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Portland Unitarian History

For images of the people and places discussed in the following essay, please click here to see a slide show of our church history. At the end, there's a bibliography with links to other online resources.

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Portland
in the mid-1800s was a frontier town with between 5 and 10,000 inhabitants. There were only five churches by 1865: Methodist, Presbyterian, Congregational, Episcopal and Catholic. A small number of liberal Christians (primarily Unitarians and Universalists who had emigrated from New England and other places “back East”) were obliged to attend these churches. However, the existing selection of Portland churches often proved to be too conservative for these liberal Christians, and in 1860, a group of them gathered for worship services in the home of Mr. and Mrs. Thomas Frazar, where they continued to meet intermittently.

In 1862, the Rev. Thomas Starr King, a Universalist minister serving the First Unitarian Church in San Francisco, came to Portland and preached at the Methodist Church. He was a fiery preacher, who had become well-known for his denouncements of slavery and support for the Union in the Civil War. Some of those present were eager to start a Unitarian church, but it was decided that there weren’t yet enough liberal Christians in Portland.

Then, in 1865, the group became upset by the virulent attacks on liberal Christianity by one of the local ministers, and they became determined to start their own church. The Ladies Sewing Society was founded that year by Mrs. Frazar and six other women to raise money to start the church; this was significant because it was the first organizational step to found the Portland Unitarian church. They met for weekly meetings and raised money by sewing for all of the bachelors who were moving to Portland in droves. The first $30 they raised was sent to the Rev. Horatio Stebbins in San Francisco to purchase a silver communion service. It is still used each year during the Maundy Thursday service before Easter.

In 1866, Rev. Stebbins was invited to Portland to preach, and he challenged the liberal Christians to pledge to start a church. $1600 was pledged for that purpose, and $1700 was pledged for a minister’s salary. Our congregation—only the second Unitarian congregation in the West—was officially founded that year. Work on the building began soon after, and the search for a minister commenced.

thefirstunitarianchurchpdxThe first chapel was completed in 1867. It was located on the outskirts of town at the time, on the corner of Broadway and Yamhill. The chapel measured only 50 by 60 feet, but it could accommodate about 200 people on simple wooden benches.

Our first minister, Rev. Dr. Thomas Lamb Eliot, was called to the congregation in 1867. He arrived in Portland on Christmas Eve, 1867, after a 40-day voyage from St. Louis, by way of New York and the Isthmus of Panama. Only 26 years old, he dedicated the new chapel on December 29, 1867. Although conservatives often viewed him with skepticism, he became arguably the most eminent citizen in Portland.

Along with other church members, Thomas Lamb Eliot helped establish: the Boys and Girls Aid Society, the Ladies’ Relief Society, the Public Library, the Oregon Humane Society, the Municipal Park Commission, the City Board of Charities, the Art Museum, and Reed College. He directly helped the poor, imprisoned, and mentally ill, and visited them to perform free church services. He also served in a number of other important positions, such as Multnomah County Secretary of Education from 1872-1875, although he gave the church the salary he received. Eliot helped establish First Unitarian Church as an institution dedicated to social justice issues, and helped shape the progressive nature of Portland. He served as minister for 24 years, retiring from the church in 1893. Then he returned for a year in 1898 when the church needed him.

oldChurchThe church had been growing continuously from its inception, and it was again the Ladies’ Sewing Society that first began to raise money for a new building. In 1875 a formal resolution was passed by the First Unitarian Society that governed the church to raise at least $20,000 for that purpose, and in 1879 our second building was complete on the vacant lot next to the first chapel. A fire in 1891 caused significant damage to the building. The steeple was destroyed and the interior was soaked and stained. Repairs cost $5,000, but fortunately insurance covered the cost.

By 1892 when we celebrated our 25th anniversary, the city possessed some 50,000 souls, and the church, like Portland, had grown more prosperous. Unfortunately, things took a dramatic turn in 1893 shortly after Thomas Lamb Eliot retired. The Panic of 1893 caused terrible economic and social upheaval, and it was left for the next minister, Rev. Earl Morse Wilbur, to try to cope with the challenges.

Wilbur was a beloved leader who had previously served as the associate pastor since 1890. He resigned in 1898 to travel to Europe with his new wife, Dorothea, who was Thomas Lamb Eliot’s daughter. Wilbur was a passionate historian who wanted to research our Unitarian roots there, and he remains to this day the most noted historian of Unitarianism. In fact, were it not for his efforts, much of our early history might have been lost in World Wars I and II. He also served as the first dean of the Pacific Unitarian School for the Ministry in Berkeley, CA (later Starr King School for the Ministry).

Following a period of short ministries and periodic financial troubles, William Greenleaf Eliot, Jr. was called in 1906. He was the son of Thomas Lamb Eliot and was named for his grandfather, whom Emerson had called the “Saint of the West.” The elder William Greenleaf Eliot, Jr. was famous for his tireless efforts in St. Louis that likely had inspired Thomas’ efforts in Portland. The grandson was of the same character, and when the terrible earthquake and fire struck San Francisco in April of that year, Eliot organized relief efforts in Portland from a desk at Union Station to assist the many refugees arriving by train. He was known for his warm sincerity and desire to help, in addition to scholarship and sermons that touched on a wide range of subjects, from theology to the guidance provided by children.

