A Very Brief History of The First Unitarian Universalist Society of Exeter

Origins to the Present — Meeting the Challenges of Our Ministry

Prepared by Carol Aten and Barbara Rimkunas

1638: The Liberal Church             

1638 was the year a group of Englishmen paddled up the river and organized a town on the banks of the Squamscott River. There were people here already, but an agreement was hastily written, a roommate agreement of sorts. We’re going to farm, you’re going to fish, everyone does their own dishes. That kind of thing. There were unanticipated problems, English swine rooted up Native squash, the forest thinned out and the deer left. Eventually the Natives left, deciding they could find another place to fish and grow squash in the summertime.

The Englishmen who remained must have looked around themselves at this wilderness they were trying to make into a home. What brought them here? Back in England, they’d been rebels. Rebels from a state religion they took pride in disagreeing with. They believed in the harsh world of John Calvin. A world in which there were saints and sinners – although really they were are all sinners. Man was so unworthy of God’s love, it’s a wonder anyone got out of bed in the morning willing to slog through the knee-deep mud of depravity. Yet somehow they had to love this judgmental God above all things and somehow they managed to do it. This god chose, at the dawn of time, all the people he would take into (heaven). It was fixed. This was the world the rebel Englishmen brought to the New World to the Massachusetts Bay Colony, Boston, the “City upon a Hill”.

And then, as though they were rebels among rebels, they were thrown out of the Bay Colony, accused of an obscure heresy called ‘antinomianism’ that hinted that maybe if they were God’s chosen, they didn’t have to follow all the rules. They weren’t, but the accusation stuck and they had to leave. So here they were in the mud with their swine living with a group of people who had themselves decided the Englishmen weren’t fit to live with. And the Englishmen were left trying to figure out – who does go to heaven. Who merits the infinite? How can you tell? Is it the man who works hard, follows the rules, prospers, has a good wife who bears healthy children? Is it the man who is tested? Whose crops wither, children die? Does calamity set him above or beneath the Zumba class of the saints? And can he join the dance on his own, or is he  forever stuck standing outside in the hall, close enough to hear the music but forbidden to enter. What did God want?

For over 100 years this was the great puzzle of Exeter. Did God demand good works to seal the deal, or did God marinade the chosen with grace? Works or grace. Works or grace. Universalists rejected the elect. Unitarians rejected a segmented god. They united to welcome everyone. God marched by in a parade, waving to those who waved back. Some people followed, others were happy to stay and watch the parade.

Because the parade was endless and it was happening now. And grace can be found holding hands and good work helps keep the parade marching. The covenant of works and the covenant of grace continues to coexist when service is a prayer and love is the doctrine of a church.

The strict Puritan teachings of the church were challenged during a period known as the Great Awakening which took place during the mid-1700s. Known for their fiery evangelical preaching, the New Lights (as they were called) emphasized a more personal relationship to the divine and de-emphasized such Calvinistic teachings as predestination.

The New Lights argued for a presence in the town and eventually the very contentious split settled down and Exeter had two churches, conveniently called the First and Second Parishes. Taxes were still collected to support the church, but in 1755 residents could decide between the two churches. These taxes were paid by all town residents regardless of whether they were actually members of a church. New residents were allowed three months to decide which church would receive their tax dollars. This system of church taxation continued in New Hampshire until about 1818. Both parishes also charged a pew fee for active members.

Hand in hand with the Great Awakening came the period known as the Enlightenment. The humanistic views of the enlightenment spawned two new movements from traditional New England Christianity: Universalism and Unitarianism. Universalists rejected the Calvinistic doctrine of predetermination and preached that all Christians could gain salvation, not just the select few granted God’s grace. Unitarians rejected the idea of the trinity, or a God consisting of three entities, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Both movements stressed that human beings were inherently good and not the depraved beings of the Puritan teachings.

Universalist Meeting House, at the corner of Front and Court Streets, built in 1841

Even the liberalism of the Second Parish was unacceptable to these two movements. Although much of the preaching was Unitarian, the Universalists were increasingly uncomfortable with the style of preaching. After a few early attempts to form their own society, the Universalist Society of Exeter was eventually formed in 1831 and in 1841 was able to build a church on the corner of Front and Center Streets. The lower floor was designed to hold businesses and could be rented out to help pay the mortgage. As there were few Universalists in town, they felt this was a necessary measure to help defray costs and provide themselves with a meetinghouse.

But even this small bit of help could not support the Universalist meetinghouse. In 1854 the group was faced with foreclosure and needed to make some hard decisions. It was eventually agreed upon to approach some of the Unitarian members of the Second Parish and propose a merger. At a fateful meeting on June 17, 1854 at the Odd Fellows Hall on Water Street, the two groups met and agreed to reorganize officially as the First Unitarian Society of Exeter. It accepted any willing members from the Universalist Society and from Second Parish. Not all the Universalists agreed to join. The new organization took over payments on the building and it was soon paid clear.

The 1850s and 60s were a period of growth for the new society. Phillips Exeter Academy, a private preparatory school for boys, required all students to attend worship services each Sunday. Despite some attempts by the school to lure boys away from the “liberal” church, student enrollment would help swell the attendance at the First Unitarian Society until the 1960s. The pretty church on Front Street was quickly outgrowing its congregation.

