The First Universalist Church in Providence

Welcome to The First Universalist Church
in Providence

A warm, traditional congregation of believers in the heart of historic Downtown Providence, Rhode Island. Whether you are visiting the area, looking for a church home, or simply interested in what we do, we invite you to join us for Sunday worship (weekly at 10:30 a.m.) and our special seasonal services throughout the year.



First Universalist Church Providence - erected 1872

The First Universalist Society formed April 10, 1821 and The First Universalist Church gathered August 18, 1823, as the Second Great Awakening stirred Providence.  The ground was prepared by the first Universalist preacher in America, an English Methodist, the Reverend John Murray, who preached here in the 1770s.  He proclaimed that in Christ, God would at last effect salvation for all.

Our first chapel, at Westminster and Union Streets, burned in 1825 and was rebuilt by Christmas.  In 1872, we moved to our present site, dedicating our third sanctuary on November 20.  The cathedral architecture, stained glass (some of oldest American-made in USA), and prayer book reflect a post-Civil War liturgically renewed Universalism which anticipated the general Protestant Liturgical Renewal in the twentieth century.  It has been listed in the National Register of Historic Places since August 16, 1977.

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1822      1.    The Reverend Fayette Mace. Our First Minister.  (Settled for the Society)
1823     2.   The Reverend David Pickering, 1835.  (Gathered the Church, August 18, 1823; Restorationist leader)
1836     3.   The Reverend William S. Balch, D.D., 1841.  (Restorationist leader)
1843     4.   The Reverend Henry Bacon, 1851.  (Restorationist)
1852     5.   The Reverend Edwin A. Eaton. 1858.
1858     6.   The Reverend Cyrus H. Fay, D.D., 1869.
1870     7.   The Reverend Elmer Hewitt Capen, D.D., L.L.D., 1875.
                  (Consecrated this Sanctuary, 1872; left for Presidency of Tufts College [founded by Universalists, 1852]; a G.P. author)
1875     8.   The Reverend Henry Irving Cushman, D.D., 1910.  !st Pastor Emeritus, from 1910.  (Gloria Patri  prayerbook author)
1910     9.   The Reverend Francis William Gibbs, 1918.
1919    10.  The Reverend Rubens Rea Hadley (Presided over the Society’s Centennial in 1921).
1926    11.  The Reverend William Couden, D.D.,1944.(US.Senate Chaplain’s son; introduced N.C.Hymnal & Book of Prayer, 1941).
1944    12.  The Reverend G. Douglas Fraser, 1946.
1946    13.  The Reverend Gustav H. Ulrich, c. 1948.
1950    14.  The Reverend T. Porter Drumm, c. 1952.
1953    15.  The Reverend Albert F. Ziegler, D.D., 1959.  (one of the Universalist clergy’s Humiliati)
1960    16.  The Reverend Jan Vickery Knost, 1963.  (Ordained here by the R.I. Universalist Convention, January 24, 1960)
1964    17.  The Reverend Howard Franklin Smith, Jr., died May 12, 1977.  (from June 21, 1964; Tufts B.A., S.T.B.)
1979    18.  The Reverend Cornelius Johannes Bakker, M. Div., from Oct 14, 1979.  2nd Minister Emeritus, from Sept., 1990.
1990           The Reverend Michael J. Boardmann, M.Div., June 1991. (Interim Minister)
1995    19.  The Reverend W.[Warren] Scott Axford, M. Div.  (Extension Minister, March 1, 1992-June 30, 1995)  incumbent.
                 (Settled Saint Lawrence’s Day,August 10, & Installed Pastor, All Souls’ Sunday, November 5, 1995)

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Pre-founding activity.  The Reverend John Murray, the English Methodist and former Class Leader for the Wesleys in Dublin who would become the founding and pioneer preacher of Universalism, came to America in 1770, and first preached in Providence (at the {original} Beneficent Congregational Church meetinghouse, with the permission of its Pastor, the Rev. Mr. Joseph Snow),  in  December 1772.  He was Chaplain of the Rhode Island Brigade (approved by General George Washington) from 1775, and a good friend of Warwick, R.I., native General Nathaniel Greene (second in command under Washington). “The Providence Universalists” informally organized about 1785 with Zephaniah Andrews as Corresponding Clerk.  Thereafter occasional preaching services were held by the Rev. clergy,  John Murray, Elhanan Winchester, Adam Streeter, Paul Dean, Hosea Ballou and lastly by Richard Carrique of Attleborough.  All were historic figures in early Universalism.

Founding.  The First Baptist Church in Providence (founded in 1638 by city founder the Rev. Mr. Roger Williams) moved in the early nineteenth century from its original General Baptist position (i.e., salvation is generally available in Christ to all people) to a Particular Baptist one (i.e., only those particularly elected are saved) under the Rev. Stephen Gano (son-in-law of predecessor the Rev. Dr. James Manning of Princeton), and those with “universalist” views were expelled.  The First Universalist Society in Rhode Island was organized in the Town of Providence, April 10, 1821 (and later incorporated).  The First Universalist Church was gathered out of the Society on August 18, 1823, with Holy Communion celebrated monthly since October 1832.  (A century after the 1821 founding, the First Universalist and First Baptist Churches would have joint summertime Sunday worship, and they used the same hymnal for sixty years, into the 1990s)  Within American Universalism, the First Universalist Church maintained a Restorationist (“necessity of faith & repentence”) theological position, vs. the less-lChrist-centered Ultra- (“Death and [immediate/automatic] Glory”) party.  Restorationism would later become the official denominational position at the October 23, 1899, Universalist General Convention in Boston (a Rhode Islander, Henry B. Metcaffe, made the motion).  Our Seventh and Eighth Pastors (the Rev. Drs. Capen & Cushman) served on the Universalist Publishing House committee which produced the 1903 Gloria Patri Revised prayer books long in national use by the local congregations—part of the Universalist Church’s ecumenical and liturgical renewal which began with the first Book of Prayer in 1865 (revised 1894)-- and in use here ever since.  The Church’s New Church Hymnal (1937) and current Book of Prayer (1941) were first used on Palm Sunday 1941; the pew Bibles (King James Version) have been in use since Trinity Sunday 1999. The Church and its corporate Society merged, May 8, 1950.

