chalice with rainbow flame
First Unitarian Universalist Church of Essex County

Notes on the History of the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Essex County (Orange, NJ)

(Excerpted and adapted from a talk delivered by Paul Axel-Lute, April 30, 2000)


From Founding to Merger

Our church began during a period when Unitarianism was expanding in this country.   Churches were starting in many places. The Oranges were a growing suburban area.   Many Unitarians had moved there, but only a few of them knew each other.   Tradition tells us that a small group of them gathered to worship together in the parlor of Mrs. Margaret Lyman Aborn.   But getting enough people together to form a church took outside help, and outside initiative.   This came from Reverend D. W. Morehouse, who was in charge of church extension work in the Middle States for the American Unitarian Association.   In 1889, he had just finished organizing the church in Plainfield, and the next area he decided to work on was Orange. First he got a list of residents here who were subscribers to the AUA's periodical, called the Christian Register.   Next he asked the ministers of the Unitarian churches in Manhattan and Brooklyn for the names of former members who had moved to the Oranges.   He spent the fall visiting as many of these people as he could, until he was satisfied that there were enough to be counted on.   Announcements were made in the newspaper and posted on trees, and the first public services, held in January 1890, were well attended.   You can still see the building where they were held, the Masonic Temple on Main Street.   Ministers from the city donated their services on Sunday afternoons (after they had preached at their own churches in the morning), for several months, until our society was able to start paying ministers to preach in the morning.

The portion of our building that we now call the "sanctuary" was begun in November 1892 and completed in exactly six months.   At the time of its dedication in May 1893, the building was referred to as the "chapel."   It was intended "to eventually act as a wing of a more pretentious structure."   That plan, however, never became a reality, and the members of our society soon were in the habit of referring fondly to both the group and the building as "our little church."

Our first President, Henry Forster Hitch, was a distinguished gentleman who had evidently become quite well-off in his business of exporting and importing. He lived in the Montrose section of South Orange, and served there as a village trustee and as first treasurer of the public library.   Besides being our President for eight years, he was President of the New England Society and of the Orange Lawn Tennis Club.

Our first minister, Edward Hale, knew enough about preaching to teach others how to do it at the Harvard Divinity School. Our Sunday School building is named after him. He should not be confused with the older and more famous Edward Everett Hale (author of The Man Without a Country), who did, however, preach here, at the dedication of the chapel.

Our second minister, Walter Reid Hunt, was with us for the remarkably long period of twenty-four years, 1898 to 1922, and this seems to have been a prosperous time for the church. A pipe organ was installed in 1903, and in 1905 the Parish House was added. Mr. Hunt took an active part in community organizations, such as the Children's Aid Society, of which he was President. During the First World War, our church took the lead in organizing a local Red Cross chapter, and our Parish House was used for the preparation of surgical dressings. After the war, the AUA conducted campaigns to raise funds and membership. Our church raised double the amount of funds that the AUA asked us to, and in one year a membership drive brought in sixty new members, increasing our total to about 180. (It was also during Mr. Hunt's ministry that Norbert Capek became a Unitarian at our church before returning to his native land and founding the Unitarian church in Prague.)

Another important person who was here for a remarkably long time was a janitor, whose name was Nelson Sears, who held that position for thirty-two years. When he retired in 1927, at the age of 78 with his eyesight failing, the church voted to pay him a pension.

Hard times came to the church in the late 1930's. It was a time of decline for the denomination as a whole. It was also a time when we had a weak minister. Membership dropped; attendance dropped even more--from an average of about sixty at the beginning of the decade to an average of about thirty at the end. The Sunday School ceased to function. Eventually the congregation made its dissatisfaction known to the minister, and he resigned. At the church meeting that formally accepted his resignation, there was a motion to close the church permanently, but it was defeated, 31 to 1.

The question of closing the church came up again at the annual meeting in 1944, but was postponed because "it was felt that too few members were present to discuss such an important question." Three weeks later, a resumed meeting with 28 members voted unanimously to stay open.

The years after World War II were again a time of great numerical growth, both for Unitarianism at large and for our church. There were a couple of years in which our membership exceeded 200. It was in 1945 that we purchased the house next door, to serve both as a parsonage and for Sunday School classes.

What may have been the largest crowd ever at our church came at a special evening service on January 20, 1946, when we ordained and appointed as our honorary minister a noted author and lecturer, Pierre van Paassen. The people who came to hear him speak would not all fit in the sanctuary, and loudspeakers were set up in the Parish House for the overflow. He spoke, among other matters, of Russia, praising that country as being truly religious in its "abolition of man's exploitation by his brother" and its ending of racial discrimination. Mr. Van Paassen subsequently preached around the country, but soon tired of the low fees it brought compared to lecturing, and, despite repeated invitations, did not return to our pulpit.

