This history, compiled from the church archives, was mostly written by our minister emeritus, the Rev. David Weissbard.
Founding of the church, 1841-1854
Thatcher Blake, one of Rockford’s first two residents of European ancestry, was a Unitarian from New England and other Unitarians came to settle from the same region. In the early years of the community they were delighted to gather on those occasions when a minister of liberal religious persuasion passed through. On February 13, 1841, when Rockford was only 7 years old, several pioneer residents filed a Declaration of Intention with the county recorder to form the Rockford Unitarian Society. Richard Montague, Isaac Cunningham, Ephraim Wyman, Frances Burnap, and James Wright were named as Trustees.
Also in 1841, a Universalist Church was organized on the East side of the Rock River. Daniel Shaw Haight, a Universalist, had moved to Rockford in 1835 – the East Side’s first settler. The Rev. Seth Barnes, a young Universalist minister who was committed to the extension of Universalism in the West, moved to Rockford early in April, 1841 and on April 24, a meeting was held in which the Universalist Church was created. Haight donated land, and on July 22, 1841, a cornerstone was laid for the Universalist Church. Seth Barnes started a new Universalist newspaper, The Better Covenant, and Rockford, for a brief period, became a center for Universalism. Barnes became more interested in publishing than ministry, and he left Rockford for Chicago in 1843, having married a Rockford Universalist. The church was never completed. The names of Rockford Universalists began to appear on the lists of Unitarians.
The Rev. Joseph Harrington, a Unitarian minister who visited occasionally to preach to the Unitarians beginning in 1841, came out to Rockford from Chicago in 1843 to conduct a series of revival meetings about the doctrines of liberal religion, and there was a spurt toward organizing. Some attempts were made to purchase the incomplete Universalist Church – one obstacle may have been the rivalry between Thatcher Blake on the West Side and Daniel Haight on the West Side, and the sale did not take place.
In 1843, an agent of the American Unitarian Association was sent to survey Belvidere as a possible site for a Western Theological School. The minister, who signed his reports B.F. (and has not been further identified), spent three weeks in Rockford and attested to its potential for Unitarianism. He urged the building of a church.
In the subsequent years, sporadic services were held in the court house. In 1849, with a $250 loan from the American Unitarian Association, the group purchased a building, which it moved to a lot at South Church and Elm Streets, in which The Rev. Herman Snow preached two Sundays a month, alternating Sundays with the Unitarian Church in Belvidere. Mr. Snow’s health failed but he urged the sending of a replacement, and was succeeded by The Rev. John Winsor in 1850. In the fourth year of his ministry, when the congregation numbered 100, the construction of a new church was undertaken. Mr. Winsor went East to collect money pledged by congregations there to support the new building, and never returned. (It is not suggested that he pocketed the money.)
An abolitionist church comes of age, 1855-1870
The Rev. John Murray, a Scot, was called to succeed Mr. Winsor. Soon after his arrival, the new building at South Church and Chestnut Streets was completed. It was dedicated on April 18, 1855, and Mr. Murray was ordained that night.
The Sunday School was organized two weeks later, with a membership of 25. For unspecified reasons, Murray resigned the pulpit two years later. He made arrangements for The Rev. Augustus Conant (pictured), the Unitarian minister in Geneva, Illinois, a minister well known to the Rockford congregation, to fill the pulpit as a guest at the end of May.
On June 11th, a call was sent to Mr. Conant to become the minister of the Rockford Church. Having taken a strong position against slavery, he was in some trouble in the Geneva Church, and accepted the call. The great Unitarian minister, Robert Collyer, wrote of Conant, “He was as quick to leap to the appeal of a crippled cobbler and as strong to save him, as if the Master had come out of heaven to bid him to do it, and had told him he should have for his deed an endless renown, and the praises of all the choirs of heaven.” Because of his acquaintance with distinguished Unitarians throughout the East, several noted speakers came to Rockford. The church thrived for a time, but a serious decline began, possibly due in part to the Civil War. When the church ran short of funds to pay him, possibly due to his controversial positions, Mr. Conant resigned in July of 1861, enlisted in the Illinois Infantry and died of over-exertion on February 8, 1863, while serving as a chaplain.
The Rev. Fred May Holland served as minister to the Rockford Unitarians from January 1863 through December of that year. Things went well early in the year, but by its end he resigned, in part because of the congregation’s great fondness for scandal and gossip. His chief regret is not having attacked the latter failing. He commends it to his successor. It is also noted that there was a significant split between the congregation’s liberal and conservative members.
