The Community Church and the Unitarian-Universalist Church of Danvers
Long before Unitarians and Universalists nation-wide joined forces to form the Unitarian Universalist Association in 1965, both groups in Danvers had already been interacting.
In 1865, the Universalists offered the fledgling Unitarian Society the use of their building for three Sundays instead of Town Hall, the Unitarians’ first gathering place. The Unitarians decided to stay put until they could build their own building, which they would call Unity Chapel, but the two groups remained collegial and increasingly similar in their theology and commitment to their individual churches and larger community.
According to two church histories, in 1919-1920, “both the Universalist and Unitarian Churches sought a united program of worship and service to express their common faith.” That winter, services for both groups were held in the Unitarian Church (Unity Chapel) at Porter and High Streets as the building was smaller and easier to heat. Summer services took
place at the much grander Universalist Church on High Street. By 1922, the Unitarians and Universalists federated informally as the “Community Church.” Rev. Llewellyn Owen served as minister that year, following a one-year ministry under the Rev. John A. Hayes.
For a while, a church member’s history tells us, “each group maintained their own societies and we had three organizations and three sets of funds. Mr. Owen tried to make our church a typical community church. The upstairs of the church was remodeled and gym classes were held. Perhaps some of you might even remember playing basketball upstairs.”
Then, on April 3, 1924, about fifty Unitarians and Universalists met in Unity Chapel “for the purpose of forming the First Community Church of Danvers … a constitution was prepared by the Rev. Mr. L. A. Owen and unanimously adopted.”
That same year, Mrs. Owen, the minister’s wife, formed the first Girl Scout Troop in Danvers, with the church Sunday School class serving as its “nucleus.” She had been active with the Girl Scouts in Ohio, and her 1924 contribution to Danvers lasts to this day.
In 1926, the church appointed Hazel I. Kirk as its minister. Today, we have no issue with a woman minister. But in 1926, as one church member put it, “this apparently did not appeal to some of the people, and gradually the church started to decline. We were at a low point in 1933 when we secured the services of Rev. J. Wayne Haskell, a Beverly boy. Mr. Haskell was a young man just out of college and was a professional magician as well. Many former members came back … Mr. Haskell was married in 1935, and he and his wife built up an active church again. We had the best young people’s group of any church in Danvers.”
Shortly thereafter, Rev. Haskell received a lucrative offer from a church in New Hampshire, and he departed in 1937. His successor, Dr. Carleton LeRoy Feener, apparently “almost put [the church] out of business.” Not only was he determined to “not be recognized by either Unitarian or Universalist denominations,” but by the time he resigned in 1943 there was no church school.
From Community Church to Unitarian-Universalist Church
During 1944, while the country was at war, the Rev. Felix D. Lion served briefly as a part-time, interim minister, but the church was without a full-time pastor and “at a very low ebb.” When Rev. Lion was not available, students and other guest ministers led services. One of these students was David E. Cole, who was studying at Tufts College’s Crane Theological School (Tufts was founded by Universalists). Cole was ordained at First Community Church in 1944, and hired as part-time minister that September.
A church history tells us that, “it was during his stay that the church was reorganized again, and we became the Unitarian-Universalist Church. Mr. Cole felt that we should be known for our religions, and not just as a community church.” In the Fall of 1944, “Mr. Cole, with the cooperation of the officers of both denominations worked untiringly toward the perfecting of a more stable and legally-incorporated organization.”
In March, 1945, “a special meeting was called to discuss the dissolution of the First Community Church of Danvers and the incorporation of a new organization. On July 11 of that year, the by-laws of the Unitarian-Universalist Church of Danvers were adopted, and the newly named church was recognized by the Commonwealth of Massachusetts on August 17, 1945, “for the purpose of establishing and maintaining the public worship of God, in accordance with the principles and doctrines of the Unitarian-Universalist Church; and in the love of truth and in the spirit of Jesus to unite for the worship of God and the service of man.”
In September, a vote took place that transferred money and property belonging to the Community Church to the Unitarian-Universalist Church of Danvers—“thus uniting two great free church traditions into one democratic fellowship.”
The covenant adopted by the congregation was:
Love is the doctrine of this church;
The quest of truth is its sacrament;
To dwell together in peace;
To seek knowledge in freedom;
To serve mankind in fellowship
To the end that all souls shall grow
Into harmony with the Divine;
Thus do we covenant with each other
And with our God.
In a service of dedication, the congregation called themselves “The Church of the Progressive Spirit” and modified their covenant to read:
Love is the doctrine of this church;
The quest of truth is its sacrament;
And service is its prayer.