These times of our largest membership were not necessarily times of our greatest happiness. Our first minister after the war, William Ellis Davies, is described (in his obituary in the Christian Register Dec. 1956) as having "the burning impatience of a prophetic soul."   "He was a disturbing figure to many but commanded a large measure of affection and intense loyalty from others." His ministry was a time of turmoil in the congregation. In the last year of his ministry there was a closely contested election for two of the officers and three trustees.

I believe that we were closer to unanimously happy under the next minister, Phillips Endecott Osgood. He is notable for the fact that he came to us after fifty years as an Episcopalian minister; he had in fact attained a high national office of the Episcopal Church before he finally decided he could no longer honestly profess some of their doctrines. His ordination as a Unitarian minister and his installation as minister of our church were thus performed simultaneously by this congregation. Dr. Osgood was a man of many talents, among them painting and authorship. His ministry here was ended by his death. The room at the far end of the sanctuary, originally called the "vestry," is now called the Osgood Room in his honor. (It was also, for a while, known as the "say-hello room".)

Our one other named room, the Sonen Room, is also named for a minister who died while in office here, Robert Sonen. During his ministry, in 1966, in order to get more space for the Sunday School in the house next door, we purchased another house to serve as the parsonage. This was located in West Orange, very near the border of Orange.

Part of the money for buying the new parsonage was a substantial gift from the membership of the Universalist Church of the Redeemer, which had just sold their building. The history of that church goes back farther than our own. Very briefly: the First Universalist Society of Newark was organized in 1834. There was for a while a rival Second Universalist Society; they merged in 1862, built a substantial building on Broad Street in Newark. Their strongest period, interestingly, was during a long-lasting ministry, that of Dr. Henry G. Rose, from 1898 to 1929, coinciding closely with the lengthy and strong ministry of Walter Reid Hunt in our church. After Dr. Rose, the church rapidly declined. By 1945, their building was badly in need of repair, but they felt it was not worth the expense, because its neighborhood was no longer residential, but commercial. They decided to sell their building and move to what seemed a promising location, at the southern tip of Glen Ridge. There, caught by postwar inflation of construction prices, they built a much smaller church. Twenty years later, having failed to attract enough new members to remain a going concern, they closed their doors. They were the last Universalist church in New Jersey. You will recall that the nationwide merger of the two denominations had taken place in 1961. Subsequently there had been some negotiations toward merging of our two local churches, but that did not happen. After they closed, a number of their members joined our church, and in 1967 we got around to officially changing our name to Unitarian Universalist.

Beliefs and Practices

The core of our present stance-- the creedlessness, the search for truth, the emphasis on service rather than salvation-- existed already in 1890. What was different then was the definite emphasis on Christianity and God, and the male-gendered language. Our founding document, the 1890 constitution and by laws said, in Article 2, "We associate ourselves together as a Christian Church for the purpose of moral and religious improvement and of promoting truth and righteousness in the world, through the study, practice, and diffusion of pure religion, as taught by Jesus of Nazareth ...."

Because Unitarians as a group were known not to believe in the divinity of Jesus, they were excluded from the National Federation of Churches, as not being true Christians. Our minister responded to this exclusion, in a sermon delivered in 1905, with the words "Christianity is our birthright. We are its trustees."

On the wall of our Sunday School was a statement entitled "Our Faith". It had been formulated just a few years before our founding, by James Freeman Clarke, who called it the "theology of the future," and it consisted of these five points:

In the early years of our church, a set order of service was followed. Of the four hymns, the first was always the same. There was also a chant, always the same one. There was always a unison reading of a passage from First Corinthians. The Lord's Prayer was always recited. And that's the way most of the congregation liked it. At a congregational meeting in 1899, motions to do away with the singing of the chant and to have responsive readings instead of the passage from Corinthians were both soundly defeated.

The table in front of our pulpit was given us as a communion table. Communion service was held here on a regular schedule in some years it was once a month, in other years only four times in the year. Communion was not to the liking of all members. One prominent member refused to go to church on the communion days.

Something even rarer than communion in our services, and apparently much more definitely distasteful to some members, was the passing of collection plates. From the beginning, there were collection boxes at the doors. But passing of collection plates took place only on Easter and Christmas. Even calling attention from the pulpit to the presence of the collection boxes was seen as obnoxious. It was not until 1935 that regular weekly passing of the plate began.

Social Amusements

From the beginning of our church it was recognized that it was not a neighborhood church. Although initially most of the members were from Orange and East Orange, significant numbers of them were from South Orange and Montclair. So members were not going to see each other as a matter of course during the week, unless opportunities were made for them to do so. Such opportunities were made, through auxiliary organizations of the church. The community-building aspect of organized social activities is reflected in the name of the organization primarily devoted to them: the Unity Club. Here are a couple of examples of turn-of-the-century fun:

One was called "Shadow Pictures": "Large silhouettes of all the prominent members of the church were procured and pasted on black cloth....about fifty in number...numbered and hung in rotation on the walls of the hall. The object was to guess as many of the people as possible...Silhouettes were then sold at auction."

