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First Unitarian Congregational Society of Brooklyn records

Call Number



1790-1972, inclusive
; 1833-1967, bulk


First Unitarian Church of Brooklyn (Brooklyn, New York, N.Y.)
Lathrop, John Howland


50.5 Linear Feet in 99 manuscript boxes and 18 oversize flat boxes

Language of Materials

Materials are primarily in English with some correspondence and publications in Czech, German and Romanian.


The First Unitarian Congregational Society of Brooklyn records contains documents created and collected by the Church from the point of its founding in 1833 to the mid 1970s. The collection contains a broad range of documents covering the variety of the Congregation's work and operations including its official minutes and trustee records, financial records, ministers files, sermons, photographs, calendars, celebration programs and registers, and building records that include deeds, leases, and building plans for the Church of the Saviour and other buildings owned by the First Church. The community and charity work of the Church is represented as well through ledgers, correspondence, notes and reports by the various clubs and committees and through similar documentation from the Church's Willow Place Chapel where the Church's settlement and welfare programs and Sunday school operated. The Church was also involved with local and international relief and aid groups, particularly during the tenure of Minister John H. Lathrop. Lathrop's files include correspondence, minutes of committees, and other documents from his work with a variety of local and worldwide religious and humanitarian groups. Lathrop also collected a variety of reference materials, including pamphlets, flyers, and articles pertaining to peace, liberalism, theology, and family planning. Other major figures of the First Church and Brooklyn history represented by the collection include the Low family and Alfred T. White. The collection also holds scrapbooks with relevant collected clippings that were donated by parishioners and photographs of some church members and activities. The Second and Third Unitarian Congregations are both represented within this collection as well. These two congregations split from the First Congregation at different points in the 19th century and both re-united with the First Congregation in the mid-1920s.

Historical Note

In June 1833, forced between choosing a ferry ride to Unitarian services in Manhattan or attending services of a different denomination in Brooklyn where they would be refused communion, a group of ten men (John Frost, Josiah Dow, George Blackburn, William H. Carey, William H. Hale, Henry Leeds, Seth Low, Alexander H. Smith, and Charles and Thomas Woodward) set to forming a Unitarian society in Brooklyn. The First Unitarian Congregational Society of Brooklyn was incorporated two years later as the thirteenth functioning church in Brooklyn and the first in the city to be controlled by its congregation. As its place of worship the First Church constructed the Church Of The Saviour on Pierrepont Street by Monroe Place in 1844. The building was designed by architect Minard Lefever in the Gothic Revival style.

The First Church operated a settlement school and Sunday school out of the chapel adjacent to the Church of the Saviour and through the Furman Street Mission until 1876 when, under the guidance of settlement teacher and community figure Alfred T. White, the Congregation completed Willow Place Chapel on Willow Place near Joralemon Street. Willow Place Chapel functioned as a space for evening church services and as a site for much of the First Church's social service and community outreach, particularly through club work. With the help of figures like Alfred T. White and Minister H. Price Collier, settlement and community work at Willow Place Chapel expanded until the First Church had to build an extension of the facilities in 1906 called Columbia House.

In 1840 twenty-two of the First Church parishioners, finding dissatisfaction in particular with Frederick Holland as minister, gathered to form a second society. Holland attempted to resign in 1841 but this resignation was rejected and the two congregations would not reunite until after Holland's second (and this time accepted) resignation in 1842. In 1851 fifty families seeking a more liberal theology would again leave the First Church. Legally organized in 1852, the second iteration of the Second Unitarian Congregation of Brooklyn installed Samuel Longfellow as its first minister in 1853. Longfellow fit the progressive nature of the congregation and not only preached a liberal theology, but also covered a variety of topics from the pulpit including the abolition of American slavery. Longfellow even gave one infamous sermon eulogizing and praising John Brown and his attempt to incite insurrection at Harper's Ferry. Longfellow resigned in 1860 and was succeeded by Reverend Nahor A. Staples, another liberal voice with some abolitionist views. John White Chadwick was another prominent minister of the congregation who became influential within Unitarianism and liberal theology. The Second Congregation sold its church and reunited with the First Church in 1924.

Another split from the First Church came in 1867 when, in order to accommodate parishioners of the First Unitarian Congregation who had been travelling from the Fort Greene and Clinton Hill neighborhoods, the Third Unitarian Congregational Society of Brooklyn was established. First Church minister Frederick A. Farley assisted in duties as a minister until the Third Congregation installed Stephen H. Camp as minister in 1869. Camp became the Third Congregation's most prominent minister and in addition to encouraging organized charitable works and teaching within the Congregation's Sunday School he also shepherded the Congregation from their first space in Unity Chapel (built in 1868 with the assistance of the First Congregation) to Unity Church (built in 1886). The Third Congregation sold its church and reunited with the First Congregation in 1925.

