History of Unitarians In Atlanta by Rev. Jeff Jones

Trying to characterize one hundred years of the history of any group or organization in a simple sermon is of necessity an impossible task to do accurately and well. But to try to summarize one hundred years of Unitarianism with all our diversity and individualism is truly beyond comprehension. The task is inconceivable.

What I can share with you is highly selected. It has been filtered through my own limited capacity to analyze and understand. It is, because of the magnitude of the task, greatly simplified and summarized.

Yet we are now in our 100th year of the founding of Unitarianism in Atlanta. And here some attempt must be made to say even a few simplified words about that 100 year history. This coming fall a formal time has been set aside for this celebration, our UUA President and former minister in Atlanta, Rev. Eugene Pickett will be joining us for the centennial. There is an Atlanta Unitarian Centennial Committee organizing the events for the fall. It should be fun.

But one problem we face is that there is really very little history that has been formalized into useful material for general reading. There are a few articles about us by regional historians- all of them (in my opinion) seriously flawed, and misinformed. One of the more scholarly takes as his starting point a deep personal dislike of the fact that we exist as a movement at all. Another does not know how to relate Unitarianism to the history of Christianity. He is ignorant of general Unitarian history, but he knows about a few Atlanta events. Another made a good study of Unitarian history but bollixed up his Atlanta facts. What of the information about Atlanta Unitarianism exists in little papers or histories or church records that cover very short time periods, there is little or no perspective.

Of necessity, I will only say a few incidental things about Universalism in Atlanta. That is a whole story unto itself, even though the Universalists joined with the Unitarians in 1918 to form a united church. They each retained their identity because the two denominations did not merge until 1960, but by that time the Unitarians and Universalists had dissolved their united church and only the Unitarians continued on in a regular way. They joined once again formally, at any rate, in 1960. Yet the Universalist Convention of Georgia voted not to participate in the 1960 merger. This complicated story- of which I confess only partial understanding- must await its telling for another time and place. For now, I begin with the Unitarian story.

It begins with the coming to Atlanta in January of 1882 of the Reverend George Leonard Chaney. He set out from Boston on January 9, 1882 and arrived in Atlanta late in the month after speaking in various cities on the way. His first act was to identify those who would be likely prospects. He found about ten people. Advertising in the local paper, he gave his first service and sermon February 19, 1882 in the Senate Chambers in the State Legislature. There were eight people present and his topic was:”How much is a man worth”? Aside from monetary worth which Chaney thought a poor way to measure worth, he thought that it is the dreams we hold, the ideals we cherish, and the hard work through times of failure until our dreams are realized which is the measure of the worth of a person.

The second service was held in the same place and was titled, “The Positive Principles of Unitarian Christianity.” There were 10 people present. These were the same 10 he had previously identified as interested Unitarians. No one from the community responded to his newspaper ads. It took Chaney until March 1883 to gather enough people to found a congregation. The covenant signed by the 27 original members is here for you to peruse following the service.

Chaney had a very quick sense of humor. I must believe it was at work when he used Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, Chapter 6, verse 4, for his text in his second sermon. Its bleak note of the few gathered and the southern alliteration are quite funny. The text goes like this: “One God, and Father of all, above all-through all- and in you all”

This sermon was so compelling in its summarizing the enthusiastic center of Unitarianism that the members in March 1883 decided to name their church, The Church of Our Father. There is something devilish in me that wishes they had instead named it “the Church of You All.”

Chaney came alone to Atlanta that winter of 1882. He worked hard, but by July when he set out for home in Massachusetts, all he had were his original and faithful ten. He returned in October 1882 and started where he left off, preaching in the Senate Chambers, the Federal Court Room in the Post Office building and in a place called Concordia Hall. In December 1882 Chaney’s wife, Caroline Isabel and his son, Carter, joined him in Atlanta. Actually, it is not quite as simple as that.

Uncle Harry came too. Uncle Harry brought Mrs. Chaney and Carter, and all the servants. Mr. and Mrs. Chaney were people of means. Their families had come to the New World to do good and had done well. Chaney was a descendent of the original Puritan settlers of Salem, Massachusetts. He was born in that family home in Salem, and died there too in his 80’s in 1922.

