Having heard that a popular and celebrated minister of Universalism was passing through their home town of Rochester, New York, members of the First Universalist Church saw an opportunity and kidnapped this clergyman as their own… Okay, maybe this didn’t actually happen. But what did actually happen was that two members of the First Universalist Church of Rochester, New York were posted at the station to intercept the minister, which they did and mentioned to him the idea of coming to their church to stay. After some convincing, the minister actually agreed. By May of 1846, fifty-six believers joyfully signed a charter of incorporation, and the church they began building was dedicated, debt-free, the following year. This first church was located on South Clinton Street near Main Street, across the street from the current Chase Bank building. However, today the First Universalist Church of Rochester, New York is located at 150 South Clinton Avenue and this is where Chris and I went for our tour.
When you go to the part of the City of Rochester where the First Universalist Church is located, you have two choices of where to park, which is either at a metered spot on the street or in a parking garage where you have to walk a block. Fortunately, because it was Sunday, there was no fee at the meter or in a garage, so we chose the garage and walked. Chris and I actually entered the church separately as I stayed outside to take some pictures. Due to the way I entered the building, I was greeted by a woman who introduced herself to me and asked me if I was attending the church for the first time. I in turn introduced myself, explained my purpose for being there and that I was also looking for our guide for the afternoon, Karen Dau. This woman then escorted me to the sanctuary and pointed out who Karen was in the audience. (I had previously corresponded with Karen Dau via email for several weeks before our tour and felt like I already knew the lady, even though she and I had yet to meet in person). I then saw Chris sitting by his lonesome self in the very back pew so I went and joined him.
Even though we were at a Universalist Church, one can immediately see the different banners hanging from the balconies representing the different symbols of Hinduism, Islam, Buddhism, Christianity, Judaism, Taoism, etc. As Chris and I were sitting waiting for the service to start, a woman sitting in front of us introduced herself to us. But what stood out about this woman was her outfit, which looked very similar to a traditional Hindu sari, plus the small ornamentation she had fixed to her forehead that looked similar to a bindi, or the “third eye” also commonly associated with Hindus. Now I am not saying that what this lady had on was odd by itself, but it did seem odd to see someone wearing such dress in a church, but then remembered we were in a Universalist Church.
The service eventually got underway and started with the lighting of a chalice at the front altar, except that there really is no altar. Instead, the front of the church is more of a stage and on the stage are two chairs and a podium. At the back of the stage is a built in bench-seat flanked by two staircases that lead up to an upper balcony where the organ is stationed. There was a young guy that walked back and forth from the organ to the piano that was down on the main floor in front of the pews in between the various announcements and sermons. The most noticeable thing for me was that there was never anything read out of the Bible, plus the songs that were sang were out of hymnal that included songs and hymns from all sorts of other various cultures and religions from all over the world. The title of the main sermon of today’s service was called “Radical Hospitality” and was read by Reverend Martha Munson. Reverend Munson explained that she wished to challenge the congregation to consider how welcoming they actually are of new people to the church, people of different faith systems, people of different socio-economic status, and people in their lives outside of the church. It was a bit ironic for Chris and I to be sitting their hearing this since we were the new people in the church, but I can vouch that we were welcomed by several different members of the congregation who all were incredibly friendly and helpful. As the service came to an end, the woman who originally greeted me when I walked into the building again reintroduced herself and asked how we had come to be in attendance for today’s service. Chris and I then explained to her what we do and how we write the blog. For the first time ever, someone we had never met, nor knew of prior, shared with us that she actually knew of our blog and had found it completely on her own and she was a fan of ours! Chris and I thought this was totally cool and we were very flattered.
Chris and I then walked over to our guide Karen Dau and introduced ourselves. Karen jumped right up and led us over to a side pew where we then sat and talked. Karen is the historian of the Rochester First Universalist Church and is an incredibly warm, friendly and welcoming woman, in addition to being very knowledgeable and informative. Karen shared with us that she has been a Universalist for 40 plus years and a member of the Rochester Universalist Church for over 20 years. After making some small talk, Karen then delved into sharing the history of the church with us and mentioned the story of the kidnapping that’s at the beginning of this post (You thought I made it up, didn’t you?).
I won’t repeat some of Universalism’s history that Chris wrote about here, but is important to remember that modern-day Universalists stress the universal principles of most religions and accept other religions in an inclusive manner, believing in a universal understanding between humankind and the divine. Universalism as a belief took on many different forms within each of the world’s major religions and the term ‘Christian Universalism’ is often used when discussing how the belief system came to America. As Chris mentioned in his post, Dr. George DeBenneville is often credited for being one of the first preachers of Christian Universalism in the USA, and did so in Pennsylvania in 1741, after coming to the US from London. However, nearly 30 years later, another man who moved to America from England, named John Murray founded the first Universalist Church in Massachusetts in 1774. This then set the precedent to make Universalism its own religious denomination right here in America (which I guess technically wasn’t actually America yet). Universalism began to rapidly grow and by the 1830s, is generally thought of to have reached its peak, right in the middle of the Second Great Awakening.
