07 May 2007

Judge Sanford M. Green, Unsung Universalist

As a booster of Universalist history, I present here a brief biography of a little-known but important Universalist in American history. -- Gwen Foss

Judge Sanford M. Green (1807–1901) was well known throughout Michigan as a remarkably fair and incorruptible jurist. Contemporaries described him as “impartial and courteous in its best sense . . . He had no pride of opinion. He was willing to change his ruling if convinced he was wrong. He did what he thought was right regardless of consequences. He was absolutely incorruptible, and no one ever thought he was anything else. In criminal cases he was especially careful of the rights of defendants. In the imposition of sentences he was justice itself.”

Green arrived in Michigan in 1837 and settled in Owosso. As was true of most land-holding men in his day, he was elected to township office, where he held a number of positions, including justice of the peace. His excellent knowledge of the law led to his being appointed prosecuting attorney within a year, and he retained this position five years. Without campaigning or asking anyone to vote for him, he was elected in 1842 to the state senate, representing an enormous but largely unpopulated district encompassing Oakland county (just north of Detroit) and everything else to the north. He served in this capacity for four years, moving to Pontiac, Michigan, in the spring of 1843. At this time the state capital was Detroit and he traveled back and forth many times between the two cities.

Green served on the judiciary committee throughout his entire time in the legislature, becoming committee chair in 1844. The legislature was so impressed with his grasp of jurisprudence that they voted to install him as commissioner to revise the Michigan statutes. As humble as ever, Green argued that he was not eligible and did not want the responsibility, but every senator except two signed the nomination. Green’s thousand-page document appeared in 1846. His revisions were so practical and so well written that they were adopted almost immediately. In fact, when Green retired from public life in 1887, the Bay county bar cited his revisions of the Michigan statutes as “a monument to his industry and learning” and noted they were still in use forty-one years later.

In 1848, Green was appointed judge of the fourth circuit, which at that time covered the whole northern part of state. This position also placed him on the state supreme court, since the court was comprised of the five circuit judges. He sat on the supreme court until 1858, when the court system was reorganized.

Great numbers of people were moving west during this period, and the population of Michigan was growing enormously. The number of judicial circuits expanded rapidly. In 1852, Green took his seat as judge of the seventh circuit, which he held until 1867. During the 1860s he authored Green’s Practice and its several revisions, and became known for his treatise on the powers and duties of township officers. Among his own writings he most esteemed his treatise entitled Crime: Its Nature, Causes, Treatment, and Prevention, which appeared in 1889.

After a few rather disagreeable years in private practice, Green returned to the bench in 1872, serving until 1887 as judge of what was now the eighteenth circuit. His re-election in 1881 was particularly remarkable: without ever campaigning, he appeared on the ticket of every party and received every vote but five.

Sanford M. Green was also a Universalist. He gave indirect help to the small congregation in Farmington, Michigan, in 1845, while he was a resident of Pontiac and busy on his revision of the Michigan statutes. Though he was still a member of the state legislature, he was sitting out the 1845 session in order to devote his full time to this important work. Nevertheless, Green also undertook the task of acquiring a preacher for the benefit of the Pontiac Universalist society, to spread the good news of universal salvation to the ever expanding frontier.

In July 1845, Green sent a letter to the Rev. Dolphus Skinner of Utica, New York, requesting that a Universalist preacher be sent to Michigan to take charge of the society in Pontiac. Skinner had just the man in mind. He replied: “Brother Edward M. Woolley of Bridgewater, Oneida County, New York, has made up his mind to remove to the West,” and recommended Green obtain him. The New York pastor praised Woolley as “a most worthy and estimable man, a well-informed and zealous preacher, always ready and on hand, and will sustain himself manfully against any opponent you can find.” He added, “I know of no one in the denomination that I think would do better than he would for the interests of your society and the cause, if you can obtain him.”

Immediately, Green sent a formal invitation to the highly praised preacher. Woolley agreed to make the journey and stay in Michigan six months, beginning the first Sunday of October, to preach for the Pontiac society, and also to decide whether this place might make a suitable new home for himself and his family. This would not be the preacher’s first visit to Michigan, for he had taken a brief tour of the state, as well as parts of Wisconsin and Illinois, two years earlier.

excerpted from:

Heretics in Farmington: The History of the Universalist Unitarian Church of Farmington, Michigan, by Gwen Foss, to be published as soon as is practical


Memoir of the Rev. Edward Mott Woolley, by his daughter, the Rev. L. Fidelia Woolley Gillett, assisted by the Rev. A. B. Grosh. Boston: Abel Tompkins, 1855

Michigan Census of 1845, records for Pontiac

The Public Services of Hon. Sanford M. Green,” by Thomas A. E. Weadock of Bay City, published in the Michigan Pioneer and Historical Collections, Volume 17, edited by the Michigan Pioneer and Historical Society, Lansing: Robert Smith & Company, 1892 (article dated 1890), pages 357–367

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