I Keep Running into Frances E. W. Harper

During the 2017-18 church year (July 1, 2017 – June 30, 2018), we featured Frances E. W. Harper. Below, you can read about her life. During worship throughout the year, we heard her poems and considered how her words and actions can inspire us today.

Well, I keep running into Frances! On Thursday night at General Assembly, the annual Service of the Living Tradition was held. Rev. Sofia Betancourt preached, and she referred to Frances E. W. Harper, reminding us of this powerful female, African American Unitarian who lived in the 1850s. The quote Rev. Betancourt used was one we have returned to over the last year:

“We are all bound up together in one great bundle of humanity, and society cannot trample on the weakest and feeblest of its members without receiving the curse in its own soul.
…Look hopefully to the future.
For the shadows bear the promise of a better day coming.”

It was fun for all of us UUCB folks to hear the familiar words and once again take them in, this time at a national gathering of Unitarian Universalists.

Then, I ran into Frances again! I was reading a book called Ecowomanism: African American Women and Earth-Honoring Faiths by Melanie Harris. The author describes how Ecowomanism embodies both theory and praxis (action). The theory shapes the action, and the action shapes the action. I quote Harris here:

“ For example, the theory of racial uplift articulated by W. E. B. Du Bois influenced the praxis and activism of civic empowerment organizations such as the National Association of Colored Women’s Clubs. In keeping with (and expanding) the theory of racial uplift, this organization adopted the motto lift as we climb. It was led by some of the most renowned African American women educators, community leaders, and civil rights activists of the nineteenth century; women including Harriet Tubman, Frances E. W. Harper, Josephine St. Pierre Ruffin, Margaret Murray Washington, Ida B. Wells-Barnett, and Mary Church Terrell (the organization’s first president). [They] helped shape a praxis-oriented ethic that guided African American communities into liberation.”

There is Frances! Right in the mix with Harriet Tubman, Ida B. Wells-Barnett and others.

Then, I opened a box of note cards I recently bought – each card with a Unitarian Universalist quote. Yep, there was Frances. “Intense love is often akin to intense suffering.”

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Anyway, I just love that a African American Unitarian woman has been so influential in our country. And even though we will feature someone else in the church year ahead, I hope we’ll keep running into Frances, remembering how influential her words and thoughts can be, still today.

Rev. Kelly

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Here is more on Frances E. W. Harper (excerpt from my sermon on September 10, 2017):
Frances was born free – to free parents – in Baltimore, Maryland in 1825. After her mother died in 1828, Frances was raised by her aunt and uncle. Her uncle was the abolitionist William Watkins, and her cousin, William J. Watkins became an associate of Frederick Douglass. She received her education at her uncle’s Academy for Negro Youth and absorbed many of his views on civil rights. The family attended the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) church.

At the age of fourteen, Frances found a job as a domestic worker in a Quaker household where she was given access to their library and encouraged in her literary aspirations. She began to to write poems which appeared in newspapers, and in 1845 a collection of them was printed. In 1859, her short story “The Two Offers” was the first to be published by an African-American.

In 1860, Frances Watkins married Fenton Harper, a widower with three children, and they moved to Ohio. Their daughter, Mary, was born in 1862. Just two years later her husband died in 1864.

Harper first became acquainted with Unitarians before the Civil War because of their support of abolition and the Underground Railroad. She and her daughter settled in Philadelphia in 1870, she joined the First Unitarian Church.

Both Unitarians and the AME church have claimed Harper as a member, and she was reluctant to choose between the two. AME was the church she had been raised in. It was family and home. Her reasons for joining the Unitarian church, on the other hand, may have been partly political. She had contacts in both black and white communities after her first book of poems was published, but many doors remained closed to her. The Unitarian church provided a rare opportunity for the races to meet, and the Unitarians could help advance the causes she supported in places she could never go.

Harper’s theology was Unitarian. Christ was not a distant God to her, but a role model for the kind of exalted existence that all human beings could attain. In 1911, her funeral service was held at the Philadelphia Unitarian Church.

Here is one of her poems called The Mother’s Blessing.

Oh, my soul had grown so weary
With its many cares opprest,
All my heart’s high aspiration
Languish’d in a prayer for rest.

I was like a lonely stranger
Pining in a distant land,
Bearing on her lips a language
None around her understand.

Longing for close communion
With some kindred mind and heart,
But whose language is a jargon
Past her skill, and past her art.

God in mercy looked upon me,
Saw my fainting, pain and strife,
Sent to me a blest evangel,
Through the gates of light and life.

Then my desert leafed and blossom’d,
Beauty decked its deepest wild,
Hope and joy, peace and blessing,
Met me in my first-born child.

When the tiny hands, so feeble,
Brought me smiles and joyful tears,
Lifted from my life the shadows,
That had gathered there for years.

God, I thank thee for the blessing
That at last has crown’d my life,
Soothed its weary, lonely anguish,
Stayed its fainting, calm’d its strife.

Gracious Parent! Guard and shelter
In thine arms my darling child
Till she tread the streets of jasper,
Glorified and undefiled.