In the time that these three Unitarian congregations were separate from each other, the First Church became more involved in the growing Unitarian movement. Samuel A. Eliot was installed as minister of the Church in 1893 and a year later began serving on the board of directors for the American Unitarian Association (AUA). From this position Eliot helped change the management model of the AUA making it a more effective organization connecting the congregational and secular work of Unitarians. After leaving the First Church's pulpit in 1897, Eliot would go on to become AUA Secretary and then, in 1900, the first president of the AUA to be given executive power over the organization.

The First Church's involvement in national and international concerns grew further under the guidance of Minister John Howland Lathrop. Installed in 1911, Lathrop's tenure as minister spanned the period of both World Wars and he was active in advocating for peace not only during the wars, but also in regards to conflicts which occurred following each war particularly in Spain, China, Palestine, and Eastern Europe. Lathrop wrote many sermons and articles advocating for peace and international relief efforts and was involved with many like-minded organizations, including the National Peace Conference which he served as president. Lathrop also concerned himself with international ecumenical issues and kept up contact with churches in England, the Philippines, Mexico, Japan and Eastern Europe. Lathrop turned particular attention to the growth of Unitarianism in Transylvania and in his congregation's connection to Czechoslovakia. Lathrop kept up correspondence with the Masaryk family, a major political family in Czechoslovakia. In particular he communicated with social worker and president of the Czechoslovak Red Cross Alice Garrigue Masaryk. Alice was the daughter of Tomas Garrigue Masaryk, the first president of Czechoslovakia, and Charlotte Garrigue, a former member of the First Unitarian Congregation of Brooklyn. Lathrop was an important member of the Unitarian Service Committee trip to Czechoslovakia in 1946. Lathrop's focus was not exclusively international, of course, as he was focused on local issues particularly in regards to urban conditions, employment, housing, and education. In addition to growing the breadth of services provided by the First Church, like social psychiatric counseling for parishioners, Lathrop was heavily involved with groups outside the walls of the church that contributed to the community like the Civic Committee for Adult Literacy and the Brooklyn Urban League which he served as president for many years. Lathrop's prolific and important service to his congregation, community and the world went on even after his retirement in 1957, visiting the First Church yearly until his last visit in 1965, two years prior to his death.

The First Unitarian Congregational Society of Brooklyn continues to operate out of the Church of the Saviour in the Brooklyn Heights neighborhood.


The First Unitarian Congregational Society records were found roughly organized with some preliminary work done by an unknown archivist. Some documents within the collection hinted at an original order similar to the arrangement that the collection was found in and the arrangement of the collection is relatively faithful to this original order.

The files within most series are arranged alphabetically according to description with some exceptions such as the Ministers series, arranged chronologically by tenure of ministers and the Photographs series, arranged according to a BHS-assigned identification number, or "V #"

Users of the collection should be aware that it is likely that documents on some matters will be found in various series, and in various folders within series. For example, while registers of church deaths, marriages, and christenings should be primarily located in the Registers series, more lists of this nature can be seen in the Trustee Records or the files on different ministers. Similarly, the work of the Sunday School can be found in the Sunday School Books series, but also in the Subject Files and Willow Place Chapel and Columbia House series.

Folders labeled with a date range might also include undated documents. Also, the date range was determined by the archivist based on a broad survey of folder contents and not on an item level review; accordingly, there may be items in the folders that fall outside the indicated range. Users of the collection should also be aware that some oversized items have been moved to four oversize containers. Notes have been made in these instances both in the folders from which the material was removed and in the container list in this finding aid.

The collection is organized into the following fifteen series:

Missing Title

  1. - Trustee Records, 1833-1951.
  2. - Subject Files, 1790-1980.
  3. - Ministers, 1834-1967.
  4. - John H. Lathrop Files, 1849-1960.
  5. - Unitarian Movement Files, 1850-1975.
  6. - Sunday School Books, 1842-1906.
  7. - Calendars, 1910-1952.
  8. - Registers, 1841-1930.
  9. - Buildings and Construction, 1833-1956.
  10. - Willow Place Chapel and Columbia House, 1865-1972.
  11. - Financial Records, 1833-1956.
  12. - Scrapbooks, circa 1860-1945.
  13. - Photographs, circa 1870-1958.
  14. - Second Unitarian Congregation Records, 1837-1967.
  15. - Third Unitarian Congregation Records, 1867-1958.

Scope and Contents

The First Unitarian Congregational Society of Brooklyn records contain the records created and collected by the First Church over the course of its work and operations. This includes the basic functions of the church as a religious congregation and also the work of the members of its congregation, through various clubs, committees and organizations, contributing to service locally, nationally, and abroad.

