Our 150th Anniversary Has Begun!


150 Years of Activism--First Unitarian Church, 1865-2015

OHS ExteriorBe sure to visit this brand new exhibit at the Oregon Historical Society (OHS), which tells the story of First Unitarian Church and the role its ministers and congregants have played in shaping progressive values in our city, from the earliest founders to today.

Toward Beloved Community.jpgThe exhibit is based on highlights from member Cindy Cumfer's new history of our church titled,Toward the Beloved Community: First Unitarian Church of Portland, Oregon 1865-2015, which has just been published and is available at the OHS gift shop, and at our Beacon Bookstore in Fuller Hall on Sundays.

Oregon Historical Society: 1200 SW Park Ave., Portland, directly across from the Portland Art Museum. Hours: Monday through Saturday, 10am-5pm. Sundays, 12noon-5pm. This exhibit will run through Dec. 18, 2015. The museum is free to Multnomah County residents.

Visit the OHS website, to learn more. 

Logo 150 Years First Unitarian Reduced for Web

First Unitarian Church History: Random Q&A--
By Cindy Cumfer

Check back weekly through June, 2015, as we add another interesting item to this wide-ranging series of facts. 

What have been the major growth spurts for the church?

A: First Unitarian has experienced two very significant growth spurts. One began in 1942 eight years into Dr. Steiner's ministry and just after the United States entered World War II. From 1942 to 1944, the church grew from 480 to 827 members. After the war, the church, along with churches across the country, benefited from the post-war baby boom with families returning to church and desiring religious education for their children. The children's program grew after the war from 47 in 1945 to eventually reach 700.

The second exceptional growth spurt began in 1992 when Dr. Marilyn Sewell arrived and, as her first act, wrapped a red ribbon around the block and declared it a Hate-Free Zone in the midst of the anti-gay Ballot Measure 9 campaign. The church's public support for LGB rights and her inspired preaching brought in large numbers of people, many of whom joined the church. When she arrived, the church had 675 members. Within three years, it added 699 new members for a total membership, after attrition, of 1,298.

Q. Did Portland ever have a Universalist Church?

A: First Universalist Church was founded in 1892 on Portland's east side and operated until 1918. Preaching a theology very similar to First Unitarian's, First Universalist successfully reached the working and lower middle class populations of east Portland, at one point having more members than First Unitarian. The church was small until the arrival of a very dynamic minister, Dr. James Corby, in 1907. The church grew rapidly after that, changed its name to "The Church of Good Tidings," (once mistakenly called the "Church of Good Times" by the Oregonian), and built a new church on what is now NE 24th and Broadway. President Taft dedicated the new church in 1909 at a ceremony attended by Thomas Lamb and William Eliot and about 20,000 other Portlanders. Prior to the dedication, President Taft attended church at First Unitarian and heard Thomas Lamb Eliot preach.

Q: When did First Unitarian stop identifying as a Christian church?

A: First Unitarian identified as a Christian church until 1970. The Unitarian movement was profoundly impacted by humanism from the turn of the 20th century, culminating in the Humanist Manifesto in 1933. First Unitarian remained on the conservative side of Unitarianism. While a number of humanists attended the church, the official descriptions of the church identified it as Christian. Its Christian identification is why it renamed itself The Church of Our Father in 1877 and kept that name until about the mid-20th century.
When Dr. Alan Deale became the new minister in 1970, he announced that the church was a church for all seekers and no longer identified as Christian. The way had been paved for this change by a Buddhist Unitarian interim minister, Robert Swain, who removed the Christian cross from the chapel early in 1970.

Q: Which minister was on the government's "subversive" list?

A: Dr. Richard Steiner was on the Portland Police Bureau Red Squad's list in the late 1930s. The Red Squad was formed in 1934 and quickly assembled a list of 10,000 names of individuals said to be subversive. Dr. Steiner was on the list because he was very prominent in the ACLU, opposed the criminal prosecution of a Communist longshoremen accused of the crime of being a Communist who attended a public meeting, and supported some causes associated with democracy in Spain. Steiner was unaware of the file, which the police used publicly to besmirch him when he ran for the school board. Upon discovering he had a file in 1937, Steiner preached publicly against the practice. His sermon helped stir local opposition to the Red Squad. The next year the National Lawyers Guild, led by its President First Unitarian congregant Allan Hart, released a report that seriously undercut the Red Squad. 

