Unitarian Society of Northampton & Florence

The history of the Unitarian Society of Northampton & Florence (Northampton, MA)

Northampton Association of Education & Industry

In 1842, members of the Northampton Association of Education and Industry established a utopian community organized around a communally owned and operated silk mill. Those who were drawn to this community sought to challenge the prevailing social attitudes of their day by creating a society in which "the rights of all are equal without distinction of sex, color or condition, sect or religion." They were especially united around the issue of the abolition of slavery. Most were followers of William Lloyd Garrison. Sojourner Truth was a member of the community and visitors like Frederick Douglass were regular lecturers.

American Unitarian Association founded

The American Unitarian Association (AUA) was a religious denomination in the United States and Canada, formed by associated Unitarian congregations . Unitarianism emerged in America in the early 19th century, stressing importance of rational thinking, each person's direct relationship with God, and the humanity of Jesus. By 1825, Unitarian ministers had formed a denomination called the American Unitarian Association. Members spoke out on issues such as education reform, prison reform, moderation in temperance, ministry to the poor, and the abolition of slavery. Influential Unitarians from this era include William Ellery Channing, Theodore Parker, Joseph Priestley, and Thomas Starr King, who was also a Universalist. Unitarians have been very influential throughout American history, especially in politics and literature. Some famous Unitarians include John Adams, John Quincy Adams, Louisa May Alcott, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Paul Revere, William Howard Taft, and Frank Lloyd Wright.

Free Congregational Society of Florence

The First Congregational Society of Florence was founded in 1863 by former members of the Florence Association of Education and Industry.

Original Building burns to ground

The original Northampton building burned to the ground in 1903. Plans began immediately to rebuild on the foundations.

New Building Dedicated

This second building, frugally designed and generously supported by the rebates and discounts of area buildings and craftsmen, was erected at a cost of only $23,000 (while the minister’s salary was set at $1,400). This building still stands and is our present home.

Florence Congregation Growth

By 1870 their numbers had grown to about 170, and during much of the 1870’s attendance ranged to 500 at Sunday meetings. Throughout the Society’s early history it was a Unitarian group by conviction and employed more than one Unitarian minister as speaker. Formal affiliation with the American Unitarian Association came in 1898.

USNF Membership Declines

From the time of the merger until the late 1980’s, the situation of the Society changed little. A small but active group of Unitarians (and later Unitarian Universalists) were led by six ministers over the course of about fifty years. In 1985 the congregation numbered 142 members. Sunday attendance was sometimes so low that rather than be dwarfed by the dimensions of the Great Hall, congregants met in the adjacent parlor. The tenor of sermons was intellectual and atheistic.

Two Congregations Become One

Both the Second Congregational Society and the Free Congregational Society continued as distinct congregations through the early years of the 20th century, albeit with increasing financial woes and declining membership. As the Second World War approached, neither congregation had sufficient resources to ensure survival. In 1944, urged by the American Unitarian Association to merge rather than vanish, the two congregations voted to join together as the Unitarian Church of Northampton and Florence, and adopted the Northampton building as their shared address.

2nd Morning Service Added

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Reverend Victoria Safford Called

Following the retirement of long-time minister John Farmakis, the Society called the Reverend Victoria Safford to her first settled ministry. Simultaneously, the demographics of Northampton were changing, as the community became attractive to liberal-minded people many of whom were disenchanted with the doctrinal churches of their childhoods. The charismatic new minister’s work in the wider community was visible, and her sermons were rich in meaning and poetry; and the Society created an actively welcoming atmosphere toward the growing gay and lesbian population while some of the programs of neighboring UU churches were faltering. This turned out to be a recipe for growth.

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