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Our Legacy


On June 12, 1796, twenty of Philadelphia's intellectual leaders formed the First Unitarian Society of Philadelphia. We were the first continuously functioning church in the country to proclaim itself "Unitarian". The founders were directed and encouraged by the Unitarian minister Joseph Priestley, better known as the father of modern chemistry for his discovery of oxygen. Priestley had fled from England to Pennsylvania after his church, home and laboratory were burned by angry supporters of the Church of England. The small but growing congregation was lay-led until 1825, when William Henry Furness was persuaded to serve as our first minister. This young Unitarian minister from Boston ultimately stayed in the role for 50 years. Over time, Rev. Furness became one of the few abolitionist ministers in the city. He counted among his friends such notable figures as Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, Walt Whitman, and Bronson Alcott. His son, Frank Furness, was the architect of our current building, the third to serve as our church home.

Our Legacy

  • As noted above, Rev. William Henry Furness served as our minister for 50 years. He is perhaps best remembered for delivering abolitionist sermons prior to the Civil War, at times under the protection of armed members of the congregation. He is also believed to have escorted John Brown's body through Philadelphia under cover of darkness to avoid mobs seeking to desecrate the corpse.
  • Having been raised at the First Unitarian Church, Laura Matilda Towne
     (May 3, 1825 – February 22, 1901) was influenced by the abolitionist sermons of William Furness. Before the start of the Civil War she traveled to St. Helena Island, South Carolina as part of the Port Royal Experiment to help former slaves. Towne befriended Ellen Murray (left) and together they established the Penn Center in 1862, the first school for freed slaves in the United States. Laura Towne died of influenza at the age of 75. Several hundred of her sea island neighbors followed the simple mule cart that carried her body to the Port Royal ferry, singing her favorite spirituals. In addition to a memorial marker in her honor at the Brick Baptist Church cemetery in South Carolina’s Sea Island, her body was buried at the Laurel Hill Cemetery in Philadelphia.
  • Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, the first woman of African descent to have her writings published in the United States, was a member of First Church from 1870 until her death in 1911. She is best known for her fiction and poetry, but was also a political activist and lecturer who promoted, civil rights, temperance, and women's rights. Click here to read about the city-wide celebration of Harper on the 100th anniversary of her death.
  • Rev. Frederick R. Griffin served as our minister for 30 years beginning in 1917. During this time, many of the Church's wealthiest families moved to the suburbs. The resulting decline in donations led Rev. Griffin to abandon the pew rental system and establish the Endowment Fund to provide a basis for financial stability.
  • When Martin Luther King Jr. was a seminary student in nearby Chester, he attended a lecture about Gandhi that inspired his later non-violent protests for civil rights. This lecture is reputed to have taken place in our sanctuary.
  • Beginning in 1968, Rev. Victor H. Carpenter led our congregation into social activism on issues such as prison reform, civil rights, black empowerment, woman's liberation and especially the peace movement. Long-time members recall candle vigils on our main entrance porch to protest the Vietnam War.
  • The Rev. Beth Ide was installed as Assistant Minister in 1975. She was the first woman to serve our congregation in a ministerial role.  The Rev. Dr. Holly Horn became the first female settled minister in 1996 and served with her husband Rev. Benjamin Maucere until 2005.
  • In 2007, Reverend Nate Walker became the first openly gay minister the year after we officially became a Welcoming Congregation.

Click here to watch a brief video about the abolitionist ministry of William Henry Furness (1824-1875) in relation to Dr. Joseph Priestley, father of modern medicine and the legacy of Laura Towne, founder of the Penn School, the first school for free slaves.  Rev. Nate delivered this speech on May 3, 2009 at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Beaufort, South Carolina and connects our church's history to that of William Lloyd Garrison, William Ellery Channing, Pierce Butler and John Brown.  

Ministerial History

We wish to recognize the ministers who have served our congregation since its founding.

• Joseph Priestley 1796-1807. First Church was founded at Priestley's direction; however, while he spoke at various meetings, he initially advised the congregation not to employ a full-time minister.

• Rev. William Christie 1807. A Scottish merchant who converted to Unitarianism on the basis of his own theological studies, Christie was in some ways considered our first full-time minister (although he was neither called nor installed). He left the church within 6 months and formed his own congregation, which survived for approximately 9 months, meeting at 26 N. 6th Street. Christie subsequently re-joined First Church as a regular member.

• Lay Preachers 1807-1825. Various members of the congregation formed a lay ministry during this period.

• Rev. William Henry Furness 1825-1875. A graduate of the Theological Department of Harvard University, Furness became our Minister at the age of 22. A close friend of Ralph Waldo Emerson, Furness presided over a period marked by the growth and increasing prosperity for First Church. A fiery abolitionist, Furness was a supporter of the rights of all segments of society, including African-Americans and Jews. He also lived to see the construction of our current building in 1885 as our Minister Emeritus - a building designed by his son, the renowned Philadelphia architect Frank Furness.