So when the family arrived, they came with all the trappings. But Chaney was smart enough not to intimidate his little group. He and his wife lived in simple rooms in the Kimball House in downtown Atlanta, while the rest of the party lived in the full splendor to which they were accustomed on an estate in Marietta.

By April 23, l884 the church had been covenanted, incorporated, built, and on that Sunday, dedicated. The money came from the AUA to build the church. The salary for Chaney was paid by the AUA, and the program subsidized by the AUA. This support was to last without termination until well into the 1950’s.

It was clear from the very beginning that Unitarianism would be an uphill effort in Atlanta. The Unitarians were clearly perceived as abolitionist advocates and part of the reason the South had rebelled. Following the war it was understood that Unitarians were leaders in progressive thought and politics. They were leaders in the founding of the public school systems of many states. They sent educators to the South to found high quality schools intended for anyone, regardless of race, who desired a fine education. They helped found new Unitarian churches and new public libraries. Unitarians were in an aggressive missionary mood. The denomination had just been formed in 1865, prior to that people were Unitarians on an individual basis. But after 1865 churches formed the AUA and sought to expand the Unitarian message of enlightened educated thinking in all matters, religious and otherwise.

In 1884 a zealously missionary book was published by the young denomination to declare its goals and its agenda. It was called, the Word and Work of the American Unitarian Association. In that book one author comments:

“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.”(Becker)

And another, speaking of the North: “We have torn down the old alters… We have done our part to undermine the old faith.” (Becker)

This was the public image that the denomination wished to perpetuate and it was also held by many in Atlanta as they beheld the prospect of a new Unitarian Church. “What kind of radical hell-raisers have they sent us?” they must have asked. There was virtually no attendance at any church function by anyone not already a convinced Unitarian for the first two years of Chaney’s eight years in the Atlanta Pulpit.

But Chaney’s manner was not radical, abrasive, or rebellious. It was gentle, thoughtful, warm, inspirational, and very deep. He held ethical principles that he lived by, but he communicated their virtue by example, not by preaching sin or guilt.

Although there was a private Young Men’s Library in Atlanta, a library of 12,000 volumes, it was not for use by women or blacks. A fee was required that also prevented those of low income from being able to use it. Rather than a caustic attack on the powers that be, George Chaney simply set out to establish a free lending library for everyone male/female, black white, poor/or wealthy. On the table here is the catalogue of that free public library, from the year 1887. It had a wide variety of good books, numbering about 1,500 volumes. It so set the stage for a consciousness raising in Atlanta that the Carnegie Foundation set up a public library, bought the church building (in 1895) and was donated the Unitarian library by the church. So began the Atlanta public library. The brand new showcase Carnegie Library in downtown Atlanta is located on the spot where the Church of Our Father once stood.

The example was so powerful that church members living in Marietta began a public library, and reading room there. These two libraries were supported by contributions from Northern Unitarian churches and gifts of books as well Oliver Wendell Holmes donated to the Marietta Library (now the Cobb County Library) a set of all of his published works. Many other authors did the same.

George Chaney’s strategy of good works and quiet example (as noted in the Church Board’s letter to the AUA which I read earlier) won over the Atlanta community in a big way. By 1887 Chaney’s high regard in the community was, so widespread that he was invited to be the Memorial Day speaker at the Civil War Cemetery in Marietta. According to the Atlanta Journal the crowd of 2,000 was the largest ever and that Chaney was thought by the listeners to have been a remarkably fine speaker.

Chaney was a tireless worker in the service of human good. A partial list of his accomplishments would have to include his efforts on behalf of improved education.
Whittling School — Industrial School — Industrial training in Boston’s Schools — Technical College Training.

A founder of Industrial and Technical training in American Education:

• Hampton Institute
• Freedman’s School (Nashville, Tenn.)
Artisans Institute — GEORGIA TECH Atlanta University (Archivist Note: this linkage to Georgia Tech is suspect)

His philosophy of working by quiet but determined example was the philosophy behind Booker T. Washington’s Tuskegee Institute in Alabama, and its most famous scientist/professor, George Washington Carver.

