First Unitarian Church of Baltimore

Our History
Our History

Our History (3)

Our Church Buildings

Originally called "The First Independent Church of Baltimore," our church has the distinction of being the oldest building in the United States built for, and used ever since by, a Unitarian congregation.

Built in 1817 from a design by Maximilian Godefroy, the building was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1972. Godefry also designed Baltimore's St. Mary's Seminary Chapel and Battle Monument.

Antonio Capellano made the original terra cotta relief "Angel of Truth" on the front of the church. The Greek inscription on the scroll translates "To the One God". Noted Baltimore sculptor, Henry Berge (1908-1998), constructed a replica of the "Angel of Truth" in the late 1950s to replace the decayed original.

It was from our pulpit on May 5, 1819 that William Ellery Channing (1780-1842) delivered the pivotal "Baltimore Sermon" staking out the theological claims of the soon-to-emerge Unitarian denomination in America.

Because of the poor acoustics of the hemispherical dome, the architect, Joseph E. Sperry, added a lower barrel vault ceiling as part of his 1893 renovation. Sperry also designed the Bromo-Seltzer tower.

The glass mosaic of the Last Supper as well as the stained glass windows are from the studios of Louis Comfort Tiffany.

Prominent member, Enoch Pratt (1808 - 1896), donated the Parish Hall 
and our beautiful church organ. And speaking of Enoch Pratt, you can learn more about the history of our church by going to the Maryland history room of the Enoch Pratt Free Library around the corner. There is also an excellent history of the church called A Heritage to Hold in Fee by Rebecca Funk.

View historic photos of the church.

The Niemann Organs

(Organ Historical Society 1991 Organ Handbook)

Sanctuary Organ

The present organ, installed when the interior of the church was altered in 1893, was the gift of Enoch Pratt, Treasurer of the church and a well known philanthropist. On 14 May 1894, Enoch Pratt wrote the following testimonial. "The organ Mr. Henry Niemann built and put in the First Independent Church, Corner Franklin and Charles Streets, is pronounced by all the professionals as well as the congregation, a first-class instrument, and equal to any other organ in the city, and in my opinion no one ought to go out of the city to have an organ built."

The bass notes of the great and swell chests have double pallets. A Barker lever affects the entire Great, including the Swell to Great unison and octave couplers. The Great Forte pedal brings on all stops on the Great, the Gr. to Ped. Coupler, the Ped. Open 16', and also opens the swell box!

A Melodia 8' from the Niemann organ formerly in the Church of the Fourteen Holy Martyrs in Baltimore is now on the toe board originally occupied by the Doppel Floete 8', the pipes of which are in storage. Notes 1-8 of the Sw. Bourdon 16', the Violin Diapason 8', and the Salicional 8', are unenclosed. The bottom octave of the Vox Celestis 8' is grooved from the Salicional 8'. The Cornopean 8' is gone, and a mongrel set of harmonic Trumpet pipes occupies its place. The Bassoon 8' now draws with the Oboe 8'; its knob now controls a Pedal Trombone 16'. The resonators are from a Trombone 16' in an 1866 Hall & Labagh organ formerly in Immaculate Conception Church in Baltimore; the wind chest, from Fourteen Holy Martyrs. is now fitted with electric action.

Parish Hall Organ

This organ was for many years in Mount Zion A.M.E. Church in Annapolis, Maryland. It may have been built for St. Mary's Industrial School in Baltimore. It was installed in its present location in 1895. The original reservoir is gone, replaced by a supply house regulator. The manual wind chest is chromatic.

Thursday, 27 October 2011 15:54

Notable First Unitarians

Written by Laura Laing


Harry Payson

The founder of First Unitarian Church, Payson was President of Union Bank.  He also served nine terms as a city councilman, was chairman of the Commission of the Susquehanna Canal and was Judge fot he Orphan's Court.  A member of the "Committee of Vigilance and Safety," he lobbied for federal money and supplied materials to Fort McHenry to defend the city against British attack.  The committee was credited for the failure of the British Navy's attack on Fort McHenry and North Point, thus saving Baltimore from invasion during the War of 1812 and turning the tide to a U.S. victory over England.

Jared Sparks

The first minister of First Unitarian, Sparks was also Chaplain of the U.S. House of representatives and served as advisor to then ewly founded and struggling Unitarian congregation in Washington.  He founded and edited Unitarian Miscellany and Christian Monitor, the first avowedly Unitarian periodical in the U.S.

