Unitarian Universalists are not a chosen people, but a choosing people. To choose is the essence of freedom. We are free to choose our beliefs, our identity, even our heritage. The following is a brief account of the Unitarian Universalist heritage in the Norfolk area.
The kindred branches of liberal religion, Unitarianism and Universalism, have been represented in Virginia since the 1750’s. The denominations, now united, have long emphasized the human potential for the religious life and the divine intention of universal salvation. Theological formulations have changed, but consistently the binding elements in the free religious community have been a reverence for the life-giving powers of the universe and a vision of a beloved community on earth. Even before the American Revolution, Thomas Jefferson spoke for these operating principles. He eventually called himself a Unitarian. The liberal religious presence in Virginia is of a long and honorable lineage.
The Liberal Witness in Tidewater
Sailing into Hampton Roads on July 19, 1793 in search of a freer climate than he found in his native Britain, came Rev. Harry Toulmin, the first ordained Unitarian minister in Norfolk. Interest was sufficient for Toulmin to be invited to preach in the borough church (now Saint Paul’s), but the young minister did not intend to remain on the unhealthful coast and eventually settled in Kentucky.
At that time there were only a few scattered Unitarians and Universalists in Virginia. The ideas of a liberal and rational religion were broadly known, but the waves of orthodox revivalism that swept across the Old Dominion made it difficult for a more rational concept of religion to take root. Laboring under an increasing orthodox disapproval, a few dedicated souls kept the flame of liberal religion alight. These individuals, who were often men of means and standing in their communities, were the links between 19th century rationalism and 19th century Unitarianism and Universalism in Virginia. In the 1820s a leading Unitarian layperson in Norfolk was Christopher Hall. Within a decade the Universalist network in Tidewater included organizers A. Clarke in Norfolk and Col. S. Watts in Portsmouth. All three were agents for the distribution of Unitarian or Universalist literature and were contact people for visiting ministers.
By 1830 Richmond and Baltimore had become centers of Unitarian and Universalist activities. From these hubs came itinerant liberal ministers, led off by Rev. John B. Dodds of Maine, to preach frequently in Tidewater. Northern ministers so excited some native Virginians with the message of a liberal and optimistic faith that they changed careers, became ministers themselves, and preached their enthusiasm for a religion that proclaimed the sacredness of every human being in the near and far corners of the South. Two who made a lasting impact on eastern Virginia were Dr. James L.C. Griffin, a physician from Williamsburg, and John C. Burruss, a saddler from Richmond. These and other dedicated witnesses of a free faith could be found traveling the dusty or muddy roads, preaching in the courthouses, and encouraging the formation of churches.
In Tidewater during the 1830s and 1840s ministerial leadership were too intermittent and there were too few congregants to form a permanent church. Yet seeds were sown, and prospects were bright enough for the Virginia Convention of Universalists to hold its 1836 meeting in Portsmouth.
Years of Success and Crisis
The first Universalist churches in Norfolk and Portsmouth were formed in 1848 under the pastorate of Rev. Hope Bain, a schoolteacher. From his home in Washington Point (now Berkley), Bain commuted to his congregations in Norfolk and Portsmouth by ferry. In the late 1850s these congregations, and a smaller one in the outlying village of Kempsville, were served by Rev. Edwin H. Lake, a scholarly but sickly minister who wore himself out in service to scattered congregations in Virginia and North Carolina. Lake’s successor, the resolute and promising young Rev. Alden Bosserman, arrived in 1869. The liberal movement was growing steadily. But then came the Civil War.
Through the years of sectional crisis and war, all three ministers remained staunch Unionists. Bosserman was jailed in Richmond in 1862 for refusing to honor the Confederate cause. Lake had just emerged from visiting his imprisoned friend when he collapsed on the street and died of consumption. Bain did not hid his loyalty to the Union, welcomed the advancing Federal troops, and became an agent for the Freedman’s Bureau in postwar North Carolina, for which former friends shunned him.
The leaderless Tidewater congregations were divided and confused by the Civil War and soon dissolved. Rev. Samuel A. Smith, a Unitarian minister from Boston who was in service with the Union Army, tried to revive a church in Norfolk during the Federal occupation of the city, but sectional hostility was too deep for any success. It was a low ebb for liberal religion throughout the south.
After the Civil War, the revival of liberal religion in Norfolk began in the free but segregated Black community. In 1887 Rev. Joseph Jordan, a native of West Norfolk and the first black to be ordained as a Universalist minister in America, established a mission in the black suburb of Huntersville. With contributions from Universalists all across the nation, in 1894, he built a chapel and school on Princess Anne Avenue (now road) near Wide Street. The Universalist Church of Norfolk was a success, but even more so was the associated school, as educational opportunities for black children in those days were very limited. Over 200 children from many religious backgrounds were soon enrolled. Under the guidance of one of the teachers, Rev. Thomas F. Wise, a similar chapel and school mission was started in Suffolk and another in the summer resort of Ocean View, eight miles from Norfolk.
After Rev. Jordan died in 1901, the Norfolk church and school lacked steady leadership. Rev. William R. Browne assisted for a short while. Rev. Joseph F. Jordan (no relation), who had taken over leadership of the school in Suffolk which yet today bears his name, commuted twice a month to Norfolk to preach. Such efforts were not enough. The Ocean View mission soon dissolved. In 1904 the Norfolk school closed its doors, and in late 1906 so did the Norfolk church. The second Rev. Jordan nevertheless continued to preach periodically in Norfolk until his own death in 1929. After that Universalist activity was focused only in Suffolk.
