Unitarian Church in Atlanta, 1882-1908

Unitarian Church in Atlanta, 1882-1908
For Dr. Richard Wade
History 300b
April 18, 1966
Submitted By L. Becker

Early in 1882, George Leonard Chaney, late of a Boston pastorate, arrived in Atlanta to test the possibility of resuscitating Southern Unitarianism. Following the Civil War, only the churches at Charleston, South Carolina and New Orleans survived, but by 1884 even these had disappeared; elsewhere, slavery, before the outbreak of hostilities, had tended to discourage substantial activity by liberal religionists.1

During the post-war period, the American Unitarian Association (AUA) was vitally concerned with expansion and missionary work. Noting the zeal of the Methodists, Presbyterians and Baptists in proselytizing, Unitarian leaders pushed for expansion. By 1884, the AUA could say, “Wherever the word of Unitarianism has been clearly spoken, there the creeds have faded; there the chains of old superstitions have been broken; and there the cruel and irrational dogmas have retired from the forefront of the battle.”2 Yet, lest arrogance deter the brethren from their toil, words of caution were introduced: “We are too cold,” was a self-characterization. “The present need of our body is more interest, more life, more fervor.”3

Eminently practical, the AUA conceded that next to warmth the greatest need was for money. Indeed, the need for money proved ultimately to be the great problem of the Atlanta church, the problem which, finally, necessitated its merger with the Universalist congregation in 1908, following the suggestion by AUA’s Dr. Samuel Eliot that the Atlanta Unitarians were in a “weak and unprogressive condition,” and that “further expenditure of money does not appear to be justified [by the AUA] . . .” Laying his Association’s cards on the table, Dr. Eliot said, “Shall we go forward into efficiency, influence, and self-support, or shall we got out of existence?,” commending to the congregation a text from Deuteronomy as his final word on the subject: “Behold: I have set before you life and death; therefore choose life! “4

Yet, in the ‘8o’s, a general optimism was more characteristic of Unitarian missionary thought. Churches had been formed throughout the northern half of the country, extending even to the far Northwest, to Portland, Olympia and Walla-Walla. It was time to reconstruct the South.

Religious reconstruction, however, was an ambiguous notion for Unitarians. On the one hand, it seems to have meant “a Liberal but Christian faith”; on the other hand, it meant revolution: “We have torn down the old altars. . . . We have done our part to undermine the old faith.”5 Was Unitarianism to be the true, conservative Christianity, or was it to depart radically from orthodox tradition? The titles of Chaney’s sermons in April and May, 1882, when he preached in temporary quarters at Concordia Hall in Atlanta, are enigmatic: “Man’s Love and God’s Love;” “The Bible: what it is and what it is not”; “What Unitarians believe”; and “Salvation: now and here.” Yet an examination of extant sermons preached the same year, in February, provide insight into Chaney’s approach. On February 26th, in the Senate Chamber, Rev. Chaney chose as his text (with what may be presumed an unintended pun on Southern diction) “One God, and Father of all, above all—through all—and in you all.” The faith of “Unitarian Christianity” is in X’ty—washed of the admixture of heathen philosophy which early became associated with it, and freed from the limitations which literalism and Ecclesiasticism have put upon it, during the post-apostolic ages.” Newcomers to Unitarianism should not be surprised, Chaney pointed out, to hear the language of the New Testament gospels used to describe Unitarian faith. “That language,” he said, “in its original simplicity and purity as it came from the lips of Jesus, is the language which best describes the Faith we profess.” Attempting to allay natural fears and suspicions, Chaney pointed out that there are some who call themselves Unitarians who are in error concerning some theological matters. They spread doubts and denials which pain many “excellent and devout Unitarian Christians.”