To dwell together in peace;
To seek knowledge in freedom;
To serve mankind in fellowship
To the end that all souls shall grow into harmony with the Divine;
Thus do we covenant with each other and with our God.
On the cover of the Order of Service they wrote:
This Church insists upon honesty in the field of religion believing that old religious superstitions are harmful and that creeds stifle the development of mankind. It holds that religious ideas must harmonize with the evidence produced by the modern sciences.
This Church charges its people to think and to use reason to achieve an evolving religion by which to live.
This Church recognizes its Christian heritage, but encourages people to go beyond Christianity in the search for truth—to seek the best in all religions of the past and to strive unceasingly for a better religion of the future.
This Church believes God to be too great to be limited by definitions. In the creative drive of the human personality and in man’s ability increasing to live in love and cooperation with his fellow man is found the best evidence of a creative spirit.
This Church proclaims the supreme worth of the human personality in all races and conditions of men and emphasizes the fullness and greatness of the human spirit.
This Church works for the goal of a universal world of peace and brotherhood. Unitarians and Universalists thus unite, not in specific beliefs but in a common purpose to seek the truth, to grow as individuals toward the ideals which they profess, and to contribute to the building of a better society for all people.
The congregation dedicated their united church by repeating:
Spirit of life, of truth, of power,
We give ourselves as gifts to thee;
O bind our hearts this sacred hour
In faith and hope and charity. Amen.
In 1961, with the formation of the Unitarian Universalist Association, the Danvers church updated its constitution and by-laws, stating as its purpose:
This Church acknowledges the right of each member to follow the dictates of his own conscience in religious belief, provided he share the general purpose of the Church. The following statement of faith is, therefore, not a test but an expression of the spirit in which this Church interprets its faith.
Believing that the Church, as an organized expression of Man’s highest idealism is a necessity to human life and civilization, we unite in the love of Truth and in the spirit of Jesus for the worship of God and the service of Man.
Building renovation and re-dedication
The Ladies Circle, originally started by the Unitarian women in 1865 to raise funds for the church, meet its various needs, and also provide for families in need, began to hold evening meetings to accommodate working women. As membership diminished, the Guild joined the church’s Unity Fellowship, and re-named itself the “Unity Guild.” They became a charter member of the Unitarian-Universalist Women’s Federation. (The Men’s Club “had its up and down” and was non-existent by the 1960s.)
The Guild ran special suppers for church members and friends, held White Elephant Sales, made and sold items such as aprons and candy, and filled meal boxes for shut-ins. In 1964 alone, their programs included an original play by church members, “Dutch Maid Parties,” book talks and reviews, lectures (including one on Universalist and Red Cross founder Clara Barton), a covered dish supper, holiday fair, and Christmas party.
Meanwhile, teachers and pupils of the church school collected clothing, especially winter coats, for the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee’s warehouse in New York.
Church members renovated their building in 1947, and re-dedicated the church building on February 27, 1949. Rev. Cole presided over the service; Clarence W. Cook, Board Chair and Chair of the Remodeling Committee, was singled out “for his faithful service and many hours of work in the program of remodeling the church.” In the unison prayer they recited, the congregation dedicated themselves “to the fulfillment of duties seen in moments of vision and [committed themselves] to the ideals of [their] common faith.”
In a responsive reading between Rev. Cole and the congregation, the Litany of Dedication reads as follows:
As a house of truth, where all knowledge shall be honored and all truth-seeking fostered, where the lessons of the heart shall be added to the studies of the mind, where the source of truth shall not be restricted to one book or one man, but where the wisdom of all the ages, past and present shall be revered
We dedicate this Church to truth, known or to be known.
As a house wherein people shall come to discern right from wrong, where better modes and customs of life shall be sought; as a house where children shall be trained, youth shall be challenged, and all men inspired to seek noble ways of living
We dedicate this Church to the education of people is useful ways of living.
As a House of Worship wherein may enter all men to find their God and seek oneness with the Divine, and where the divine within each soul may be kindled to new hope and new courage
We dedicate this Church to the worship of that which is high and holy.
As a house which recognizes the divine worth of all men and welcomes men of all races, classes and nationalities, and sees that in all the universe there is no power but the power to make men good, and thereby recognizes the shortcomings of man, not as unconquerable evil, but as weaknesses that may be strengthened
We dedicate this Church to the furtherance of the coming day of Brotherhood of all men.
