A Condensed History of the Unitarian Universalist Church of Greater Lansing
John H. Sanford, Universalist minister and newspaper publisher, could be considered the father of the Unitarian Universalist Church of Greater Lansing. In 1847 he came to Lansing from Ann Arbor and formed a Universalist society. He was also the publisher of Lansing’s first newspaper, The Primitive Expounder. (Note: some copies of this newspaper can be viewed online here with a high speed connection.)
On March 16, 1849 the church’s incorporation papers were signed. In 1852 the Rev. Chauncy Washington Knickerbacker came to Lansing to serve the society as its minister. In a meeting at the Capitol on October 24, 1852, the society adopted a constitution and by- laws. There were about 65 members and services were held in the Capitol building or in a Lansing school.
In 1863 a brick church was built and dedicated at the corner of Grand Avenue and Allegan Street. The cost of construction was $6,000. It was here that Augusta Jane Chapin was ordained and served as minister from 1881 – 1882. The Rev. Dr. Chapin was the second woman ordained in the Universalist Church and the first woman in the country to be awarded an honorary doctor of divinity degree. (Olympia Brown was the first woman to be ordained.)
Thirty years and eleven ministers later a new church was built on the corner of Capital Avenue and Ottawa Street. The land, on which the church was built, was deeded to the congregation by Sarah Vanderroot Emery. A rose window was placed in the north wall of the building in her memory. (A portion of this window can be found displayed in our current church’s fireplace room.)
The Universalists had a cordial relationship with the congregation of the Plymouth Congregational Church. During the years 1927 – 1932, the two churches held joint services, co-sponsored famous speakers and the choirs performed together. During the depression, the Universalists considered merging with the Congregationalists.
Several different Lansing buildings have been home to the Universalist congregation over the years. In her history, “Ideas Have Consequences, 125 Years of the Liberal Tradition in the Lansing Area”, church member Jerry Thornton wrote that the Universalist Church had its ups and downs during the early years. The original church property was sold for financial reasons after the panic of 1893. The 1930s depression effected the church with ministers taking pay cuts and accepting promissory notes. By 1935 church membership had shrunk to 71 members. According to Jerry’s history, it was the hard work of the women of the church that held the congregation together. Their projects raised funds for the church. They also cleaned and refurbished the church building .
During the 1940s several Unitarian families moved to the Lansing area from Ann Arbor. They founded the Unitarian Fellowship of East Lansing and Mason, affiliating with the American Unitarian Association in March 1949. In 1957, Lansing area Universalists and Unitarians merged four years before the national merger took place.
In 1971 the church purchased the former fraternity house at 855 Grove Street and for a period of time shared the space with Kehillat Israel, a Jewish congregation now located in Lansing. Over the years the congregation has worked to make this space meet the needs of our congregation. Interior walls were removed and dorm rooms transformed into religious education classrooms. Long-time members remember when a wall divided what is now the fireplace and the joy we experienced when it was removed in 1975. The assembly hall, the front entrance and the Marion Vaughn Parlor were added in 1983-84. Mortgages on the building were paid off in 1996.
For some years the church rented out upstairs rooms as office space. We reclaimed this space, and the former caretaker apartment, for classrooms in 2001. Today the Peace Education Center has an office in the basement.
A group left this church to form All Souls UU Church in an effort to serve a more diverse congregation and to become more socially active. It did not survive.
Since 1847 this church has had 42 ministers, both settled and interim, leading the congregation. Over this same time, the congregation has met in nearly a dozen different locations. Since the arrival of Rev. Kathryn A. Bert as our minister in 2002 our congregation has grown to its current size of over 350 members, and approximately 200 friends.