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The Early Years

 

The history of The Community Church of New York goes back to 1825. It had its origin in New England Unitarianism - and yet its roots go further and deeper than that. It is rooted in the soil of all liberal religion, in the soil from which have sprung those truths proclaimed by saints and prophets throughout the ages - freedom, justice, world community and peace.

channingeyesThe liberal religious movement surging through our country towards the end of the eighteenth century marked the beginning of American Unitarianism. The most famous liberal preacher of this movement, William Ellery Channing, indirectly influenced the origin of Community Church. One of his sermons had so profoundly moved his hearers that they organized a Unitarian Church in New York City in 1819 naming it "The First Congregational Church in the City of New York" (later "The Unitarian Church of All Souls.") After some difficulty in obtaining a building of their own, the congregation settled in a church on Chambers Street.

Only six years later, on March 19, 1825, it was found necessary to hold a meeting of persons disposed to unite in building a church for Unitarian worship in the "upper part of the city," above Canal Street, and "The Second Congregational Unitarian Society" was formed. This was the birthday of our Community Church!

On Thanksgiving Day, Thursday, December 7, 1826, this first building in our history was dedicated. William Cullen Bryant, a member of the congregation, wrote a hymn for the occasion, and William Ellery Channing preached one of his most celebrated sermons, "Unitarian Christianity Most Favorable to Piety." Dr. John Haynes Holmes (our minister from 1907 to 1949) called this address the "dedication not of a building at all, but of the whole life and temper of an institution." It seemed a radical sermon in those days - a revolt against the theological creeds of the times - in which Dr. Channing stressed the great ideal of religious freedom, which has remained fundamental in the life of The Community Church.
 

A Dynamic Ministry

 

Over the next 150 years, the church became one of the outstanding congregations in the city and within the liberal religious movement. Its ministers, including Orville Dewey (1835-1848), Robert Collyer (1879-1907), John Haynes Holmes (1907-1949), and Donald Szantho Harrington (1944-1982), have been among the most dynamic and respected religious leaders of their day. Their strong leadership has enabled the church to survive many difficult periods and circumstances including the loss of two church buildings through fires. The Rev. Bruce Southworth, who became Senior Minister in 1982, continues the church's traditions of excellence in preaching and of social activism. In 1988 and 1990 he received the Clarence R. Skinner Award from the Unitarian Universalist Association for the sermon best expressing the social principles of Unitarian Universalism.
 

Service to the Community

 

The Community Church of New York, which had been called The Church of the Messiah since the 1830's, took its present name in 1919 when Dr. Holmes began to emphasize a wider community basis rather than a denominational one. Under the leadership of Dr. Holmes, the church membership grew many times, while its activities, services to the community and participation in the major social and political causes of the day expanded greatly. Dr. Holmes, one of the founders of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and the American Civil Liberties Union, helped the church to survive from 1930-1949 without a building of its own. The present church building was dedicated in 1948. With Dr. Harrington's ministry, which continued Holmes' example of social activism and a prophetic pulpit, the church also grew institutionally with its new building, acquisition of adjacent properties and the expansion of programs. The brownstones, which are entered through 28 East 35th Street, were dedicated as the John Haynes Holmes Community House and now house the adult education programs, a shelter for homeless men and many more church and community activities.

UU History

 

Founded as a Unitarian congregation, The Community Church of New York is now affiliated with the Unitarian Universalist Association and played an active role in the merger between the Unitarians and the Universalists in 1961. In worship, Dr. Donald S. Harrington led the congregation in celebrating holidays of religions from around the world and thus influenced worship practices in many other Unitarian Universalist congregations across the continent.

As a Unitarian Universalist congregation, we encourage the personal religious and spiritual growth of each member in a warm, supportive community, and we seek to build a more just social order. Honoring mind, heart and spirit, we uphold principles of individual freedom of belief, use of reason in the search for religious truth, and toleration and respect for our diversity. No creed or dogma is required for membership.