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Facing Our Past: All Souls Unitarian Church, NYC, 1819-2020

By Mary Dugan. The past matters because the future matters—history is as much about the future as it is about the past!

We acknowledge our past…

New York State outlawed slavery in 1827. However, New York City’s wealth was firmly founded on profits from slavery. Bankers, ship owners, and others who financed the slave economy were members of All Souls.

On the subject of abolition of slavery and the mixed reception of that movement in NYC including in All Souls, in 1834 there was a frightening 4-day riot by workingmen targeting abolitionists and Blacks. In 1836, All Souls hired an “acting” pastor Charles Theodore Christian Follen, an abolitionist, who was instructed not to preach abolition. However, on Thanksgiving Day he “delivered an impassioned anti-slavery sermon. Several prominent congregation members walked out.” * Follen was told he could not stay beyond another six months. In contrast, Bostonian William Ellery Channing, the preeminent Unitarian preacher and leading liberal theologian, came out against slavery by 1835 and continued his advocacy, helping legitimate the movement in the eyes of Unitarians and others.

In 1845, abolitionist and Unitarian minister Samuel Joseph May, a friend of Channing and of our minister Henry Whitney Bellows, published in William Lloyd Garrison’s Liberator newspaper a list of leading Unitarians who did not sign on to an antislavery circular and Bellows’ name was on it. **

By 1850, even in a city that was so divided on the subject, there was increasing dismay about the Fugitive Slave Act. On Sunday, March 3, 1850, Bellows announced he would preach on slavery that evening. The Trustees and a wealthy ship owner begged Bellows not to do so. But Bellows stuck to his plan, the first time he dared speak publicly on the subject. In 1854, George Lee Schuyler quietly left the church because of “politics in the pulpit.”

When the Civil War started, Bellows and All Souls members went all out for the Union forces. Recruits were dying quickly in fetid Army camps through lack of food, care and hygiene, even before arriving on the battlefield. Thinking people saw that the Civil War would not be won if these conditions continued unabated.

Frantic about the horrible death rate among recruits, our women members, among them Louisa Lee Schuyler, organized 4,000 New York women into the Women’s Central Relief Association, and implored corrective action from Washington, choosing Bellows to go to Washington and make it happen. Meeting repeatedly with the Army brass, the Secretary of War and the President, Bellows secured an order establishing the U.S. Sanitary Commission (which later became the American Red Cross). For four long years, Bellows spent much of his time in Washington and traveling the country to visit camps and battlefields including Gettysburg, preaching in cities and raising large sums for the Sanitary Commission while playing a visible role in binding together the nation.

We shape our future…

We acknowledge our full truth as best we know it, that we prospered as Blacks suffered and died…and yet, we gave our minister, Bellows, the freedom and time to organize nationally for support and care of all soldiers, White and Black, helping win the Civil War that ended slavery. After the Civil War, we know that Reconstruction was limited, and new forms of oppression took the place of old ones.

Now, how best to serve justice? What history are we going to make today?

"They [enslaved people] have stabbed themselves for freedom—jumped into the waves for freedom—starved for freedom—fought like very tigers for freedom! But they have been hung, and burned, and shot—and their tyrants have been their historians!"

~ Lydia Maria Child, Unitarian, 1833.

* Walter Kring, All Souls minister, Henry Whitney Bellows, 1979. ** Courtesy of Christopher Cameron, associate professor of history at University of North Carolina, Charlotte.

By Mary Dugan, Treasurer All Souls Historical Society Email:

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