Heritage UU Church History

Sketch of a stone church, with bell tower, built in the 1800s.
Sketch of the First Universalist Church of Cincinnati on Essex Place in Walnut Hills. Sketch date 1963.

The History of Heritage Universalist Unitarian Church

(First Universalist Society of Cincinnati)

Though the city directory of Cincinnati for the year 1825 lists as resident one “George Redding, dyer and scourer and Universalist minister,” there is no mention of Redding in any of the histories of Universalism in either Cincinnati or Ohio. Instead, the honor of being the first denominationally documented Universalists in Cincinnati goes to two traveling preachers from the East, Sebastian Streeter and Thomas Whittemore – both of whom passed through town and preached their message of universal salvation in the old downtown courthouse. Whittemore in particular was so impressive that a local group of self-styled “Universalians” [sic] asked him to stay and start a church. He declined.

Two years later, even though they did not have a minister of record, those who believed in universal salvation in the frontier outpost of Cincinnati were ready to build a church. Another traveling Universalist preacher, known to history only as “T. Fisk,” wrote of his visit to the city thusly: “In Cincinnati our friends are numerous and highly respectable, and are about to erect a place of public worship. Though they have been sorely buffeted by the enemies of [our doctrine of] God’s grace [presumably Fisk is referring to the local Presbyterians, with whom the early Universalists were in constant conflict] … yet there is a moral courage among them that laughs at difficulty and mocks at dangers.”

This optimistic group assembled themselves to create the First Universalist Society of Cincinnati on May 25, 1827. A two-story stone structure, “indifferent and badly located,” was completed on the west side of Elm Street between Third and Fourth; it would house the congregation during its first few years of its existence.

Josiah Crosby Waldo, son-in-law of the great Universalist leader Hosea Ballou, came to town in 1828 to become the church’s first minister. He helped establish a Universalist newspaper called The Sentinel of the West to articulate a tolerant and compassionate view during a time of considerable religious conflict with the more numerous (and, according to most accounts, religiously inhospitable) Presbyterians who dominated the city’s leadership in those early days.

Waldo served First Universalist until 1832, when his wife became dangerously ill during the cholera epidemic that swept through the city. He soon took her back to New England to recuperate, in the process leaving the congregation on the brink of collapse. But the trustees of First Universalist ultimately were able to acquire the occasional services (when he was in town) of popular circuit-riding minister Jonathan Kidwell, who lived in Cincinnati but was occupied spreading the gospel of universal salvation throughout Ohio, Indiana and Kentucky. Kidwell is credited with planting the seeds of many small Universalist congregations in various towns throughout southwest Ohio. Other area circuit riders such as Alfred W. Arrington and William Y. Emmet also helped fill the Cincinnati pulpit until a replacement could be found for Waldo.

In 1835, a young British-born Universalist minister named George Rogers, who had worked his way westward from Pittsburgh by preaching town-to-town along the Ohio River, met Enoch Singer, one of the founding members of First Universalist. Singer persuaded Rogers to settle in Cincinnati and become the church’s second minister. But Rogers, who preferred the life of the itinerant preacher, served the congregation for just a year before the lure of the circuit called him back onto the road. Nonetheless, he continued to maintain a home – and home base – in Cincinnati, where he wrote and edited The Sentinel and compiled a Universalist hymnal that was in widespread use through much of the mid-19th century.

In his memoirs, Rogers wrote, “Our place of worship, when I commenced my pastoral duties in Cincinnati [1835], was the school-house … at the corner of Sixth and Vine streets. It was usually well-filled at our meetings, but required no vast multitude to fill it. It was not long [1836] ere we purchased the property then owned by the Mechanics’ Institute [on the east side of Walnut Street between Third and Fourth] at the price of $6,600 … It was deemed a very cheap purchase, and it assuredly was an opportune one for us, for it put us into possession of a building which answered our purpose as a place of worship for many years.”

In fact, it was in that space, which the First Universalist Society completely renovated in 1842, that the congregation at last flourished. By 1850 the church included 330 “subscribers” (members). During that same period, a Second Universalist Church, a First Restorationist Church, and a German Universalist Church each appeared on the Cincinnati landscape. Ironically, Second Universalist purchased the former First Universalist building – and when Second Universalist disbanded in 1857, it sold the same building to the local Unitarians! At that point, many former members of Second Universalist joined First Universalist, further swelling its ranks.

When Rogers returned to circuit-riding in 1836, William West took over the church, and served from 1836-1839. West’s ministry led to a period of congregational growth, and included the addition of a Sunday School and increasingly popular public lectures. John A. Gurley, owner and editor of the Cincinnati-based newspaper Star in the West, took the pulpit when West resigned following the death of his wife. Gurley, a fiery debater and charismatic public figure, became the church’s fourth minister, and served the congregation from 1839-1844.

Gurley’s five-year tenure would be the longest of any First Universalist minister until the 20th century. It was under his leadership that the Mechanics’ Institute building was renovated to include “large and comfortable pews on a heavily carpeted floor, shuttered windows, a singing gallery barely sufficient for the 100-member choir, and gas lighting.” After retiring from the pulpit, Gurley went on to serve two terms in the House of Representatives as a congressman from Ohio, and later was appointed Governor of the Arizona Territory.

