The First Unitarian Church of Rochester was organized in 1829. The city of Rochester, located in western New York, was a young frontier boom town at the time, having been incorporated in 1817 and boosted by the completion of the Erie Canal in 1825. The American Unitarian Association, the Unitarian national body, was also young, having been formed in 1825 by Christians who rejected the doctrine of the Trinity.
Rochester Unitarians operated in the early years without a settled minister and, except for a brief period, without a church building. Informal leadership was provided by Myron Holley, a former Commissioner of the Erie Canal and one of the founders of the Liberty Party, which advocated the abolition of slavery. An early church history gave Holley primary credit for the church's establishment.
In 1842 Rufus Ellis, at the age of twenty-two, agreed to come to Rochester to be the congregation's minister for a one-year period. Ellis lodged at the home of Dr. Matthew Brown, president of the congregation. Brown, who earlier was a member of the First Presbyterian Church, was one of Rochester's founders. Along with his brother, he had developed Brown's Race, the canal that delivered water power to Rochester's factory district. He also served as the first chairman of the board of supervisors of Monroe County, in which Rochester is located. Brown was an opponent of slavery; on the day in 1827 when slaves in New York State were emancipated, a delegation of African Americans visited Brown to thank him for his work to secure that legislation.
Funds were raised under Ellis' leadership for a new church building that was dedicated in 1843. In a letter to his brother, Ellis noted that "Forty-five of the pews are already sold or rented, and are occupied by 'correct' people." During Ellis' ministry the church approved a seal that contained an image of the Bible and the words "our Creed". Membership grew partly as a result of the Finney revival movement, which generated a wave of religious enthusiasm so strong in western New York that the area was sometimes called the "burned-over district." Not all churchgoers were comfortable with the new atmosphere in their congregations, however, and some transferred to the less doctrinaire Unitarian Church.
Frederick Holland, who became minister of First Unitarian in 1843, helped to stabilize the new congregation and increase its membership. He resigned in 1848 to assume leadership of the American Unitarian Association.
Dissention within the Quaker community eventually led some of its members to First Unitarian. When objections were raised to abolitionist activities, about 200 people withdrew from the regional Hicksite Quaker body in 1848 and formed an organization called the Congregational Friends. This group soon changed its name to the Friends of Human Progress and ceased to operate as a religious body, focusing instead on organizing annual meetings in Waterloo, New York that welcomed anyone interested in social reform, including "Christians, Jews, Mahammedans, and Pagans". In July 1848, a month after the split, four women associated with the Quaker dissidents met in Waterloo with anti-slavery activist Elizabeth Cady Stanton and issued a call for a Women's Rights Convention to be held a short distance away in Seneca Falls, thereby launching the modern women's rights movement. Organized on short notice, it nonetheless drew about 300 people, largely from the immediate area.
Momentum from this event led to the organization of another women's rights convention two weeks later at the First Unitarian Church of Rochester, about 50 miles (80 km) west. The Rochester convention took the significant step of electing a woman to preside, an idea that seemed so radical at the time that even Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucretia Mott, two organizers of the Seneca Falls convention, opposed it and left the platform when Abigail Bush took the chair. She performed her duties without incident, however, and a precedent was established.
The convention at First Unitarian was organized mainly by a circle of Quaker activists in Rochester anchored by Amy and Isaac Post, who had resigned in the mid-1840s from their Hicksite Quaker congregation because of opposition to the Post's abolitionist activities. Members of this circle had participated in the Seneca Falls convention, including Mary Hallowell, Catherine Fish Stebbins and Amy Post herself, who convened the meeting at First Unitarian. Several of those who organized the Rochester convention were also associated with First Unitarian, including Hallowell, Stebbins and Post. A church history written in 1929 said, "Our church was probably by strong majority abolitionist, an earnest group of Hicksite Quakers having attached themselves to the church as their own meeting grew inactive and faded out—the Anthonys, Hallowells, Willises, Posts, Fishes, etc."
Of these families, the Anthonys were particularly significant for First Unitarian. Daniel Anthony was born a Quaker but married Lucy Reid, a Baptist, a violation of Quaker rules for which he was required to apologize to his congregation in central New York. The congregation later disowned him for allowing a dance school to operate in his house. Despite this patchy relationship, the Anthony children were raised as Quakers. After the Anthonys moved to Rochester in 1845, their homestead became the Sunday afternoon gathering place for progressive Quakers and other social reformers in the area. Both Daniel and Lucy Anthony attended the Women's Rights Convention at First Unitarian along with Mary, one of their daughters. Sarah Anthony Burtis, a relative, served as its acting secretary.
