Short History of the Unitarian Universalist Congregation at Montclair

Our Founding & Early Years
On February 18, 1897, Abby Jackson Angell and 27 other Unitarian women met in a house at 25 High Street in Montclair to “consider the feasibility of forming a Unitarian Society.” Their primary motivation was to create a church school for their children and they began to prepare themselves as teachers. On October 6, 1897, 34 people gathered at 491 Bloomfield Avenue in Montclair to form the Unity Church of Montclair, forerunner of our current congregation. Four of the nine leaders elected to the Board of Trustees that day were women. By 1898 when the first minister, Reverend Arthur Hastings Grant, was called, both the church and the church school were organized. Rev. Grant was succeeded in 1902 by Reverend Leslie Sprague. Reverend Sprague started the Unity Club to host lectures by “liberal speakers . . . not likely to be heard in our community” and served as VP of the local Women’s Suffrage Organization. Reverend Sprague was known as “The Builder” because he helped several churches construct their buildings and then left to help build more. In 1902, the congregation purchased a plot of land on Church Street for $4,000. Within two and a half years, the current sanctuary had been designed, constructed, and paid for by the congregation ($19,050), and was dedicated in January 1905. The double chair pews in the sanctuary were purchased for $1.65 per pair, and are still in use.

The Reverend Edgar Swan Wiers was called in 1906 and continued as minister until his death in 1931. When Reverend Wiers joined the church, it had 90 members. The first organ was installed in 1909. In 1909, the church started the Unity Forum, which brought prominent speakers to Montclair including William Jennings Bryant, Clarence Darrow, W.E.B. DuBois, Robert Frost, Mother Jones, Margaret Sanger, and Booker T. Washington. In 1913, the church doubled its size by adding two transept bays, a chancel, social room, kitchen, kindergarten, and office.

In 1914, Ladies Home Journal published a profile of the church calling it “An Effective Suburban Church,” in which they said that the congregation with 300 people, used the building 25 days a month.

On March 2, 1919, a fire consumed the entire roof of the church building and required expensive repairs. $32,000 was raised. During the repairs the congregation met at First Congregational Church. The building was rededicated in 1920, with the addition of the kitchen, Fletcher Hall, and the Alliance Room.

Unity Institute was organized in 1920, perhaps partly to help raise money for the repairs. It brought performers including Marian Anderson, Jascha Heifetz, Yehudi Menuhin, Lilly Pons, and Paul Robeson to Montclair. When the town built a new high school auditorium that seated about 1,500 people, it was frequently filled it with our concerts. (By 1985, other series in New Jersey were also offering concerts and Unity Institute became a separate non-profit organization. The New Jersey Performing Arts Center (NJPAC) opened in 1997 and around that time the Unity concerts ended.)

Meanwhile, the Travel Lectures brought speakers such as Amelia Earhart. Finally, starting in 1922 and running until 1988, the Collegiate Pulpit, organized by Dr. Wiers and funded primarily by profits from the Unity Institute, brought speakers of national and international stature to our pulpit 4 times a year. Collegiate Pulpit speakers included Langston Hughes, Reinhold Niebuhr, Bertrand Russell, and Rabbi
Stephen Wise.

In March 1931, over 300 people attended a party to celebrate Dr. Wiers’ 25th anniversary at Unity Church. Then at the end of June, Dr. Wiers died suddenly at the age of 59.