Denying the tenets of what he considered the three great religious thrusts of the day—agnosticism, naturalism, and humanism—Chaney suggested that Unitarian Christianity goes to the scriptures—to Paul—for its central doctrine of the Fatherhood of God. Dismissing along the way Spencer, Darwin, Huxley, Tyndal, Alexander Pope, and even Emerson, Chaney asked, “If God is not Father—then how shall we bear the orphanage in which, despite the tenderest and best of human parents, our souls feel themselves lost?” Yet, he conceded, men misunderstand Unitarianism; charges are made “that it is a cold Religion, a dead Religion at all—” These are misconceptions, he claimed, and the rest of the sermon was an attempt to dispel them. Interestingly enough, the one reference to trinitarianism in the original sermon was deleted; one can only speculate as to whether the reference was heard by Chaney’s listeners, or whether he sensed some reason for not mentioning the dominant faith at all.7

Hardly radical, this sermon is characteristic of those Chaney preached in his early days in Atlanta. His text on March 5th was “Bear ye one another’s burdens and so fulfill the law of Christ . . . for every man must bear his own burden (Gal. 6:2 and 5).” The point of the sermon is a reinterpretation of the scriptural admonition so that it reads, in Chaney’s words, “Bear ye one another’s burdens, for every man must have his burden to bear and therefore will need his brother’s support.” There is no worse delusion for man, Chaney claimed, “than the belief that he is independent.” Rather than suggesting specific burden-bearing, however, the sermon concludes “that we are all of one family in trial and sorrow and all need and long to be, of one family in charitable patience and love.”8

Again, on March 12th, Chaney hewed close to an orthodox line in preaching on “the X’n Graces, each bearing its natural fruit—Faith at work—Love laboring—Hope keeping patient.”9

If one discounts the personal theology of Rev. Chaney, there appear to be two plausible answers to the question of the apparent near-orthodoxy of the Atlanta church. Both are historical, yet premised on totally divergent facts: the Unitarian schism, lasting from the 1850’s to at least 1894, and the “fact” of the South, its history, its religious predilections, its institutions.

Chaney’s role in the schismatic infighting among Unitarians is part fact, part speculation. When, in 1852, the Western Unitarian Conference (WUC) was organized in Cincinnati, it was on a broad, nonsectarian Christian basis. Conservative at its inception, as was the national Unitarian body, by 1875 it was able to state that it conditioned its fellowship “on no dogmatic tests.” In 1886, the WUC convention restated this principle, and invited all to join who wished “to help establish Truth and Righteousness and Love in the world.” Within a few weeks conservatives had resigned, organizing the Western Unitarian Association in Chicago. Ten years later, in 1896, these dissident wings were united; meanwhile, the National Conference of Unitarians had liberalized its constitution, and in 1894 reworded it as follows: “These churches accept the religion of Jesus, holding, in accordance with his teaching, that practical religion is summed up in love to God and love to man . . . and we cordially invite to our working fellowship any who, while differing from us in belief, are in general sympathy with our spirit and our practical aims.” This revision, formulated by J. T. Sunderland, was amended by Chaney before adoption by the convention.10

Yet “liberal” and “conservative” in this so-called Western Schism were relative terms. Indeed, both wings were reactionary by comparison with the splinter-group of Unitarians who had left the fold in 1865-66 because of an affront to their sense of liberty of conscience. The inclusion at the Unitarian national convention of those years of a clause committing Unitarians to the principle of the discipleship of Jesus encouraged the radicals to leave. By the following year they had formed the Free Religious Association (FRA), comprised of about five-hundred members, nearly one-half of whom had been ministers. Although the group did not organize churches, it did publish two organs, the Index, from 1870 to 1876, and the Radical, from 1886 to 1892. By 1876, however, a number of the FRA members had been absorbed into the Society for Ethical Culture: “Through a radical reconstruction of religion, they hoped to check the evil tendencies in American Life.”11

As far as it is possible to determine, Chaney was not affiliated with the FRA. He was not likely involved personally with the Western Schism, simply because his early pastorate was in Boston. One may speculate that, because Chaney was assigned the task of creating a church in Atlanta, and, following his tenure as pastor there, became Southern Superintendent of the AUA, publishing from 1893 to 1895 the Southern Unitarian, he represented a dominant strain of Unitarian thought.12 Because this dominant strain tended toward theological conservatism — at least by later standards, and by the standards of the dissident ministers who joined FRA — it is likely that Chaney was not himself a flaming liberal in religious matters.