• Rev. Joseph May 1876-1901. Joseph May was born in Boston on January 21, 1836. He received an AB from Harvard in 1857. After several years in Europe, he entered Harvard Divinity School and graduated in 1865. In January 1876, he became minister of the First Unitarian Church in Philadelphia, which he served for 25 years. After his retirement, he became pastor emeritus until his death on January 19, 1918. In 1886 he helped establish a community center for boys in Philadelphia known as the Evening Home and Library Association. He was a strong supporter of education for African Americans throughout his life. (Photo credit: F. Gutekunst Co., Philadelphia)

• Rev. James Ecob 1901-1907

Rev. Charles St. John 1908-1916

• Rev. Frederick Robertson Griffin 1917-1947 Rev. Frederick R. Griffin served as our minister for 30 years beginning in 1917. During this time, many of the Church's wealthiest families moved to the suburbs. The resulting decline in donations led Rev. Griffin to abandon the pew rental system and establish the Endowment Fund to provide a basis for financial stability. (Photo of Painting by Violet Oakley, 1936)

• Rev. Dr. Harry Barron Scholefield 1947-1957• Rev. Dr. Harry B. Scholefield was fellowshipped and ordained in 1939. He received a D.D. from Meadville Lombard Theological School in 1963, and an S.T.D. from Starr King School for the Ministry in 1964. Scholefield, who was an Army chaplain, served congregations in Philadelphia, San Francisco, and Weston, Massachusetts during his distinguished career. He was named Minister Emeritus of the First UU Society of San Francisco in 1973 and also taught at Starr King School. A proponent of the need for a spiritual life for all people, he was known to remark, "If you don't have a devotional life, you will dry up and blow away."

• Rev. Anders Lunde 1958-1962

• Rev. Angus DeMille Cameron 1963-1967. “Angus de Mille Cameron (1913-1996) was a Canadian Unitarian minister [who served] parishes in Montreal, Fredericton [Canada], and Philadelphia. In his later ministry, Cameron was well known for his work in the fields of social work and mental health. He chaired annual conferences of clergy and social workers. He served as chaplain of the Children’s Service Centre, the major Protestant social agency of its kind in Montreal. He was vice President of the Mental Hygiene Institute. In 1955 he was elected the first president of the Marriage Counseling Centre, the first of its kind in Canada” (1) “ Angus Cameron became a Baptist minister at the age of 12. He earned his bachelor’s degree in 1934 from Arcadia University in Nova Scotia, where he first learned of Unitarianism. He entered Meadville Lombard Theological School in 1934” and served Unitarian (and one Universalist) churches in Illinois, New York, and Canada before coming to the First Unitarian Church of Philadelphia in 1963. His ministry [in Canada]was known as one of social action and mental health work. Cameron was vice president for Canada for the American Unitarian Association (1948-1951) and served on the Board of the UUA from 1962 to 1967 (2) Minister of First Unitarian Church from 1963 to 1967, he returned to Canada when he became very uncomfortable serving an American church during the Viet Nam War, as noted in his announcement of immanent departure in late 1966. (1) From page 24 of The Spirit of Dorothea Dix: Unitarians, Universalists, and the Mentally Ill (By Barbara Meyers; UU History, part II) (2) This day in Unitarian Universalist History; by Frank Schulman; Boston, Skinner House Books, 2004

• Rev. Victor H. Carpenter 1968-1976 Victor Carpenter is a graduate of Harvard University Divinity School class of 1958. He was a Merrill Fellow at Harvard (1974) and received a STD from Starr King School for the Ministry in 1987. Victor has served parishioners in First Parish Norwell, Massachusetts; The Free Protestant Church of Cape Town, South Africa; The First Unitarian Church of Philadelphia; Arlington Street Church in Boston, The First Church in Belmont, and The First Church of San Francisco. Rev. Carpenter also served as the President of the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee 1988-1993; Chair of Witness for Peace in the Middle East 1990-1993; Chair, Horizon House for persons with disabilities 1972-1976; Chair, UUA Task Force on Disability 1994-1998. He has also served in numerous organizational boards including UUA Board of Review 1997-present and presently serves on the board of Tuckerman Coalition UUA Urban Ministry and Massachusetts Department of Mental Retardation Ethics Committee.

• Rev. Brian Sandor Kopke 1977-1984 Rev. Brian Kopke was a teacher before entering the Unitarian ministry. He completed his work for the Unitarian-Universalist ministry at Harvard Divinity School at Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts. Brian was ordained in Duxbury, Massachusetts, in 1970. Since his service at the First Unitarian Church of Philadelphia, he has served at the First Unitarian Congregation of Ottawa. He now has dual citizenship in Canada and the U.S.

• Rev. Ken Collier 1986-1991 The Rev. Dr. Kenneth Collier was ordained at the Marin Fellowship of Unitarians in Marin California in 1979 after receiving his Masterʼs of Divinity at Starr King School for Ministry. He served at the First Unitarian Church of Philadelphia, the Unitarian Universalist Church of Palo Alto, and the Unitarian Society of Santa Barbara, from which he retired in 2007.

• Rev. Benjamin Peter Maucere 1992-2005 and Rev. Dr. Holly Horn 1996-2005. A native of California and a graduate of Starr King School for the Ministry, the Rev. Maucere served as an intern at the First Unitarian Church of Oakland, California before accepting the call to Philadelphia. Rev. Maucere served from 1992 to 2005 at the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Philadelphia. During the last nine of those years he was co-minister with his wife, the Rev. Dr. Holly Horn. The Reverend Dr. Holly Horn has served Unitarian Universalist congregations in Berkeley and Vallejo, CA, Collegeville, PA, and most recently served as co-minister with her husband, the Reverend Benjamin Maucere, at the First Unitarian Church of Philadelphia. She received her Master of Divinity degree from Starr King School for the Ministry, and a doctorate in Theology and the Arts from the Graduate Theological Union, both in Berkeley, CA.

• Rev. Nathan C. Walker 2007 - 2014. Reverend Nate was born in Germany, raised in Northern Nevada and received his M.Ed. and M.A. degrees from Columbia University and a M.Div. degree from Union Theological Seminary. Before moving to Philadelphia he served congregations in various capacities for eight years in Boston and New York. He was ordained  by the Fourth Universalist Society in the City of New York and the Unitarian Church of Staten Island, New York.

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