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This pamphlet was written by Ruth L. Braun and it is based on historical data that she and the late Arthur W. Birdsall compiled over a period of several years from many different sources.
THE STORY OF THIS CHURCH
Liberal Religion in Detroit
The First Unitarian-Universalist Church of Detroit has a dual history. The two denominational groups whose union formed this church both traced their philosophical beginnings to the very early days of the Christian era. In the vast tides of opinion out of which Christian doctrine emerged, there were tiny currents of more liberal thought that put a naturalistic interpretation upon the life and teaching of Jesus. This minority thinking was ignored and soon forgotten but it was never quite lost. Perhaps every age that followed had its dissenting minds but for many centuries they could only dissent in silence.
In eighteenth century America, however, there was a climate of freedom that was more permissive. Whoever wished to explore beyond the prescribed channels of orthodoxy, religious or political, could at least speak out and seek like-minded company. Such an atmosphere encouraged growth and diversity.
Universalism was largely a protest against the then generally accepted Calvinistic doctrine of the "elect." Universalists believed in a beneficent universe and the inclusion of all mankind in the same ultimate destiny. Such a simple and kindly basis upon which to build a church was considered radical and even dangerous. But the number of adherents grew.
Unitarians, as the name implies, rejected the doctrine of the Trinity. Further, they esteemed the worth and dignity of the human mind more highly than anyone before them ever had, insisting upon the right of every individual to use his reason in the realm of religion as elsewhere, to evaluate any dogma, however timehonored and sanctioned by authority, in the light of his own personal conviction. Such ideas were darkly frowned upon. But among the founders of our republic quite a number were Unitarians.
Thus these two groups, in their separate but somewhat parallel development, each ran counter to majority acceptance. It speaks for our national commitment to freedom of religion that both flourished and were in time incorporated as denominations.
It was the Universalists who came to Detroit first. A few were among settlers from New England who arrived in the early 1800's. Soon there were circuit riders, ministers with the missionary spirit who braved the wilderness to bring their message into the Northwest Terri- tory. They preached here, organized little groups sympathetic to their teaching, then traveled on through what is now central Michl- gan or into Ohio. Usually the groups they started were short-lived. Once the leader was gone, enthusiasm tended to wane. Funds were always pathetically low. And the stark demands of day-to-day physical survival in this primitive outpost were in themselves all-engrossing. It was 1846 before they were able to establish a church here, the building having been con- tributed by a local merchant, John Farrar. This institution failed after a time but the seeds of Universalism had been planted.
Meanwhile, in 1832, a corporation had been formed to build a railroad from Detroit to Chicago. Bringing it into existence was a long, hard fight, not only against the obvious physical difficulties but also against the hostility of many settlers who feared the effect of new means of transportation upon certain established businesses, river shipping, stagecoaching and inn keeping, to name a few. Tracks were willfully torn up. Trains were fired upon. Acts of violence against the railrcad became so frequent that the New York Central, making a desperate effort to get the line finished, sent a number of promoters from the east to complete the enterprise. Some of these were Boston Unuitarians, who brought their families and came to stay. This, too, was in 1846.
Four years later, on October 6, 1850, the First Congregational Unitarian Society of Detroit was organized. Of the seventy-five men who signed the roster, thirty-five gave the address of the Michigan Central office. And the new religious body came to be known as the "Railroad Church." Undoubtedly there were some Universallsts. among them for the little classic building, erected the next year on West Lafayette, opposite the site of our present Federal Building, became the church home of Detroit's religious liberals for a long time.
Here was a force for progress in the com- munity almost at once. The first minister, Thomas J. Mumford, took issue with the press on such questions as the Fugitive Slave Act and capital punishment at a time when his stand was considered almost subversive.
It is interesting to note in passing that the first mention of women in the church appears about 1860, in the account of a bazaar, which they organized to meet an operating deficit. From then on, however, women became more and more prominently active.
In 1879 the Universalists formed their own separate body and incorporated, on January 17, 1880, as the First Universalist Society of Detroit. They built the Church of Our Father on Grand Circus Park at Bagley Avenue and made of it an outstanding cultural center. Lectures, musicals, art exhibits were frequent there while still only occasional elsewhere in the city. They established in their building a free public reading room, stocked with a generous supply of the best current periodicals and a library of fine books. This was one of the first adult education projects sponsored by a local church for the benefit of all who cared to take advantage of it. It was in operation when the Detroit Public Library opened its first branch.