Though the church’s Constitution declares that it was “incorporated under the laws of the State of Ohio on May 25, 1827,” some time later the Ohio legislature embarked on a project to standardize incorporations in the state. Thus, near the end of Gurley’s pastorate, on March 12, 1844, an act of the Ohio Legislature (Section 7 of charter no. 360570), declared that “Griffin Yeatman, Henry Morse, R.A. Madison, Thomas H. Johnson and Samuel H. Warwick [apparently the church’s trustees], their associates and successors … are hereby created a body politic and corporate, by the name and style of The First Universalist Society of the City of Cincinnati in the County of Hamilton.”

The congregation continued to flourish and enjoy some measure of civic influence through the period preceding the Civil War. In 1859 they left the Mechanics’ Institute building for a new home on Plum Street, between Fourth and Fifth. First Universalist would remain in its Plum Street home for nearly four decades, through the turmoil of the Civil War and almost to the end of the century. Among the congregation’s more famous members during this period were sister poets Alice and Phoebe Cary.

An energetic young minister named Ulysses Sumner Milburn served as the congregation’s 21st minister from 1894-1898, and presided over the construction of a splendid new building in Walnut Hills, on Essex Place. Designed by Cincinnati’s most celebrated architect, Samuel Hannaford (who also designed the city’s world-renowned Music Hall and its City Hall), the new building was instantly one of Cincinnati’s finest houses of worship. It was dedicated in 1898.

In leaving downtown for an affluent neighborhood in the hills, First Universalist ended one era, and began another. The congregation became one of the flagship churches of the denomination, boasting a large membership (by Universalist standards) and a gorgeous building in a major metropolitan area. Its distinctive architecture and beautiful stained glass windows were widely admired, but it was also unique in that the facility became home to The Broadwell School, a Universalist high school funded by a bequest of $100,000 from the estate of church member Lewis Broadwell. First Universalist handled its own publishing, including many educational materials that were in use throughout the denomination. And from 1926-1933, the church was served by Rev. Robert Cummins, who went on to become General Superintendent of the Universalist Church of America.

First Universalist thrived in the building on Essex Place for fully half a century – but as the times changed, so did the nature of the neighborhood in which the congregation had built its cathedral. By the time a major freeway (Interstate 71) was being planned that would cut through the neighborhood – right next to the church’s property – many older church members were gone, and membership was declining. These changes mirrored what was happening in the wider denomination; talks of a merger with the American Unitarian Association were well underway.

A merger with City Temple, a New Thought congregation, in 1953 brought First Universalist renewed strength – and a dynamic new minister, Rev. Albert Q. Perry. Perry was active in community concerns and the social issues of the day. He served from 1952-1961. One of Perry’s final acts as the church’s minister was to publicly declare the congregation’s disapproval of the impending merger between the Universalists and the Unitarians. William O. Lewis, a church member and president of the statewide Ohio Universalist Convention from 1960-61, was also actively opposed to the merger. At the joint national meeting to consolidate in 1961, the First Universalist Society of Cincinnati cast its votes against merger. But the merger went forward.

By this time, the highway project had severed the Walnut Hills neighborhood, and possible new suburban locations for the church were being explored. But it wasn’t until May of 1967 that the congregation purchased a nine-acre estate on a hill overlooking Salem Road in Anderson Township. The stately Essex Place cathedral was sold, and the newly renamed Salem Acres Community Church (Universalist) moved to the east side of town, into a suburban mansion that featured a swimming pool and even a former servants’ quarters. Sunday School classes were held in repurposed upstairs bedrooms, and worship in the parlor. The first service at Salem Acres took place on March 24, 1968.

Rev. Karl Bach was minister of the now smaller congregation through the period of transition from Essex Place to Salem Acres. But when Bach retired in 1970, the church was without a minister for more than a year. Guest preachers, theology students, lay members, and a part-time minister offered worship services in the Salem Acres parlor through the first half of the 1970s.

In 1975, Rev. Doak Mansfield was called as the congregation’s 37th minister. Mansfield’s vision was of a revitalized congregation, and he eventually convinced church members that the Salem Acres location was preventing any possibility of growth. In the summer of 1983, the estate was sold, and the congregation began a two-year period commonly called the “Nomad Years” – holding meetings at the Anderson Junior High School auditorium and other public spaces in the area. Prime property on Newtown Road, next to the brand-new Turpin High School and at the intersection of a proposed Five Mile Road extension, was purchased in 1985, and the current church building was constructed. The first service in the new sanctuary was on Dec. 7, 1985, and the historic congregation changed its name once again – to Heritage Universalist Unitarian Church.

Membership slowly began to increase as more families discovered the progressive church in Anderson Township. In 1989, Rev. Elinor Artman became the congregation’s 41st minister, leading Heritage into the 21st century and sparking the kind of growth and resurgence that Mansfield had predicted. When she retired in 2001, the congregation had tripled in size, from 43 members when she was called, to 128 members.

Growth has continued in recent years, with Heritage Church now including nearly 170 adult members while offering a vital religious education program serving more than 75 children and youth. A capital campaign in 2013 financed renovations to the church’s sanctuary, technology, kitchen, and nursery/preschool rooms, as well as the installation of a new illuminated message board at Newtown Road. Called in 2002, our Senior Minister, Rev. Bill Gupton, is now the longest-serving minister in the congregation’s nearly 200-year history.