The very nature of the South in the period, too, posed certain problems that the spokesman for a “liberal” religion would have had to consider. In 1884 a Unitarian editor commented that “What was done for Northern Orthodoxy by the Unitarian Church needs doing for the yet more Calvinistic Orthodoxy of the South. . . . It has a new calling in the present need of the South. If any man doubts it, let him go South; he will find it there. For in the popular preaching of that section there are still such ‘blasts from hell’ as need the cooling and disinfecting touch of ‘airs from heaven.’ “13

One of the original parishioners, looking back over twenty-eight years, characterized the soil in which Chaney had planted his seed in the following way: “Southern churches were still fettered by the Seventeenth Century orthodoxy of the deepest dye.”14 These contemporary views seem to support the findings of a number of historians who have chronicled the South during the period, including such writers as C. Vann Woodward, Kenneth K. Bailey, and Edwin McPoteat, Jr.15 Two more bits of evidence are suggestive of the nature of the Unitarian theology in Atlanta. The 1883 Covenant stated: “We whose names are written below hereby unite to form the Church of Our Father

in Atlanta, Georgia. We agree to maintain the worship of God, to cultivate in ourselves and in one another virtuous affections and habits, and to endeavor to pass our lives in harmony with the Spirit and Life of Jesus Christ.”16 Later, in 1901, as the church reorganized and moved to new quarters, the Covenant had been altered only slightly: “We accept the religion of Jesus believing with him that practical religion is exspessed [sic] in love to God and love to Man, and in the spirit of Jesus we unite for the Worship of God and the Service of Man.”17 In addition, the second pastor of the church, Rev. William Roswell Cole, stated, in a letter to the congregation in 1891 accepting their call to the church, that “As a follower of Christ I shall endeavor to declare those truths which he has made known to me, restricted by no denominational feeling or by any form or belief. Free and independent I feel I must be.”18

One is struck in these excerpts and declarations by their wavering quality. Is one to accept Jesus as the Christ or not? Is “the Spirit of Jesus” a mystical utterance, or merely the statement of an attitude? These are unanswered—perhaps unanswerable questions. They do, however, help one to focus on the nature of Atlanta’s Unitarianism.

Far more important than Chaney’s personal theology, however, is the effect his ministry had on the new congregation. What might one expect from a congregation led by such a man, in such a place, under such conditions? What one finds, in fact, is that the Atlanta Unitarians in these early years fought so continually to keep their financial heads above water that they seldom if ever discussed questions of either theology or social concern.

There is never more than a passing comment on conditions in the community, and evidence of personal involvement by parishioners in the affairs of the community seems nonexistent. This is all the more curious when one reviews the social commitments of Chaney himself.

In Boston he had served on the School Committee of that city, and was credited with introducing manual training into the public schools, having first created such classes in the Hollis Street Chapel.19

He is known to have been a member of the Board of Trustees of Atlanta University, and, in December, 1885, he delivered in the Chapel of Stone Hall a eulogy, “Personal Characteristics,” commemorating the recent death of AU’s president, Edmund A. Ware.” In addition, Chaney was a Trustee of Tuskegee as early as 1883, when he dedicated a new building, Porter Hall, and was listed in 1899 as Vice-President of the Board 21

By 1887 Chaney’s stature in Atlanta was such that he was chosen to give the Memorial Day oration at the national cemetery in Marietta, an event attended by some two-thousand people, and said to be the largest affair of its kind in Atlanta history.22

