First UU Church traces its roots back to 1830 when a small group started the Unitarian Universalist Society of Richmond. That Society is believed to be the very first organization to use the name Unitarian Universalist. Richmond society, especially the clergy, was not hospitable to this liberal religious group, and within a year the name was changed to the First Independent Christian Church.
That church did purchase property, build their own building and even ordained their first minister by 1833. But after that high point, the church struggled along with a series of short term Unitarian and Universalist ministers until 1862 when its then minister was arrested as a Union sympathizer, if not a spy, and sent back across the Potomac River under a flag of truce. With a reputation for abolitionist beliefs and no minister, the church then disbanded and no further UU activity occurred in Richmond until 1893.
In 1893 a group of 18 people joined together to form the First Unitarian Church of Richmond and signed the Bond of Union. One of those original 18 signers, Mary F. Hill, had also been one of the last members of that prior church in the 1860s so there is a direct linkage between the two churches. The new church held its first services on December 31, 1893 and struggled to become established in Richmond. It was not an easy task. Indeed, in January 1898, a motion was made to disband the church and dispose of its property. That motion was amended to read that the church would only hold services once a month for the next two months, and the amended motion passed.
With that action, the fortunes of the church improved and a minister was called in 1904. A church was built at the corner of Harrison and Floyd. That building still exists and is currently a part of the VCU campus. In 1926 the three bells that now hang in our lobby were dedicated to Thomas Jefferson’s memory and hung in the belfry there until moved here.
The church continued to be a strong focus of liberal religion in Richmond throughout the ’50s and ’60s. In 1951 the congregation voted overwhelmingly to integrate and elected a black president, Joseph Jenkins, in 1963. In 1961, when the Unitarians and the Universalists voted to combine, this congregation, as a matter of principle, voted against the merger since there were still a handful of Universalist churches in the deep South that had never integrated. When the merger was approved, the congregation did join in association with the UUA. In June of 2004, the church officially changed its name to the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Richmond.
This building was built in 1972. The church wanted to build in a racially mixed neighborhood, but the first two parcels they sought to buy were taken off the market when it was learned that our church was the buyer. Finally this block was assembled from several lots when three members of the church used their own money to buy the properties and then sold them to the church when a capital campaign had raised the money to pay them back.
This church was very involved during the Civil Rights movement in Richmond and throughout the ’50s & ’60s the minister’s sermons were published in the Richmond newspapers along with projects and activities promoting civic responsibility.
Members of this church were responsible for the revival of the Richmond Forum in 1963 and ran it until 1980 when it became an independent entity. In a similar fashion, the church started the Fan Free Clinic in the ’70s, though it, too, is now independent. In the early ’90s this church spun off its sister church, the UU Community Church in Glen Allen. In October 2005, after 2 years of education and preparation and a congregational vote, the church was recognized as a Welcoming Congregation by the UUA. The recognition indicates our openness and inclusiveness to GLBT individuals.
If there is one continuous thread running through the history and activities of this church: it is our First Principle, The Inherent Worth and Dignity of Every Human Being. Indeed, to become a member in the ’30s & ’40s, it was necessary to first complete a service project.