The Second Great Awakening is often thought of as a time of Protestant revivalism and a time when the ills of society were being remedied to prepare for the Second Coming of Christ. Karen explained to us that the rise of Universalism during the Second Great Awakening is generally thought to have grown rapidly in direct contrast to those opposed to this revival in Protestantism. While many Universalists at this time considered themselves Christians, Protestants certainly did not think of them as “real” Christians and Universalists were certainly ostracized on a regular basis. In the ‘burned over district’ in good old Rochesterville (yes, that’s what it was called at the time), first recordings of Universalism being preached occurred in 1819, and the first incorporation of a Universalist Church happened in 1824, but failed. Then, a second incorporation occurred again in 1841, but that one also failed. Fortunately, the Universalists did not give up and a third incorporation transpired in 1846 and it is this congregation that has been continuous ever since.
The famous clergyman that the Universalists convinced to minister at their church that was mentioned at the beginning of this post was named George Washington Montgomery. Montgomery was able to help the Universalists battle the on-going prejudice they were experiencing and to help the congregation actually grow, and Montgomery himself became a well-known and popular figure in Rochester at the time. After Montgomery left the church, modest prosperity and increased acceptance within the community continued and expansion and remodeling were also accomplished. By 1874, an agreement was reached by the First Universalist Church, Temple B’rith Kodesh and the First Unitarian Church to hold a Thanksgiving Day Service and dinner, which has been observed every year, ever since. Then, much to the congregation’s surprise, in 1907 a generous offer was made from a developer who wanted to raze their newly remodeled church and build a hotel on the site. The congregation could not refuse the offer and chose a location only a block away at 150 South Clinton Avenue, which is where the current First Universalist Church exists today. The former site was then destroyed and the Seneca Hotel was built, which was also eventually destroyed for the creation of Midtown Mall…which now has also been destroyed. (I’m seeing a pattern here). The new First Universalist Church of Rochester was created by architect Claude Bragdon, who used the nearly 1500 year-old Hagia Sophia Mosque in Istanbul, Turkey, as inspiration for his design (selfish bragging right…I’ve been to the Hagia Sophia!).
As Karen, Chris and I continued talking and walking around the church, Karen shared with us that she is not the biggest fan of Bragdon’s design and even calls it “Bragdon’s Bungle-oh,” which we found quite funny. Karen explained to us that several of the former stained glass windows of the original church were used by Bragdon in the new church, and includes the old rose window now being in the ceiling of the new church. Plus, the ‘Sargent’ window was also brought over and is really one of the highlights in the whole church. The window is named for its donors, James Sargent and his Angelina Foster Sargent, two of Rochester’s wealthy inhabitants at the time. Bragdon’s design also included a second-floor gymnasium, but today this area of the church has been converted into two floors of class rooms. The reason for the inclusion of a gymnasium in the new building is because at the time, the local YMCA, being that it is a Christina organization, would not allow the Universalists into their facility because they are not “real” Christians. Karen expressed her frustration to us of not having any pictures of this former gymnasium (so if anybody out there reading this has any pics of this, please let us know!). Karen also took us up to the organ; made by the Hope-Jones Organ Company, which is a bit unique since it has two, separate faux stacks of pipes on either side of it, rather than just one stack of pipes.
One thing that I intentionally left out of this post until now is that the Universalist Church eventually joined with the Unitarian Church in 1961 and is now officially known as the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA). Karen shared with us that both faiths really had so much in common that it made sense for a joint partnership, and that today the church we were standing in and the Unitarian Church on Winton Road are now technically the same organization. With that being said, there are many who have mixed feelings about this partnership, especially because it has now become quite common in our society to refer to this religion simply as ‘Unitarian,’ and not acknowledge the Universalist component which is ultimately leading to the erosion of the Universalist identity. Since Chris and I have now been to both congregations, we can see how similar both congregations are, especially in their acceptance of various faiths and lifestyles. However, the most glaring difference between the two congregations is in the physical buildings, since the Universalist Church is old, historic and is located downtown, while the Unitarian Church is new, modern and nearly in the suburbs.
Karen eventually took us to the Clara Barton lounge, which is ultimately where we ended out tour. Clara Barton is the most famous person that the Universalists can claim as their own. Clara Barton had a long association with the women’s suffrage movement and was an activist for civil rights, but is most well-known for founding the American Red Cross. (Plus, the first local society of the Red Cross in America was founded in Dansville, NY, where Clara Barton maintained a country home). Although Clara Barton is not known to have attended the Universalist Church of Rochester, she is well documented to have been an avid follower of the belief system. Karen surprised us when she told us that besides the occasional Hindus, Muslims, Jews and Catholics that attend the Universalist Church, there are also few agnostics as well. It seemed to us as we thanked Karen for her time, that as long as UUA remains universal, it will continue to have a long, interesting history.