A Short History of The Unitarian Church in Summit
The Unitarian Church in Summit was founded in 1908 by area residents who wanted a church that would be less doctrinaire than other religious institutions. Today, we continue to be a congregation that welcomes people of varied beliefs and backgrounds — who come together to worship, to wonder, to share the joys and sorrows of life, and to try to better the world around us. We are a regional congregation of about 500 adult members and 250 children who live in Summit and some 50 other area communities.
The Unitarian Church in Summit has valued the role of ministers who challenge us morally, intellectually and spiritually. Inspiring music and strong programs for children have also been part of our tradition for decades. Our building combines an elegant and intimate sanctuary that dates back to 1913 with modern classroom and meeting spaces completed just a few years ago.
Here is a look at a few critical moments and key people in the history of our congregation.
A chance meeting and a church is born
At the dawn of the 20th century, Summit, New Jersey, was an affluent suburban community with a population of some 7,000. The town had churches of most major Protestant denominations and a Roman Catholic church. Still, a number of men and women in Summit wanted a church that would emphasize ethics and love as the core of religion, a church that would support freedom of conscience and liberal interpretations of faith. They wanted a church that would not prescribe a particular system of beliefs and principles, but rather that would encourage all people to freely search for their own religious truths.
While on the Long Island Railroad in the summer of 1906, Parker D. King, a successful Summit businessman and one of those interested in a liberal church, chanced to meet a childhood friend who led such a church. The Reverend Frederic Curtis Brown was the minister of the Unitarian Church of Buffalo, New York. Unitarians, like Universalists, epitomized the liberal orientation in American religion. King took the opportunity to discuss with Brown what it would take to establish a liberal church in Summit.
That fall, King and a small committee made plans for a series of “Unitarian Meetings” in Summit. The first was held in January 1907, and regular Sunday meetings took place all that year with the help of ministers from Unitarian churches in Orange and Montclair.
The next year, on January 14, 1908, this small group met to consider establishing a formal Unitarian congregation. The group’s indecision and hesitation dismayed Russell Hinman, a keen supporter of liberal religion. To spur the participants to action, Hinman proposed a resolution that they not organize a Unitarian church in Summit. Upon rejecting that option, seventeen charter members formed The Unitarian Church in Summit, with Hinman as the first president. They called Reverend Brown, who had left Buffalo, to be our first full-time minister. Parker King went on to chair the Board of Trustees for many years.
Building the sanctuary
The congregation initially met in rented space. By 1911, members began to raise money for a permanent sanctuary. After we purchased our current property, Mr. Joy Wheeler Dow, a local architect and architectural writer–and a member of the congregation–was commissioned to design the sanctuary.
Dow took inspiration from Colonial New England meeting houses, with their simplicity of form and color, and also from the churches of 16th and 17th century England. He incorporated elements of St. Paul’s Chapel in New York City and King’s Chapel in Boston (the first Unitarian church in America). Dow’s plan drew praise in architectural circles. The finished church was judged a notable contribution to the architecture of Summit.
Construction began in the fall of 1912, using local craftsmen, and was completed early the following year. The exterior was originally painted brown like King’s Chapel. The sanctuary was formally dedicated on October 21, 1913, with the participation of prominent Unitarian and Universalist ministers from around the region.
Defending a liberal faith
In January 1914 our church welcomed a new minister, Dr. Frank C. Doan. Doan held strong views and a passionate belief that a church must educate as well as inspire. Reverend Doan organized a series of forums featuring eminent speakers from a broad spectrum of religious and political viewpoints. Over the next few years, as war raged in Europe, Doan spoke often about the need for peace.
On the Sunday following the United States’ entry into World War I on April 6, 1917, Doan spoke out against the war and made known his own personal stance as a pacifist. Doan’s sermon did not fit the tenor of the times. Indeed, the declaration of war had brought forth an outburst of patriotic fever and a surge of intolerance toward opposing views. In several churches across the country, ministers were forced to resign for speaking against the war.
Local New Jersey newspapers were sharply critical of Doan’s position. To avoid further controversy, Doan offered to resign as minister, but our Board of Trustees refused to accept his resignation. Even though many in the church disagreed with the minister’s pacifism, the Board publicly declared its strong support for Doan and the principles of free speech and tolerance of diverse opinions. Individual choice in matters of conscience and religious belief is part of the core of the Unitarian and Universalist traditions. Though Doan later did step aside for a time, the congregation’s unhesitating support for his unpopular personal view nobly upheld this heritage.
