"Respecting in each other and in all the right of intellect and conscience to be free, and holding it to be the duty of everyone to keep his mind and heart at all times open to receive the truth and follow its guidance, we set up no theological condition of membership and neither demand nor expect uniformity of doctrinal belief; asking only unity of purpose to seek and accept the right and true, and an honest aim and effort to make these the rule of life. And recognizing the brotherhood of the human race and the equality of human rights, we make no distinction as to the conditions and rights of membership in this society, on account of sex, or color, or nationality."
This remarkable manifesto was part of the Articles of Agreement signed on May 3, 1863, that established the Free Congregational Society of Florence (a village of Northampton). That society continued the vision of the 1840's utopian community called "The Northampton Association for Education and Industry," an extraordinary experiment in radical social change that attracted intellectual activists from around New England and New York.
The Florence Society brought to the city outstanding thinkers of the time, beginning with the resident speaker Charles C. Burleigh, abolitionist and staunch supporter of independent thinking, whose talks "touched on all phases of questions pertaining to human welfare, social reform and the extension of knowledge." Two of the Florence Society's members were wealthy entrepreneurs who, in addition to giving money for schools and the town library, financed the building of a grand meetinghouse called Cosmian Hall in 1874. Almost all the prominent liberals of the late nineteenth century, including Sojourner Truth, who had previously been a member of the utopian community, Frederick Douglass, and Susan B. Anthony, spoke at Cosmian Hall to the Society, which at the time was the largest free-thinking congregation in the world.
The Second Congregational Society of Northampton had preceded the Florence group by nearly four decades. It was organized by forty-three Northampton residents (including many of the most prominent) on February 22, 1825, at a time when, wrote the daughter of two of the founders, "the cloud of Calvinism enwrapped the whole valley of the Connecticut in spiritual gloom." It was the first break in the grip the old Puritans had established in 1654. The cornerstone of the building for the Second Congregational Society was laid on May 25, 1825 (which was coincidentally also the date of the founding of the American Unitarian Association).
The congregation's first minister, Edward Brooks Hall, who later became a great Unitarian spokesman, editor and President of the AUA, set the tone for the first successful years. He was followed by others who were or became prominent in the denomination, including Rufus Ellis, John Sullivan Dwight, and Charles Eliot St. John. Ralph Waldo Emerson was a frequent and welcome speaker.
Although the break from the established church was a radical one in 1825, the Northampton Society was more conservative than the Florence organization and smaller in the nineteenth century. Both societies continued, with membership and fortunes rising and falling over the years. By the Second World War their combined number of active members was about fifty, an all-time low.
In 1944, the Second Congregational Society of Northampton and the Free Congregational Society of Florence voted to join together as the Unitarian Church of Northampton and Florence. Although each of the two societies continued to meet as legal entities, they had one minister and Sunday services were held in Northampton. In 1972 the name was changed to the Unitarian Society of Northampton and Florence, and in 1975 the incorporation was completed.
Since the 1944 merger, many ministers have served this congregation: Eugene A. Luening (1944-1950), Nathaniel P. Lauriat (1951-1956), Herbert Hitchen (1956-1965), David W. Brown (1966-1968), John A. Farmakis (1970-1988), Victoria Safford (1989-1999), and Jay Deacon (2002-2006).
In the Spring of 2009 we called the Reverend Janet C. Bush to be our new Settled Minister. She has been with us since September 2009. At this time we have over 300 members and friends. The building bursts with activity throughout the week and indicates that the Society continues to be an active one, with a mixture of young and old members who are enthusiastic and eager to help ensure its continued growth and active participation in the community.
In 1975, in his Sesquincentennial History of the Unitarian Society of Northampton and Florence (click to download), Edward M. Lawton, Jr. said of our building and the town, "This structure has remained, as originally, a landmark of Late Greek Revival architecture in a rather staid little New England city." While the first part remains true, the description of Northampton does not. In the last twenty-five years Northampton has gained a reputation as a lively arts and professional community, the place to be for all manner of craftspeople, artists, writers, musicians, actors and activists.