Chaney’s interest in education is obvious from the record. In addition to his documented educational activities, rumor has it that he played a part in organizing Georgia Tech in 1885-1886, but extant records and histories of the school fail to substantiate the claim. Also, Rev. Chaney was instrumental in the formation of the first free lending library in Atlanta, begun under the auspices of the church early in his ministry. Although the Young Men’s Library Association (YMLA) of Atlanta had existed since 1867, it was not free, and it was not until the Carnegie grant of 1899 that a municipal free library was created. In the meantime, from at least 1887 on, the Church of Our Father supported a library whose holdings at one time included fifteen-hundred books and a broad selection of magazines. The 1887 catalogue of the library indicates a wide selection of reading matter, including works by Louisa Mae Alcott, Thomas Bailey Aldrich, Hans Christian Andersen, T. S. Arthur, Charlotte Bronte, Carlyle, Channing, Dickens, Irving, Sir Walter Scott, Harriet Beecher Stowe, and Jules Verne. Periodicals included Appleton’s Journal, Atlantic Monthly, Harper’s, St. Nicholas, Scribner’s and others.23 Although small in size, compared with the YMLA holdings of twelve-thousand volumes, the Unitarian library provided free access to books and magazines that Atlanta citizens could not find elsewhere.

Yet despite these involvements by Chaney himself, his sense of social concern and action was not noticeably translated into congregational action. For example, no mention of race, prohibition, or housing appears in the church deliberations, or to any noticeable degree in his sermons. Extant church records suggest that the most distressing problems encountered by the congregation between its inception and the early twentieth century —other than constant financial crises—were those occasioned by outsiders asking to use the church for meetings. A brief, selective—although not atypical—chronology exemplifies the concern:

January 2, 1885: Mr. Gude brought before the Board the question whether they would grant the privilege to a musical gentleman of delivering musical lectures in our Church. The question was discussed as to its propriety both as a precedent and as to a proper use of the Church.

“After full discussion, it was moved and adopted that the application be considered and the question held open for future discussion.”24  (Presumably Mr. Gude gave up, as no further mention of the “musical gentleman” appears in the record).

November 28, 1890: The Christian Science Society requested permission to use the church on the following Sunday evening. Permission was granted.25

March 21, 1892: Again the Christian Science Society requested the use of the church for meetings on Wednesday and Sunday evenings. The Board approved the request for Wednesday, but not for Sunday.26

April 23, 1894: The minister, Rev. Cole, presented the following resolution to the Board: “Resolved that the church be loaned only for lectures (when lecturers come well recommended) the meetings of societies for social reform, and to any club which has for its aim literary, musical, and moral advancement.” The resolution was passed. 27

April 5, 1908: “The Clerk read a request from Mrs. Daniels, asking for the use of the Church building for the conference of the Woman’s Suffrage Society. This Board at a previous date having voted against allowing the use of the building for other meetings of this Society, again voted that the Clerk advise her that they were not prepared to reconsider their previous action.”28