The Davies Decade
In its middle years, our church had two charismatic ministers who served for extended periods and were highly regarded locally and farther afield. The first, Dr. A. Powell Davies, was minister from 1933 through 1944. He has been called one of the greatest preachers of the 20th century.
Reverend Davies’s delivery was direct and to the point. What he said remained in listeners’ minds long after services were over. The scope and breadth of his sermons attracted listeners from many groups outside our congregation. His eloquence, vision, and affirmations of faith—in democracy, in
America, and in the prophetic role of the Unitarian church in a society scarred by depression, repression, and war—earned Davies a prominent place in 20th century liberal theology.
A. Powell Davies was known for social and political activism in the community and nationwide. The conservative community of Summit was often at odds with this young, liberal minister, who was outspoken in his support of Franklin D. Roosevelt. Davies declared: “Religion is not something separate and apart from ordinary life. It is life—life of every kind viewed from the standpoint of meaning and purpose; life lived in the fuller awareness of its human quality and spiritual significance.” After he was called in 1944 to All Souls Church in Washington, D.C., Davies gained greater national notice. At his death in 1957, he was eulogized for placing himself, and the denomination, “militantly in the forefront of every assault upon intolerance and racial discrimination and injustice.”
Jacob Trapp’s quarter century
Jacob Trapp, the second of those two special ministers, became such a well-loved figure in Summit that many in the congregation referred to themselves as “Trappists.” Coming from a staunch Dutch Reformed home where Bible passages were read each day, Reverend Trapp evolved into a free spirit, close to nature, who gained inspiration from diverse religions and philosophies.
The spirit of his ministry, which ran from 1945 through 1970, is captured in his words, “sharing is love and being shared with is love,” and in lines from his poetry:
Love is the soul’s looking
Beauty is the soul’s listening and looking.
As minister, Trapp led the racial integration of the local YMCA and cinema, and gave voice to liberal causes in a city not accustomed to his sort of maverick viewpoint. He had a profound impact on the community as well as on the congregation.
In this “baby boom” era, many new parents of various backgrounds sought a religious home for themselves and their children, and our religious education enrollment burgeoned. Even the tiny rooms in the sanctuary balcony held classes. In 1959 we purchased a substantial old house at the corner of Summit Avenue and Whittredge Road, one long block from the sanctuary. Classrooms and a large meeting room were added two years later, and children’s classes and many church functions were henceforth held in that “Unitarian House.”
The Bumbaugh years
A third past minister remembered for long service and excellent preaching is David Bumbaugh, who was called as minister in 1988. Raised in an evangelical Christian family, Reverend Bumbaugh increasingly drew spiritual inspiration more from what he termed a “blend of paganism and earth worship.” Many of his sermons were small masterpieces of fine detail and subtlety, crafted with an ear for the rhythm and power of language.
Bumbaugh was with us for over a decade – for part of that time joined by his wife Beverly Bumbaugh as co-minister — before becoming professor of ministry at Meadville/Lombard Theological School in 1999.
Another lasting and invigorating leader, Carol Haag, joined us in 1990 to direct our religious education program. We called her as our first formal Minister of Religious Education in 1996. Carol retired in 2003.
Under one roof
For years, congregation members grumbled about having our sanctuary, church offices and children’s classes spread over three buildings. But efforts to find a solution fizzled. That began to change in September 1998, when the congregation threw its weight behind a plan to improve the historic sanctuary and connect it with a large new structure to house offices, classrooms and meeting facilities. The overriding goal: to unite the entire congregation under one roof.
With generous financial support from members and the proceeds of the sale of the Unitarian House property, the ambitious construction project began. It was an era of tremendous excitement but also dislocation. With the retirement of the Bumbaughs, we had interim ministers for two years before calling our next settled minister, Reverend Vanessa Rush Southern. Vanessa joined us in the midst of our construction and spent most of her first year with us preaching from under a basketball hoop in a rented school gymnasium in New Providence where Sunday services were temporarily relocated.
As that transition year drew to a close, the newly refurbished sanctuary was the site of Vanessa’s formal installation on May 19, 2002. A few months later, on October 27, 2002, the new building was formally dedicated.
Vanessa Southern served the congregation for 13 years from 2001-2014.
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This history is adapted from the booklet From Where We Come,
written by church members in 2000. Copies of that booklet are available in the church office.