Holland’s successor was The Rev. William G. Nowell who served from April, 1864 through June, 1865. While there was much enthusiasm about his ministry, he complained about not being paid enough to be able to provide a home for his wife and they were forced to stay with members of the congregation. He received a letter from the Board of Trustees in March informing him that they could not continue to pay him after April 15th. That was negotiated to a July termination. He engaged in pulpit exchanges with several Universalist ministers prior to his departure, and the congregation extended a call to The Rev. Daniel Reed, a Universalist from Dubuque.
Mr. Reed was an experienced minister. He was offered a salary double of that paid to Nowell, and they raised it! At his request, the name was changed to The United Unitarian and Universalist Church to reflect his tradition and that of some of its members. The church did very well under his leadership and the congregation was shocked and dismayed when he resigned as minister because of ill health in January of 1870. Strangely, records show that he lived here for several more years. The congregation, although perhaps at its peak, had no minister.
The ministry of Thomas Kerr, 1870-1900
Dr. Thomas Kerr, a Scottish immigrant, (pictured) who had earned a degree in medicine at Iowa State and practiced in Elgin for seven years before studying for the Baptist ministry, was called to the First Baptist Church in Rockford in 1860. He resigned the Rockford pulpit in 1866 to go to Hannibal, Missouri but was encouraged to return by the Rockford Baptists in 1869.
In the intervening period, Dr. Kerr had been exposed to the teachings of Charles Darwin. The Rockford Morning Star observed, Dr. Kerr “outgrew his environments and began to preach a broader, richer, and sweeter gospel” to which some of his parishioners took exception and brought charges against him. In August, 1870, following a sermon explaining his liberal views, Dr. Kerr resigned his pulpit. 48 Baptists left the church with him and, with 65 members of the ministerless Unitarian Universalist Church, organized the Church of the Christian Union. 104 people gathered October 21, 1870, to adopt bylaws which contained no fundamental dogmas or stated creed.
In 1888, the congregation purchased a lot at the corner of Mulberry and North Main Streets for $3,000 and built a new permanent home. A number of prominent Unitarian ministers participated in the laying of the cornerstone on September 18, 1888. In 1884 a group of young people from the Church of the Christian Union organized the Unity Club “to promote a better knowledge of human events, to bring well-known speakers here for lectures, and to sponsor social sessions.” In 1892 the congregation reported a membership of 502. Between 1895 and 1917 as many as 250 people would attend biweekly dancing parties following suppers served by the Women’s Benevolent Society.
At the time of Dr. Kerr’s 70th birthday, the newspaper observed:
The doctor is essentially an intellectual man. His discourses which are always interesting, always instructive, always worthy of analytical attention, are often difficult to follow because of their intense intellectuality and the continuous and accumulative ideas which he piles Pelion on Ossa . . . Dr. Kerr is a worshipper of facts. A new fact in the scientific world makes him glow with enthusiasm.
Dr. Kerr served the church for thirty years, retiring in 1900 at the age of 76.
Interim years, 1901-1912
The Rev. Robert Bryant became the second minister. Although it is said that Mr. Bryant did not hold the attention of his flock as did Dr. Kerr, the Sunday School did flourish during his 6 year ministry, with major church income provided by the Women’s Benevolent Society and the Unity Club.
The Rev. Thornton Anthony Mills, son of a famous liberal theologian, came to Rockford in 1907 to succeed Bryant. His invitations to Rockford College students and his civic participation resulted in increasing interest in the church, with 500 families being served and Sunday attendance averaging over 450. Before his resignation in 1913, he married Ruth Ticknor, a member of the choir.
The ministry of Charles Parker Connolly, 1913-1942
In 1913, when the search for a new minister began, The Rev. Barney Thompson of Second Congregational Church recommended his successor at Plymouth Congregational Church in Milwaukee, Dr. Charles Parker Connolly, pictured left. Following a well-received sermon, unanimous approval, and his acceptance of the call, Dr. Connolly assumed the post he was to hold for 29 years.
During his ministry, he helped launch the Rockford Social Service Federation (now the United Way), the Booker T. Washington Center, the Public Welfare Association, the War Camp Committee, Kiwanis Club, and Winnebago County Tuberculosis Association. Early in his ministry he earned half his salary by serving as first Executive Secretary of the Social Service Federation. He was a member of the Library Board and received the first honorary Doctor of Divinity degree given by Rockford College.
During World War I, every organization in the church co-operated in sponsoring Saturday night socials for Camp Grant soldiers. It is noted that fundamentalist groups considered the Unity Club, and this church, godless because sinful dancing was allowed in the church basement. (Unity Club became inactive in the 1920’s with many of the chores assumed by the Laymen’s League and Women’s Alliance.)