As a house wherein shall be cherished ideals, and visions, and goals and dreams; as a house where enduring values of love and co-operation and peace are held sacred
We dedicate this Church to the Kingdom of God on earth and challenge all people to make real the visions of a better day.
There is in each of us an inner life, inner source of power and strength by which all things in our life are accomplished. It is this inner life, a part of life universal, that makes us know ourselves as a part of an ever-growing process toward the greater good, that gives us a sense of unity in a confused world, and allows us to order our lives with conscious intent. To that life we commit and dedicate ourselves
To that inner life, that would make us whole, we offer this building and dedicate it to the continuing process of leading men, even the generations yet unborn, to wholeness of life.
In the days after the dedication service, the names of everyone who contributed gifts, money, or labor were inscribed in a Book of Memory. Special acknowledgement was made to the Ladies Guild and Men’s Club that comprised the Unity Fellowship.
More change, and the final merger
In 1949, after the departure of Rev. Cole, the church’s ministers included Rev. George Brooks (1949-1951), Rev. Rubens Rea Hadley (1952-1956), and Charles H. Whittier, who was still a student at Tufts and served the church part-time. While Rev. Hadley was minister, in the December 18, 1952 issue of The Advance, the church newsletter, church leaders called on members to help the church advance financially, and published the warrant for an article that would be voted on at the January 8, 1953 Annual Meeting. The article approved the federal union between the American Unitarian Association and the Universalist Church of America that had been proposed by the Unitarian-Universalist Commission on Federal Union in February, 1952.
Finally, in 1959, after hiring interim ministers including Dr. William Rose of Lynn, Rev. George Spencer, and Rev. Frank A. Wahlstrom, the church was able to hire the Rev. Frederick Rutledge full time. During his ministry, the church purchased a parsonage in Topsfield.
In 1965, on the 150th anniversary of Universalism in Danvers and the 100th anniversary of Unitarianism in the town, church leaders began to make plans for a new church building as they had outgrown their chapel and needed appropriate space to expand the church school. While plans to sell the chapel were underway, the Danvers congregation “moved, temporarily, into the Peabody Church building on Park Street,” according to a 1974 church history.
The Peabody Unitarians had approached the Danvers congregation earlier about the possibility of a merger. They had been advised by a Boston University study that the church “had no future in Peabody due to lack of interest in liberal ideologies.” The report also pointed out that “the Peabody Church building itself was an early nineteenth century building with many fine features to it including a great deal of space, but again, the location was a major drawback.”
The two congregations eventually formed a joint Building Study Committee and legally merged in 1966, with a single Board of Directors elected from both groups, to form the Northshore Unitarian Universalist Church. Following Rev. Rutledge’s departure for St. Paul, Minnesota that year, the Rev. Charles Wilson became the first minister of the new church.
Rev. Llewellyn A. Owen, 1922-1925
Rev. Hazel I. Kirk, 1926-1933
Rev. J. Wayne Haskell, 1934-1937
Rev. Carl Feener, 1937-1943
Rev. Felix D. Lion, 1944 (interim)
Rev. David E. Cole, 1944-1949
Rev. George Brooks, 1949-1951
Rev. Rubens Rea Hadley, 1952-1956
Rev. Charles Whittier, 1957-1959 (interim)
Rev. Frederick Rutledge, 1959-1966
Year Book and Church Directory, First Community Church, Danvers, Massachusetts (First Community Church, 1932).
The Community Church, Danvers, Massachusetts (Historical Collections of the Danvers Historical Society, Vol. 36, 1948).
First Community Church of Danvers, Massachusetts (church records, undated).
Fiat Lux: The Unitarian-Universalist Church (Unitarian-Universalist Church of Danvers, Mass., 1965).
Service of Dedication (Unitarian-Universalist Church of Danvers, Mass., 27 February 1949).
The Advance (Unitarian-Universalist Church of Danvers, Mass., 18 December 1952)
Unity Guild Programs, 1964 (church records).
Order of Service and Dedication: “The Church of the Progressive Spirit (Unitarian-Universalist Church of Danvers, Mass., undated)
A Narrative History of the Northshore Unitarian Universalist Church, Danvers, Massachusetts, from 1958 to 1967 by Edna M. McCoubrey (church records, March, 1974).
History of the Northshore Unitarian-Universalist Church Explored through the Faith Statements of the Church (1815-2004) by Heidi Kuehn (church records, 13 April 2004).
Primary source documents, NSUU files.
Additional primary and secondary source materials are available at the Danvers Archival Center, Peabody Institute Library, Danvers.