Unity Church History
"You, the people, have been the real Unity Church, and are so still."
--Richard Wilson Boynton, Minister Unity Church, 1900-1907
The first record of Unitarianism in St. Paul bears the date of June 1852, when the Rev. George Woodward of Galena, Illinois, journeyed up the Mississippi River and held a service in the hall of the Sons of Temperance. There is no further mention of Unitarians until December, 1858, when Frederick R. Newell, formerly a Unitarian minister in Boston and now owner of a feed store in St. Paul, agreed to conduct services if he could use his old sermons. In 1859, lack of funds forced the group to disband. For the next several years, services were held only on the rare occasions when a minister was sent west by the Unitarian Association in an effort to keep fledgling groups going.
The year 1872 marks the first step in the successful organization of a Unitarian church in St. Paul. A subscription was taken to maintain a minister for one year. John R. Effinger came from Keokuk, Iowa, and preached his first sermon on February 11, l872. That date has been adopted as the actual birthdate of Unity Church. Two weeks later, fifty members signed Articles of Association, and the next year saw the official incorporation of “Unity Church of St. Paul.” In 1875, the now fast-growing membership took a big step, moving into the vacant Universalist Church. They paid $1,000 yearly rent for the luxuries of a “pleasant church and softly cushioned pews.” Ill health forced Mr. Effinger, a highly respected minister, to resign in 1876, and Sunday services ceased.
William Channing Gannett, an ardent abolitionist and strong woman suffragist, arrived from Boston in 1877 on a three-month trial. By this time the congregation numbered about 150 and there were 70 children in the church school. In 1879, after two years as minister, Mr. Gannett requested to be ordained. On that occasion he read a “bond of fellowship,” an agreement that he had written. It was signed by 84 members of the congregation present and is still recited when new members join the congregation.
The Unitarians felt secure enough to dream of building their own church. They chose a site in downtown St. Paul and Mr. Gannett worked with the architect to design a “church home.” In January, 1882, they moved into the building, finishing things as money became available. The official opening service in the two-story Queen Anne cottage-style building was held on April 15, 1883. The following summer, Mr. Gannett resigned to do “some other things that have long been waiting” and because he thought it was time for Unity Church to have a new minister.
Mr. Gannett was replaced by Mr. Clay MacCauley, who served from 1884–1886. There were some in the church who were unhappy with his emphasis on a public ministry instead of ministering primarily to church members. Mr. MacCauley resigned to avoid causing division in the congregation. He later went on to head the Unitarian Mission in Japan.
In 1886, the trustees invited Mr. Samuel McChord Crothers from Brattleboro, Vermont, to be their minister, a post he held for over seven years. He was a noted and much-respected minister and well known as the author of gentle, humorous essays, often appearing in the Atlantic Monthly. Under Mr. Crothers the St. Paul Unitarians began taking a wider interest in their Minnesota Unitarian neighbors. The Minnesota Unitarian Conference was organized and held its first meetings in 1888 with delegates from St. Paul, Minneapolis, Duluth, Winona, St. Cloud, Luverne, Sioux Falls, South Dakota, and Alma, Wisconsin. In 1894, Mr. Crothers resigned to take up the ministry of First Parish Church in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
After several months of inviting ministers to preach, William Rogers Lord of Boston was installed in Feb. 1895. His ministry at Unity Church was short-lived and perhaps a bad fit. In his letter of resignation, dated Oct. 3, 1897, Mr. Lord writes that “St. Paul has but one liberal church, and that church should be strong. … It is clear to me that I am not the man to bring about these results.” Lord is best known for his interest in ornithology, sparked during his ministry at First Unitarian church in Portland, Oregon, from 1899–1901. He became a well-known author and lecturer on the birds of the Northwest. A year later, in October, 1898, Clarence Leslie Diven of Connecticut was invited to take the pulpit. There were high hopes for the ministry of this highly educated man, but he became ill in late 1899 and died in January, 1900.
Richard Wilson Boynton came to St. Paul from Roslindale, Massachusetts, in the fall of 1900. In 1902, the congregation felt a church in a new location was advisable. Although the Queen Anne building was still adequate, the neighborhood was becoming more commercial. As a result, many of the downtown residents were moving “up on the hill” and their churches were following them. Unity Church, at its present site at Portland and Grotto, was dedicated on December 10, 1905. Because of health problems, Mr. Boynton resigned in 1907 to try a milder climate. He had some Unitarian pastorates and became a professor of philosophy at the University of Buffalo, New York.
Mr. Boynton’s successor was John Dumont Reid, who came from Greenfield, Massachusetts, and stayed until 1917. Mr. Reid came from the tradition of the “prophet-philosopher” and found the demands of parish administration not to his liking. The result was a severe falling-off of the membership in the church and the attendance in church school. Mr. Reid resigned in early 1917 and subsequently served almost entirely in interim positions.
Frederick May Eliot preached his first sermon in St. Paul in January, 1917, and made a strong impression on the congregation. Mr. Eliot came from Cambridge, Massachusetts, where he had worked with Mr. Crothers. In August, 1918, he was mobilized as a chaplain to a hospital unit in France during World War I, and served until April, 1919. The church grew steadily during his 20-year ministry, and the Parish Hall and the Ames Chapel were added to the building. Mr. Eliot left Unity Church in 1937 to become president of the American Unitarian Association in Boston.
