A Brief History of the UUSA
[To read much of this history as presented in a Sunday service that included many archival photos, you can also click here.]
Before the 1870s, Amherst was a religiously conservative town, a stronghold of the traditional, Calvinistic Congregational faith. In fact, writing in 1820, resident Noah Webster of dictionary fame said of a new Congregational seminary, Amherst College, “We hope that this infant institution would grow up to . . . check the progress of [Unitarian] errors which are propagated from Cambridge.”
The conservative religious climate began to change in the 1870s, when the expansion of Massachusetts Agricultural College (now the University of Massachusetts Amherst) brought liberally educated faculty and students from eastern parts of the Commonwealth to town.
At least one circuit-riding Universalist minister, Quillen Hamilton Shinn, was known to have preached in Amherst. In 1887, Universalists began meeting regularly in Amherst, first in the Grand Army Hall, then in other borrowed spaces.
They called their first minister, The Rev. J. Harry Holden, in 1888. With their own funds, as well as loans and grants from the Massachusetts Universalist Convention and the Women’s Centenary Association, they set out to build a mission church in the popular Arts & Crafts style.
In 1893, the meetinghouse of the First Universalist Parish of Amherst opened its doors in the heart of downtown — on land that had been owned by that same Noah Webster from 1812-1822!
Even after its construction, this mission church depended on the Massachusetts Universalist Convention for financial support. When that funding was withdrawn in 1897, it struggled to continue.
Unlike Universalism, Unitarianism was thriving in America at this time. The pending loss of the only liberal church in Amherst was brought to the attention of the American Unitarian Association (AUA) by The Rev. Joseph H. Crooker and his wife, The Rev. Florence H. Crooker. It seems fitting that this man and this woman, the first a Unitarian minister, the second a Universalist minister, would be responsible for the merger in Amherst of members of their two faiths 64 years before the merger at the national level.
Like the Crookers, The Rev. Samuel Atkins Eliot, secretary of the AUA’s board of trustees, did not want to see an orthodox congregation take over the building of a liberal church. Plus, the town of Amherst could be ready for a new Unitarian congregation. Many local Unitarians had been active in First Universalist Parish all along, providing financial support and sending their children to its Sunday School. And so, he arranged for the meetinghouse to be purchased by the AUA.
In July of 1898, the AUA sent The Rev. William A. Ballou to Amherst to help organize the future congregation. In November, members of First Universalist Parish voted to disband. On that same day, a new entity, Unity Church, received its charter from the American Unitarian Association, in a move that brought Amherst’s Universalists and Unitarians officially together.
The 47 members of Unity Church asked The Rev. Ballou to stay on, but he declined. The first called minister, John W. B. Day, served from 1900-1903. Unity Church shared two other ministers, A. G. Singsen (1903-1905) and Arthur H. Coar (1907-1917) with the Holyoke Unitarian Church until it disbanded in 1917.
One of the people so instrumental in the creation of Unity Church in 1898, The Rev. Joseph H. Crooker, was by now retired. But he agreed to come out of retirement to Amherst as an interim Unitarian minister. His wife, The Rev. Florence H. Crooker, also spoke on occasion, returning a Universalist voice to the pulpit.
In 1919, The Rev. Henry Ives was called by the church. During his 10 years in Amherst, membership grew. In 1925, the meetinghouse was renovated to better accommodate the congregation’s size — with unexpected results.
For there had been a stowaway in the shipment of building materials!
As The Rev. Ives later wrote, “It belonged to the vegetable kingdom. Apparently it started with the new-laid wooden floor of the [basement] social room and stretched its greedy way to eat the life out of the beams and timbers which supported the roof. It crept up the walls like a thief in the night . . . North Carolina pine crumpled like dust after it had eaten its greedy meal from the pores of the wood. The back stairs might have fallen at the first real test of their strength. Huge blossoms like gigantic toadstools appeared where the floor and walls met. Scientists called this foe the house fungus and Unity Church became a Mecca for students of fungus diseases.”