The contents of the collection span from 1790 to 1972 though the bulk of the materials begins from the point of the First Church's organization in 1833 and extends to the late 1960's. The organizational records of the First Church are well represented including meeting minutes and resolutions of the Trustees and the Society, by-laws, calendars, directories, registers, and reports of the ministers and various clubs and committees. Documents related to the First Church's founding and its early operation were kept in "History" files among its Subject Files. Subject Files also include information on bequests to the church, church memorials, and church celebrations.

Financial records include various reports and ledgers related to the First Church's endowment, income, expenses, fund raising, and budgets. This also includes subscriber and pew rental information and information on the First Church's properties including mortgages and leases. Other documents on the First Church's properties and buildings include blueprints, deeds, alterations and repairs, and information on stained glass windows and other decorations.

The work of the First Church's ministers is collected here through sermons, correspondence, and collected articles and items in reference to them. The files of Minister John H. Lathrop contain not only a variety of sermons and orders of service, but also records on his work for the community and in international matters. Lathrop headed or worked closely with groups like the Brooklyn Urban League and the National Peace Conference and his files hold correspondence, meeting minutes, and other materials related to these groups. Lathrop was heavily involved in international relief and aid and in addition to correspondence and other documents regarding organizations of this nature, Lathrop's personal work with international aid and Unitarianism, particularly in Transylvania and Czechoslovakia, is among his files here. The Lathrop papers also contain many articles, pamphlets, and other materials related to his areas of interest including marriage, peace, labor and unemployment, religious freedom, and liberal Christianity. The records of the First Church and its ministers also provide some insight into the evolution of Unitarianism in Brooklyn, America, and other parts of the world, particularly through the American Unitarian Association and its departments of outreach, publicity, and social-service. Many sermons and articles by the ministers, particularly John White Chadwick, John Lathrop, and Samuel Longfellow, discuss theology and the development of liberal Christianity as it pertains to Unitarianism.

The First Church's settlement and community work is represented through Sunday School records, club work, charity records, and files on outside community organizations like the Boys' Club and the Brooklyn Bureau of Charities. Much of the settlement and community work of the church was carried out through the Furman Street Mission, Willow Place Chapel, and Columbia House.

The collection also contains photographs of church buildings and functions, and a collection of scrapbooks with clippings related to the First Church's history, particularly some of its ministers.

The collection holds similar records of ecumenical, organizational and community work as they pertain to Second and Third Unitarian Congregational Societies of Brooklyn as well. The correspondence of ministers and trustees, reports, and other documents regarding the creation of these two congregations and their eventual re-unification with the First Church are among the records of all three congregations.


Conditions Governing Access

Open to researchers without restriction.

Conditions Governing Use

While some materials may be in the public domain, copyright restrictions may apply for other materials and permission to publish, quote, or reproduce must be secured from Center for Brooklyn History and the copyright holder.

Preferred Citation

Identification of item, date (if known); First Unitarian Congregational Society of Brooklyn records, ARC.109, Box and Folder number; Brooklyn Public Library, Center for Brooklyn History.

Location of Materials

The majority of the materials in this collection are stored offsite and advance notice is required for use. Please contact at least three weeks prior to research visit.

Immediate Source of Acquisition

Materials given as a gift in January 1989 by the First Unitarian Congregational Society of Brooklyn.

Physical Characteristics and Technical Requirements

The majority of the materials in this collection are stored offsite and advance notice is required for use. Please contact at least three weeks prior to research visit.

Related Materials

Center for Brooklyn History holds the records of the Women's Alliance of the First Unitarian Church which began its social services via the Church as the The Female Samaritan Society in 1838 (collection ArMs 2005.031).

More pamphlets, sermons, directories, reports, histories and other documents on the First, Second, Third, and Fourth (Flatbush) Unitarian Congregations in Brooklyn can be found as a part of the Brooklyn Unitarian Churches collection (collection ArMs 1986.030).

Other Finding Aids

Item level description and digital versions of images from the collection are available for searching via the image database in the Center for Brooklyn History library. Search for object IDs V1989.20 and V1990.46.

Collection processed by

Craig P. Savino

About this Guide

This finding aid was produced using ArchivesSpace on 2023-12-19 19:56:42 +0000.
Using Describing Archives: A Content Standard
Language: Finding aid written in English.

Processing Information

The First Unitarian Congregational Society records were processed from July to September 2010 by Craig P. Savino.

The bulk of the collection consists of accession 1989.002 and also includes two photograph accessions: V1989.020 and V1990.046.


Brooklyn Historical Society
Center for Brooklyn History
128 Pierrepont Street
Brooklyn, NY 11201