A HISTORY OF THE FIRST UNITARIAN CHURCH OF SAN JOSÉ
Unitarian Services in San José were first held in City Hall in November of 1865, with 100 people in attendance. Laura J. Watkins, resident of Santa Clara who belonged to the San Francisco Unitarian Church, was a staunch supporter of the women’s suffrage movement and an organizer on behalf of the U.S. Sanitary Commission, aiding victims of the Civil War (and later became the Red Cross). She decided there was a need for a liberal religious presence in San José, and invited the Rev. Charles Gordon Ames to speak. Profoundly affected by his travels through the war-torn South, Rev. Ames devoted his first service to the freedom and dignity of all people, a theme that has echoed throughout the years at the First Unitarian Church, and which, at times, has led the church to take stands that have not been popular with more conservative sections of the community.
Among the early members of the church were Marie Hermann, who opened San José Day Nursery, San José’s first childcare center; A.T. Hermann, who designed the road up Mt. Hamilton; Dr. Benjamin Cory, San José’s first physician; J.J. Owen, editor and publisher of the San José Mercury; and Mark Leavenworth, Ransom Moody, and Campbell Settle, all early Mayors of San José.
Unitarianism on the West Coast had been greatly influenced by the Free Religious Association, incorporating the philosophy of East Coast transcendentalist Unitarians such as the Rev. Ralph Waldo Emerson and the Rev. Theodore Parker, as well as the thought of the dynamic San Francisco minister, the Rev. Thomas Starr King (whose statue was until recently in Washington, D.C. along with that of Father Junipero Serra, representing California in the Hall of Statuary). The Free Religious brand of Unitarianism rejected placing the source of religious authority solely in the Bible or in religious hierarchy; rather, it opted for inclusion of the intuitive and direct experience of God, ethical theism, unlimited spiritual freedom, and social activism. Those who embraced this approach were often known as the “Unity Men.” When the San José congregation became more formally organized, adopting a constitution and bylaws, they were originally called the Unity congregation (not to be confused with today’s “Unity” denomination).
Rev. Ames was active in the struggle for women’s suffrage, attending the Woman Suffrage Convention in San Francisco in 1870 and participating in writing the Constitution of the California Woman Suffrage Association. He viewed social activism as a natural outgrowth of his liberal theological views, reflecting a strong tradition of caring and concern within the Unitarian faith.
Building the Church
Laying the cornerstone, Sept 23, 1892The current site at 160 North Third Street was purchased in 1888, with the leadership of the Rev. N.A. Haskell, and the cornerstone was laid in a ceremony on September 23, 1891. G.W. Page, who designed several other buildings in the valley, including the Hayes mansion and the Masonic Temple, was the architect. The building was completed a year later at a cost of $29,551.85.
A dedication service was held on September 25, 1892. Approximately 1,000 people crammed into the building and overflowed into Third Street and St. James Park. The church building is currently registered as a California Historical Landmark.