And then there was the "Magazine Party,": A "large frame representing the cover a magazine could be swung open like pages of a book," revealing a series of tableaux vivants--members of the club posed to represent "all the features usually found in a modern magazine poetry, fiction, humor, drama, and a large amount of advertising."

And then there were the really major events: the New Year's Party and the annual Lawn Party. The New Year's Party was held the evening of January 1st, not on New Year's Eve. At first it was in a rented hall. After our Parish House was constructed, they were able to hold the New Year's Party here--but not until the congregation discussed the propriety of allowing dancing in the Parish House, and approved it by a formal vote. The Lawn Party was held every year in late spring on the grounds of a church member who lived in Llewellyn Park. Both the New Year's Party and the Lawn Party would include original plays--generally farces. On our wall is a plaque in memory of one of the guiding spirits of the Unity Club, Edward Aborn, the author of many of their plays. The Unity Club evidently ceased to exist in 1929; Edward Aborn died the year after. His inscription reads: "Edward Aborn: lover of the dawn, loving the light in young faces, trusting the promise of light in young souls."

Gender Roles & Gender Auxiliaries

The longest-lasting auxiliary organization of the church was the Orange Branch of the National Alliance of Unitarian and Other Liberal Christian Women or, for short, the Alliance. The phrase "the women's work of the church" was used to describe the mission of the Alliance. They served the parish dinners. They sewed garments for charity. They studied Unitarian history. They distributed literature, both denominational and secular, to places near and far including the motormen and conductors of the local trolley line, the life-saving stations on the New Jersey Coast, and a traveling library in Kansas. They held fairs and raised money for the church. They assumed the responsibility of raising the annual payment that was due on the (no-interest) building loan that the AUA had given us.

There was also a Men's Club, that was formed in 1906. The main focus of the men seems to have been discussion of current events, and they were given to passing resolutions, rather hastily drawn up and sometimes vague. (The church as a whole made political resolutions on a couple of occasions: In 1893 against legalized betting on horse-racing, and in 1917, in favor of national prohibition for the duration of the war.)

In the 1919 the Men's Club became the Orange Chapter of the Unitarian Laymen's League, a national body formed that year to enlist laymen in "thought, works and worship." One major undertaking of our Laymen's League chapter was the showing of a motion picture entitled Evolution, for which they leased the Palace Theatre in East Orange for three days, with three showings daily. The purpose was to publicize the scientific view of evolution, to counter the fundamentalist anti-evolution movement of the time. This was in 1924, the year before the Scopes trail. The Laymen's League saw the larger issue as "whether the freedom of truth-seekers shall be destroyed through legislative action procured by any group in accordance with their sectarian opinions."

The Laymen's League chapter was no longer active as of 1938. Another Men's Club formed in 1940 but was "practically non-existent" by 1944.

The Women's Alliance, which started well before the Men's Club, also persisted until a much later date. I surmise that the phenomenon of the relatively prominent women's group, which I gather is also found in other denominations, can be seen as the counterbalance to the greater power of the men in the church and society at large. The men didn't need to organize as men, because they were in charge of things generally.

This is not to say the women were totally without power. There were women on the church Board of Trustees from the beginning but they were a minority. When we started electing three trustees each year, exactly one of every three was a woman, practically every year for fifty years. (Incidentally, until 1942, the congregation elected the trustees, and the trustees then elected the officers from among themselves). The trustees did not elect a woman officer until 1923 and, as perhaps you can guess, it was the office of Secretary. We elected our first woman President in 1947.

After the Second World War, one of the major services provided by the Women's Alliance was the hosting of coffee hour after the service. At first there was a coffee hour only once a month, on the first Sunday of the month. After seven years of that, they tried, as a three-month experiment, having coffee hour every week. Finding that too burdensome, they settled on two Sundays a month, and continued at that rate another seven years. Finally, in 1965, we began having coffee hour every Sunday.

One thing which was not women's work was ushering. In early years, a few men were appointed ushers for the whole year. In later years, the job of ushering was spread among more men, but always men, all the way through the 1960's. On October 31, 1971, came the revolution--a service entitled "Womankind" billed as the "first service in Essex County by, for, and about women in a church," instigated in large part by an ardent feminist, Ann Irikura. The two ushers that day were women, and from that day forward ushering was shared between men and women.

In the fall of 1976, the Women's Alliance decided they no longer wanted to be "God's scullery maids" and announced that they were no longer responsible for coffee hours, potluck suppers, church school refreshments, and church household supplies. The next spring, they disbanded as a formal organization.