In 1817, Charm City was called Baltimore Town and had only 60,000 residents. Mount Vernon -- which now boasts marvelous architecture, magnificent monuments and small, grassy squares -- was still a forest. And a group of leading citizens met at the home of Henry Payson "to form a religious society and build a church for Christians who are Unitarian and cherish the liberal sentiments on the subject of religion." These leaders opted to call the church The First Independent Church of Baltimore.
Unitarianism had found a home in Baltimore.
A year later, the large, domed building with an expansive sanctuary was built. 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 -- now called the Baltimore Sermon -- defined American Unitarianism and led to the formation of the denomination in 1824. 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 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 Baltimore's first vocational school for teenagers.
In the late 1800s, the congregation oversaw a major reconstruction of the sanctuary. A barrel-valuted ceiling was added, along with a Niemann organ, a Tiffany mosaic and six Tiffany, stained-glass windows. Baltimore philathropist and congregation member, Enoch Pratt donated the Parish Hall in 1879, 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 Church, 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 phyusical heritage and testify to its faith in the futre of the inner city. A building addition for religious education was constructe din the following year. This commitment was reaffirmed in the 1960s, and members were activists in the black civil rights movement.
This activisim 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 teh columns of its portico as a testiment to its commitment to equal rights for all. The message was adopted for GLBT rights group, Equality Maryland and now appears on signs and bumper stickers across the state.
Many members of First Unitarian were also city and state leaders. Learn more about these individuals here.