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.
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
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
In 1866, Rev. Stebbins was invited to
The 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
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
The 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
Wilbur was a beloved leader who had previously served as the associate pastor since 1890. He resigned in 1898 to travel to
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
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 “
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
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
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
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,
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.
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