Susan B. Anthony, another Anthony daughter, was teaching school in central New York at the time and had little involvement with any of these activities. When she returned to Rochester in 1849, she found her family attending worship services at First Unitarian. She joined her family there, making it her church home and her most significant source of local connections until her death more than 50 years later. Susan B. Anthony was listed as a member of First Unitarian in a church history written in 1881. Although she no longer attended Quaker meetings in Rochester after the 1848 split, she never relinquished her membership there.
Susan B. Anthony is best known as an organizer and campaigner for women's rights, but she promoted other social reforms as well. In 1851 she helped sponsor an anti-slavery convention at First Unitarian. In 1852 she helped bring 500 women to Rochester to create the Women's State Temperance Society, of which she became the state agent. In 1853 she organized a Women's Rights Convention in Rochester with the assistance of the minister of First Unitarian. In 1857 she served as clerk of the Friends of Human Progress, the social reform group created by dissident Quakers and also became upstate New York agent for the American Anti-Slavery Society. She helped organize two more anti-slavery conventions in Rochester, one of which was so threatened by mob violence that she and her associates had to be escorted from the building by police for their own safety. Anthony's reform work, especially in the national campaign for women's right to vote, led her to spend most of her subsequent years on the road until advancing age required her to cut back on traveling and settle once again in Rochester.
After Rev. Holland's departure from First Unitarian in 1848, the congregation entered a period of discord and short-term ministries that lasted until after the Civil War. A history of the church written in 1881 notes that some of its members during that period "were persons of extreme and pronounced opinions, sharply opposed to each other on political and social questions," with slavery a key item of contention. There was also tension between the membership and some of the ministers of that period, not all of whom were as liberal as the congregation and one of whom went on to become a chaplain in the Confederate Army.
A prominent minister of First Unitarian during this unsettled period was William Henry Channing, who served from 1853 to 1854. Nationally known as a supporter of social reform, he attended the first National Woman's Rights Convention in Worcester, Massachusetts in 1850 and served on the central committee that coordinated national conventions and other women's rights activities in the following years. In Rochester he worked closely with Susan B. Anthony, writing the call for the Women's Rights Convention she organized there in 1853 and playing a leading role in it. At the 1854 New York State Women's Rights Convention in Albany, which Anthony also organized, he, along with Ernestine Rose, presented petitions to the New York State Assembly that the movement had gathered. He wrote one of the two appeals that Anthony circulated as part of her women's suffrage work in New York state.
Channing wrote a brief inspirational text that has become known as "Channing's Symphony," which reads: "To live content with small means; to seek elegance rather than luxury, and refinement rather than fashion; to be worthy, not respectable, and wealthy, not rich; to listen to stars and birds, babes and sages, with open heart; to study hard; to think quietly, act frankly, talk gently, await occasions, hurry never; in a word, to let the spiritual, unbidden and unconscious, grow up through the common-—this is my symphony."
Channing was important to the Anthony family. Mary Anthony said "The liberal preaching of William Henry Channing in 1852 proved so satisfactory that it was not long before this was our accepted church home." Susan B. Anthony's sense of spirituality was influenced by Channing. Her friend and co-worker Elizabeth Cady Stanton said in 1898, "She first found words to express her convictions in listening to Rev. William Henry Channing, whose teaching had a lasting spiritual influence upon her. To-day Miss Anthony is an agnostic. As to the nature of the Godhead and of the life beyond her horizon she does not profess to know anything. Every energy of her soul is centered upon the needs of this world. To her, work is worship ... Her belief is not orthodox, but it is religious." Anthony expressed the latter thought in these words: "Work and worship are one with me. I can not imagine a God of the universe made happy by my getting down on my knees and calling him 'great.'"
Channing had little success with his factionalized congregation. Finding that he could attract larger audiences when he spoke outside the church than within it, he even considered making a fresh start by forming a movement separate from the church. Instead he left the city for other posts, serving as chaplain of the U.S. House of Representatives during the Civil War.
The church declined afterwards, sometimes finding it difficult to pay its ministers, none of whom served for long. In 1859 the church's building was destroyed by fire. Rochester Unitarians were once again without either minister or building, a situation that was not resolved until after the Civil War."
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