One might speculate that, although no record appears to exist to prove it, the Atlanta Unitarians did not encourage outsiders, and that this was known to be so in the community. It is well to note that the Unitarian church was not seriously challenged or condemned during its early tenure in Atlanta. Indeed, quite the opposite appears to be true, as Mr. Chaney was allowed to preach freely in the Senate Chamber, the Turn Verein Hall, the U. S. District Court Room, the Hilliard Building, and Kimball House.29 If the power and monolithism of Southern Protestantism was as great as Woodward and others have testified, it seems unquestionable that a Yankee anti-Christ would have been dealt with in short order, even in the enlightened 1880’s. One might conclude, then, that Chaney’s Atlanta posture, and that of the congregation as a whole, was not one of radical dissent from traditional Christianity, at least as far as the churched of Atlanta were concerned. A search of over eighty existing sermons written, and presumably preached, by Chaney between 1862, when he was called to the Hollis Street Church in Boston, until the termination of his pastorate in Atlanta in 1891, does not disclose a social or theological precept that would likely have been considered peculiar in any but the most ravingly fundamentalist churches. The reasons for this have been explored above. But whatever the reasons may have been, it seems clear that the Atlanta congregation was not essentially community-oriented. A letter from the Atlanta Church Board of Trustees to the AUA in September, 1884, sheds some light on this question. Praising Rev. Chaney to the AUA, and seeking assurance that he would be allowed to remain in Atlanta, the Board described Chaney’s activities as being in the face of “powerful orthodox organizations and influences, strong by age and the natural tendencies of the people of this section.” Chaney, they explained, “with rare tact and discrimination,” began by “interesting the few Unitarians in his project, and other residents of the city in general matters of public educational and charitable importance, forcing them to admit the desirability of his influence in affairs entirely disconnected from the Church, and to regard him mainly in the light of a most valued citizen [emphasis added].”30

It is entirely possible, then, that Chaney’s strategy was to create a charisma and thus an acceptance of himself as a worthy addition to Atlanta society, well before broaching the new Christianity. If so, it appears that the congregation did not, during its first years, ever progress beyond its own doorsill.

Nonetheless, it would be misleading to create a picture of total encapsulation. There were outsiders who visited the church, liberal religionists and social thinkers of prominence. James Freeman Clarke, Edward Everett Hale, Julia Ward Howe, Dr. Samuel Eliot, and Jenkins Lloyd Jones, Pastor of that seedbed of radical Western Unitarianism in Chicago, All Soul’s, all spoke at the church.31 Likewise, local visitors took the pulpit on occasion, as did Rabbi David Marx of the Atlanta Jewish community, a Dr. W. A. Glover, who spoke on the “labor question” in January, 1893, and a Mr. G. W. Stone who spoke under church auspices at the Opera House in May, 1893, on “Natural Religion.”32 Things went so far as to provide the basis for genuine ecumenism in 1893, when Bishop Haygood of Emory College in Oxford was invited to preach in August of that year, during Rev. Cole’s vacation. Unfortunately, the Bishop replied, owing to other engagements he was obliged to decline. In lieu of Bishop Haygood’s appearance, the church was closed for the month of August.33

Despite all this, there is evidence to support the thesis that this early congregation did not project itself into the community at large. A look at the congregation itself may shed some light on their apparent reluctance to publicly take up the banner of liberal reform in the city which one editor chose to call the coming “Manchester of the South.”34

The Atlanta congregation was not large, its membership list between 1883 and 1900 never numbering more than 133 persons; in fact, of this number, some forty belonged to the family of someone also listed in the records.35 The membership list did not reflect actual attendance, however. Reports suggest that attendance seldom exceeded sixty, and often fell far short of that number. The average attendance in 1897, for example, was fifty-three;36 in 1903 it was forty-nine, but from June on the figure was closer to thirty-three.37

Financially, also, the church was limited. Beginning with a $7,000 loan from the AUA for purchase of the original building site at the corner of Forsyth and Church streets, Atlanta Unitarians were never debt-free. The best they could manage on the indebtedness to AUA was an attempt to keep up with interest payments. In 1899, when the Church and Forsyth site was purchased by the Carnegie library for $25,000, the Unitarians felt compelled to sign over to AUA all but $5oo of that amount. The AUA was always the “angel” for the congregation. Year after year it contributed money to sustain the church, until Dr. Eliot’s 1908 ultimatum to choose between life and death. By January, 1884, the church had already accumulated a deficit of $304.38. By the annual report for 1893 the balance to go forward to 1894 amounted to only $1.78;38 by 1900 things had improved to the point that the January balance was $147.74.39 But nearly always it was financial transfusions from the AUA which allowed even such modest accumulations. In 1897, for example, the Treasurer projected expenses and income for 1898 and found that it was only the $5oo from the AUA which permitted the yearly income to come to $2,040, while expenditures were expected to reach $2,033.40 It is clear that with margins like these, the congregation was seldom in a position to be daring or munificent. For them, a contribution of $10 for the “Suffering Poor” in 1884 was significant, as was an 1894 appropriation of $3.00 per month to Chaney’s monthly organ, the Southern Unitarian.41

