In 1817, Charm City had only 60,000 residents. Mount Vernon — which now boasts marvelous architecture, magnificent monuments and small, grassy squares — was an undeveloped edge of town called Howard’s Woods. Visiting Unitarian minister Rev. Dr. James Freeman had delivered a series of sermons in October 2016, inspiring a group of leading citizens who met at the home of Henry Payson. That year, they vowed “to form a religious society and build a church for Christians who are Unitarian and cherish the liberal sentiments on the subject of religion.” They called the new church The First Independent Church of Baltimore.
Unitarianism had found a home in Baltimore.
The following year, the large, domed building with an expansive sanctuary had been built. It was dedicated on October 29, 1818, and Rev. Freeman returned to the city for the celebration.
The Rev. Dr. William Ellery Channing delivered a landmark sermon on May 5, 1819, at the ordination of the church’s first minister, Jared Sparks. The sermon — called the Baltimore Sermon — defined American Unitarianism and led to the formation of the denomination in 1825. In it, Channing identified freedom, reason and tolerance as tenets of Unitarianism. He preached that our lives are better illustrations of our faith than words and symbols. This truth has inspired a commitment to social justice, along with theological diversity.
Throughout its history, the church has been committed to community service and social justice. During the Civil War, the Reverend John F.W. Ware worked with abolitionists and tended Union soldiers. He later organized and directed The Baltimore Association for the Moral and Intellectual Improvement of Colored People, which established more than 200 schools for freed slaves. In 1874, the congregation organized one of the first vocational schools for teenagers in Baltimore.
In the late 1800s, the congregation oversaw a major reconstruction of the sanctuary. A barrel-vaulted ceiling was added to improve acoustics, along with a Niemann organ, a Tiffany mosaic and seven Tiffany stained-glass windows. Baltimore philanthropist and congregation member Enoch Pratt donated the Parish Hall in 1879. (He also donated the Niemann organ.) It was built from the bricks of the house demolished on Mulberry Street to make way for the Enoch Pratt Free Library.
In 1935, the church merged with the Second Universalist Society, and the name was changed to First Unitarian Church of Baltimore (Universalist & Unitarian). In 1954, at a time of general exodus from the central city of Baltimore, the First Unitarian Church congregation decided to remain in its historic location, to preserve its physical heritage and testify to its faith in the future of the inner city. A building addition for religious education was constructed in the following year. This commitment was reaffirmed in the 1960s, and members were activists in the black civil rights movement.
This activism continued throughout the 20th and into the 21st centuries, as the congregation and members have advocated for a variety of movements, including reducing poverty, opposition to war, and rights for LGBT people, including same-sex marriage. In 2007, the church hung a banner proclaiming “Civil Marriage is a Civil Right” from the columns of its portico as a testament to its commitment to equal rights for all and vowing to keep it hanging until Maryland changed its laws. The message was adopted for the LGBT rights group Equality Maryland.
Many members of First Unitarian were also city and state leaders. Learn more about some of these individuals here.