The Stories of 42 Ministers Who Have Served Our Church
by Mike Roberts, Church Historian
As described in Part 1 of this series, our church was twenty years into its existence when Abel Thomas resigned to escape the negative effects on his health presented by the Cincinnati environment. During those twenty years five ministers had served the church, all for short terms. In two cases, the ministers stated they would stay until a replacement could be found as soon as possible. Yet, the church seems to have flourished. Two new churches had been built to accommodate growing membership. What would the future hold for the First Universalist Society of Cincinnati and who would be the next to lead them?
In Henry Jewell, the Society found another strong leader. Jewell was 35 years old when he took the Cincinnati pulpit in 1847. He had already served four New England Universalist churches when he left Great Falls, New Hampshire, for the Queen City. He was very familiar with the city as he was a close friend of John Gurley.
During his term, a terrible cholera epidemic hit the city and thousands fled to escape the ravages of the disease. Jewell stayed, however, and served the spiritual needs of those who were sick and the survivors of the dead. Jewell also wrote a biography of Enoch Pingree who had founded a second Universalist Church in the city. Pingree had passed away from consumption in 1849 at the age of 32. During his stay in Cincinnati, Jewell also preached the funeral of Griffin Yeatman, one of the founding fathers of the church and the owner of the first tavern in Cincinnati.
Jewell witnessed challenging financial difficulties in the church when many members failed to pay their pew rentals, a major source of income for the church. This was to continue for the next 30 years until pew rentals were abandoned. Nonetheless, plans were started under Jewell to build yet another new church.
Jewell submitted his resignation in May 1851. He subsequently served congregations in Canton, Merrimac, Lynn and Hardwick, Massachusetts; Terre Haute, Indiana; Manchester, Iowa; and Rome, Bristol and Nunda, New York. He died while stricken in the pulpit of Merrimac church at age 72.
George Washington Quinby
Reverend Quinby accepted the call to Cincinnati after having served four churches in Maine and one in Massachusetts during his 14 years as a Universalist minister. He was 41 years of age when he answered the call and was partially lured to the city by his interest in the Universalist newspaper, Star in the West. This interest resulted in his eventual purchase of the paper from John Gurley.
One of his first actions as pastor was to convince the trustees to pass a requirement that every member be required to attend communion services unless absolutely unable to do so. He also was in the pulpit while the Plum Street Church was under construction. The trustees had sold the Walnut Street church and built the new church in what appeared to be a financially necessary downsizing. Quinby filled the pulpit for three years but remained in Cincinnati for another five years to run the newspaper. He served on the Board of Trustees after his resignation.
Quinby was a prolific writer and was especially remembered for The Gallows, the Prison and the Poorhouse, which was a scathing attack on capital punishment. This book was written while he was in the Cincinnati pulpit. Eventually, Quinby returned to New England where he entered the publishing business full-time, heading several newspapers there.
Quinby and his wife, Cordelia, were instrumental in contributing to the abolition of the death penalty in Maine. Cordelia was very active in the Universalist women’s organization, and after her husband’s death became active in the national women’s rights movement. She was considered to be a close friend of Susan B. Anthony.
Isaac Dowd Williamson
No other minister had as long an association with our church than did Isaac Williamson. He was born in Vermont in 1807 and studied for the pulpit after reading the works of Hosea Ballou. Prior to coming to Cincinnati, he had served 11 different churches in 8 states. Williamson suffered from a severe case of asthma and his frequent moves were often dictated by the need to find a healthier environment. He came to Cincinnati first to serve as a stand-in for Abel Thomas during his leave of absence but was not hired as the full-time minister until 1854. He arrived just as the Plum Street church was completed and delivered its inaugural sermon on September 24, 1854. During his three years as minister, the church also voted to offer eucharist services the first Sundays of March, June, September and December. During his tenure, severe financial problems continued to plague the church. These difficulties persisted for decades beyond his ministry. They were caused primarily by several catastrophic plunges in the national economy which greatly decreased the church’s sources of income.
Williamson was a prolific writer. His book Endless Misery Examined and Refuted sold 25,000 copies. He also authored Philosophy of Universalism, at the time considered the best explanation of that theology ever written. Like so many of his predecessors, he also edited the Star in the West and ended up buying the paper from Quinby. Williamson asked to be relieved of his ministry in 1857 primarily due to his ill health. These problems sent him many times into the deep South to seek relief. It resulted in him taking a very unpopular stance with his fellow Universalists as he opposed the immediate abolition of slavery. While he felt that slavery was a great national problem, he did not think that slaves were equipped to live independently and that abolition would be a national disaster.
Williamson also was a national officer with the International Order of Odd Fellows. On a trip to England for the IOOF, he served as the ship’s minister and preached sermons with a Universalist theme. One of the attendees was Washington Irving who praised the sermons and expressed that he was in total agreement with Universalist thought.
While Williamson left the church ministry, he remained active in other ways. He served several terms on the Board of Trustees and substituted for absent ministers into the 1870’s. At one point, he was asked to serve again as the church minister but agreed only to provide Sunday sermons and serve no other ministerial functions. Williamson died of dropsy in Cincinnati in 1876. His funeral was conducted at the Plum Street church and he is buried in Spring Grove Cemetery.
George Truesdale Flanders
George Flanders was born in Vermont and followed the path of many of the Universalist ministers of his day. He studied divinity at Newberry Seminary and then embarked on a ministerial career that took him to thirteen pulpits in seven states. His appointment to the Cincinnati ministry was his fifth assignment. He served the church during difficult times from 1857 to 1861. The economic crash of 1857 cut deeply into church finances and the threat of civil war and the resolution of the slavery issue hung as a dark cloud over the country. That Civil War ended up costing Flanders a son, George, an army private who died in 1862 at Bowling Green, Kentucky.
Flanders eventually left the Cincinnati church with the knowledge that it was very difficult for the congregation to pay his salary. Towards the end of his life, Flanders wrote his autobiography, Life’s Problems, Here and Hereafter. The book was highly popular and originally was published anonymously. However, a second edition was soon published under his name. An edition was also published in England with great success. Perhaps the closing words of that book could stand as an indication of the Universalist faith of his day. “I am at rest. My faith has made me whole. The incidents of this mortal life have for me no terror. Old age has no terror. Death has no terror. I now know that the present, every moment of it, is under the superintendence of an all-wise Father, even in the minutest particular; and the future stretches out into inconceivable realms of light and joy. I can confidently say with the old patriarch, —‘Even though he slay me, yet will I trust in Him’”. Flanders died in Tryon, North Carolina, in 1897 at the age of 77.