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All Souls History—The Early Years

The Boston Religion Takes Root in New York City

The founding of All Souls dates from its charter in 1819, the year that Lucy Channing Russel invited about 40 friends and neighbors into her home in lower Manhattan to hear a talk by her brother, William Ellery Channing, minister of the Federal Street Church in Boston. Channing was en route to Baltimore, Maryland, where at the ordination of Jared Sparks he would preach a sermon titled, "Unitarian Christianity". Called "one of the great sermons of the American church," this 90-minute address achieved virtual best-seller status by going through five printings in six weeks. In it, Channing said that the Bible must be interpreted by reason and that it "proclaims the unity of God. . . We object to the doctrine of the Trinity."

The message of the sermon was well received. When Channing stopped again in New York on his way home from Baltimore, "he was a famous man," says Walter Kring in his history of our congregation, Liberals Among the Orthodox: Unitarian Beginnings in New York City 1819-1839. On his return trip, Channing spoke three times in the largest hall available for rental; each time hundreds of persons were turned away for lack of space.

When Channing returned to Boston, it was left to the lay people, New Englanders primarily, to found a congregation, build a church and call a minister. Catharine Maria Sedgwick, whose career as a novelist would emerge from the request of her brother to write a tract in defense of liberal religion, described the early congregation as "strangers from inland and outland, English radicals and daughters of Erin, Germans and Hollanders, philosophic gentiles and unbelieving Jews . . . In this, our ass'n, there is at least one of every sort."

All Souls' first church, built before a minister could be found to leave the stability of New England and risk a career with a struggling congregation, was located on Chambers Street between the Broad Way and Church Street. It was dedicated on January 21, 1821, and would be the home of the congregation until 1844. William Ware, our first minister, was installed on December 18, 1821. It had taken just two years from the first gathering in Mrs. Russel's drawing room to establish "the Boston religion" in the burgeoning mercantile hub of the young nation, New York City.

By Mary-Ella Holst, Director of Religious Education Emerita and member of All Souls.

Continue to The Middle Years.

Unitarian Church of All Souls

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