Q: Who was the first woman to preach at First Unitarian?

A: In 1874, Eliot invited Universalist minister Rev. Augusta Chapin, the second female minister ordained by the Universalists, to preach at First Unitarian. Eliot didn’t tell his parishioners or the press that she was conducting the service because he was concerned that Portlanders were so opposed to female ministers that they would stay away. She won over her audience and a month later attended a state organizing convention for the Universalists.

Q: Some accounts of the church history claim that the KKK picketed the church. What happened?

A: In the early 1920s, the Ku Klux Klan revived nationally. One of its largest chapters outside the south was in Oregon. The Klan attacked Catholics, Jews, most immigrants and people of color. In 1922, the Oregon Klan backed an anti-Catholic ballot measure that required all children to attend public schools.

First Unitarian's minister, Rev. William Eliot, opposed the ballot measure in the church's May 1922 newsletter. On Sunday May 7, Eliot arrived at church to conduct services and found two Klansmen in the vestibule wearing masks. Eliot assumed they were there in response to his article and told them that he was not in favor of the Klan and opposed to doing things in masks. He then realized that they were there to distribute a notice about their public lecture and went into the church. His father, Thomas Lamb Eliot, arrived later, refused to take their literature and spoke to an usher, who persuaded the men to leave. Some accounts of this story claim the Klan picketed the church but there is no evidence of that. 

William Eliot lobbied extensively against the anti-Catholic ballot measure at some personal risk. The measure passed but was held unconstitutional by the United States Supreme Court.

Q. Who ran the church's music program for its first 55 years?
A: The Ladies' Sewing Society/Women's Auxiliary/Women's Alliance (today the Alliance) funded the church music program and hired the professional musicians that performed during the Sunday services until at least 1922. The Women's Alliance continued to financially support the program after 1922 but the board assumed more control over the program at that point.

Q. What famous woman attended Sunday services at First Unitarian Church on Sept. 3, 1871?
A. Susan B. Anthony. Anthony was visiting Oregon to support the organization of the women's suffrage movement here. After services, Rev. Thomas Lamb Eliot held a reception for her. Eliot, member Dr. Mary Thompson and congregant Abigail Scott Duniway were prime movers in the early suffrage movement. 

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Covered WagonsWe’re excited about the upcoming anniversary year, which will commence in June, 2015 when the Unitarian Universalist Association General Assembly will be held in Portland. 

The Assembly will be an outstanding opportunity for us to share our unique history with nearly 6,000 UUs from across the country, who will be in town that month. At the same time, we'll open an exhibit at the Oregon Historical Society titled "First Unitarian Church: 150 Years of Activism".... watch for details.

Original Unitarian ChapelThen, starting in the fall of 2015, we will turn our attention to a period of celebration within our church community, as well as throughout greater Portland. We’ll launch a year+ of events, activities, programs, and celebrations to mark the founding of First Unitarian Church, which was incorporated as the First Unitarian Society of Portland in July, 1866.
Check this page for a calendar listing all about Anniversary Celebration events and activities. 
We've invited every church program area to create and produce an anniversary event, activity or experience for your education and enjoyment. This will be OUR party, and everyone is encouraged to get on board!Thomas Lamb Eliot

The planning committee is busy at work right now, reviewing the many ideas that have been submitted.

We look forward to sharing this exciting year with you.

--The 150th Anniversary Committee

Julia Spence, Vic Vore, Jessie Eller-Isaacs,
Pat Malone, Cindy Cumfer and Liz Scully.
Co-Chairs: Wendy Rankin and Randy Russell

Photos: The original First Unitarian chapel, located on the SW corner of 7th and Yamhill.... on the outskirts of downtown in 1867.
Rev. Thomas Lamb Eliot, who arrived in Portland on Christmas Eve, 1867, to begin his long and outstanding ministry.
To learn more about our fascinating history, click herePortland flood

Universalism In Oregon
--by Cynthia Cumfer

The Universalist movement in Oregon has been virtually ignored by historians. For more than two decades from 1869 to 1892, the organized Universalist movement in Oregon was located in rural areas and small towns. Universalists arrived in Oregon with the early pioneers and settled in rural areas and small towns around the state but there was no organized Universalist movement until 1869...