Pastors’ salaries proved troublesome. Time and time again the record shows the congregation wishing to pay more than it could, in fact, pay. Ministers, in their annual reports, suggested raises, but seldom was the church in a position to implement these suggestions. Chaney, who contributed substantially to the church from his personal resources during his tenure as pastor, and for years afterward, still holds the record for years of service, retaining his position for eight years. It was not until the early 1930’s that another minister remained with the congregation for as many as five years.42

That the parishioners were sometimes disheartened can be assumed. Membership and income dropped slowly until the merger with the Universalists in 1908, and there is little question but that had the Carnegie money not been available in 1899 the church would not have been able to leave its original quarters and move a few blocks away, to Spring and Cain streets. In 1892 one brave parishioner even posed the question of the need for the church’s existence: “Is there need for the Unitarian church in an enlightened and Christian community? What work is there for it to do that cannot be done as well outside the church? What is the special work in this community that our church should do?”43 The Board chose not to debate these searching questions, but referred them to Rev. Cole to deal with from the pulpit.

Even in some of the basic activities engaged in by the church—baptisms, marriages, and funerals—business was slow. Although there were thirty-two baptisms from 1883-190o, the figure is misleading because some families—the Grigsbys, Van Pelts, and Kirkes, for example—brought three and four children to the front at one time. Christmas, 1883, was a big day for Unitarian baptisms, six being performed; the record is somewhat tarnished, however, when one realizes that two of the Grigsby youngsters included in the ceremony were eleven and thirteen years old by this time. The Van Pelts accounted for all four baptisms in 1885, and there were seven years between 1883 and 1900 when there were no baptisms at all.44

In the eleven years in which marriages were recorded — 1884 to 1895 — a total of thirteen were performed, with two the greatest number in any one year.45 Deaths, too, were not excessive, nine being recorded between 1886 and 1900.46

But a more individual look at a random sample of the Church of Our Father parishioners provides some further insight into the nature of the congregation.

Of forty-one members examined, the majority appear to have been middle- or upper-middle class socially and economically. No unskilled or semi-skilled trades were represented, although a small number of skilled manual trades appear. There were, however, no more professional occupations represented than skilled trades. The two largest groups were those representing white-collar jobs, not managerial in nature, and those self-employed. Interestingly there were a substantial number of widows, most of whose husbands had never been listed as members of the congregation. It is significant to note that these women were not merely lonely ladies living near the church; indeed, they came from all over the city, some traveling as much as three miles.

The occupational distribution of the surveyed members was as follows:

  • Clerical, 9;
  • Self-employed, 7;
  • Managerial, 4;
  • Agents and Mfgrs. Reps., 2;
  • Attorneys, 3;
  • Life Insurance agent, 1;
  • Teachers, 2;
  • Printer, 1;
  • Musician, 1;
  • Carpenter, 1;
  • Engineer,1;
  • Furniture finisher,1;
  • Widows, 5;
  • and unknown, 3.

The category “Clerical” included the following specific occupations: Chief Records Clerk, W & A Railroad, Bookkeeper (2), Clerk (2), Collector, Stenographer (2), and Assistant bookkeeper.

Managers were of the following: Southern Printing Company, Singer Manufacturing Company, Atlanta Gas Light Company, and Woodmen of the World.

Those self-employed were found in the following: Gude and Walker, Engineers and Contractors; American Notion Company; Drugs and Photographic Supplies; Crafts and Company, Bridge Builders; Lumber Yard, and Kellam and Moore, Opticians.

