History of The Independent Christian Church
The Independent Christian Church, Unitarian Universalist, has the distinction of being the first Universalist church in America. Brought to Gloucester from England by John Murray, Universalism is founded on the belief that God wills the salvation of all, emphasizing the inherent goodness of human beings.
With Murray as leader, several members of the First Parish Church separated from that body on January 1, 1779 and formed The Independent Church of Christ. The church received its charter in 1785; in 1786 Gloucester Universalists fought for and won freedom from taxation for the support of the First Parish Church. The ruling in their favor by the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court, provided a precedent for the separation of church and state. The cornerstone for the current building was laid in 1805.
In 1961 the Universalist Church of America and the American Unitarian Association merged to create the Unitarian Universalist Association, and the Independent Christian Church voted to be part of this union and became a Unitarian Universalist Church.
Today our congregation is known on Cape Ann as the Gloucester Unitarian Universalist Church. Our congregation is a fellowship of individuals united in seeking spiritual strength, the better to achieve peace, poise, and power for the demands of daily life. In 2004, the Gloucester Unitarian Universalist Church voted for official recognition as a Welcoming Congregation of the Unitarian Universalist Association, with the following mission statement:
As a Unitarian Universalist congregation, we gather in a spirit of joy to celebrate community and the gifts of each individual.
We seek to be guided by love, welcoming those of every race, ethnicity, creed, class, age, gender, physical or mental ability, and sexual identity.
We honor freedom of thought. We seek spiritual guidance and inspiration.
We support spiritual inquiry. We strive to put our ideas into our deeds and to work for justice and peace.
Excerpt from our 200 Year Celebration “Universalism: 200 Years and Growing” [article in UU World Magazine by John Lovell – July/August issue 1993)
If the recent growth of churches of Universalist heritage were the latest scene of a long-unfolding play, it was John Murray who set the stage for it, in Gloucester, Massachusetts. It was there that Murray married a prominent widow, Judith Sargent, with whose family he established the Gloucester congregation. Their refusal to pay taxes to Gloucester’s First Parish helped set the legal precedent that established the right of freedom to worship and voluntary church support. And after Murray, Hosea Ballou preached there.
It does kind of awe me,” says the Rev. Wendy Fitting, whose extension ministry at Gloucester’s Independent Christian Church is her first. “It’s a big responsibility, but not terrible. It’s kind of like a treasure hunt, an exploration. Because there’s a lot buried here, literally: there’s an ancient, overgrown graveyard that has had very little attention and now is getting it. And as the church has been revitalized and the external restoration of the building has been completed, there’s been the discovery of Judith’s letters and other old documents, and we’ve been finding out a lot more about the church’s history. One of the signers of our original compacts was a freed slave, Gloster Dalton, and other recently rediscovered old documents show a number of marriages and funerals performed for freed slaves.”
But however venerable this church might be, it seemed headed for death by old age when Fitting arrived four years ago . “When I first came here, elders in the church said people will come here because of our history,” she recalls. “That’s true and not true. It’s more true now with Judith’s letters, which we’re transcribing with a microfilm reader at the church so people can read them. I don’t think people understand how progressive the early Universalists were. Father Jones, the second minister after John Murray, was a real advocate of women’s rights. He urged the congregation to give women equal voice with men in congregational decisions.”
Still, Fitting recalls, in this city of declining population and declining economy: the fishing industry has been especially hard hit. “The first worry when I came was that kids were breaking church windows. It looked in ill repair, like an abandoned building. Now, it’s used. The lights are on at night. The congregation has been brave in reaching out. They said, Okay, we’re going to open our church, we’re going to open our doors.”
The congregation has also gotten deeply involved in the community. “When you say, ‘We’re Universalists and that’s why we’re concerned about violence in our community, about domestic violence, about supporting people who are HIV-positive, or about housing, whatever, because our belief teaches us that things are important,’ that sends a message,” Fitting maintains. “We believe in the inherent worth of every person, and we’re trying to carry that message in action, by believing in the strengths of the community.”
At least partly as a result, some of the people who had stopped attending church have started coming back. And new people have been coming, as well, during the past few years. The congregation numbered about 40 members in 1989, and Fitting says the figure has shot up to nearly 130 this year . But she is pursuing growth with caution, respecting the traditions of the church she serves. She says, “I feel very strongly about the people who were here when I arrived, that it’s their church, and it’s been their church for generations.”
The Independent Christian Church had begun as a Trinitarian church, in keeping with Murray’s theology, and it has remained a largely Christian church, though it’s “more independent than Christian,” as members like to say. “People come to the church and are a little surprised to see that it’s Christian,” Fitting says. “There is a liturgy committee, and we have changed the order of worship, but some things are very important to people, like keeping the Lord’s Prayer.”
Fitting, who was raised by Unitarian parents, senses “a real longing” for this kind of spirituality. “That’s very strong in Universalism,” she says. “I’ve certainly tried to bring in more religious pluralism, and we’ve kept some things, because you don’t throw people’s worship service out. It’s important to me that we use the old red hymnal, although we’re definitely getting the new one to use alongside it. They’ve always talked about God here, and about Jesus. And that’s okay. We’re rediscovering and revitalizing the valuable phenomenon of the Sabbath, something that many people have lost or have never known.”
“This is a liberal church,” she says, “with some traditional elements that may be comforting to people, but it still invites exploration” — an enduring model, some might say, for enduring pluralism, and for Unitarian Universalist growth in the 1990s.