The Rev. Ives asked the AUA for financial help to save the building. The reply was that it had none to offer, but Unity Church could have two sets of beautiful and valuable memorial stained glass windows by John La Farge and Louis C. Tiffany. These had been created for All Souls Unitarian Church in Roxbury, MA. The windows’ donors had stipulated that if the building was ever purchased by a different denomination, its many memorial windows should be given to other Unitarian churches. In 1923, All Souls’ members had merged with First (Unitarian) Church of Roxbury. The All Souls building was now on the market, so the AUA offered two sets of windows to Unity Church.
Unity Church successfully raised enough funds to repair the building, complete the remodeling, and pay for the installation of the windows from Roxbury. At the same time, it replaced a small pump organ with a used 320-pipe organ. This instrument, manufactured in 1886 by Steere & Turner in Springfield, MA, had been in the old chapel at Massachusetts Agricultural College, which no longer wanted it. William P. Brooks, a member of the church, purchased the organ and paid for its installation in the meetinghouse as a gift in memory of his wife, Eva Bancroft Brooks (1857-1924). The organ is still played in Sunday services today.
The Rev. Samuel Atkins Eliot, now president of the AUA, spoke at the rededication of Unity Church on October 2, 1925.
The Rev. Ives resigned from Unity Church four years later to sail around the world with his wife. In the decades that followed, the congregation was served by many ministers, some of whom it shared with other Unitarian congregations.
In 1961, the national Unitarian and Universalist organizations merged, becoming today’s Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations. In 1962, Unity Church of Amherst voted to change its name to The Unitarian Society of Amherst.
More recently, we have called ourselves the Unitarian Universalist Society of Amherst — reflecting not only the name of the national association that represents us, but our long history in Amherst as a liberal religious light held up by members and friends of both faiths.
In 2013-2014, we once again renovated our 1893 meetinghouse and doubled its size with a two-story addition at the rear of the building. The addition provided a commercial kitchen, social hall, classrooms, offices, a conference room and fully accessible restrooms.
Ministers known to have served our historic meetinghouse include:
• The Rev. J. Harry Holden (1888-1895)
• The Rev. William A. Ballou (1898-1899)
• The Rev. John W. B. Day (1900-1903)
• The Rev. A. G. Singsen (1903-1906)
• The Rev. A. H. Coar (1907-1916)
• The Rev. Joseph H. Crooker (Interim, 1917-1918)
• The Rev. Henry G. Ives (1919-1929)
• The Rev. Chester Franklin Eicher (1929-1930)
• The Rev. T. Barton Ackley (1931-1936)
• The Rev. Benjamin F. Kimpel (1937-1939)
• The Rev. Waldemar W. Argow II (1940-1941)
• The Rev. Robert M. L. Holt (1941-1942)
• The Rev. Eugene A. Luening (1943-1944)
• The Rev. Sidney S. Robins (Interim, 1945-1952)
• The Rev. Nathaniel Lauriat (1952-1954)
• Khoren Avisian, Jr. (Student Minister, 1956-57)
• The Rev. John Paul Jones (1958-1960)
• The Rev. John A. Taylor (1961-1964)
• The Rev. W. Mason Olds (1965-1966)
• The Rev. Jeffrey Campbell (1967-1974)
• The Rev. Arnold F. Westwood (1975-1984) – Minister Emeritus
• The Rev. Harold Hadley (Interim, 1984-1985)
• The Rev. Barbara Whittaker-Johns (1985-1991)
• The Rev. E. Bonnie Devlin (1991-1997)
• The Rev. Stephen D. Howard (Interim, 1997-1999)
• The Rev. Claudia Elferdink (1999-2005)
• The Rev. Alison Wohler (2005-2016) – Minister Emerita
• The Rev. Cynthia A. Frado (Interim, 2016 – 2018)
• The Rev. Stephen Cook (Interim, 2018 – )