On three occasions, the members of the church rejected invitations to join both the Unitarian and Universalist organizations, even though the congregation was predominantly Unitarian and Dr. Kerr had been listed as in fellowship with the Unitarian ministry. In 1927 the church voted to seek affiliation with the American Unitarian Association.
In 1932, the Treasurer announced that $8,000 was due Dr. Connolly; unpaid bills totalled over $1,000; two church accounts were frozen in closed banks; and he had $51 in currency as the treasury nest egg. A Sunday Evening Club was formed, a gamble which paid off in heat for the church, and which provided inspiration and entertainment for hundreds of townspeople each Sunday night for three years. Dr. Connolly’s sermonettes were printed in a brochure and broadcast via radio, resulting in many new members from various denominations.
As depression years faded, the congregation voted to sell the downtown property ($85,000) and build in a less congested area. The traditional New England-style building at Ridge and Auburn Streets (pictured left, now a Pentecostal congregation) was dedicated in 1941.
The Rev. George Huntston Williams, later to become a renowned church historian, served as Dr. Connolly’s Assistant in 1940.
Dr. Connolly served as minister of the congregation for 29 years, when he was named Minister Emeritus. His death eighteen years later (in 1960) was prominently announced by the Rockford Newspapers which observed:
Dr. Charles Parker Connolly brought together in his approach to life, intellectual and esthetic interests that were almost Hellenic in their breadth; a concern for raising the status and dignity of humankind everywhere that was intense and of his own century; a mission concerning the spiritual enrichment of people that transcended any rigid lines of theology but was in fact mystical. . . Our city knew him as a lover of music; as a poet of classical skill; as a speaker who combined almost Emersonian content with a marvelous voice; . . . as a logician who scorned sophistries and gave us pure thought.
After Dr. Connolly’s death, an endowment fund was created, the income of which was used for several years to being prominent speakers to Rockford, and was used in support of the broadcast of FUSION.
The Rev. John Ruskin Clark, who succeeded George Williams as Dr. Connolly’s Assistant, became minister upon Dr. Connolly’s retirement in 1942, serving one year before enlisting as a Navy Chaplain.
The war years and after, 1942-1957
The Rev. G. Richard Kuch, a then recent graduate of Meadville Theological School, became minister following John Clark. Following three years in Rockford developing religious interest among teenagers in the church and community, he left to become national Youth Director of the American Unitarian Association.
In 1946, a young liberal, The Rev. Jack Mendelsohn (pictured left), came from Chicago to assume the pulpit. He became identified with Rockford’s Mental Health program, which had previously been initiated by Dr. Connolly.
One of the many current members who fondly remembers Jack’s ministry commented:
JM Day in Rockford occurred shortly after VJ Day. Jack was almost an instant hit. He was an eloquent speaker, warm companion, and charismatic leader. He attracted lively young (at the time) people to the church, and had great rapport with older Members.
It was in 1953 that Kay Hotchkiss began to serve the music program of this church, which she did for 50 years until her retirement in 2004.
Jack Mendelsohn left Rockford in 1954 to serve in Indianapolis and later moved to the Arlington Street Church in Boston, where he achieved notoriety for his opposition to the Vietnam War. He later ministered to the First Unitarian Church in Chicago, and The First Parish in Bedford, MA, from which he retired in 1991.
In 1954 the Rev. Victor Goff arrived from Massachusetts with his wife and three children, to live in the newly-acquired parsonage on Brown Avenue. The Goffs were both enthusiastic leaders in all facets of the church program and were greatly missed when Vic accepted the position of Director of the Pacific Coast Conference of Unitarian Churches in 1957.
The ministry of Alan Deale, 1958-1970
The Rev. Alan G. Deale, pictured left, was attracted here from the Unitarian Church of Fairhaven, Massachusetts in 1958. He was a young, energetic, and feisty New Englander, possessed of a keen intellect which challenged his listeners. Forthright, he had a pithy, lively sense of humor which raised a few hackles – qualities which were balanced by a capacity for compassion for the human condition.
Alan took a leadership role in various social reform projects which emerged during the 60’s. He was willing to take risks with his congregation and in the community in an attempt to redress the social and economic inequalities which offended him. He served as Chair of the Community Action Committee, was active in the Mental Health Association, and worked hard for the improvement of the public schools.