It was a famous philosophy declared by Booker T. Washington at the 1895 Cotton Exposition in Atlanta, where Washington was able to show off many Black educational and industrial accomplishments. His speech was called, the “Atlanta Compromise” and in it he argued passionately that the aim of the Black person in the South was to live an exemplary life, to be educated fully for liberal arts and especially industrial and agricultural skills, and to leave the vicious field of post war Klan style politics to those who lived in fear and hate. This philosophy dominated Black education until the middle of this century.

George Leonard Chaney was on the Tuskegee Board of Trustees for 25 years and served at least once as its president (in the year, 1895.) His philosophy of progress in the brutal climate of the post-war South obviously sat well with Booker T. Washington. Chaney dedicated the first building erected at Tuskegee and worked tirelessly on its behalf until his death.

Throughout the Deep South the return of political control to Southern whites meant a great loss of advancement for many Blacks. There were on average 190 lynchings a year from 1877 to 1900 in these states. The Klan rode high and few dared to speak out. Many who did died for their courage.

A non-confrontational philosophy of self-advancement made a great deal of sense to Southern Blacks, as it did as well to the tiny Unitarian community of Atlanta. But advance they did.

Chaney and the Unitarians became well known for their support of art, literature, music, and culture. The church was a forum for the highest and best. Chaney was a sought after lecturer. His seven books were popular and well read. His involvement in the initiating of a United Appeal to support public health was pioneering and generally supported by Atlantans as well.

Controversy was not Chaney’s way, but human advancement was, especially for those who were in greatest need.

By the time Chaney resigned his ministry, November 3, 1890, his congregation had grown to about 135 members with an average attendance of nearly 60. For six more years he worked in the South starting new churches and helping exist¬ing ones as the Southern Superintendent of the AUA. In 1896 he retired to Salem, Massachusetts.

From 1890 until 1915 the Atlanta church had many ups and downs, mostly downs. The members were, according to my readings of the financial records, a very cheap bunch. They constantly begged the AUA for money to subsidize trip operation, yet they never really supported it well themselves. Contributions of $5.00 per year were quite normal. Finally in 1908, the President of the AUA, Samuel Eliot wrote the Atlanta crowd a letter, outlining their inability to keep a minister longer than 3 years (most left after one!), their organizational mismanagement, their financial lack of commitment, and their constant expectations for being bailed out. Dr. Eliot told them to fish or cut bait. Choose death or choose life, he said – the choice from there on was theirs. They chose to muddle along, generally as they had been. One fine minister after another came and went. Their reputation fell and fell until it was no more. In the early 1920’s because of lack of payment of back taxes a FiFa was executed in the Parish House at the West Peachtree Street Church – and was almost sold in auction – the AUA bailed them out.

Records indicate that a few courageous members carried the work of the church. The Board was rarely larger than 4 or 5 members. The membership shrank to about 30. In 1915 a new beginning was attempted and the church on West Peachtree was built. Chaney and his wife came down and a great dedication and founders day event was celebrated. These windows were dedicated to George and Caroline and were known as the Founders Windows.

Yet by 1918 the Universalists who were also in trouble, sold their building, and joined in an uneasy alliance with the Unitarians. The Universalists were largely segregationists and the Unitarians integrationists. The Universalists sat on the side of the aisle, the Unitarians on the other. The Universalists usually held the Treasurers post, the Unitarians the President of the Board.

They alternated ministers, but none stayed longer than a couple of years. This sad situation continued until the mid 1920’s when the feisty and now famous Universalist minister Clinton Lee Scott came to Atlanta.

Clint Scott is one of our most highly regarded ministers (He lives in aged retirement in Florida.) He went from Atlanta to become the General Superintendent of the Universalist Church in America. But while he was here he performed one of those ministries that is hard for anyone to forget. He shook that little congregation by its collective neck until their teeth could be heard to rattle all the way to Boston. His directness became legendary to a denomination
involved with polite avoidance of conflict.