In 1890 the Unitarians built a new church on Woodward Avenue at Edmund Place, although there was among the membership some opposition to a move so far from the center of the city. It is scarcely necessary to add that the "center of the city" quite soon stretched beyond the site chosen.
The two liberal ministers were always closely associated. More and more they came to recognize their essential kinship as they worked together in this largely fundamentalist community toward cooperation among groups of all kinds. In 1902 Dr. Lee S. McCollester of the Church of Our Father conceived the idea of a Community Interdenominational Thanksgiving Service, including on its program representatives of Catholic, Protestant, and Jewish congregations. It was the first inter-denominational service on so all-embracing a scale that up to that time bad taken place anywhere in the world. And it was so well attended that it became an annual event for well over half a century.
For several years the Church of Our Father, described in the Visitor's Guide as "one of the most handsome churches in Detroit," was the last remaining place of worship south of Grand Circus Park in the downtown section. In 1913 this property was sold and the house at Cass Avenue and Prentis was acquired, with vacant land extending to Forest Avenue. Here the present building was erected and in April, 1916 dedicated as the First Universalist Church (Church of Our Father).
The two religious organizations might have continued indefinitely as close and affectionate neighbors but the growth of the city forced some unexpected decisions. The widening of Woodward Avenue necessitated cutting off the front of the building at Edmund Place. By coincidence it happened that Dr. Frank D. Adams of the Church of Our Father was at this time accepting a call from Oak Park, Illinois. The two societies now agreed upon a mutually advantageous plan: the Unitarians would, for the time being, come to the Universalist Church and their minister, Dr. Augustus P. Reccord, would serve both parishes.
The remote possibility of a permanent union was implied in this arrangement but little was said on the subject--all those interested being deeply concerned with a number of problems, organizational, fiscal, and psychological, that would have to be resolved before such a step could be considered. Meanwhile, for current management, a Joint Board of Trustees was set up. And soon, working on long range plans, there was a Merger Committee.
The temporary union of the two churches worked well-beyond the most optimistic hopes of those who had first conceived the plan. In June, 1934, scarcely a year and a half after the first joint service, a legal agreement was adopted, binding the two permanently, and the Church of Our Father (Unitarian-Universalist) came into existence. It prospered and within five years became the parent of the Grosse Pointe Unitarian Church.
Following the retirement of Dr. Reccord in 1939, the Rev. Tracy M. Pullman (now the Rev. Dr. Pullman) was called to this pulpit. The years of his ministry have been characterized by constant growth and ever-expanding service. A new day was dawning for religious liberalism. This was an era of phenomenal and revolutionary advance in the field of physical science, which fostered the spirit of inquiry everywhere and the skeptical re-evaluation of all long-accepted standards and beliefs. The naturalistic temper of the Unitarian-Universalist movement began to attract thoughtful people in greater numbers than ever before. Not only did membership here increase but in this general geographic area little independent community groups made their appearance as fellowships, each with the hope of achieving eventually the status of a church. Thus, after a century of existence as one small isolated island of free religious thought in the great enveloping sea of orthodoxy that was always suspicious and often hostile, the parent institution gradually found itself surrounded by several others. Following at intervals after the establishment of the Grosse Pointe Church came those in Birmingham, Southfield, and a revived church in Farmington. Now, in 1964, these are all prospering and fellowships have come into being in Royal Oak, Windsor, Trenton, and Macomb County. The Royal Oak fellowship has called its first minister and will soon become a full time church.
In 1949 our Church Council set up a Service Committee. Its first duty was to act in cooperation with the two national Unitarian and Universalist Service Committees in the work of bringing Displaced Persons from Europe. The local committee placed thirty Hungarians in eleven parish families to live until they were ready to start out upon independent careers. Fifteen other individuals were given some asistance. Upon the completion of this project in 1952, the committee "adopted" a men's ward in the Psychiatric Division of the Wayne County General Hospital, visiting each month, celebrating patients' birthdays as they occurred and providing programs for their entertain- ment. Other churches and civic groups had been sending visitors occasionally but this was the first all-year-round service of its kind. Working with the hospital staff, these devoted people were now able to interest other churches so that 350 to 400 patients were reached every month. Soon the committee expanded into another area. It began holding weekly meetings in the downtown Consultation Center to help women who had been released from the hospital and were in the process of adjusting again to life in the community. The church blood bank represents a totally different kind of service sponsored by this committee.
