part 1
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Introduction

This history was first undertaken with the purpose of preparing a historical discourse for the twenty-fifth anniversary of the dedication of the chapel. But it grew beyond the proper limits of a sermon, and the historical discourse had to be an abridgement of what is here given. It has been prepared with care from the records of the church and its various organizations, from the newspapers of the time, and from personal recollections of early members; and it is published in order permanently to preserve a record which might otherwise easily become forgotten or destroyed. Special thanks are due, for aid given in its preparation, to Rev. T. L. Eliot, Mrs. Rosa F. Burrell, and Mrs. C. W. Burrage. Appendixes are added which give material that could not be suitably given in the course of the narrative.

 

A HISTORY OF THE FIRST UNITARIAN CHURCH.

THE Portland of the sixties was a quiet frontier town of between five and ten thousand people, in the third decade f its history, reached by stage overland from California, and by two or three steamers monthly. It has then, as it has always had, in spite of the lawlessness and vice that so often characterize frontier towns, more than the usual proportion of Christian people, whether measured by their numbers, or by their influence in the community. It was, for it size, well supplied with churches. In 1865 there were already a Methodist, a Presbyterian, a Congregationalist, a Baptist, an Episcopal, and a Catholic church.

Among the residents of that early day there was, however, a considerable number of persons, including some of wealth and influence, who had been reared in the Liberal Christian faith, in New England and elsewhere in the East, both Unitarians and Universalists. [page 6] Among the more prominent of these were Thomas Frazar and his wife, who had arrived as early as 1853; Mrs. Anna Cooke and her children, who came soon after; Mr. and Mrs. Ira Goodnough, Mrs. Abby W. Atwood, and Mr. and Mrs. Charles W. Burrage. There was no organization among them as Liberal Christians. Many of them were not aware that the religious beliefs which they held were shared by others in the community. They therefore worshipped in the churches already established, contributed to the support of them according to their means, taught classes in the Sunday-schools, to which they also sent their children, and did their full share of general church work. At various times they were urged to join the churches with which they were associated. But they held firmly to their inheritance in Liberal Christianity, and waited for a time when they should have a church of their own. one family at least, that of Mr. Frazar, during the six years in which they lived on what is now the "Ladd Farm" in East Portland, were accustomed to hold home services on Sundays, at which neighbors and visitors were often present. Hymns were sung, prayers were offered, and a sermon was read, usually of Channing, Peabody, Chapin, or other Liberal Christian leaders of the time. These are believed to have been the first Unitarian services ever held in Portland.

It is impossible to say how long things might have continued thus, had not the loyalty of the few Liberal Christians to their religious convictions been [page 7] suddenly and deeply aroused. One Sunday morning in 1865, one of the ministers of the city, for lack of a better theme, made a violent attack upon the Unitarian faith, which he continued for several Sundays. It was not without its effect. Several liberally minded members of his congregation met at the door, as they went out after one of these sermons, and at once formed the resolve to take steps toward a Liberal organization of their own. No immediate organized result followed; but the Liberal Christians were from now on drawn more closely to each other.

At the same time other forces had been moving toward the same end. Mrs. Thomas Frazar had from the first longed earnestly for a church of her own faith. For this she prayed and planned for years; and it was in her heart, and by her faith, more than that of any other one person, that the church was founded. She was ever hoping to find material enough to from a Unitarian organization. In 1863, in the work of the Sanitary Commission, she became acquainted with Mr. and Mrs. Charles W. Burrage, devoted Unitarians who had come to Portland a few months previously from Leominster, Mass., and who were the first persons she had found who seemed to be in full sympathy with her religious beliefs.  Their common faith drew them more and more together. They added to each other's zeal; and the result at length was that, with a few kindred spirits, the first step in organization was taken in December, 1865, in the forming of the Ladies' Sewing Society. [page 8]

There had already been Unitarian preaching in Portland as early as 1862. In July of that year, Rev. Thomas Starr King of San Francisco, while on a lecturing tour, preached in the Methodist church on Taylor street on a Sunday afternoon, and lectured there three days later. Letters are still extant, written by him to Mr. Frazar, arranging for the visit. But Mr. King's object was not a missionary one; and though even then earnestly longed for, an organization was not yet thought possible.

But on December 13, 1865, a few of the women interested in the cause of Liberal Christianity met at the house of Mr. Ira Goodnough, on Yamhill street, below Fifth, on the spot where the Goodnough building now stands, opposite the Post-office. These were Mrs. Mary E. Frazar, Mrs. Sarah J. Burrage, Mrs. Nancy E. Goodnough, Mrs. Anna Cooke, Mrs. Lydia M. Wright, Mrs. M. A. Abbott, Mrs. Rosa F. Burrell. They had come together "for the purpose of organizing a Society for the promotion of the Cause." Mrs. Frazar was chosen Chairman, and Mrs. Abbott Secretary; and the first business done was the adoption of the following preamble, which had previously prepared by Mrs. Frazar:

"We, the friends of Liberal Christianity, pioneers of the Christian faith in this new land, do here unite for the purpose of strengthening each other in the same, and pledge ourselves, God helping, that by prayer and earnest effort we will use every endeavor to promote and advance the Cause."

At a meeting held at the house of Mrs. Burrage two weeks later, a constitution was adopted, and a [page 9] permanent organization effected, under the name of "The Ladies' Sewing Society," two which were added "of the First Unitarian Society, Portland, Oregon." Mrs. Frazar was the first President. The Society held weekly meetings for work at the houses of the members on Thursday afternoons, at which they usually earned money by taking in sewing. Meetings have been held on Wednesday afternoons since 1872, and in the church parlor since 1880, and have been uninterrupted during all the twenty-seven years since the forming of the Society. Besides their weekly meetings, the ladies held monthly socials, arranged occasional entertainments and festivals, and were in every way the center of organized life among the Liberal Christians until the forming of the First Unitarian Society.

Indeed it is doubtful whether any definite movement would have taken shape for a long time, had it not been for the devoted and unflagging work of the Ladies' Sewing Society. With an average weekly attendance of but seven, the earnings of their first year were almost $400.00; while the deeper results of nourishing faith and arousing zeal, were greater than can be estimated. They testified their faith in the future of their cause by sending the thirty dollars first earned to Rev. Horatio Stebbins