The First Unitarian Church of Norfolk
Organized liberal religion in the white community (there being no possibility of integration in those days) revived in December 1912 with the formation of the First Unitarian Church of Norfolk. This was a project in church growth sponsored by the American Unitarian Association in Boston. Before long a small core of dedicated religious liberals and a larger body of curious seekers were regularly attending services. Under the pastorates of Revs. Julian R. Pennington, Frank W. Pratt, and John L. Einstein, the young congregation grew slowly, meeting at first in an office suite in the Dickson Building on Granby Street (present site of the new Federal Building), then in a variety of theaters, and finally in 1916 in the former Disciples of Christ Church at 306 E. Freemason St. (present site of a large parking garage). Within two years, however, internal problems and the disruptions brought on by World War I caused the congregation to become inactive. During these same years the Unitarian impact was increasingly being felt across the state with the national denomination contributing ministers, money, and encouragement. In these conditions of expansion the Unitarian presence in Tidewater did not die out but remained full of latent possibilities.
The Unitarian Church of Norfolk
The Unitarian Church of Norfolk was regathered in May 1930 through the efforts of the national Unitarian Laymen’s League. The first president was Robert A. Darden, son of Eugene M. Darden, who had been president of the earlier church. The congregation acquired a rustic shingled church at 15th Street and Moran Avenue, across from Maury High School (present site of a small park). The church started out on a firmer footing than the earlier congregation had been able to enjoy, and proudly installed its first minister, Rev. Harry Lutz. The church did not grow in membership, however, and had to struggle financially through the years of the Great Depression and through the disruptions of World War II. The leadership of Rev. Robert W. Sonen, minister from 1939 to 1944, was an inspiration to all. The church found a need and met it: to reach out in many ways to serve the homesick soldiers and sailors crowding the town and waiting to go to war. Following the war the congregation turned inward. Gaps opened between the congregation and the ministers who followed until the early 1950s when the dedication and dynamism of Rev. Aubrey C. Todd helped the church blossom again. Discussion groups and social events flourished.
Through these two and a half decades, the church focused its energies mostly on its internal needs. Outreach comprised spreading the faith and attempting to attract new members. Ministers were aware of the needs for social change, but the congregation did not see the church as an agency for the transformation of society. This was soon to change.
A Witness for Social Transformation
1956-to the Present
The recent history of the Unitarian Church of Norfolk begins in 1956 with new lay leadership and a new minister, Rev. James C. Brewer. The minister and the congregation together embarked on a crusade to further racial integration at a time when racial questions were emotionally and politically very explosive. Ever since, the church has been an active witness for the transformation of society.
In the 1960s the church was a center for civil rights activities. In 1967 church members were instrumental in forming the local chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, and for 10 years the church hosted its meetings. The church then became a center for opposition to the War in Vietnam and for draft and military counseling. It was the first church in the nation to sponsor a federally funded VISTA project in the late 1960s and early 1970s, concentrating on the problems of the inner city and staffed with the participation of black street leaders. This project eventually incurred the opposition of the governor, Mills Godwin, and was terminated.
In the early 1970s the local chapter of the National Organization for Women was formed out of the congregation.
In 1976 church members formed an active chapter of the Unitarian Universalist Gay Caucus. Being at the forefront of deep and controversial social change has continued to have its tensions and rewards. Church life has seldom been calm but a result has been to widen the circle of compassion and inclusiveness.
The Church Community
1956-to the Present
The church has always been much more than an agent for social change. The church has fundamentally remained a caring community sharing the adventure of life and supporting each person’s search for religious meaning. The life of the church has included worship and education, work and play, giving and receiving, all intertwined on a thousand levels.
The congregation in Norfolk grew steadily from the mid-1950s to the mid-1960s. One reason was the impact of publicity surrounding social action. Another was the captivating sermons of Rev. James H. Curtis, minister from 1961 to 1966, whose religious philosophy may be summed up as “Nothing is settled; Everything matters”. Church doors were truly open to “all sorts and conditions of men”, as the church then expressed the movement’s historic ideal of including all people. Racial integration within the congregation became a comfortable fact. Artistic expression flourished in the church, which sponsored the area’s first integrated art shows. In 1957 members of the church seeded a new Unitarian Fellowship of the Peninsula, which quickly became a strong congregation with an identity of its own.
The Norfolk church outgrew its building, expanded in 1961 into the Unitarian Center at 902 Graydon Avenue at Hampton Boulevard (now doctors’ offices) and for 10 years the congregation was strained by having worship services and the religious education program many blocks apart. The momentum of growth halted.
In January 1972 the congregation finally settled into its present quarters, the former Second Presbyterian Church building at Yarmouth Street and The Hague. There had been talk of moving to the suburbs, but the congregation decided that its mission lay in bearing witness in the city, serving its needs, and participating directly in the richness of urban cultural life. The excellent acoustics of the sanctuary led the church to sponsor concerts and recitals. Increased musical activity led to the formation in 1979 of a church choir of high quality and to the completion of a beautifully restored organ in 1982.
Since 1956 there has been an increased emphasis on the ministry as shared among all the people, both ordained and lay. Energetic and creative lay members, such as Major Mary C. Lane in the 1950s, have led worship services of depth and meaning, and in many ways ministered to the needs of the day. This sharing of the ministry had greatly enriched the religious life of the entire congregation.