By the fall of 1955 the needs of the rapidly growing Church School necessitated a drive for funds to remodel, modernize, and enlarge the school building. Within a few weeks $100,000 had been pledged, payable over a period of three years. Since there was no space to expand the ground plan, the ceiling of McCollester Hall was lowered and an upper floor of classrooms was added.
The success of this and other merged churches strengthened the bond that had long existed between the two denominations and the idea of a national union seemed ever more desirable. Years of effort and much careful planning, with many joint tentative arrange- nients along the way, lay behind the final vote in May, 1961 that created, on the national level, the Unitarian Universalist Association. This brought into one body four hundred five Unitarian and four hundred Universalist churches, besides three hundred thirty-six fellowships in the process of becoming churches.
A year earlier, at a general meeting of this congregation on April 29, 1960, the parish had voted to change its corporate name to "First Unitarian-Universalist Church." The constitution, subsequently amended, states the purpose as follows:
"The Purpose of this corporation is to improve upon the quality of human life by maintaining a free church which seeks truth whereever it may be found, a church which is eager for an interpretation of religion that shall be in harniony with modern knowledge and that shall satisfy the spiritual yearnings of men without doing injustice io their intellectual integrity."
This essentially humanistic approach to life and religion emphasizes ethics above pietism. It fosters a constantly growing awareness of universal human brotherhood and the importance of justice for all men everywhere. Organized activities sponsored by the church have looked to the goals of growth and education for the individual, service to the community, and involvement in the affairs of life to the end of improving the lot of mankind generally.
In the field of adult education there has been a close tie with Wayne State University. Beginning in 1949 an annual lecture series at the church featured faculty members speaking on current issues at regular intervals during the winter. In June, 1963 the parish voted to authorize the acquisition of a room in the new Student Union Building on the campus to be furnished and equipped as a center for University students interested in liberal religion.
Small, informal groups drawn together spontaneously for some educational purpose based upon a common interest are quite frequent among the membership. A few in operation at the time this is being written are: the Book Group, which decides upon a course of study and pursues it through one or more years by means of book reviews and discussions on the subject chosen; the Music Participation Group, which encourages those who have the talent and inclination to revive and improve their musical performance by regular rehearsals to- getber and occasional public appearances; the Philosophy Study Group, which engages in the perusal of world philosophies, both historical ind contemporary. The Drama Workshop deserves special mention. Beginning in the early 1950's, a few members of a social organization in the church read one-act plays at meetings for the entertainment of the others. So much serious interest in theatre developed that these few became autonomous, attracted others, set up an ambitious program of three to four full- evening performances a year, sponsored a weekly drama workshop with the aid of experts from Wayne University and won for themselves a place in the locality as an amateur group of some distinction.
Inherent in the liberal psychology is a strong sense of civic obligation. Religion interpreted as the sum total of values and attitudes in relation to every facet of life requires that an ideal conceived.and enunciated must be sustained by positive action in its behalf. It is no accident that in the century of life the liberal church has enjoyed in Detroit, its members have become leaders in a wide variety of public causes, some of them unpopular at their inception but all looking toward a richer life and higher quality of Justice. This church has been a member organization of the Community Council on Human Relations -from the time that body was set up and has been deeply concerned always with the promotion of good will and understanding among the different racial and ethnic components of our society.
The local chapter of the Unitarian Fellowship for Social justice has for many years met regularly to consider social and political problems, seeking to apply liberal religious principles to their solution. It maintains group memberships in the American Civil Liberties Union, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, United World Federalists, Detroit Committee for a SANE Nuclear Policy and Planned Parenthood. After careful research, it may set forth its ideas on desirable political action in the form of resolutions to be presented at the annual meeting of the national Unitarian Universalist Association. The goal here is not to make the church as such a power in the state but to emphasize social consciousness and civic responsibility on the part of the people within our church.
Now, in 1964, this church looks back upon a long history of service. It has seen some of its thinking at first quite generally condemned and later accepted by constantly growing numbers of people. It looks forward with serene hope. In this age of rapidly receding horizons, the religious liberal has in a sense come into his own. Unhampered by any demands of ancient dogma through ecclesiastical authority, he is uniquely free. His mind may, without reservation, consider new scientific concepts and explore opening vistas of philo- sophic thought in the supreme human endeavor to orient himself in our expanding universe. This is high adventure indeed, in which those of like mind are invited to join.
TRACY M. PULLMAN. D.D
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