Our Mission & History
The mission of the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Atlanta (UUCA) is to foster a community of faith that encourages and supports our individual spiritual quests out of which we act together for social justice.
The history of a church is inevitably a description of the individual cultures in which it arose and of its people. The history of the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Atlanta is intricately woven in the south, with slavery and the early civil rights movement of the 1860s. Unitarian leaders in Massachusetts (in accord with the preaching of Ralph Waldo Emerson and William Ellery Channing) considered themselves progressive and persuasive. They sent Universalist and Unitarian “missionaries” into the south to promote abolitionist and reconstructionist programs.
In 1882, the American Unitarian Association (AUA) sent the Rev. George Leonard Chaney to establish the first Unitarian congregation in Atlanta. Rev. Chaney not only began preaching to a congregation of ten attendees, but also solicited his community for money for books. They built the first free lending library, which pointedly included in its patrons women and people of color. The private Young Men’s Library, which pre-existed it, did not. His effort was so impressive that the Carnegie Foundation founded a public library on the very site of Chaney’s church, buying their building, which sat where the current Atlanta-Fulton Public Library now sits in downtown Atlanta.
Says the Rev. Robert Karnan, “Before coming to Georgia, Rev. Chaney had been heavily engaged in forming schools in Massachusetts for immigrant children who were struggling in urban ghettos and could obtain only menial employment. He continued that work in Atlanta, where he enlisted the help of his Unitarian membership to found the Artisans Institute in Atlanta, an effort to provide an adult, advanced technical-training school. Georgia Tech emerged out of that effort. Chaney also served on the board of trustees of the Atlanta University system and Tuskegee Institute, again showing his concern that all people have access to excellent education. In line with the modern precept that what you put out is what you draw to you, Chaney later remarked that his church “was fortunate to have artists, musicians, ministers, and statesmen” among them. “I doubt if any evenings so replete with good literature and accomplished art were ever held in Atlanta as those held in this church under the auspices of the Literature and Art Club,” he wrote. By the time he retired in 1890, his congregation had an average attendance of sixty. This intellectual and artistic mix is still a fountainhead of Atlanta Unitarianism.
The Civil Rights Movement
Fast forward to the late 1940s. By that time, the congregation (which was called The United Liberal Church) had dwindled to a mere handful again, owing to controversies around segregation. As a result, the AUA in Boston stepped in and outright sold the West Peachtree Street building. It was not until the early 1950s that the AUA sent the Rev. Glenn Canfield, who re-established the United Liberal Church on an explicitly integrationist foundation.
He held services for a year at the Briarcliff Hotel and offered his congregation the opportunity to “talk back” in response to his sermons. A year later, a building at 605 Boulevard was purchased from the Mormons, and the group grew to 127 members. The Rev. Ed Cahill replaced him in 1957 and the city, as Cahill reported in an anniversary letter to the church, came “to know where the church stood on the critical issues. The church was integrated, not just desegregated.” Whitney Young, then Dean of the Atlanta School of Social Work (and later national head of the Urban League), was a black member of the Board of Trustees. Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., then assistant to his father at Ebenezer Baptist Church, was a pulpit guest, as was Rev. Sam Williams, another outstanding black minister. Two incidents that occurred during this period:
- Atlanta University students had organized a sit-in at the segregated lunch counter in Rich’s. Several hundred were arrested for trespassing, and jailed. On Sunday morning during the talk-back at the service, the chairman of the Public Affairs Committee asked how many members would be willing to return their Rich’s charge cards in protest. Over a hundred hands went up, and over a hundred cards were in the mail that afternoon.
- The second illustration involved the Ebenezer Baptist Church, where Coretta Scott King was leader of the Youth Group. The two churches arranged joint Sunday evening programs, alternating between them, so black and white young people could get to know one another.
The Klan called Mrs. Cahill and threatened violence at the next Sunday evening meeting at the United Liberal Church. Church officials consulted Coretta King regarding the options and she said to go ahead with the meeting. All parents were called to give them the option of keeping their children home. Not one parent held back. In fact, all the fathers came that evening and ringed the church outside to form a visible wall of protection.
In 1962, Rev. Eugene Pickett replaced Cahill and “guided the church to full and prosperous maturity.” In November, 1962, the Boulevard church was sold; a prospective new site between Lenox and Roxboro Roads generated much local neighborhood resistance and a building permit was denied for “potential traffic congestion.” Again, in 1963, a bid to buy a Methodist church at Cheshire Bridge and Sheridan was rejected by the local community. Finally, the present site at Cliff Valley Way was purchased and ground broken in January, 1965, and in February the group changed its name to the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Atlanta. The church was finished by the end of the year at a cost of $449,000, and the first service held on January 2, 1966.
Rev. Pickett continued to lead in the fights for human and civil rights in the sixties, and when the heat of those battles cooled and the chief concern became personal growth, he continued to lead the church well. By the end of his 12-1/2 year ministry, the membership had grown eightfold, to 1,040 members in 1974.
Since the Rev. Eugene Pickett, UUCA has had four settled Senior Ministers: the Rev. David Rankin (1979-1982), the Rev. Terry Sweetser (1982-1988), the Rev. Edward Frost (1989-2005), and the Rev. Anthony Makar (2007-present). Under Rev. Makar’s leadership, the congregation continues to change lives and give to the world the following gifts:
- A vibrant faith community for spiritual seekers that worship together, embracing lifelong religious learning and respecting different spiritual journeys.
- A loving community that provides support and care for others through both the best and the most difficult of times.
- A safe and welcoming community where all are valued.
- Children and youth, centered in the values of our religious community and nurtured in love, who are compassionate leaders in seeking justice and peace.
- People with a passion for social and economic justice who work together for human rights and a sustainable environment.
- A creative community that challenges us to see the world with new perspectives and gives voice to the human spirit through music and the Arts.