His main accomplishment was the facing of the race issue in the life of the church, and in moving the congregation from a stance of quiet objectiveness to one of outspoken courage. Scott feared no lynch mob or night rider. He taught his little congregation that courage as well.

He was followed by Dr. Aubrey F. Hess, a minister of great skill and insight. Aubrey Hess held doctorates in philosophy, psychology, theology and medicine. His widow, as many of you know, is a member of this congregation: Mrs. Jean Hess, and so is their daughter, Mrs. Jean Wells. Dr. Hess, in the face of genuine disbelief by the segregationists, accepted into membership a Black professor from Georgia Tech, a man who was transferring his membership to the Atlanta church from the Unitarian church in Detroit. The congregation instantly polarized. A meeting was held and a vote taken to close the church forthwith. A second meeting was held. Mrs. Hess tells me she and Aubrey sat on the porch of the Parish House and gaily greeted the members as they arrived, stoney faced. A vote was taken and 47 wanted Dr. Hess to stay as minister and to keep the church open. Twenty-three were of the opinion that he should go and the church be closed. Seven were of the opinion that they did not have an opinion.

So Dr. Hess took a 50% cut in pay, a group left, and the church went on, gaining most of the lost members in the first year due to the moral stand taken by the congregation and its minister.

Tragically, a year and a half later, Dr. Hess died while on his way to the denominational meetings. Mrs. Hess was the person mainly responsible for leading the church through the remainder of the Depression and into post World War II existence.

By the late 1940’s the congregation had dwindled to a mere handful. The AUA sold the West Peachtree Street building and the church became moribund until the early 1950’s when a missionary minister, Glenn Canfield, was sent by the AUA to try again. His message was a frank and forthright religious liberalism and was integrationist as well. The group began to prosper. After a few years he moved on and Rev. Ed Cahill replaced him. The congregation grew. By the early 1960’s Eugene Pickett was the minister and a new facility was constructed at Cliff Valley Way. There was rapid growth and the congre¬gation easily topped a thousand members. It became once again a headquarters for art, music, drama and poetry. It was a firm white support group for early civil rights activity. Members were arrested for holding integrated meetings, breaking a Georgia law. Crosses were burned on members’ lawns.

But the group held fast to its views and its vision of a world united not in hate, but in love. Virtually alone as a white institution it stood for the equality of all – an equality above all, through all, and in all. There are people here today who can tell this part of the story far better than I. But it is a story consistent with the beginnings of Unitarianism in Atlanta. A story not of hate or violence, but of thoughtful, gentle, quiet example. A story of overcoming someday, with love and personal example, the cruelest and most vicious human depredation.

Eventually, to bring this tale up to date, Northwest Congregation started up – the year was 1968. By the late 1970’s the Southside Fellowship started, and the Existentialist Church, and in 1981, the Northeast Fellowship began. There are close to 1,500 Unitarian Universalists in Atlanta today in our various congregations. We exist in typical diversity yet we have a unity ¬a common history and a common heritage. It belongs equally to all of us.

Our identity has moved from a quiet determined witness of example in the face of total hostility – and a condition of virtually no protection of life and limb against the hostile forces of post-war racism – to a place of quiet determined witness, and Clinton Scott inspired willingness to speak out, to declare that injustice exists, and to seek redress and correction. Ours has always been a public commitment to the broadening and deepening of the human soul. To the cause of intelligence, education, culture; to loving care of those in need, to support for those treated unjustly, to a witness for the deepest and the best of which human beings are capable.

This is the story of our first 100 years in Atlanta. As I look about me and the needs that face our day, I can only pray that we meet our next 100 years with as much courage, faith, and commitment, as we have our past 100. And further, that we exceed many fold that record. Our world needs it, our city needs it, and my friends, and we need it.

May we learn from our history and our predecessors’ successes and failures? History does not repeat itself; people who fail to learn from history repeat these errors – again and again.

May our vision, our dreams and our hopes lead us, may our courage and commitment sustain us, and may we celebrate our next 100 years with satisfaction and joy.

Physical Archive: UUCA Box: 09 Folder: 05
Also found in documents stored at the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Atlanta