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Guide to the First Unitarian Congregational Society of Brooklyn records ARC.109

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Collection processed by Craig P. Savino

This finding aid was produced using ArchivesSpace on May 17, 2018
Finding aid written in English. using Describing Archives: A Content Standard

Historical Note

In June 1833, forced between choosing a ferry ride to Unitarian services in Manhattan or attending services of a different denomination in Brooklyn where they would be refused communion, a group of ten men (John Frost, Josiah Dow, George Blackburn, William H. Carey, William H. Hale, Henry Leeds, Seth Low, Alexander H. Smith, and Charles and Thomas Woodward) set to forming a Unitarian society in Brooklyn. The First Unitarian Congregational Society of Brooklyn was incorporated two years later as the thirteenth functioning church in Brooklyn and the first in the city to be controlled by its congregation. As its place of worship the First Church constructed the Church Of The Saviour on Pierrepont Street by Monroe Place in 1844. The building was designed by architect Minard Lefever in the Gothic Revival style.

The First Church operated a settlement school and Sunday school out of the chapel adjacent to the Church of the Saviour and through the Furman Street Mission until 1876 when, under the guidance of settlement teacher and community figure Alfred T. White, the Congregation completed Willow Place Chapel on Willow Place near Joralemon Street. Willow Place Chapel functioned as a space for evening church services and as a site for much of the First Church's social service and community outreach, particularly through club work. With the help of figures like Alfred T. White and Minister H. Price Collier, settlement and community work at Willow Place Chapel expanded until the First Church had to build an extension of the facilities in 1906 called Columbia House.

In 1840 twenty-two of the First Church parishioners, finding dissatisfaction in particular with Frederick Holland as minister, gathered to form a second society. Holland attempted to resign in 1841 but this resignation was rejected and the two congregations would not reunite until after Holland's second (and this time accepted) resignation in 1842. In 1851 fifty families seeking a more liberal theology would again leave the First Church. Legally organized in 1852, the second iteration of the Second Unitarian Congregation of Brooklyn installed Samuel Longfellow as its first minister in 1853. Longfellow fit the progressive nature of the congregation and not only preached a liberal theology, but also covered a variety of topics from the pulpit including the abolition of American slavery. Longfellow even gave one infamous sermon eulogizing and praising John Brown and his attempt to incite insurrection at Harper's Ferry. Longfellow resigned in 1860 and was succeeded by Reverend Nahor A. Staples, another liberal voice with some abolitionist views. John White Chadwick was another prominent minister of the congregation who became influential within Unitarianism and liberal theology. The Second Congregation sold its church and reunited with the First Church in 1924.

Another split from the First Church came in 1867 when, in order to accommodate parishioners of the First Unitarian Congregation who had been travelling from the Fort Greene and Clinton Hill neighborhoods, the Third Unitarian Congregational Society of Brooklyn was established. First Church minister Frederick A. Farley assisted in duties as a minister until the Third Congregation installed Stephen H. Camp as minister in 1869. Camp became the Third Congregation's most prominent minister and in addition to encouraging organized charitable works and teaching within the Congregation's Sunday School he also shepherded the Congregation from their first space in Unity Chapel (built in 1868 with the assistance of the First Congregation) to Unity Church (built in 1886). The Third Congregation sold its church and reunited with the First Congregation in 1925.

In the time that these three Unitarian congregations were separate from each other, the First Church became more involved in the growing Unitarian movement. Samuel A. Eliot was installed as minister of the Church in 1893 and a year later began serving on the board of directors for the American Unitarian Association (AUA). From this position Eliot helped change the management model of the AUA making it a more effective organization connecting the congregational and secular work of Unitarians. After leaving the First Church's pulpit in 1897, Eliot would go on to become AUA Secretary and then, in 1900, the first president of the AUA to be given executive power over the organization.

The First Church's involvement in national and international concerns grew further under the guidance of Minister John Howland Lathrop. Installed in 1911, Lathrop's tenure as minister spanned the period of both World Wars and he was active in advocating for peace not only during the wars, but also in regards to conflicts which occurred following each war particularly in Spain, China, Palestine, and Eastern Europe. Lathrop wrote many sermons and articles advocating for peace and international relief efforts and was involved with many like-minded organizations, including the National Peace Conference which he served as president. Lathrop also concerned himself with international ecumenical issues and kept up contact with churches in England, the Philippines, Mexico, Japan and Eastern Europe. Lathrop turned particular attention to the growth of Unitarianism in Transylvania and in his congregation's connection to Czechoslovakia. Lathrop kept up correspondence with the Masaryk family, a major political family in Czechoslovakia. In particular he communicated with social worker and president of the Czechoslovak Red Cross Alice Garrigue Masaryk. Alice was the daughter of Tomas Garrigue Masaryk, the first president of Czechoslovakia, and Charlotte Garrigue, a former member of the First Unitarian Congregation of Brooklyn. Lathrop was an important member of the Unitarian Service Committee trip to Czechoslovakia in 1946. Lathrop's focus was not exclusively international, of course, as he was focused on local issues particularly in regards to urban conditions, employment, housing, and education. In addition to growing the breadth of services provided by the First Church, like social psychiatric counseling for parishioners, Lathrop was heavily involved with groups outside the walls of the church that contributed to the community like the Civic Committee for Adult Literacy and the Brooklyn Urban League which he served as president for many years. Lathrop's prolific and important service to his congregation, community and the world went on even after his retirement in 1957, visiting the First Church yearly until his last visit in 1965, two years prior to his death.

The First Unitarian Congregational Society of Brooklyn continues to operate out of the Church of the Saviour in the Brooklyn Heights neighborhood.