Those Who Have Served, Part 1

The Stories of 42 Ministers Who Have Served Our Church

by Mike Roberts, Church Historian

Over the next few months, this column will attempt to provide a history of the individuals who have served as ministers to our church. Over the course of nearly 200 years of existence, this includes many individuals, forty-two to be exact. While some may find these mini biographies to be of little interest, it is hoped that it will provide a resource to the history of Universalism itself. Some very prominent Universalists have served our congregation and in many ways the story of our journey reflects the story of Universalism. Especially in the early history of our religion, ministers moved often and during their careers served many congregations. Thus, there is an intertwining connectedness between different churches that are often great distances apart. So, let us take a look this month at those ministers who served us so well in our early years.

Josiah Crosby Waldo

After a year of using lay ministers, our church hired its first full time minister in 1828, Josiah Waldo. Waldo was 24 years old when he accepted the call. He had been raised in a farm family in Chesterfield, New Hampshire. His parents claimed Presbyterianism as its faith but Waldo rejected that faith when the family minister told him that his deceased mother would be denied salvation because of her lack of support of the church. He became committed to the concept of universal salvation and sought the guidance of Hosea Ballou, the foremost leader of the Universalist Church of the time. After these studies, Waldo served two years in the ministry and then moved to Cincinnati where he founded a Universalist newspaper, the Sentinel and Star. He also served many other congregations as a circuit rider where he claimed to have increased attendance in numerous far-flung communities from 200 to 2,000.

In 1831, Waldo married Elmina, the daughter of Hosea Ballou. The couple had five children. One became a well-respected newspaper editor and another a banker. The Waldos left Cincinnati in 1832, moving back to the Northeast. This was a path followed by many of his successors to the Cincinnati pulpit. He served Universalists in Lynn, Arlington and Quincy, Massachusetts, Troy, New York, and finally New London, Connecticut. Waldo passed away in 1890 in New London.

George Rogers

The church replaced Waldo with itinerant and lay ministers for several years but in 1836 hired George Rogers, aged 31, as its minister with the understanding that he would step aside as soon as a replacement could be found. Rogers was born in England, but after his parents came to the United States, he was orphaned at an early age. He spent most of his childhood under the care of his grandparents or in orphanages. He became committed to a career in the ministry at an early age and adopted Universalism after a meeting with Reverend Abel Thomas (see below). He made it known that his real love was riding the circuit and preaching whenever and wherever people would listen.

In Cincinnati, he helped raise $6,500 to build a church at 6th and Vine. He took over the publishing of Waldo’s Sentinel and Star but spent great amounts of time in the saddle, Bible in hand. After two years as minister, Rogers left the Cincinnati pulpit and agreed to find his own replacement. Rogers married and had one child but still traveled extensively throughout the country. It has been claimed that he preached in all but three states of the Union, North and South Carolina and Vermont. He wrote over a dozen books, continued his editing of the Sentinel and Star, wrote an autobiography and published a hymnal, many of the hymns having been written by himself. However, Rogers was a very small and not always healthy man. His whirlwind of activity took its toll and at age 41, shortly after his wife gave birth to a second child, he contracted consumption and died in 1846. He asked to be buried in the small Universalist cemetery in Delhi.

William West

Rogers kept his promise and found as his replacement William West. The new minister was a native of Ireland and came to Philadelphia after completing his education at the Academy of Fine Arts in Dublin. He was ordained in 1836 and came to Cincinnati to preach in 1838. He attacked his new challenge with vigor. He indicated that he had increased membership to 97 souls and more than 100 children were regular attendees in Sunday School. This increase caused the new facility at 6th and Vine to become inadequate and the congregation moved to a rented facility at the Mechanics Institute on Walnut between 3rd and 4th streets.

Unfortunately, both West and his wife grew sickly and they were granted a leave of absence to return to Ireland and rest. Upon their return, Mrs. West grew worse and died in 1839. The loss of his wife overwhelmed Reverend West; he plunged into deep grief and asked to be relieved of his position as minister. After leaving the church and his ministry, little is known of what happened to William West.

John Addison Gurley

Our church was blessed with strong leaders in its early years and John Gurley certainly fit that description. Gurley was born in 1813 in Hartford, Connecticut, the son of a tavern keeper/postmaster. His mother was the aunt of the poet William Cullen Bryant. Gurley followed a path very similar to George Rogers, adopting Universalism, training for the ministry and then heading west seeing his calling as a circuit rider. He settled in Cincinnati where he also became a writer and editor of the Sentinel and Star, which he bought and then changed the name to the Star in the West. At this point, the First Universalist Society sought to hire him as a minister, but like Rogers, he accepted the position only under the condition that they find his replacement as soon as possible so he could give full attention to circuit riding. His major accomplishment with the church was heading the drive to purchase the building they were renting, razing it and building a new church on the site. This accomplished, his replacement was found and he concentrated his efforts on circuit riding and developing the very profitable paper. The Star in the West reached a point of having 10,000 subscribers.

By 1850, like Rogers, Gurley was exhausted and decided to retire from all church affairs and run his farm in Green Township. However, duty called and in 1858 he was elected to the U.S. congress. He served two terms and also took up the call to serve in the Union Army, acting as an aide-de-camp for General John C. Fremont. He also is credited with the creation of the U.S. Printing Office. In 1863, Abraham Lincoln appointed Gurley to become the first territorial governor of Arizona. His appointment, based on his strong anti-slavery beliefs, was made in hopes he would help prevent Arizona from joining the Confederacy. Sadly, as he was preparing to leave for his new position, Gurley’s appendix burst and the subsequent peritonitis led to his death at age 50. He had certainly accomplished a lot during those few short years.

Abel Charles Thomas

Replacing Gurley would be difficult but, in Abel Thomas, the church hired one of the foremost Universalists of his day. Thomas was born in Pennsylvania in 1807, the son of a doctor and grandson of a prominent Quaker minister. As a young man, he adopted Universalism as his faith of choice. Thomas’s first calling was in New York City but he soon moved to Philadelphia, where he served the First Universalist Church of Philadelphia for ten years. From there he moved on to Lowell, Massachusetts, where he took on the plight of female textile workers. He started an “improvement circle” and edited a publication of works written by some of the workers. The Lowell Offering became a well-read New England journal.

Eventually, Thomas found his way to Cincinnati and was hired as minister in 1844. Unfortunately, the Cincinnati environment worsened existing health problems and he had to ask for a leave of absence. This was granted but upon his return, the condition emerged again and it hampered his efforts to serve his church.

During his stay in Cincinnati, Thomas did contribute much to the church. He traveled extensively in the area where he acquired a great knowledge of Universalism in the West, which he shared with fellow Universalists in his extensive writings. He also emphasized the need to reach out to those less fortunate souls in the church and secured an assessment of ten cents a quarter from all members to be used to help members in need.

Finally, Thomas arranged a loan to the church from his good friend, P.T. Barnum, in order that the church might get away from a high interest mortgage on its new home. Eventually, Thomas assumed the loan himself to assist Barnum in bringing Jenny Lind on a tour of the United States.

Thomas left Cincinnati in 1847, still suffering from ill health. He returned to his old pulpit in Philadelphia and served there for six years, after which his health issues forced a permanent retirement. He remained active as a writer and stand-in minister and performed the funeral service for P.T Barnum’s wife. Thomas died in 1880.

Image: John Addison Gurley

Image source: Wikipedia