humanity would not be extinguished after its brief day, but share in a deserved immortality. He believed the human species, as creatures who can understand justice and righteousness, to be fulfilling God’s evolutionary program. Were God to destroy humanity, “the rationality of the universe breaks down.”
In 1908 the Atlantic magazine carried Sunderland’s article “The New Nationalism in India,” an indictment of British rule in India. He described Britain as an oppressive drain on the wealth of India, as crushing a potentially competent civilization and holding its people in a condition of starvation and illiteracy. He asked, “Are there peoples whom it is just to rule without their consent? Is justice one thing in England and Canada and another in India?”
Ministering in Hartford, Sunderland helped found the India House in New York City, a residence for Indian students studying in the United States. He served as vice-president of the Society for the Advancement of India.
In 1913 the AUA appointed Sunderland Billings lecturer to travel in Japan, China, and India. In The Mission of the Unitarian Faith, 1913, he argued “the liberal faith by its very nature is calculated for humanity as a whole.” Unlike other Christians who had gone to proselytize in the East, “we go not to destroy such venerable historical religions such as Buddhism, Hinduism, Confuscianism, or even Mohammedism, but to assist such of their followers to improve them, to purify them, to reform them, to let shine upon them the light of modern knowledge, and thus purge away their superstitions and their lower elements, and lift them up to the level of their own best teachings.”
During his second stay in India, 1913-14, Sunderland began to reconsider the paternalism inherent in his Mission tract. He developed a close friendship with Ramanada Chatterjee, editor of the Modern Review, a journal to which Sunderland contributed articles on inter-religious understanding and on such historically important American figures as Abraham Lincoln, Thomas Jefferson, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and William Ellery Channing.
In 1914 Sunderland settled in New York City and took on a part-time post at a small church in Poughkeepsie, New York to which he commuted by train. His interest in India was now more political than religious. In 1918 he became vice-president of the Home Rule League of America, an organization promoting Indian self-rule. He contributed 15 articles to the League’s radical journal, Young India, 1918-20, and edited it for a year. He worked closely with Lala Lajpat Rai, leader of the Arya Samaj, another Hindu reform movement. With Scott Nearing, Norman Thomas and Oswald Garrison Villard, publisher of the Nation, he promoted internationalism, the League of Nations, and opposition to British rule in India.
Sunderland collected many of his articles and essays in the book, India in Bondage, 1929, which was suppressed by the government of India. Time magazine praised Sunderland’s outspoken, if extreme, criticism of British rule. Chatterjee, Mohandas Gandhi and Rabindranath Tagore sent him letters of gratitude.
Sunderland retired in 1928 and moved back to Ann Arbor. He died there at the age of 94, following an accident. His memorial service at the Community Church of New York was an international and interfaith event. Haridas Mazumdar, who presided, spoke of Sunderland as a Maharishi upon whom all Indians could look with pride and awe.
The Sunderland papers—including correspondence with Mohandas Gandhi, Rabindranath Tagore, and William Lloyd Garrison, Jr—are located at the Bentley Historical Library, the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. The library of Meadville/Lombard Theological School, Chicago has a large collection of sermons, lectures, and clippings. This collection may be transferred to the University of Michigan in the near future. As well as the items discussed above Sunderland also wrote the books The Bible: Its Origin, Growth and Character (1893), James Martineau and His Greatest Book (with Eliza Read Sunderland, 1905), Rising Japan (1918), Because Men Are Not Stones (1923), and Eminent Americans Whom India Should Know (1935). Among his many published pamphlets, tracts, and sermons are The True Cross of Christ (1894), The Causes of Famines in India (1900), Three Centuries and a Half of Unitarianism in Hungary (1907), Eliza Read Sunderland: A Brief Sketch of Her Life (1912), The Orient and Liberal Religion (1913), and The Story of Channing, His Life, Thought and World-Wide Influence (1921).
The early life of Sunderland is described in James and Jabez Thomas Sunderland, Biographical Sketch and Recollections of the Lives of Thomas Sunderland (2d) and Sarah Broadhead Sunderland (Lovell) and Genealogical Notes of Their Ancestry and Posterity (1914). Short accounts of Sunderland’s life are found in John Haynes Holmes, “Jabez T. Sunderland, 1842-1936,” Christian Register (3 Sept. 1936); Charles Lyttle, Freedom Moves West (1952); Samuel A. Eliot, ed., Heralds of a Liberal Faith, vol. 4 (1952); Spencer Lavan, “Unitarianism and Acculturation: Jabez T. Sunderland in India: 1895-1896,” Unitarian Historical Society, Proceedings (1973-1975); and Lavan, Unitarians and India: A Study in Encounter and Response (1977, rev.eds. 1984, 1991).
Article by Spencer Lavan
Posted October 16, 2003