It is often believed that Unitarian Universalism is a fairly recent phenomenon, and as a consolidated association of congregations, it is. The American Unitarian Association and the Universalist Church of America officially consolidated in 1961, but both have a rich history that far preceeds that historic moment.
Unitarianism had its beginnings in the 1560's, during the Protestant Reformation. People in southern Poland and Transylvania (an area spanning parts of present-day Hungary and Romania) gathered around the belief in the unity of God and the humanity of Jesus. This they based upon their own interpretation of the Bible. Even though frequently persecuted over the last 450 years, the Unitarian Church in Transylvania thrives today. There are also Unitarian churches in Hungary, the Czech Republic, Germany and elsewhere in Europe.
Unitarian ideas traveled to England and from there on to the Americas. In the new-born United States, Unitarian congregations began forming, not only around the unity of the Divine, but also around the belief in the inherent goodness of human nature (as opposed to the doctrine of human depravity). The Rev. William Ellery Channing gave voice to the growing movement in 1819 in a sermon entitled, "Unitarian Christianity." This served as a rallying point that eventually led to the formation of the American Unitarian Association in 1825.
The next major influence on the growing Unitarian movement was from Ralph Waldo Emerson. Emerson was a practicing Unitarian minister for a few years before deciding he was better suited to a life of writing and lecturing. He made a lasting impression on Unitarianism, and others, through his "Divinity School Address" of 1838. Based in the growing perspective of Transcendentalism, Emerson offered a way of religion that encompassed the world and encountered the Divine everywhere. He also may be seen as the beginning of our looking beyond the Judeo-Christian Bible and finding inspiration also in the scriptures of the world's religions and spiritual masters.
Eventually, the Unitarian Church ceased to define itself as Christian, even Liberal Christian, though there were, and are many today, who follow that spiritual path. The influence of Humanism in the early 1900's brought yet another perspective into our midst and in the 1970's, the Feminist movement influenced us collectively and profoundly.
The Universalist Church had its beginnings in the U.S. in the 1770's through the work of the Rev. John Murray. Murray's interpretation of Biblical scripture was such that he could not believe in a God that would condemn human beings, created in His image, to an eternity in Hell. Thus he preached the doctrine of Universal Salvation - that all souls would be saved upon death. Later, the Rev. Hosea Ballou would expand upon Murray's work by adding a unitarian perspective. The Universalist Church in America was formed in 1793 and the Universalists grew, some report, to be one of the largest church bodies in the U.S. by the 1850's.
The Universalists experienced many of the same influences as the Unitarians, and the two organizations frequently discussed coming together over the years. This finally became a reality in 1961, when the they officially consolidated into the Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations. The UUA, with offices located on historic Beacon Hill in Boston MA, is the headquarters for our liberal religious congregations that number over a 1000 and are found all across the U.S.
Our congregation was officially gathered on January 14, 1867, as the First Unitarian Society of Cleveland after more than thirty years of informal meetings and services. Upon its official gathering, services were held regularly in Case Hall by visiting ministers until the Rev. T.B. Forbush was called as our first minister. In 1878, the Rev. Frederick L. Hosmer was called and challenged the congregation to have its own building. This was quickly accomplished with the first services held in the new building at the corner of Boliver and Prospect on March 21, 1880. The official dedication occured in October, when the name was changed to Unity Church.
The congregation established one of the first free kindergartens in the city, as well as a domestic science training school and a cooking school. A literary club and a Ladies Society were also started.
Following Mr. Hosmer's departure in 1892, the congregation called the Rev. Marion Murdock and the Rev. Florence Buck as co-ministers, both of whom furthered the growth and development of the church. When Ms. Buck was resigned to become head of the Religious Education Department of the American Unitarian Association, the Rev. Minot Savage became minister. Under his leadership, the congregation sold its building and built a new one at the corner of East 82nd and Euclid Avenue. The growth of the congregation accelerated, and it soon became one of the largest Unitarian churches in the country. (Below is a picture of one of the Tiffany windows that graced the building, the Almira L. White Memorial Window, and the description that accompanies it at the Western Reserve Historical Society.)
In 1911, we changed our name to the First Unitarian Church of Cleveland and joined the Cleveland Federation of Churches. When, in 1919, Mr. Simons was called to work at the A.U.A., the congregation called the Rev. Dilworth Lupton. The momentum of the previous ministries, and Mr. Lupton's skills as a preacher and writer, grew the congregation to 1500 in number. In 1932, All Souls Universalist Church of Cleveland merged with First Unitarian, anticipating the consolidation of the two national organizations thirty years later. Mr. Lupton was very active in the larger community, fighting for religious and racial minority rights, serving as an advisory board member of the Civil Liberties Union, and serving as director of the City Club.
When Mr. Lupton resigned after 23 years, the Rev. Everett Moore Baker was called. During his brief five years here, he organized the founding of West Shore Unitarian Church in Rocky River.
After Mr. Baker left to become Dean of Students at MIT, the congregation called the Rev. Robert Killam. During Mr. Killam's tenure, the congregation voted, narrowly, to move to a new site in Shaker Heights. Part of the congregation elected to stay at the 82nd and Euclid building. Eventually, they found it necessary to move to Cleveland Heights. Located in the Coventry neighborhood, they are today the Unitarian Universalist Society of Clev. Hts. The scant majority of the congregation built a new building on the north point of Belvoir Oval where it meets eastbound Shaker Boulevard, and on January 23, 1955, dedicated the new First Unitarian Church.
Dr. Killam continued to serve the congregation and drew into service Robert Shaw, then associate conductor of the Cleveland Orchestra, as minister of music. Mr. Shaw established a music program that was recognized throughout the U.S. for its outstanding quality. Dr. Killam also brought in the Rev. Angus MacLean, our leading religious educator at the time, to lead the School of Religion and assist in Sunday services. During this time, the East Shore Unitarian Church was founded with Mr. Killam's assistance.
With Mr. Killam's untimely death in 1965, the ministry of the church was passed to the Rev. Arnold Westwood. During his ministry, the Memorial Society of Cleveland was established and took its offices at the church, where it continues to operate today.
The Rev. Steven Johnson followed Mr. Westwood until 1977. The Rev. Dwight Brown was called in 1978 and led the congregation is a very successful ministry, as did the Rev. Bruce Marshall from 1992 to 1997. Among other publications, Mr. Marshall wrote a history of Shaker Heights that is still in print.
1999 saw the calling of the Rev. Daniel Budd (who continues to serve as Parish Minister) and the Rev. Margaret Corletti (as Minister of Religious Education, through 2004). The Rev. George Buchanan has served as MRE for the past six years, tendering his resignation as of June 15, 2012. In recent years, the congregation has become a leader in sustainability and ecological issues, having become officially designated a Green Sanctuary by the U.U.A., building a Permaculture Garden, and having a 91,000 watt solar array installed.