The Unitarian Society of Northampton and Florence represents the merger, in 1944, of the Second Congregational Society, Northampton, and the Free Congregational Society of Florence. Both had histories dating to the early to mid 19th century, and both were formed in response to the political or theological atmosphere of their times.

Second Congregational Society: In 1824 Northampton's only church was the First Congregational, a Calvinist institution. A group of professionals and businessmen and their wives, chafing at the church's Calvinist doctrines and influenced by prominent Unitarian thinkers of the time, wanted a religious home where their outlook was represented.

When the long-time minister retired, the leaders of First Congregational Church agreed to a compromise with the more liberal faction: they would find a minister whose theology coincided with that of the majority of church members, but would require that he exchange pulpits with ministers with more liberal views.

The minister who then accepted the position agreed faint heartedly to engage in this pulpit-sharing, but failed to honor his promise. There followed months of argument, recriminations, heated meetings, and finally the decision by fifty or so members of First Congregational to walk out the door and down the street to found the Second Congregational Society on February 22, 1825. The names of these members are sounded around us to this day in the names of the streets, schools, and libraries of Northampton: Lyman, Bancroft, Clarke, Forbes.

The cornerstone of the new building was laid only ninety-three days later, and the new congregation called as its first minister the Reverend Edward Brooks Hall, only 24 years old at the time. Mr. Hall stayed in Northampton for four years, later going on to become a respected Unitarian spokesman and President of the American Unitarian Association. The Society flourished in an atmosphere that, in the dozen years following 1825, saw four other churches founded by defectors from the original First Congregational Baptist, Methodist, Episcopal, and yet another Congregational church, Edwards, still our neighbor across the street.

The founding plaque of the Northampton Congregational Society reads:
"We disciples of Jesus Christ having a firm belief in his religion do herby engage to walk together as a Christian church in the faith and order of the gospel.
In necessariis unitas, in non necessariis liberalitis in omnibus caritas”

Although the original building burned to the ground in June of 1903, a new brick structure was quickly erected on its foundation, and dedicated in 1905. This second building,, frugally designed on the footprint of the old church and generously supported by the rebates and discounts of area buildings and craftsmen,, was erected at a cost of only $23,000 (while the minister's salary was set at $1,400). This building is our present home.

The Free Congregational Society of Florence: A few years after the founding of the Second Congregational Society in Northampton, a grand experiment was begun in the nearby village of Florence. The Northampton Association of Education and Industry was envisioned as a utopian socialist community -- a cooperative whose economic base would be a failing silk business bought by Samuel L. Hill and others in 1841. Inspired by the Abolitionist movement and the various utopian thinkers of the time, the community envisioned a classless society free of oppression, opposed to slavery, to war, and to inequitable distribution of wealth. Members lived and worked together, shared profits (more theoretical than real), and established a school for their children.

Beset by economic problems, the Association ultimately dissolved in 1846, but a number of Association mem bers remained in Florence. Informal Sunday meetings and discussions of current events continued. By 1863, a number of former Associationists, many of them heavily involved in the anti-slavery movement and the Underground Railroad, were ready to form a formal religious society dedicated to free speech and liberal religious thought. On May 3, 1863, a group of about thirty-five men and women signed Articles of Agreement to become the Free Congregational Society of Florence. The founding documents included this statement:
"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 or 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."

Led by their first speaker, Mr. Charles Burleigh, the Free Congregational Society promoted such issues as the abolition of slavery and women's suffrage. By 1870 their numbers had grown to about 170, and during much of the 1870's attendance sometimes reached 500 at Sunday meetings, at which orators that included William Lloyd Garrison, Frederick Douglass, Ralph Waldo Emerson and many other progressive thinkers often spoke. Its theological position was more radical than most Unitarians at the time of its founding, but it came to employ more than one Unitarian minister as speaker. It became formally affiliated with the American Unitarian Association in 1898.

Unitarian Society of Northampton and Florence

Both the Second Congregational Society and the Free Congregational Society continued as distinct congregations through the early years of the 20th century, albeit with increasing financial woes and declining membership as the Second World War approached. In 1944, urged by the American Unitarian Association to merge rather than vanish, the two societies voted to join together as the Unitarian Church of Northampton and Florence, and adopted the Northampton building as their shared address. The formal merger took place in 1972.

The congregation remained relatively small, and was described by its 1975 chronicler as “an oasis for those in Northampton who wished to enjoy an association with intelligent, socially responsible, politically alert, and theologically open-minded people united in a place where freedom of thought and the spoken word are still sacred and where the public welfare is often a cause for action.”
               ~ The Sesquicentennial History of the Unitarian Society of Northampton and Florence 1825-1975, by Edward M. Lawton, Jr. (1975)

The predominant theological outlook was secular humanist during much of the second half of the twentieth century. The Reverend John Farmakis, who served from 1970-1988, was known for his erudition and deeply philosophical sermons.

During the 1990s changes in the city’s demographics and a young, charismatic new minister, the Reverend Victoria Safford, impelled explosive membership growth. Leaders were challenged in trying to adjust and to manage what had become a very different congregation, with three services, rented space for RE, and insufficient funding or time to address the challenges presented by these changes. An assistant minister, the Reverend Erin Splaine, was hired in 1997.

The Reverend Safford’s departure in 1999 presented new challenges. Attendance and contributions dropped dramatically, as many who had come primarily for her sermons stopped attending. The volunteer leadership was stressed and overstretched. Over the next ten years there were seven ministers, most of whom served for a year or less (interims, other). The final interim minister, the Reverend Steve Cook, helped to buoy people’s confidence as the congregation began the search for a new settled minister. Members were proud of the work they did to craft a mission statement that was approved in May 2009.

Mission Statement approved by vote of the membership, May 2009
The Unitarian Society of Northampton and Florence is an inclusive and welcoming intergenerational congregation of diverse spiritual beliefs and practices. Our mission is to build a caring community where children and adults can safely learn and grow, where we are supported and challenged on life's journeys, called to service and to our higher selves, and inspired to better our world.

The Reverend Janet Bush was called by the congregation that May and began her ministry in August 2009. Several notable efforts since then were a vote to divest from fossil fuels, a successful capital campaign and installation of solar panels on a portion of the roof, a revitalization of work for racial justice, and a strong commitment to combat voter suppression.

In December 2017, after a period of discernment, the membership voted to become a Level 1 sanctuary congregation. From April 2018 - 2021 we sheltered an immigrant, Irida Kahktiranova, who was under threat of deportation. She continues to use our kitchen for her pierogi and catering business as the means to support her family.
We have an active, committed membership of about 240 adults, and are always pleased to welcome new friends and members.

For an in-depth account of USNF's history, read Sesquincentennial History of the Unitarian Society of Northampton and Florence (1975) [pdf] by Edward M. Lawton, Jr.