Universalist Church — built in 1868, torn down in 1942, at the corner of Elm and Maple

In 1867, a local woman named Mary Eastham Gray Gilman came to the aid of the Society by donating a parcel of land on the corner of Elm and Maple Streets. She was a wealthy widow, about to remarry and perhaps was looking to liquidate some of her personal assets from her first marriage. The UAU gifted $3000.00 towards the building of a new church on the provision that Phillips Exeter Academy alumni raise another $2000.00 and that pews reserved for students would always be free of charge. Local members raised another $3000.00 by subscription and the church was finished in 1868 at a final cost of $13,000.00. There was still some debt to be paid, but the group was growing and it was eliminated within a few years.

In 1872, Mary Eastham Gray Gilman, now Mrs. Charles Bell, donated the vacant lot next to the church and the parsonage was built on the site, completed in 1874.

Standing next to the parsonage was an old tenement building standing on a very desirable plot of land. It was discussed for a few years and eventually the group decided, in 1884, to buy the tenement, move it to another site, and build a Parish Hall. That hall, called Unity Hall, was completed in 1890 and immediately put to use for a variety of church and secular functions. It was enlarged twice over the years. The Society still attracted a number of PEA students, and the 1890s can be characterized as a time when the First Unitarian Society’s ministry catered to the youth of the students, the members and the town itself.

From 1857 until 1931 (and a few years following World War II) the biggest annual event of the church was May Fair. Held for many years at the Exeter Town Hall, this became a town event and raised a great deal of money each year. The site of the event moved to Unity Hall in the 1890s, but this didn’t seem to diminish the enthusiasm of those attending. A May Pole was erected, there were parades, plays, dancing, music and, of course, food.

The church has always maintained an active church school, even when classroom space was lacking. Other organizations within the church included the Women’s Alliance and the Young People’s Church Guild.

Keeping both the church and Unity Hall proved to be more of a challenge than originally anticipated. As early as 1916 the society considered selling Unity Hall always changing their minds at the last minute. In 1924 the hall was renovated again for society use.

World War II shortages took a toll on all the churches in town. In 1944, the Exeter News Letter commented that both the Baptist and Congregational churches had closed their main meeting rooms and were holding services in the vestry for the duration of the war.

The now slightly reduced members of the First Unitarian Society knew they were at a crossroads as early as 1935.

  • In that year, the Executive Committee authorized the building committee to sell Unity Hall if a buyer could be found.
  • In 1936, the Executive Committee considered remodeling Unity Hall as a dwelling in an effort to make it more marketable.
  • In 1937 the idea was to sell both Unity Hall and the parsonage and use the proceeds to build an entirely new, less costly church.
  • By 1938 the building committee had definitely decided to recommend building a new church: “of Colonial style, adequate basement rooms for Sunday School and Women’s Alliance and put the organ in the back”

By 1942, the World War had forced the issue. Coal was getting scarce and the old building was expensive to heat. The members made the decision to move Sunday services into Unity Hall for the duration of the war. Two weeks later, in a session following a regular Sunday service, the drastic decision was made to tear down the old church and use the materials to completely remodel Unity Hall into a permanent church.

The conversion was made and along with the renovations to the former Unity Hall, a Parish Hall was added. Materials for both these projects came from the old church and whatever could be found during these days of substandard rationing.

The new church opened on September 28th, 1944 and was immediately overcrowded with 140 people attending on that Sunday. There were 53 children enrolled in the Sunday School and 31 Academy students in attendance.

During the 1950s and 60s the church membership and attendance remained fairly constant. Church sponsored activities included: Rummage Sales, Fall and Spring; Christmas Fair (for a short time the May Fair continued); Harvest Dinner (Fall); and Parish Supper (Spring annual meeting).

By the 1960s the parish complex looked similar to the way it looks today (2003). In February 1960, the denominations of Unitarians and Universalists officially merged, but the First Unitarian Society of Exeter chose to retain it’s historical name rather than become the First Unitarian Universalist Society of Exeter. [Universalist was added to the name in 2007.]

In 1964 improvements were made to the basement of the parish hall to create more classroom space. But numbers were declining. Attendance at services held steady, but memberships were declining. When PEA eliminated compulsory attendance in the mid 1960s the church began to go into a decline.

One historian of the society had this to say: “In the late ’60s the church went into a decline. Academy ended chapel requirement. The atmosphere became very conservative religiously and politically and did not attract new members.”

It was a period marked by uncertainness within the church’s mission and ministry. There was a tremendous turnover in our ministers. By 1982 there were only 66 members. No longer able to support a full-time minister, the church negotiated to have an extension minister preach. But the little group held on and decided not to disband. The church buildings were maintained by volunteer effort and the group continued to remain a presence in the town of Exeter.

The low point came in 1987. A survey was taken to compare the church for the previous 100 years.

Population of town FUUSE members
1880 3,640 122
1985 10,983 39

Average attendance at worship services in 1985 was 30 adults and 12 children.

Still the group stayed together, even when there was no minister and it seemed wiser to disband. Church members became more active concerning social issues and the ministry began to shift, welcoming new members into the circle. A steady period of growth began in the early 1990s. Average worship attendance rose gradually. By the mid 1990s attendance was up to 61 adults. In 2001, membership increased to 133 with average attendance of 69 people.

Today, we are still welcoming people who find their way to our doors. With 180 members and average weekly attendance of 106 we are challenged again expanding the ministry as we expand our numbers.

We owe a debt of gratitude not only to the founders of our Society, but also (and perhaps more so) to those members who kept the Society going when common sense might have said otherwise.