UUCB: A History by Merv Hasselmann
We are a community with a long-standing tradition of freedom of thought, speech and religion. The First Unitarian Church of Berkeley was founded on July 12, 1891. In 1997, the congregation voted to change the name to the Unitarian Universalist Church of Berkeley.
In 1898, we moved into our first building, a beautiful redwood structure at the corner of Dana and Bancroft in Berkeley. The early years were a period of growth and enthusiasm, characterized by a close relationship with UC Berkeley and the Starr King School for Religious Leadership. During the McCarthy era in the 1950's, we were one of several UU congregations that refused to sign the California Loyalty Oath, an action successfully upheld by the Supreme Court.
In 1961, we moved to our present eight-acre site on Squirrel Hill looking out to the San Francisco Bay. The church building offers an extraordinary setting for worship and celebrations marking our community's life together. Today, there are approximately 500 UUCB Members.
The Rev. Richard Boeke completed a twenty-two year ministry in 1995. The Revs. Barbara and Bill Hamiltion-Holway were called to serve the church as co-ministers in 1996. In 2005, they were joined by the Rev. Christopher Holton Jablonski, the first Minister of Religious Education in the history of the congregation.
Background to the Founding
Stated in simplest terms, it might be said that histories are written to inspire and inform. It is hoped that readers of this history - present and potential members and friends of this church, particularly - will be rewarded with good measures of both.
It might also be said that the evolvement of the large and influential Unitarian Universalist Church of Berkeley was inevitable; that conditions in the university town of Berkeley in 1891 and following - decades of great scientific discovery and enlightenment - made a temple of "the religion of reason" a surety.
Yet others might argue that nothing is inevitable, that all institutions are the shadow of one person; a few, then substantial numbers of inspired and determined people, some to start, some to continue through periods of adversity and to utilize new opportunities. In the case of this church, the preponderance of evidence is that the latter is true.
Merv Hasselmann, author
Copyright © 1981
Rev. Thomas Starr King
It is quite possible that Thomas Starr King, second minister of the First Unitarian Church of San Francisco, 1860 - 1864, and Western Unitarians' great hero, looked across the Bay and envisioned a large and influential Unitarian church standing there beside a magnificent institution of higher learning. After all, in addition to being the state's outstanding spiritual force in the early 1860's, Starr King was an apostle of education. He had been the principal speaker at the dedication of San Francisco's first high school, and was a director of the College of California, forerunner of the University of California.
He is most revered, of course, as the great speaker-citizen who, addressing many, many audiences throughout the state, did more than anyone else to keep California in the Union and free of slavery. His statue, one of two representing California in the National Capitol, commemorates this achievement. At the same time, he spearheaded, here in California, the raising of funds for the Unitarian-conceived U.S. Sanitary Commission, which became today's Red Cross, and more money was raised for it in this new state than in all the other states combined.
First six years
The First Unitarian Church of Berkeley was founded on Sunday, July 12, 1891, in space rented from the Berkeley Odd Fellows Temple, then on Shattuck Street, a couple of blocks south of its present location. Some have said that this first meeting was held in a saloon on the first floor, but if so, suitable quarters were found for subsequent meetings.
Details of what happened before that July 12 meeting have gone with the founders to their graves, but it has been said that, as early as Easter of the year, some were, in the idiom of those horse-drawn carriage days, "champing at the bit to get going."
On that great Founders Day, 32 charter members signed the book. A few more signed the following week, and by the end of the year, membership was 50. Then, as now, there were as many who didn't sign the book as did, so that the total church family was approximately 100.
1897 - 1915, We Build a Church, Enjoy Some "Prosperity"
"From the pits to a peak" might characterize this period of church history. The financial condition could be described as "desperate" for all of 1897 and well into 1898, and there was no minister from January to October. Board member Prof. Haskell was again "supply" minister with some help from guest ministers.
1897-1899 - Rev. William B. Geohegan
In 1897, Rev. William Geohegan came from the East and the Board said he was a "gentleman of broad culture and highly recommended as a preacher of more than ordinary force and eloquence." He was properly convinced, then became enthusiastic about the congregation's plans for a church building. He was very likable and must have served his role well for, though he stayed only two years, the church was dedicated to him.
To a banker, the Berkeley congregation's plans for a church building early in 1898 were almost incredible. That very year, the bank required the co-signatures of ten prominent members on a church loan. Yet the members proceeded doggedly along, met Sunday, January 30th to discuss how their church would be financed - what combination of loans, mortgages plus gifts - and completed the building plans.
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