House of Worship.  Our First building, a Chapel, at the southeast corner of Union and Westminster Streets, was erected in 1822, and destroyed by fire in 1825.  Our Second  building, a Meetinghouse, on the same location, was erected by Christmas that same year; and used for worship through February 24, 1871.  A decade later the historic Shepard’s Building would go up on the other side of that same corner.  Our Third and present building, a Sanctuary, at [10 & 16] Greene, [250] Washington, and Garden Streets, was consecrated (see below) on November 20, 1872 (Lessons read: I Kings 8:22,61; Hebrews 10:11,25; Matthew 4:4; with singing of Gloria Patri and the choir anthem “O sing unto the Lord”) in what was then a residential neighborhood just outside downtown. The Sanctuary was “a return to the ancient way of speaking by emblems, and contained in itself the whole history of Jesus Christ”.  It includes what are now some of the oldest American-made stained glass windows in the United States of America (renovation of which begin in 2009).  The streets are named for Revolutionary War Generals Nathaniel Greene (from Warwick, R.I.) and General George Washington.  This latter Street, which traces the route the new first President later took from Boston Harbour to the Providence River, is the longest street in the United States.  

Other dates and events.  The Sunday School, third in the denomination, was established in 1825; Samuel W. Wheeler was the founder and first Superintendent.  The Ladies Human Society (oldest church-affiliated organization in the United States) was organized October 9, 1932, during the cholera epidemic in Providence.  The Rev. Ralph Waldo Emerson offered the Dedicatory Address at the 1837 opening of The Greene Street School (headed by Trancendentalist & Author Margaret Fuller) here on our present site.  The Rhode Island State Convention of Universalists (now the Universalist Church of Rhode Island) was organized in our vestry, April 10, 1838.  It would later be a founding member of the Rhode Island State Council of Churches in 1937; the Council was incorporated in the Providence offices of the Honorable Judge Frederick Bartlett Perkins, Esquire, who was President of our Church Society here (since 1929) for over three decades.  The General Convention of the Universalist Church in America met in Providence, 1842, 1858, 1868, 1878, & October 1923 (our Church’s Centennial); the successor Unitarian Universalist Association (15 May 1961) will convene here in Downtown Providence in June 2014, nearby.  We were host church to the Annual Meeting of the Council of Christian Churches Within The UUA (of which we are Charter Members) in October 1991, to that of the Unitarian Universalist Christian Fellowship in May 1997, to the Sixtieth Anniversary meeting of the Rhode Island State Council of Churches on November 20, 1997 (this Sanctuary’s 125th Anniversary), and the North Atlantic Regional Gathering of the Unitarian Universalist Association in November 1998.  We became a Charter Member of the Providence Banner Trail in 1997. 

We are an organizing member, since 1974, of the Providence In-town Churches Association (PICA). We were the host location to PICA’s Staff & Outreach offices from 2006-2015, and of its Food Pantry since October 2009 (U.S. Senator Sheldon Whitehouse cutting the ribbon following the Pastor’s prayer on November 30, 2009).  

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Excerpts from a contemporary Providence newspaper account of

The Dedication of the Church’s Third Sanctuary, November 20, 1872.

Consecration of  the Third House of Worship.  November 20, 1872

The new house of worship of the First Universalist Society of this city, just erected at the corner of Washington and Greene streets, a description of which was given in yesterday’s issue of this paper, was consecrated to the service of God with appropriate services yesterday afternoon, commencing at 2 o’clock.  The audience was large, filling the buildings to its utmost seating capacity and beyond, and although the services were somewhat long, they possessed that interest that no one seemed to tire or wish they might be shorter.

Rev. E.H. Capen, pastor of the church, delivered the sermon from Matthew IV:4---“Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeded out of the mouth of God.” He alluded to the fact that fifty years ago, this very day and hour the first temple of this society was set apart.

The structure and ornamentation of the church, the speaker said, was a return to the ancient way of speaking by emblems, and contained in itself the whole history of Jesus Christ, thus indelibly impressing that history, better than words could do it, upon the minds of all.  The most careless lounger along the street, cannot see the church without being reminded by its shape of the crucifixion.  The speaker continued at length instructing the members of the church in their duties, and closed by entreating themselves to consecrate themselves anew to the service of Christ, and to place the great church, of which this parish is a part, to its appropriate place in Christendom.

And the same reverend gentlemen conducted responsive Scriptural readings.  After “Gloria Patri” by the choir, Rev. Henry W. Rugg, of the Church of the Mediator of this city, read the selections from Scripture contained in 1 Kings, VIII:22,61, and Hebrews X:11,25 the choir sang the anthem, “O Sing unto the Lord, “ and Rev. O.H. Fay, a former pastor of this church, now of Middletown, Ct., offered a fervent prayer of consecration.//

And Rev. E.H. Capen pronounced the Benediction.    

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Copyright © 2012 The First Universalist Church in Providence
250 Washington St., Providence, Rhode Island 02903-3615 Telephone (401) 751-1821