“Those citizens of Milwaukie, friendly to the organization of a Unitarian congregation of this town, are requested to meet in Roger’s Building on Thursday evening next, at early candlelight.”
This is the notice that appeared in the Milwaukee Courier on August 19, 1841. The result was an organizational meeting of perhaps ten people interested in the Unitarian cause. Less than one year later, the formation of the First Unitarian Society of Milwaukee was accomplished with a membership of “40 male adults.”
First Unitarian Society was organized in the spring of 1842 at the Milwaukee County Courthouse on Cathedral Square (where the initial services were held). The Reverend Wm. Cushing of Massachusetts was called as the Society’s first minister. The original church building was erected the next year at the northwest corner of what is now Wisconsin Avenue and Second Street. After an auspicious beginning, the congregation fell on hard times. Declining interest and participation led to the foreclosure of the mortgage and the building was sold to the Episcopalians in 1849. The Society lay dormant for the next six years with only occasional services in homes.
The congregation was revived in 1856 with a surprise visit by the Reverend William G. Elliot (grandfather of T.S. Elliot) who challenged the Milwaukee Unitarians to reorganize with his own personal pledge of $500 – quite a sum at the time. Inspired by the generosity of this stranger, the group was able to raise $6,500 by the end of the morning and a lot was selected that very afternoon. This new church, dedicated in March of 1857, was on Cass Street between what is now Juneau and State Street. The membership of the church consisted of about 28 families and included such names as Edward P. Allis, Charles F. Ilsley and T.A. Chapman. Membership grew so rapidly that one year later the church was cleverly expanded by cutting it in half and adding a new middle section.
Between 1858 and the time our present home was built in 1892, the Unitarian movement went through a bit of change. Transcendentalism challenged the idea that Unitarianism was strictly a Christian-based faith.
Unfortunately, the First Unitarian Society of Milwaukee was affected by the unsettled post-war condition – financial support and attendance both fell drastically, forcing the church to close once again in 1871. Fortunately, the building was retained and rented out to another denomination. Four years later, the church was revived yet again! By 1890, the congregation voted to sell the church property and purchase a new site. The English Gothic church we now know as home was erected in 1892. From that time on, Unitarianism has had a visible and vigorous presence in Milwaukee.
Since its beginnings in 1842, this church has been composed of people who vary in their religious thinking and expect no conformity of opinion. Within the context of a rich heritage of freedom of belief stretching back to the 1500s, we rejoice in our diversity and unite in exploring and celebrating together the richness of life.
Want to learn more about First Church history? Visit the our archives at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.