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Thomas E. Wise

Thomas E. Wise Thomas E. Wise (b.July 25, 1868) was the second African American Universalist minister. After serving with the first African American Universalist minister, Joseph Jordan, at the First Universalist Church and school of Norfolk, Virginia, he founded two other Universalist missions in southeastern Virginia.

Thomas was born on July 25, 1868 in the settlement of Sycamore City, Norfolk County, Virginia. He was the second of three sons of Michael and Mary Ann Wise, an oysterman and a homemaker. As a child he worked in the fields as well as attending school. He studied at Howard University in Washington, D.C., where at age 22 he was married. Thomas and Ida H. Wise had three children: Albert born in 1892, Gilbert born in 1899, and a third child who died in infancy.

Wise's scientific education led him to doubt his orthodox faith. Exploring Universalism, he learned of the work of Joseph Jordan in Norfolk. After living for a while in Delaware, the Wise family returned to southeastern Virginia and moved into the Huntersville neighborhood on the edge of Norfolk, where Jordan lived. By the early 1890s Wise had joined Jordan as a teacher and associate in the Norfolk church, and soon became the academic principal of the school and a tireless organizer.

In 1894, prominent Black citizens of Suffolk, twenty miles from Norfolk, called upon Wise to establish a school in Suffolk like the one he served in Norfolk. He rented a hall and organized a Universalist mission and church school. He served this on weekends, and taught at the Norfolk school during the work week. The Suffolk mission benefited from the good contacts Wise had in the community. His spirited defense of the faith in the pages of the Black press countered attacks on Universalism by other local Black ministers and brought defections from the congregations of established churches into the fold of the Universalist mission.

That same year the Universalist denomination granted Wise a preliminary licence to preach. The following year, while he was attending the Young People's Christian Union in Boston, the ordaining council examined him and found him fit for the Universalist ministry. Quillen Shinn, general missionary of the Universalist Convention, credited Wise with "the organizing genius of a missionary" and said that "I wish all white ministers were as sincere and consecrated." The ordination ceremony took place in the Norfolk church on October 16, 1895, Jordan preaching the sermon. Several white Universalist ministers and lay persons were in attendance for the two-day festivities.

The Universalist General Convention, stimulated by having now a second Black minister and a second mission in the South, and with the hopeful vision of wide expansion of the faith among African Americans, solicited funds for a church and school building in Suffolk. Shinn continued the fund-raising as a personal challenge, raising over $1,000 by 1897. This was enough to purchase a lot on Tynes Street in Suffolk and build a two-story mission building. Much of the labor and some of the materials were donated by local craftspeople attracted to Universalism. The building was dedicated as "St. Paul's Universalist Mission" on December 22, 1897. Shinn enthusiastically participated in the ceremony and forecast an early expansion of the mission. Wise shared this enlarged vision.

As Wise remained heavily engaged in the Norfolk school, in 1898 he engaged other teachers for the Suffolk mission. Among these was his wife Ida, who had just received her diploma from the Norfolk school. The Suffolk day school at first had 40 pupils. By 1901 276 were enrolled. The average attendance was only 76, however, as the children had to work in the fields and mills to help sustain their families. Church attendance was never high, and the mission church remained dependent on the mission school. The community nevertheless grew to accept the Universalist faith and school. Wise was a welcome guest in the pulpits and church schools of the established churches and lectured at community clubs.

After the death of Joseph Jordan in 1901, Wise and his family moved to Suffolk and occupied the apartment on the second floor of the mission building, leaving the Norfolk school in the hands of less capable teachers. Attendance in the Norfolk school declined to an average of 22, a fourth that of Suffolk. Wise acted as administrator and pastor for both missions, preaching to each congregation on alternate Sundays, and promising a great future for both missions. With Shinn's support he founded a third mission at Ocean View, eight miles north of Norfolk, where Black residents employed at the white seaside resort had no educational opportunities. In 1903 the new Ocean View mission had twenty students under a newly-hired teacher. Wise promised that all three mission churches and schools would soon become self-supporting. As the missions depended on his enthusiasm, he was unable to sustain the ones at which he was not a steady presence.

Denominational leaders, of whom the most prominent was John van Schaick, Jr, feared that these missions were unsound financially, that Wise's promises were empty, and that his Universalist doctrinal foundation was shaky. The Universalist General Convention in 1903 appointed a commission composed of Shinn, van Schaick, and General Superintendent Isaac M. Atwood to investigate. The commission, realizing that Wise was overextended, recommended that only the Suffolk mission should remain open and that it should adopt the Hampton Institute model of craft training, popularized by Booker T. Washington. Wise, on the other hand, hoped to retain all three missions and, influenced by the educational philiosophy of W. E. B. Du Bois, wanted to continue academic education for the most talented young people.

Although Wise maintained outward optimism while juggling his many responsibilities, the strain of working with little support from most white denominational leaders took its toll. Discouraged, in March 1904 he gave up the effort and left the Universalist fold. He joined the African Methodist Episcopal Church, taking eight members of the much weakened First Universalist Church of Norfolk with him. He soon moved out of the area, and nothing is known of his further life. The Universalist denomination, however, found a successor to Wise in Joseph Fletcher Jordan, to whom Shinn transferred his hopes for the future of the Virginia missions.

Prime sources of information on Thomas E. Wise are the denominational newspaper, the Christian Leader (later the Universalist Leader); 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. His story is briefly told in Russell Miller, The Larger Hope, vol. 2 (1986).

Article by Willard C. Frank, Jr. posted May 9, 2003

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