learn more about the history of one of Savannah's most historical churches
Though they were worshipping in the antebellum conservative South, the Unitarian’s mission did not waiver in the challenging atmosphere of Savannah, Georgia. They had come from a long line of fellow worshippers who were persecuted for their liberal religious views, so they were determined and prepared to persevere for their faith.
They were considered heretics in the 16th century, and some were burned at the stake in 17th century Eastern Europe. And in 1791, Joseph Priestly, a scientist and Unitarian minister, watched his laboratory in England burn to the ground. He had no choice but to leave, so he made his way to Philadelphia, where he set up America’s first Unitarian church.
In the early 1800s, there were religious struggles in Christianity over the doctrine of the Holy Trinity. Sin and Salvation was weighing heavy on the minds of protestants. In 1819, William Ellery Channing, a Unitarian minister, stood at the pulpit and delivered his sermon, “Unitarian Christianity,” and gave Unitarians a voice that needed to be heard. And six years later, the American Unitarian Association was organized in Boston, Massachusetts.
In the meantime, the Universalists were uncovering the Word of God as one of pure love and equality. They no longer adhered to the Calvinist doctrines of the times and began to interpret the Bible as God’s loving redemption of all. John Murray, an English preacher who had migrated from England to America, helped lead the first Universalist church in Gloucester, MA, in the battle to separate church and state.
Unitarians and Universalists shared many of the same beliefs and ultimately lived by the same doctrine, but they did have their subtle differences. Thomas Starr King said it best, “Universalists believe that God is too good for damn people, and the Unitarians believe that people are too good to be damned by God.”
In 1961, The Universalists Church of America and the American Unitarian Association merged and became Unitarian Universalism through the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA).
When the cotton trade was booming in the 1820s, a group from New England moved to Savannah to be a part of the industry. There were a few liberal-minded individuals in the group that found themselves without a church. They formed the Savannah Unitarian Society. The conducted “Divine Services” in a rented building on Court House Square.
For the next few years, the Savannah congregation went through some growing pains and challenges with locations and ministries. By 1850 they had spent the three years meeting in Armory Hall. But it was the generosity of their member Moses Eastman, a successful silversmith, who committed to building his congregation a church. Moses died shortly after his declaration, and his wife fulfilled her husband promise.
The church was dedicated on November 21, 1851, and faced Oglethorpe Square across the Owens-Thomas House. They called it the “little gem.” Just a few months later, John Peirpont, Jr began to minister the congregation. In 1857, his brother James, the church music director, copyrighted the song, “One Horse Open Sleigh.” But for John, the church was facing financial hardships, and he was no longer able to take a salary. He left the ministry in 1859.
The congregation sold the church and moved the building to Troup Square. Unitarianism laid dormant for decades in Savannah.
The Savannah Unitarian Church was reestablished in 1958 with 15 members. They were a close-knit group who met at the YWCA, who was committed to civil rights and integration. But it was the South, and voicing their support in integration opened them up to hostilities. By the 1960s, the YWCA asked the Unitarians to leave.
In 1961, when the American Unitarian Association merged with the Universalist Church of America, Savannah’s displaced congregation of 19 became Unitarian Universalists.
It would be over 30 years before the congregation would have their ancestral home back, but in 1997, after years of negotiations, they purchased the building on Troup Square from the Savannah Baptist Association.
After years of dialogue with the Savannah Baptist Association, consultation with the UUA, and a campaign that raised over $170,000, the Unitarian Universalist Church of Savannah returned to its ancestral home. Our first service on Easter Sunday, March 30, 1997, began with a packed house at our Sheftall House sanctuary. After announcements, a hymn and checking-in with each other, 170 members and friends walked the five blocks South to our new home.
~ John Iaderosa, Former Congregational President
Upon a visit to the church, you may notice the “Jingle Bells” plaque. Reverend John Pierpont Jr. was the last Unitarian minister of the Unitarian Universalist Church before the Civil war broke out. He had come to Savannah from Boston and was the son of an Abolitionist minister and social reformer. While serving as the minister, his brother, James, was the musical director for the church.
James penned the song “One Horse Sleigh” while working as the church’s organist in 1857. That song is now known as “Jingle Bells,” the famous tune we hear every holiday season.
The “Jingle Bells” marker was dedicated to the church in 1985, honoring James Lord Pierpont. In 1997 the Armstrong Atlantic State University established the James Lord Pierpont Music Scholarship Fund. His original 1837 chamber organ has been restored and now owned by Florida State University.
James Pierpoint was laid to rest in Laurel Grove Cemetery.
The Unitarian Universalist Church has seen its share of struggles and challenges. It’s not only impressive but also encouraging to witness their perseverance in the name of diversity and inclusion.
Whether there were fifteen or 150 members of their congregation, whether they were meeting in a rented room or their gracious church, they were governed by their principles. There is no dogma, just the practice of freedom and acceptance, compassion and equity, and the collectively respected search for truth and meaning.
If you have an interest or some curiosities about the Unitarian Universalist Church, a visit to one of their services would be a wonderful way to learn more. You can expect a casual atmosphere; they encourage you to simply bring your “whole self.” There are no prejudices and no judgment; they just ask you to come with an open heart.
Services are held at 11:00 AM on Sundays, year-round. The Unitarian Universalist Church is located at 311 E. Harris Street on historic Troup Square, at the intersection of Habersham and Harris.