Sermon – Early UU History in Atlanta

Sermon presented by Lay Worship Associate – Jay Kiskel
March 22, 2105 at Northwest Unitarian Universalist Congregation, Sandy Springs, Georgia
Note: Readings are at the end of the sermon


Our readings today were selected to help us appreciate just how much of what we enjoy today in this wonderful sanctuary, nestled in our wooded home, is based upon foundations we did not build.

The first reading opened a time portal revealing to us the moment when the very first foundation of the Unitarian side of our faith movement was laid here in Atlanta.

Having read hundreds of original church documents, I can confidently say our Unitarian and Universalist ancestors during their stewardship campaigns embraced the spirit of the reading read by Letitia:

Together we are more than any one person could be.
Together we can build across the generations.

The fact that we are here today is proof of the resolve of our UU ancestors.

So how did it begin?

The Mr. Chaney in the first reading was the Rev. George Leonard Chaney. Rev. Chaney was a Boston Unitarian minister who arrived in Atlanta in 1882 to establish a Unitarian presence here.

Previously, Rev. Chaney had served for 15 years as the pastor of the Hollis Street Church in Boston. He assumed that church’s pulpit when it was vacated by Rev. Thomas Starr King.

Some of you may have heard of Thomas Starr King. His story is worth a few moments of reflection.

Rev. King departed the Hollis Street Church in 1860 to accept the call from the Unitarian church in San Francisco. A passionate orator, Rev. King has been given credit for helping to keep California in the Union during this country’s civil war.

In honor of his service, in 1931 California designated a statue of Rev. King to be one of only two statues to represent California in the Statuary Hall in the United States Capitol rotunda in Washington, DC.

The Pacific Unitarian School in Berkeley also honored Rev. King in 1941 when it changed its name to the Starr King School for the Ministry.

And here’s an update illustrating why we should all know our UU history.

Rev. King’s statue remained in Statuary Hall until 2005. In that year, Republican State Senator Dennis Hollingsworth stated, “To be honest with you, I wasn’t sure who Thomas Starr King was, and I think there’s probably a lot of Californians like me.”

Rev. King’s statue was replaced by one of Ronald Reagan.

Back to Hollis Street.

Rev. Chaney focused his energy on his congregation as well as educational opportunities in the community. He established a church- sponsored wood-working school called the Hollis Street Whittling school, started classes where young girls learned sewing skills and served on the Boston public school commission.

He was educated, cultured, accomplished and well-travelled. He was a champion of the Unitarian cause.

Yet despite his devotion to our faith movement, Rev. Chaney was not the first to plant the seed of liberal religion in Atlanta.

That first seed was planted by Rev. William Clayton Bowman.

Rev. Bowman is my poster child of the transformational powers of the Universalist faith. Born in 1833 in the hills of North Carolina, he was steeped in a religions orthodoxy that embraced an angry God and the eternal damnation of unworthy souls.

About the Civil War he said, “I fully believed in the divine right of slavery and the justice of secession.”

Yet, Bowman had his inner doubts.

In his words:“…when I knelt with the other mourners where the magnetic eye of the preacher could not gaze into my own, and his pleading voice no longer appealed to me, the spell was broken and my normal condition of mind with all its power of reasoning was restored.”

Bowman was transformed. He declared, “I was compelled to abandon the doctrine of endless punishment. I became a Universalist.”

In 1879, he started his Universalist ministry in Atlanta.

Competing against well-established denominations such as the Baptists, Episcopalians, Lutherans, Presbyterians and Methodists, it was a challenging environment.

Like the seed in Elizabeth’s story, a religious seed of hopeful salvation was attempting to root in a very hostile environment.

Rev. Bowman’s Universalist church failed. But the failure can be attributed more to his own morphing spiritual views. His doubting and questioning did not stop with Universalist belief. Two years after starting his Universalist ministry, Rev. Bowman left his nascent congregation and called his flock to follow him into Spiritualism.   In 1883, he departed Atlanta never to return.

At about the same time as Bowman’s Universalist ministry was ending another religious seed was planted in Atlanta. The following article appeared in the Atlanta papers:

“Prominent citizens of Atlanta having expressed a desire to organize a Unitarian church in this city, therefore all persons interested in Unitarian Christianity are hereby notified and invited to aid in said organization.”

Signed Rev. Enoch Powell, for the American Unitarian Association.

Many years later, in 1916, Rev. Chaney, reflecting back on these early years, commented that the American Unitarian Association sent a young minister to “spy out” the possibility of establishing a Unitarian presence in Atlanta. That young spy promptly returned with the tidings of “nothing doing.”   Rev. Chaney, a member of the Executive Board, found himself in an awkward position.

Rev. Chaney said, “So for very shame, when I was asked to go myself, I could not refuse.”

Rev. Chaney arrived in Atlanta 1882 and preached in various locations, including the state senate chambers, the US District Court Room, and a general entertainment venue called Concordia Hall.