The search for Mr. Eliot’s successor led to the development of a new approach for selecting ministers. Previously, multiple candidates took turns preaching at the church in question. After all the candidates’ visits, the congregation would make their final choice. The new approach authorized a committee to make a thorough search for a suitable candidate, who then spent a week at Unity Church, after which the congregation would vote yes or no. This approach was rapidly adopted by other churches and, with some variations, continues to be the accepted method within the denomination for the selection of ministers.
The result of this search was Wallace W. Robbins, who came from a parish in Alton, Illinois, and was highly recommended by Mr. Eliot. Mr. Robbins was very good with young people, and the topics discussed in the Tower Club made it a very popular program for high school age youth. He experimented with an additional service on Wednesday evenings, and maintained the practice of twice-yearly communion services, a pattern set by Mr. Eliot. He also became involved with the Urban League, helping to raise awareness of the racial problems in St. Paul. In spite of the challenges presented by the Depression and World War II, the congregation came up with creative ways to remain viable. In 1944, Mr. Robbins resigned to take office as President of Meadville Theological School in Chicago.
Arthur Foote II came to Unity Church from a parish in Stockton, California. He was only the third minister to come from a Unitarian background, in addition to Mr. Gannett and Mr. Eliot. Installed in October, 1945, Mr. Foote would serve until 1970, when he retired from the ministry. The 1950s were a time of rapid growth. Rather than move, the congregation chose to support the establishment of a “branch church.” Ronald J. Walrath, the assistant minister from 1955–1959, helped with organizing a second church in Mahtomedi, for which Unity Church gave significant financial support. In 1957, a new wing was added for offices and classroom space and named in honor of Frederick Eliot. The total Sunday attendance, including the church school, averaged 600 persons.
Mr. Foote was very involved in the larger community. The ministerial internship program, started in 1960, provided some assistance with six interns between 1960–1966. From 1966–1970, Frederick Rutledge served as an associate minister. A disastrous fire in 1963 gutted the main church, but the successful reconstruction resulted in a light-filled modern structure and the addition of a tracker organ. The restored building was dedicated in January, 1965. By the middle 1960s, membership began to subside.
Roy D. Phillips came to Unity Church in May, 1971 from the UU Church of Racine and Kenosha, Wisconsin. Over time there was significant growth in membership and the church school, and a second Sunday service was added. In the late 1980s, a capital campaign secured funds for building renovation and expansion of the facilities, adding a second floor to the Eliot Wing to provide additional meeting space and classroom area. Gretchen Thompson joined as a second minister and served from 1995–1998. She resigned in the fall of 1998, followed a few months later by the retirement in December of Mr. Phillips. Kathy Fuson Hurt was the “pre-interim” minister from March to August, 1999, followed by the one-year interim ministry of Davidson Loehr, who now serves a church in Austin, Texas.
After a year of discernment and search, the congregation called Rob and Janne Eller-Isaacs as co-ministers. They previously served the First Unitarian Church in Oakland, California, for fourteen years. In 2005, a mid-week “church night,” with dinner, a short worship service, and classes and lectures, was inaugurated to great success. The following year, a third Sunday service was added. Music continues to be a vital part of the worship life at Unity Church. In early 2007 the church had 858 voting members and over 420 children enrolled in religious education. Almost 30 ninth graders will be presenting their statement of spiritual identity as the culmination of the 2007 “Coming of Age” program.
An anti-racism leadership team was commissioned in 2003 and has conducted an audit of the history of race relations and Unity Church as part of a commitment to becoming an actively anti-racist institution. In May, 2007, the congregation will vote on becoming a Welcoming Congregation for GLBTQ people and allies. The church is active in the “Partner Church” program, connecting to Unitarian villages in Romania. There are teams involved in promoting sustainable agriculture, reducing the energy use of the church and its congregants, and focusing on affordable housing issues. The church also participates in Project Home, offering overnight housing for homeless families when there isn’t room in Ramsey County facilities. “Giving away the plate” is a new initiative in the 2006–2007 church: each week the Sunday offering is donated to a designated community group.
Original author not noted, but likely Elinor Sommers Otto, who wrote the first history of Unity Church, “The Story of Unity Church, 1872–1972.” This history was updated in 2007 by Pauline Eichten, who collaborated with Ellen Green to produce “Sacred Place,” a picture book commemorating 100 years since the building in 1905 of the church sanctuary on Portland Avenue.
Edited by PSD Heritage and Archives Committee.
Heritage Preservation Commission
Award of Recognition
Remarks from Councilmember Melvin Carter III
Service & Learning
- Adult Learning & Spiritual Practice >
- Cairns Arts Journal
Children and Youth
- Community Outreach Ministry Social Justice >
- Library and Bookstall
- Literary Ministry
- Music Ministry
- Parish Hall Artists >
- Pastoral Care >
- Volunteer Corner >
- Wellspring Wednesday