Alan was a builder of churches with a genuine understanding of architecture and a probing curiosity about the processes of building, which were to serve this congregation well. The congregation purchased 10.5 acres east of Alpine Road in 1960, and in 1965 Pietro Belluschi, Dean of Architecture at MIT agreed to accept the commission to design a new church in co-operation with local architect C. Edward Ware. Alan Deale was present to supervise the pouring of each cubic foot of concrete. The first service was held in the new church on September 18, 1966. At that time, the name of the church was changed from Church of the Christian Union (Unitarian) back to The Unitarian Church. (In 1993 it was changed again, to The Unitarian Universalist Church.)
In June 1970, Mr. Deale resigned to accept the pulpit of the Unitarian Church of Portland, Oregon, which he served with distinction until his retirement in 1992. In December 1996, the Social Hall of the Church was designated the Alan G. Deale Hall in commemoration of Dr. Deale’s significant leadership in the construction of the building. Dr. Deale died in 2018, at the age of 90.
The activist era, 1970-2008
While the congregation searched for a suitable replacement, Dr. Vern Barnet, a recent Meadville graduate, and then John MacKinnon, minister emeritus from Indianapolis, each served one year interim ministries.
The Rev. Anthony Freiss Perrino, formerly minister of the First Unitarian Church in Detroit, became minister in March 1972. He served as a well-known advocate of liberal causes in the area, communicating through his frequent newspaper columns and his moderating of a TV panel show, Probe. Upon his departure from Rockford in June of 1977, newspaper columnist Stan Buckles wrote: “Tony Perrino was a hair shirt for many. He meant to be. He was constantly at war with the status quo. He perceived in Rockford those qualities that tend to lull a community to sleep – smugness, hypocrisy, self-satisfaction – and he declared war on them.” Tony’s charisma, however, had a destructive side. He was later removed from ministry for sexual misconduct, and our church now takes seriously the importance of good and appropriate boundaries for ministers and all people.
During Tony’s last year, The Revs. Frederika and Henry Lepore had joined him to share an Associate Minister position, and remained as interim ministers for the year during which the church searched for a successor. Their ministry emphasized feminism and spirituality.
In December, 1978, the congregation called the Rev. David R. Weissbard, pictured left, who was then serving the Fairfax Unitarian Church in Oakton, VA. He and his family settled in Rockford in August of 1979 when he began his ministry here. Dave served the church for 27 years until his retirement in 2006. Dave was a strong leader, both in the church and the community.
Among many other things, he was the producer/host of Fusion, a weekly television show that featured sermons, discussions with members, and interviews with noted community leaders. The show ran for the entire 27 years of his ministry and was the only UU television show in the country. In the face of much public disapproval he forced the Rockford Park District to remove prayers which were displayed at their outdoor education facility. He was very active in the local and state chapters of the ACLU. He was leader of the Rockford Interfaith Council and was active in promoting interfaith activities in the community.
The Rev. Diana Heath served as Assistant Minister from 1980-83.
In 1989, The Rev. Colleen McDonald became Minister of Religious Education. Colleen served in that capacity until 2008. She was a nationally recognized leader in Religious Education among Unitarian Universalists, and the author of a number of curricula and anthologies. The congregation in Rockford appriciated her wisdom about children, gentle pastoral manner, and quiet determination. She also helped the congregation achieve status as a Welcoming Congregation, fully affirming the equality of gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people in the church and in society at large.
In 2000, the congregaton approved the construction of an addition to the church which was completed in September, 2001. It provides new office space, an elevator for accessibility, expanded rest rooms, new meeting rooms in the former office space, and new infant and toddler facilities.
The Rev. Howell Lind served as Interim Senior Minister from 2006 until 2008.
Returning and renewing, 2008 to present
The congregation called the Rev. Dr. Matthew Johnson as its senior minister in the spring of 2008. A third generation Unitarian Universalist, Matthew had served for five years at a UU congregation in Colorado Springs, Colorado, and the congregation was attracted to his success there with growth, organizational development, coalition building, and the preaching ministry.
Little did the congregation know they were entering a time of dramatic change in the religious life. The Great Recession tested the congregation’s resilience, and the congregation rose to the challenge. While embracing modern technology and reaching out into the community to reach new unchurched spiritual seekers, the church has also reclaimed its spiritual roots. Worship includes more ritual, and congregations have engaged in deeper theological work and shared ministry.
While grounded in the religious life, the congregation and its minister have also continued to be an important force in the community. The Rev. Dr. Johnson, and members of the church, have led efforts for marriage equality, anti-racism, and support of public education. They’ve participated in work for economic justice, mental health, ecological sustainability, immigrant rights, and hunger relief. The church continues to practice an engaged faith.
Our story continues. We invite you to join us.