Yet, in less than two years, the first Unitarian church in Atlanta, called the Church of Our Father, was dedicated April 24, 1884.

Rev. Chaney again applied his energies to education. He served on the board of trustees of Atlanta University and Tuskegee Normal School, headed by Booker T. Washington. With several members of the Church of Our Father on its board, the Artisans’ Institute, roughly based on the Hollis Street Whittling School, sprang to life.

Some have incorrectly associated the Artisans’ Institute as foundational in the establishment of Georgia Tech. I have found no definitive foundation for this connection.

Nonetheless, this first Unitarian church, like us, had a social justice ministry. It supported the Woman’s Exchange, enabling women to sell their homemade wares directly to the public, and the Home for the Friendless, a temporary shelter for distressed women and children.

It would, however, be appropriate to say that the new Unitarian church had rooted in Atlanta, but did not flourish in Atlanta.

Let me pause here and share a personal note. As I slowly transcribe page after page of hand written notes, I can hear the voices of those early Unitarians. I have shared in their joys, sorrows, triumphs and sometimes their doubts and fears.

I often wonder, “What if . . . ?” What if they simply said, “This is too hard!”   and closed the meeting minute book and just left the remaining pages blank.

I do admire them because whatever obstacles they faced, they just kept writing our history.

But what of the Universalists?

Their story has energized the Universalist in me. It is why I always make sure I say Unitarian Universalist when I share my religious affiliation.

The Universalists returned to Atlanta in 1895.

Leading their revival was Rev. William Henry McGlauflin. Rev. McGlauflin had successfully raised a congregation in Tennessee. His exceptional talents would also be recognized many years later, when he was elected as the General Superintendent of the Universalist Churches of America.

However, Rev. McGlauflin faced, as did his processor, the daunting task of raising the Universalist message among the hostile theological din within the city.

Consider a pamphlet published at about this time by the Methodist minister, Rev. McCleskey, entitled Life in Hell.

The condemned souls in the pamphlet are illustrated by Miss Daisy Dancer who was more concerned with a Sunday soirée then Sunday service, and Richard Rumseller. His sin was that of drink.

Rev. McCleskey intones, “Some will dare to say there are no material fires in hell. Ah! What a mistake! Hell’s fire is more material than earth’s fire, in that they have one more material element added, that of salt.”

“For everyone shall be salted with fire.” Mark chapter 9, verse 49.

It actually gets worse. Individual demons are assigned to torment the condemned souls. If these tormentors are found insufficiently demonic, they are themselves cast by the devil into the volcanic fires of hell.

It is a disturbing picture.

Enter the Universalist’s message of universal salvation.

“We think there is a Savior who will not be defeated in the great mission He came to Earth to do.”

That is, Jesus did not fail when he died on the cross for our sins. His mission was successful. Whatever punishment we face in the afterlife is to bring our eternal souls into God’s loving glory.

“We believe that righteousness is to be ultimately victorious in every human heart and that mankind will in the end be saved from sin and sorrow.”

Amen.   Can I have a hallelujah!

Rev. McGlauflin, along with the earnest efforts of his small congregation, erected The First Universalist church in Atlanta on East Harris Street in 1900.

Yet, despite the attractive message and untiring efforts of the congregation, the Universalist church, much like the Unitarian church was rooted, but did not flourish, in Atlanta.

Our religious forbearers entered the 20th century with a foothold in Atlanta and high hopes. However, both growth in numbers and financial security eluded them.

The Universalists, for instance, closed out 1905 with $13.01 in the bank.

In 1908, the President of the American Unitarian Association sent a letter to the Atlanta Unitarian church commenting on their fiscal position stating it is time to (quote) “unite or die” with the Universalists.

The letter went on to state: “Non-union with the Universalists apparently means the disintegration and ultimate disappearance of the Unitarian church.”

Union between Atlanta’s Unitarians and Universalists did eventually materialize, not in 1908, but well before the national union in 1961.

It would be wise to note that financial woe is not far back in our rear view mirror. We at Northwest faced similar problems in the 1990’s. We once faced menacing IRS notices of non-payment of payroll taxes. We considered, as did Unitarians 100 years ago, selling this property.

Fortunately, every Unitarian and Universalist for more than 130 years who has faced such challenges simply said, “The next page in our history will not go blank.”

And so . . . we continued.

I would like to close with one more chapter in our history. This story starts in 1915 and has a flow of history that wends its way right into this sanctuary.

In November 1915, a third Unitarian church was built in Atlanta on West Peachtree Street. Although Rev. Chaney and his wife Caroline had long ago left the South and returned home to Massachusetts, they traveled back to Atlanta for the dedication.

