First Unitarian Universalist Church (Ann Arbor, Mich.) Records

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First Unitarian Universalist Church (Ann Arbor, Mich.) records

The materials in this online repository form part of a larger First Unitarian Universalist Church (Ann Arbor, Mich.) record groupheld by the Bentley Historical Library. For a more complete index to the materials, please consult the collection's online finding aid.

For questions or more information, please contact the Bentley Historical Library's Division of Reference and Access Services

Founded in 1865, the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Ann Arbor has a history of social activism and involvement with the University of Michigan community. The records contain church files and annual reports, sermons and correspondence of church ministers, and church publications--including the weekly newsletter. The papers also include materials of minister Kenneth Phifer regarding his views on assisted suicide and Jack Kevorkian, and also the issue of racial justice with the Ku Klux Klan rallies in Michigan.

In 1865, forty Ann Arborites invited Charles Brigham (1865-1877) from Massachusetts to become the first minister for the newly organized First Unitarian Church. Services were originally conducted at the old Court House but in 1867 the church purchased a building at Fourth and Ann Street. In 1882, under the ministry of Jabez Sunderland (1878-1898), a new Romanesque church was built at State and Huron Street, near the University of Michigan campus. The church would remain there until 1946 when the congregation purchased the Dr. Dean Myers home at 1917 Washtenaw Avenue. An addition was added to that residence in 1956. In 1995, the congregation began plans to build a new church, which was completed in 1999 on Ann Arbor-Saline Road at the corner of Ellsworth.

Throughout its history the church has been identified with the liberal religious tradition and has maintained close ties with the university community. In the 1880s, Minister Sunderland was attracted by religious movements in India and argued strongly for Indian independence. His wife, Eliza, was one of the first women to earn a doctorate from the University of Michigan and later went on to become a prominent educator and suffragist.

During the depression of the 1930s, Minister Harold P. Marley (1920-1942) was involved in a range of social issues. He was an active member of the American Civil Liberties Union and the church doors remained open for labor union meetings and controversial speakers who sometimes could obtain no other meeting place in Ann Arbor. An editorial in the student-run Michigan Daily in 1937 noted that this church is "a center of activity in behalf of true democracy . . . and a genuine force in our social thinking."

During World War II, the church was involved in providing human services for the influx of workers to the Willow Run bomber plant. Gilbert House in Ypsilanti was established to meet these needs. In the 1950s, Minister Edward Redman (1943-1960) was also active in his opposition to McCarthyism through his writings and participation in various organizations.

In the 1960s, the church with its new minister Erwin A. Gaede (1961-1979), supported the civil rights movement as well as the new women's movement. The Vietnam war, however, proved more divisive and eventually some members of the congregation chose to leave the church over this issue. Gaede counseled and wrote letters for those men applying for conscientious objector status during the Vietnam war, and remained visible in the community as a proponent of peace through his letters to the editors of various newspapers.

During this time, as well, (1969-1971) the Black Economic Development League and the Welfare Rights Organization (BEDL-WRO) were petitioning and demonstrating in area churches in the spirit of the Black Manifesto, to the effect that traditionally white congregations owed the league and the area's poor population financial support, and demanded $10,000 in cash and $21,000 in stocks from First Unitarian of Ann Arbor. The congregation was among the first to attempt to meet the demands.

In 1980, the church added "Universalist" to its name in a spirit of consolidation between two similar religious traditions. Today, the Ann Arbor church is one of 1,000 Unitarian-Universalist congregations nationally which include close to 200,000 members. In explaining the beliefs of the church, Kenneth W. Phifer (1980-2005) wrote, "Unitarian-Universalism is a religion based on the freedom of individuals to determine their own religious understanding, tolerance of others whose conclusions are different, and dependence upon reason in considering the meaning of life. The fundamental theology is that all reality forms a unified whole to which we owe respect and love."

Please note:

Copyright has been transferred to the Regents of the University of Michigan.

Access to digitized sound recordings may be limited to the reading room of the Bentley Historical Library, located on the Ann Arbor campus of the University of Michigan.

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