The Modern Era


The history of recent times inevitably sorts itself into categories of living memory, collections of documents and artifacts, all of which may wait years for narration and interpretation. In our living memory are the ministries of Walter Donald Kring and F. Forrester Church, and for a few, Laurance Irving Neale. Among our documents are the membership and minute books, the bulletins, sermons and orders of worship. We have photos, oral history on tape and a video record. Dr. Kring, minister emeritus, has written a three-volume history of the church: Liberals Among the Orthodox, Henry Whitney Bellows and Safely Onward. These, along with a nearly complete collection of the books of all our ministers and some of the works of the congregation, are stored in our Archives room under the diligent and trained care of the members of All Souls’ Historical Society.

With the perspective of distance, certain moments gather interest and importance. The building of our present church in 1932, during the ministry of Minot Osgood Simons, is certainly a significant point in our institutional history. The move from Fourth Avenue and 20th Street was planned as the 1920’s were drawing to a close. Property was purchased at 80th Street and Lexington Avenue; the old church was sold.

Then the Great Depression intervened. The buyer of the old church went bankrupt and could not complete the mortgage. Suddenly, as the economy was collapsing, the congregation owned two buildings, each with a mortgage and the one no longer in a state to be occupied and the other not ready to be used. And, at this point, George F. Baker, the man who surely ranks among the wealthiest parishioners ever to sit in our pews and who had served on our Board for 50 years, died. Fortunately, his son, also named George F. Baker, who retained the family interest in the congregation, purchased the old property and freed the congregation to focus on the building of our current church. Among our artifacts is a plaque on the north side of the sanctuary honoring (gratefully!) both men.

The very year that the new church was completed, Franklin Delano Roosevelt was elected president. In 1879, Henry Whitney Bellows had officiated at the wedding of Sara Delano, whose family had been members of All Souls for many years, at Algonac, their home on the Hudson River. This nineteenth-century wedding might have passed unnoticed except that Sara Delano and her husband, James Roosevelt, would become the parents of a future president. The marriage certificate, signed by Bellows, is on view at Hyde Park in a room near the entrance to the Presidential home. Mildred Rahn, our deceased financial secretary, whose father, Albert Williams, served as sexton of the third church, remembers Sara Delano Roosevelt visiting that church and asking to see the family pew.

While the people, dates and events that make up the history of All Souls are too many to be enumerated here, some deserve special mention. In recent history, places in the annals of the century belong to Sandra Mitchell Caron, who served as Moderator of the Unitarian Universalist Association from 1977 to 1985, and to the Reverend John Buehrens, our co-minister from 1987 to 1993, who is now serving as president of the denomination.

The year 1985 may draw the attention of the future historian who examines the continuing tradition of support for human dignity. This was the year that 10,000 placards were placed in city buses and subways with messages such as “AIDS is a human disease and deserves a humane response.” In 1991, All Souls received the Outstanding AIDS Ministry award from the National AIDS Interfaith Network for our early and wide-ranging efforts in support of women, men and children with AIDS.

In 1919, when the congregation celebrated its 100th anniversary, the speakers included former President William Howard Taft, the most recent Unitarian to be President of the United States. In 1919, he was a professor of constitutional law at Yale and had not yet been appointed Chief Justice of the Supreme Court.

The bicentennial of the congregation will be celebrated in November 2019.

By Mary-Ella Holst, Director of Religious Education Emerita and member of All Souls.