To honor the foundations that Rev. Chaney and his wife help to lay in Atlanta, stained glass windows, known as the Founders’ Windows, were commissioned for the new church with the inscription:

“In Honor of George Leonard Chaney Caroline Isabel Chaney”

You can read that very inscription at the bottom on the stained glass windows over there (point to windows). Those are the very windows installed in 1915.

The Rev. Chaney and his wife stood in front of that window as sunlight filled the church and the hymns of dedication were sung. There was wonderful hope of a new beginning.

And in a strange way there was both an end and a beginning.

Three years later, in 1918, responding to accumulated years of financial stress, the Universalists and Unitarians ended their independent congregations and merged together to form the Liberal Christian Church.

They chose as their common home the Unitarian church on West Peachtree Street. Each Sunday as they gathered for worship, sunlight filtering through those stained glass windows filled their sanctuary.

History moves on . . .

By the 1930’s the church is known as the Unitarian Universalist Church. The daughter of one of its ministers, Jean Hess, became a founding member of this church. Today I sit next to Jean’s daughter when I attend The Mountain Board of Trustees meetings. We do live in an interconnected web.

In the 1940’s this joint Unitarian Universalist church failed over segregation issues. The American Unitarian Association sold the building. A small band of congregants, however, remained united, and went on to form the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Atlanta. . . UUCA…our mother church.

In the late 1960’s UUCA spun off a new congregation called Northwest.

In 1974, our second called minister, Rev. Bob Karnan, was installed. Lacking a church building in which to hold his installation, a restaurant on West Peachtree Street, called the Abbey, was chosen.

The Abbey restaurant was located in an old Unitarian church built in 1915 with wonderful stained glass windows filtering the afternoon sunlight.

The import of another UU minister standing in the glow of those windows was not lost on Rev. Karnan.

When MARTA razed that church building in 1977 to make way for the North Avenue MARTA station, Rev. Karnan worked to preserve those stained glass windows.

And we sit here today in the glow of stained glass windows we did not build.

So what will be our legacy?

What will be said of us when Unitarian Universalists in 2115 reflect on their history? The history we will write.

I hope that when that time comes, this pulpit will once again be before a congregation and these words spoken, “After being rooted for so many years, a congregation long ago rose up and said, “We want to flourish!” Their roots went deep, their hopes reached for the sky, their seeds spread far.

And because of them, we stand on their foundations, we are warmed by their light, we are shaded by their trees, we drink from their wells and we profit from persons we did not know.”

Amen, Shalom, May it be so.

Call to Worship – First Reading

In recognition of our stewardship campaign that was officially launched last Sunday, the words will we speak today as we look back to laying of the first foundations of our faith movement in Atlanta will not be from prophetic prophets, wise sages or learned poets. Rather we will share the words of Unitarians and Universalists. . . people just like us.

My sincerest hope in sharing a few fragments from our early history is that it will inspire all of us to sharpen our sense of purpose and obligation in our stewardship campaign.

Our first reading . .

On March 27, 1883, Frank Lederle, pulled his fountain pen from his pocket, opened a large newly purchased meeting book . . . all the pages were blank . . . and wrote the following.

A meeting was called in room No. 7 Kimball House, at 4 o’clock pm.

Mr. Chaney asked the Divine blessing.  He then explained the purpose of the meeting.

He said that the time had come for giving organized form to the interest we felt on the establishment of a new church in Atlanta.

At an informal conference of gentlemen previously held, a committee had been appointed to prepare a form of covenant for the consideration of those who should meet to form a church.  The Covenant and Constitution were read and each article was separately considered and passed upon.  It was finally adopted.

Mr. Burns stated that there was a piece of property now in the market, which would be very eligible for a church building.  It was located on the corner of Forsyth and Church streets.

After due consideration it was voted to appoint a committee of three, consisting of Messrs. Burns, Snowden and Norrman to negotiate for the purchase of the property.

All present and residing in Atlanta signed the Covenant and Constitution thus uniting with the Church and securing its formation.

Second Reading

Today’s reading is from the Unitarian Universalist minister Rev. Peter Raible. Rev. Raible died in 2004 and lived a life that can best be described as an activist minister.

He participated in the historic civil rights march in Selma, he advocated for a woman’s right to control her reproductive choices and championed equal justice for all regardless of gender, race or sexual identity.

He not only lived a life of courageous action, but extended that calling to others. He ended each sermon with a call to “turn evermore to act . . . than to words . . . to declare our religion.”

Rev. Raible wished us to honor those who did act and rejoice in the gifts those actions have given to us. Reflecting the Old Testament passage in Deuteronomy, he wrote.

We build on foundations we did not lay

We warm ourselves by fires we did not light

We sit in the shade of trees we did not plant

We drink from wells we did not dig

We profit from persons we did not know

This is as it should be.

Together we are more than any one person could be.

Together we can build across the generations.

Together we can renew our hope and faith in the life that is yet to unfold.

Together we can heed the call to a ministry of care and justice.

We are ever bound in community.

May it always be so.