Although figures are meager and inconclusive, it is possible to suggest the sorts of financial support provided by some of these members. Records of individual contributions apparently were not kept prior to 1901; some of the persons appearing in the sample above had left the church or died by that time. But of those who were members prior to 1901 and whose contributions appear with relative consistency for the years immediately following, this picture emerges:

Occupation 1901 1902 1903 1904
Manufacturer’s Agent 42.00 No record $29.99 $50.00
Bridge Builder 85.00 $70.00 75.00 75.00
Optician 87.38 75.00 75.00 75.00
Clerk 10.00 no record no record 10.00
Bookkeeper 85.00 75.00 75.00 75.00
Music Teacher 1 0.00 no record 10.00 no record

Although some eight to ten of the sample group lived in the central city, close enough to the church to walk to services, most lived far enough away so that some sort of vehicular travel would have been necessary. Using 1891 as a convenient mid-point in the time covered by this study, one finds that the sample was about evenly divided in residence between the North and South sides of Atlanta (using Wheat Street as a dividing line), with the Northsiders having a slight edge. None lived on the East side, a phenomenon possibly explained by the fact that there were at that time no streetcar lines running East from downtown where the church was located. Four lived on the West—more accurately Northwest and Southwest—side, from which direction streetcar lines did enter the central city. It seems significant that no one in the sample who was not within walking distance of the church lived more than two blocks from a trolley line. Southsiders were served by the Whitehall, Pryor, Washington, Capitol, Georgia and Park street lines, while those north of the church found the Peachtree, Marietta and Jackson street lines convenient. One member lived in Bellwood, a sizable distance, but lived near the Marietta Street trolley. One came from College Park, and very likely used the Atlanta and West Point Railroad for commuting. Of the traveling parishioners, Southsiders tended to live farther from the church—three to six miles—than Northsiders, who lived from one-and-one-half to two miles away at most.

Considering available socio-economic data, it is possibly not mere coincidence that we find these members clustered along the street railways. Private vehicles may have been used; the evidence is inconclusive. Yet proximity to public transportation is characteristic of members of the sample.

The Church of Our Father in Atlanta during this period is enigmatic in a number of ways. In a time of growing consciousness of the Social Gospel in all denominations, but perhaps especially among those tending toward liberality, there is only minimal evidence to suggest that these concerns touched the congregation. Likewise, individual members, excluding Chaney himself, made little newsworthy impact on their community.

The theology of these Unitarians seems to have been more traditional than otherwise. More often than not they stressed their similarity to other denominations, rather than their fundamental differences. They seemed anxious to demonstrate that Unitarians could be as orthodox as anyone. Indeed, the word Unitarian does not appear in the formal name of the church until 1904.47

The congregation seems to have been generally middle-class, and although not poverty-stricken, was never prosperous; it faced continual problems in maintaining financial solvency. Other than Chaney, its ministers came and went with rapidity. It was never self-sufficient, relying on the AUA for contributions to meet simple operating expenses.

It was a Southern congregation, fearful of the attitudes it might find in its religious neighbors, although these fears seem not to have been realized.

As a liberal church, conceived in as passionate a vein as Unitarians were likely to generate, convinced of the missionary task necessary to bring reason to the stronghold of Calvinist unreason, it seems to have been a relatively tame venture.

Some of the possible causes for these characteristics have been explored above. Yet finally one is forced to accept the enigma. Whatever the cause, and regardless of good intentions, the Unitarian congregation appears to have done little to change the face or nature of Atlanta in the 188o’s and 1890’s.