Both the Sunday school and congregation grew during the years of William Greenleaf Eliot, Jr.’s ministry, and in 1924 a handsome new sanctuary, dedicated as the “Church of Our Father” (and known today as the Eliot Chapel) was completed on land at the corner of SW 12th Ave. and Salmon St. This edifice remained our primary sanctuary until 1993. It is still used for weddings, memorial services, children’s chapel services, lectures, small concerts and other productions. The building underwent over $1 million in seismic retrofitting in recent years.

The Great Depression followed the stock market crash of 1929, and the extreme economic downturn led to other very challenging times for our church and community. For example, by 1932 there was a dramatic decline to only 89 regular church contributors. The Rev. Dr. Richard Steiner arrived in 1934, and he set out to overcome these challenges.

Rev. Steiner wanted to engage the community more, and consequently, his sermons addressed social and economic issues, as well as theological ones. Like the Eliots, he became very prominent in the community and the congregation grew and prospered. For example, by 1964, there were 750 children in Religious Education and the church had to expand to accommodate them.

1965 was another challenging year in the history of our church. Rev. Steiner retired, and soon after a fire severely damaged the building. At that time, urban Portland, like many cities in the United States, was in decline. Congregants considered moving to a simpler church home in the suburbs. However, in an emotional vote, the church decided to stay downtown and rebuild. The sanctuary was rebuilt to its original specifications, and today it is listed on the national register of historic places.

The Rev. Dr. Alan Deale became minister in 1970. One of his initiatives was working to acquire additional property for expansion. In 1979 he convinced the Board of Trustees to buy the Nazarene Church which was located next door to our own church building at the corner of SW Main and 12th. For a time, we leased the space back to the Nazarene Church, and we also leased the space to a Korean church and for various offices. Our church first used it as a second sanctuary and it was enlarged and made fully accessible in 1991. It wasn’t until 1993 that we began to use it regularly for Sunday services, although for a time we had multiple services in both it and the Eliot Chapel. It now serves as our main sanctuary for two services on Sundays. In 1990 Rev. Deale advocated the purchase the adjacent Workman Building, and the church offices were moved into it in 1991, where they have remained to this day.

Our church’s legacy of civic and progressive engagement goes back to our earliest days. We have helped to start and/or support countless initiatives throughout our history, including Outside In, an organization that serves primarily homeless youth and low-income adults from their headquarters on 13th Avenue next door to the church offices.  In 1968 we offered them space to start the organization on church property when no one else wanted to so, and they are thriving today as a beacon of hope for those in need.

The Rev. Dr. Marilyn Sewell became our minister in 1992. She continued our tradition of leading on social justice and equal rights issues, and helped push our commitment to a whole level. For example, when she arrived, Oregon was considering an anti-gay rights initiative called Measure 9. When Cathy Oliver, director of Outside In, asked if they could wrap the whole church block in a large yellow ribbon and declare it a “hate-free zone,” Rev. Sewell didn’t hesitate to say yes and speak out on the issue in the media. This attracted considerable attention to the church, and we grew dramatically as a result. The initiative also failed, by the way.

Rev. Sewell always insisted that the church needed to speak out on important issues; otherwise, we did not need to exist. With Rev. Thomas Disrud she hired the first Director of Social Justice in our denomination, Kate Lore, who has since been called as our Minister of Social Justice. During Rev. Sewell’s 17 years of service, our church grew rapidly, from 650 to 1600 members. She retired in June, 2009.

The Rev. Thomas Disrud has served as our associate minister since 1995, and he served as acting senior minister for the year following the Rev. Marilyn Sewell’s retirement in 2009. Rev. Disrud has managed day-to-day operations through much of his time at the church and he also currently serves as Chairman of the Board at Starr King School for the Ministry in Berkeley, CA.

The Rev. Bill Sinkford has served as our senior minister since 2010. A dedicated search committee worked for an entire year on the selection process, and they unanimously chose Rev. Sinkford from a field of esteemed candidates. Over 99% of church members voted to call Rev. Sinkford as our minister. Many had gotten to know him as the president of the Unitarian Universalist Association from 2001 to 2009, where he served with distinction and provided outspoken leadership on many important issues, such as equal rights. Rev. Sinkford was the first African American to lead a predominantly white denomination, and he holds degrees from Harvard University and Starr King School for the ministry, as well as an honorary doctorate from Tufts University. He was a business and community leader prior to hearing the call to ministry.

The Buchan Building was built through generous donations and pledges from the church community. A generous gift of $2 million from the Buchan family made the building a reality. It is named for the late Melissa Buchan; the family donated the funds in honor of her great love of the church and her tireless efforts in its service, including establishing the lay ministry program. It opened in 2007 and serves as our new center of Religious Education. It also hosts numerous other groups and functions. A large and convenient reception hall is adjacent to the Eliot Chapel, and a new Day Center for homeless families operates in the lower level.

For images of the people and places discussed in this essay, please click here to see a video of our church history. The video contains a bibliography with links to other resources found online.

-- By Rick Reynolds, Membership Committee

 

 

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