THE STORY OF UUCA
The following history of UUCA has been compiled by congregant Jim Kelley. This page provides the highlights of his work. Read his writing in full, featuring footnotes and additional resources, here.
The origin of the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Atlanta began in the post-Civil War years when two ministers, Unitarian George Leonard Chaney and Universalist Quillen Hamilton Shinn, came to Atlanta to establish the first churches of their denominations in the city. It is thanks to the work of these two men, plus the effort and dedication of many who followed them, that we have the congregation of today.
In early 1882, George Leonard Chaney, a wealthy, upper-class Bostonian, stepped off a train in downtown Atlanta. He was sent by the American Unitarian Association to explore the possibility of establishing a Unitarian church in the city. There was only one family of Unitarians living in Atlanta. His job was not made easier by the common southern perception that Unitarianism was a “Yankee” religion. Unitarianism was closely tied to the abolition of enslavement. Of the half dozen southern Unitarian Churches that existed prior to the Civil War, only two (Charleston, South Carolina, and New Orleans, Louisiana), survived the war.
Chaney was welcomed by Atlanta’s business leaders who were eager to reestablish business ties with the north, and both Chaney and his wife Caroline became prominent members of Atlanta society. Rev. Chaney persevered, and with “a lot of patience . . . added to Faith,” the Church of Our Father was chartered on April 24, 1884, at the corner of North Forsyth and Church streets. The church was continually stressed for money and failed to grow sustainably.
The Universalists attempted to start a church in Atlanta in 1879, but the first successful attempt began in 1893 when Universalist missionary Rev. Quillen Hamilton Shinn came to Atlanta. Unlike the Harvard-educated Chaney, Shinn was born on a farm in West Virginia. Thanks to the work of Shinn and other circuit-riding ministers, numerous small Universalist Meeting Houses were established in small towns and villages in the rural south. On July 15, 1900, The First Universalist Church of Atlanta was dedicated at 16 East Harris Street.
Compared to their Unitarian neighbors, the Universalists had a healthy membership and were financially stable. Growing weary of constantly needing to fund the weak Atlanta church, the American Unitarian Association urged the local Unitarians to merge with the Universalists but the Unitarians resisted. Finally, as the U.S. became involved in WWI, the two churches agreed to a temporary union to conserve coal for the war effort. The merger, intended to be for the duration of the war, was eventually made permanent.
It was, however, a rocky merger as the class differences between the urban, northern Unitarians and the rural, southern Universalists created conflict, and the two groups never effectively coalesced into a single united body. At the same time, the combined church suffered from a series of short-term ministers, many of whom were ill-suited to serve such a fractured congregation. Both Unitarian and Universalist women, however, had been working together for the Woman’s Suffrage movement, and soon after the merger, the Universalist Women’s Mission Circle and the Unitarian Woman’s Alliance began having joint meetings. By 1919 they had united to form a single Woman’s Union, foreshadowing a future of more fruitful partnership.
BIGOTRY & DISSOLUTION
In the years following World War II, renewed efforts to gain civil rights for African Americans threatened the Southern Jim Crow tradition. At the same time, the country entered the period known as the “Red Scare” with its McCarthy-era anti-communist witch hunts. Despite being self-described religious liberals, many in the congregation maintained their southern racism and were afraid of being labeled “Communists.”
Fissures in the Atlanta Church reached a boiling point when Atlanta University professor and African American Unitarian from Ohio, Dr. Thomas B. Jones, attended a Sunday service in November 1947. The minister, Rev. Isaiah Domas, was much more politically liberal than his parishioners, many of whom had already grown concerned about his political activity. Previously, Ralph McGill, editor of the Atlanta Constitution had criticized Domas’ left-wing activities and wrote that the church had been targeted for “infiltration” by the Communist Party.
According to Domas’ account, Dr. Jones “was seated without incident, even to the taking of his offering,” but following the service, the phone lines began ringing. Rev. Domas supported Dr. Jones’ right to attend the church, which led to a no-confidence vote from his congregation that forced Rev. Domas to resign. After his departure, the church splintered, and both the American Unitarian Association and the Universalist Church of America withdrew their support from their dysfunctional Atlanta congregation. In 1951 the American Unitarian Association, which held the title to the property, sold the West Peachtree building, and the church was officially dissolved.
Fortunately, the dissolution of the church was not the end of the story. Supported by both the American Unitarian Association and the Universalist Church of America, Rev. Glenn O. Canfield arrived in Atlanta in late 1951 to re-establish a new Unitarian Universalist church with the express goal of creating an integrated congregation.
The United Liberal Church originally held services in the Briarcliff Hotel, but the hotel manager would not allow African American children to ride the elevator to the rooms being used for religious education classes. Motivated to find a home of their own, the church reached an agreement with a Mormon congregation to share their property at the corner of Boulevard and North Avenue until the Mormons completed the construction of their new facility on Ponce De Leon Avenue. The Mormons held services in the morning, while the Unitarian Universalists conducted theirs in the afternoon. The partnership worked well, but to respect Mormon beliefs, the Unitarian Universalists had to forgo their traditional coffee hour after services. In April 1954, the United Liberal Church bought the property and finally had a home to call their own. The new church bylaws declared that membership was open to anyone regardless of “race, color, nationality or station in life,” and it became Atlanta’s first integrated church. Whitney Young Jr., Dean of Social Work at Atlanta University and future leader of the National Urban League, was an early African American member.
The church was growing, so the members decided to move and began a search for a new location. The Atlanta City Council denied them permission to use its first choice because of its integrated membership. In January 1966, the members moved into their sixth church home at 1911 Cliff Valley Way in nearby DeKalb County.
In 1961, the American Unitarian Association and the Universalist Church of America merged, and the Atlanta church, which had predated the national merger by 43 rather rocky years, became a member of the newly formed Unitarian Universalist Association. With the move to Cliff Valley Way, the church was renamed the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Atlanta (UUCA). Church membership grew to over a thousand, and in 1968 the Northwest Unitarian Universalist Congregation was created to accommodate the increased membership. The Cliff Valley Way building was our church home for 52 years until March 2018 when the congregation voted to sell the property to Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta. For the next four years the Unitarian Universalists were without a permanent home. The situation was further complicated by the Coronavirus Pandemic, which forced them to hold services virtually. Finally, the congregation moved into their seventh home at 2650 North Druid Hills Road, Atlanta in September of 2022.
Church of Our Father, 1884
First Universalist Church, 1900
Program from the Peachtree building, 1948
United Liberal Church moving day, 1962
Cliff Valley groundbreaking, 1965
Cliff Valley service, 1966
UUCA members at Marriage Equality demonstration, 2008
Worship at Cliff Valley Way, 2010
Ground breaking at 2650, 2021
First worship at 2650, 2022