1819–1837: How We Began

1819 – Lucy Channing Russel (1787–1863) invited about 40 friends to her house in lower Manhattan to hear her brother, Boston minister Rev. William Ellery Channing, speak. Mrs. Russel sent her 5-year-old son around the neighborhood with the invitations; he later recalled that the Quaker acquaintances of the Russels were particularly receptive to the invitation. Rev. Channing was on his way to Baltimore, where he preached a radical sermon (“The Baltimore Sermon”) in which he argued that the doctrine of the Trinity subverted the unity of God, that Jesus was fully human rather than divine, and called for the Bible to be interpreted through reason. He declared that Christian virtue had its foundation in the moral nature or conscience of humans, defined by love of God, love of Christ, and moral living. The message struck a chord, and hundreds of New Yorkers clamored to hear Channing when he visited again on his way back from Baltimore. This inspired the founding of the First Congregational Church of New York, which asked Rev. Channing to be its minister, but he refused. The church, which initially met in a townhouse at Broadway and Reade Street, changed its name and location several times in the decades ahead.  

Mrs. William Washington Russel (Lucy Channing), 1825, by Charles Ingham.
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

1819 – At the church’s first annual meeting, on November 15, the founders officially incorporated, adopt by-laws and elect nine trustees. They also settled on a name: The First Congregational Church of the City of New York. Ever since, November 15 has been celebrated as the official birthday of the church. There were 34 members. Like most, but not all, founders of Unitarian churches, the members were Congregationalists, and adopted congregational polity, which meant that there was no synod or bishop with authority over them. The term “Unitarian” was not used officially until after 1825, when the American Unitarian Association was formed. The church was generally referred to as “First Church.” When writing his first volume on the history of All Souls, Rev. Walter Kring entitled it Liberals Among the Orthodox because those who held liberal Unitarian views were a tiny minority in New York City. This was not the case for the Unitarians in Boston, which was a hotbed of religious liberalism.

1820 – First Church erected its first building on Chambers Street. Even before they had a full-time minister, early parishioners wanted a permanent space, so they paid $9,000 for land at Broadway and Chambers Street. The building, dedicated in 1821, had two front doors, a carpeted interior, and a circular skylight in the roof. The voting members of First Church were all men, as women were not yet allowed to vote or sign legal documents; however, they did much of the day-to-day work of the church, ministering to the sick and the needy and organizing charitable work. Among the members were lawyers, merchants, a newspaper editor, an owner of a glass factory, a spinning-wheel maker, traders and industrialists, all drawn by the idea of a tolerant, liberal religion. Catharine Sedgwick described the early congregation as “strangers from inland and outland, English radicals and daughters of Erin [Ireland], Germans and Hollanders, philosophic gentiles and unbelieving Jews…” 

The First Church building at Broadway and Chambers Street

1821 – Catharine Maria Sedgwick (1789–1867), one of the most famous female novelists of her time, joined the First Church. Along with her siblings, she renounced her parents’ strict Calvinist faith for the tolerance and religious freedoms of Unitarianism. Ms. Sedgwick was an early leader and writer participating in the rise of the post-Revolutionary generation of women who turned their personal experience and longings for education and independence into the stirring of the women’s movement. She went on to help break the shackles of Puritan Calvinism through her writing. Her best-known novel is probably Hope Leslie, published in 1827. This historical novel about Puritan New England addresses important social and cultural issues facing early-nineteenth-century America, recounting a story of a Puritan woman who is taken captive by Indians, assimilates, and marries an Indian. Catharine Sedgwick never married, although she received several marriage proposals. One of her most effective books is Married or Single? (1857) a stirring defense of the single state, in which her purpose was to lessen the stigma placed on the term “old maid.” 

Catharine Maria Sedgwick

Rev. William Ware

1821 – The Rev. Dr. William Ware (1797–1852, ministry 1821–1835) was called as the first minister of First Church at the age of 24, having just graduated from Harvard. He was the son of Rev. Henry Ware, a brilliant preacher and well-known liberal professor of theology at Harvard, and brother of Rev. Henry Ware Jr., who was also a professor at Harvard Divinity School. Although well respected, Rev. Ware was a timid public speaker.  Lucy Channing Russel once wrote of him in a letter to her brother, William Ellery Channing, “[O]ur little minister has so little aid. He still labours for us to the utmost and I hope not in vain; tho his want of manner will I fear ever prevent his being a popular preacher…”  William ultimately decided he was “unfit” for the minister’s role. In addition to feeling unsure of himself as a preacher, he was the pioneer Unitarian minister in the city, surrounded by more orthodox Christians. However, he stayed at All Souls until 1835, when he surprised the congregation by resigning to devote more time to his writing. His three novels, featuring strong women characters, were praised as passionate and charming, unlike his less-than-stirring sermons.

​1823 – The Charity School started operation. At a time when most children were educated at home and the wealthy had tutors, women parishioners set up a school in the church basement to teach those less fortunate. Catharine Sedgwick wrote that “Our plan is to have it kept in one of the lower rooms of the church, kept by a woman and superintended by the ladies. We mean to teach the children the rudiments of learning, how to mend and make their clothes, darn their stockings. Our society is small, and far from rich, but we hope to accomplish it.” In 1826 an article in the Unitarian Christian Examiner reported that during the previous year, 94 children had been enrolled in the charity school in the Church.  

 

​1825 – The American Unitarian Association officially embraced the term “Unitarian.” One hundred thirty-six years later, in 1961, the AUA consolidated with the Universalist Church of America to form the Unitarian Universalist Association.

 

1825 – Mary Waterhouse (1799–1872) married Rev. William Ware, the minister of All Souls. She was the daughter of Dr. Benjamin Waterhouse, the Harvard physician who introduced the smallpox vaccine in America.  

 

1828 – The Second Unitarian Congregational Church was established, with a building at Prince and Mercer Streets. Some members of the First Church switched to the new church. Second Church later changed its name to the Church of the Messiah, and then to Community Church. It is now located on East 35th Street near Park Avenue. 

1836 – Rev. Charles Theodore Christian Follen (1796–1840, ministry 1836–1838) began his service as Interim Minister after the departure of Rev. Ware, and served until 1838. A German immigrant who received his American citizenship in 1830, he is often credited with introducing the first decorated Christmas tree to America. One of his first sermons, preached on Thanksgiving Day 1836, shocked many of the congregation because he spoke strongly and emotionally about the evils of slavery. While many parishioners agreed with his views, they felt that he should not have expressed them so strongly. 

Rev. Charles Follen

1836 – The Transcendental Club began meeting in Cambridge, Massachusetts. This group, which met to discuss new developments in philosophy, began as a protest against the more intellectual side of Unitarianism. Members included the Unitarian ministers William Henry Channing, Frederic Henry Hedge, Theodore Parker, George Putnam and George Ripley, as well as Bronson Alcott, Orestes Brownson, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Margaret Fuller, Elizabeth Peabody, Sophia Ripley and Henry David Thoreau.  The Transcendentalists believed in an ideal spiritual state that transcended the physical and empirical, and could be realized only through the individual's intuition, rather than through the doctrines of established religions. Transcendentalism had a lasting influence on religion, philosophy, literature and culture, especially the movement of “Mental Sciences” of the mid 1800s, which became known as the New Thought movement.

© All Souls Historical Society 2020

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