  1. Earl Morse Wilbur, A History of Unitarianism (Cambridge, 1952), 465. See also Word and Work of the American Unitarian Association (March, 1884), 7.
  2. Word and Work, 1.
  3. Ibid. 2.
  4. Letter from Dr. Samuel A. Eliot, President, American Unitarian Association, 25 Beacon Street, Boston, Mass., to Rev. A. T. Bowser, Church of Our Father, Atlanta, Georgia, April 23, 1908.
  5.  Word and Work, 2.
  6. “Unitarian Services at Concordia Hall, 40 Marietta St., opposite De Give’s Opera House, on Sundays at 4 and 8 o’clock p.m.,” April 26, 1882.
  7. Untitled sermon in papers of Rev. George Leonard Chaney, inscribed “Atlanta, Ga., February 26-1882.”
  8. Untitled sermon in papers of Rev. George Leonard Chaney, inscribed “Atlanta, Ga., March 6, 1882.”
  9. Untitled sermon in papers of Rev. George Leonard Chaney, inscribed “Atlanta, Ga., March 12-1882.”
  10. Wilbur, A History of Unitarianism, 481-84.
  11. Aaron I. Abell, The Urban Impact on American Protestantism, 1865-1900 (Cambridge, 1943), 12-19.
  12. Unitarian Year Book, 1922-23 (Boston, n.d.), 118.
  13. Word and Work, 8.
  14. Frank Lederle, “The Unitarian Church of Atlanta, Ga.,” in The Unitarian Advance (n.d.), 296-99.
  15. C. Vann Woodward, Origin., of the New South, 1877-1913 (Baton Rouge, 1951) ; Kenneth K. Bailey, Southern White Protestantism in the Twentieth Century (New York, 1964); Edwin McPoteat, Jr., “Religion in the South,” in W. T. Couch, ed., Culture in the South (Chapel Hill, 1934), 262.
  16. Records of the Church of Our Father in Atlanta Georgia, Book I, 1 (This manuscript record book covers the period Dec. 1883-April 1908).
  17. Records of the Church, Book I, 216.
  18. Letter from Rev. William Roswell Cole, Mt. Washington, Md., to Board of Trustees, Church of Our Father, Atlanta, Georgia, August 17, 1891.
  19. Unitarian Year Book, 118.
  20. George Willis Cooke, Unitarianism in America (Boston, 1902), 339. See also Atlanta University Bulletin 3 (December, 1886).
  21. Max B. Thrasher, Tuskegee (Boston, 1901), Appendix. See also Helen W. Ludlow, ed., Tuskegee Normal and Industrial School, Its Story and Its Songs (Hampton, 1884).
  22. Atlanta Journal, May 31, 1887, p. 1.
  23. Catalogue of Parish Library of Church of Our Father, Atlanta, Georgia (Atlanta, 1887).
  24. Records of the Church of Our Father in Atlanta, Georgia, Book II, 12. (This manuscript record book covers the period March, 1884-January, 1909).
  25. Ibid. 65.
  26. Ibid. 82.
  27. Ibid. 112.
  28. Ibid. 267.
  29. Lederle, Unitarian Advance, 297.
  30. Letter from Board of Trustees, Church of Our Father, Atlanta, Georgia, to American Unitarian Association, 25 Beacon Street, Boston, Mass., September 5, 1884.
  31. Lederle, Unitarian Advance, 297.
  32. Records of the Church, Book II, 92.
  33. Ibid. 100, 101.
  34. Word and Work, 7. 
  35. Records of the Church, Book I, 7-15.
  36. Ibid. 196.
  37. Records of the Church, Book II, 179.
  38. Records of the Church, Book I, 180.
  39. Ibid. 209.
  40. Ibid. 198.
  41. Ibid. 135.
  42. Ibid. 225, 231, 247, 270.
  43. Records of the Church, Book II, 87.
  44. Ibid. Book I, 34-39.
  45. Ibid. 66.
  46. Ibid. 86.
  47. 47. Ibid. 254.

Copy of this paper found in onsite archives at the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Atlanta, 1911 Cliff Valley Way, NE, Atlanta.  This paper also appeared in The Georgia Quarterly, Vol 56, No 3 (Fall 1972) pp. 349-364.

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