Rembrant Peale

An artist and founder of the Baltimore Gas Lighting Company (in 1816), Peale also operated the Baltimore Museum and Gallery of Fine Arts, one of the first museums in the country.  Because of him, First Unitarian was the first public building the city to have gas lights.  

George Washington Burnap

One of the founders of the Maryland Historical Society, Burnap was also the second minister at First Unitarian.

Nathaniel Williams

A state senator and district attorney, Williams headed up one of the first city planning projects in the country, as commissioner for "improving and laying out city streets.

George Peabody

Founder of the Peabody Conservatory (in 1857), Peabody maintained close ties beween the conservatory and church for many years.  Students often practiced in the Parish Hall and on the church organs.

Enoch Pratt

A member of the church board of trustees for 45 years, Pratt established the city's public library system, requiring that the library be open to all, regardless of race, creed or sex.  His other philanthropic endeavors included the endowment of the Sheppard and Enoch Pratt Hospital (now called Sheppard Pratt), and founding the Frederick School for the Deaf.

Mary Ellen Richmond

A national pioneer in philanthropy and social work, Richmond developed the profession of social case work.  

Woodrow Wilson

While a student at Johns Hopkins, the 28th president of the United States sang in the church choir.

Thomas J. Morris

For 33 years, Morris presided over the United States District court for the District of Maryland.  He also served as vice president of the American Unitarian Association and the International Congress of Religious Liberals.  He is listed as one of the most proinent peace advocates and Unitarians in the country.

Adelyn Breeksin

The first woman to become director of a major American art gallery, Breeksin was director of the Baltimore Museum of Art.

Scott Stamford, Dennis Brown and Tony Young

In response to the growing epidemic of HIV disease, these men were instrumental in founding HERO (Health Education Resource Organization), the city's oldest community-based HIV organization.  

Charles Blackburn

Along with his partner, Blackburn was one of two lead couples in Deane & Polyak v Conoway, the suit for equal marriage rights in Maryland.  In 1961, he was a Freedom Rider in the south, challenging local segregation laws by riding interstate busses.

Thursday, 20 October 2011 13:49

Our Buildings

Written by Laura Laing


Originally called "The First Independent Church of Baltimore," our church has the distinction of being the oldest building in the United States built for, and used ever since by, a Unitarian congregation.

Built in 1818 by Maximilian Godefroy, the First Unitarian Church of Baltimore is recognized as the finest American example of French Romanitc Classicism.  Godefry also designed Baltimore's St. Mary's Seminary Chapel and Battle MonumentA daring modern design when it was constructed, the building utilizes the basic shapes of the cube and the sphere with a minimum of detail on the flat planes to emphasize the geometry of the structure.  In the late 19th century, major reconstruction of the interior of the sanctuary was undertaken, when a barrel-vaulted ceiling, a Tiffany mosaic and six windows and a magnificent Niemann organ were added.  Joseph E. Sperry--the architect of Baltimore's iconic Bromo-Seltzer Arts Tower--designed the ceiling. 

Antonio Capellano made the original terra cotta relief, Angel of Truth, on the front of the church. The Greek inscription on the scroll translates "To the One God." Noted Baltimore sculptor, Henry Berge (1908-1998), constructed a replica of the Angel of Truth in the late 1950s to replace the decayed original.


It was from our pulpit on May 5, 1819 that William Ellery Channing (1780-1842) delivered the pivotal Baltimore Sermon, staking out the theological claims of the soon-to-emerge Unitarian denomination in America. Several years ago, members rennovated the pulpit.


The parish hall was donated by prominent member and philanthropist Enoch Pratt in 1879.  The bricks were salvaged from Mulberry Street row houses that were demolished to make way for the Enoch Pratt Free Libary.  In 2008, the parish hall was renamed Enoch Pratt Parish Hall in his honor.  Today, the hall is being restored to its original glory, with hand-made, period chandelliers and special paint treatments that reflect the room's original style, while paying homage to historic church members.

Enoch Pratt also donated the Niemann organ, which sits boldly in the choir loft. The organ is being restored, bit by bit.

Wednesday, 28 September 2011 12:58

Our History

Written by Administrator

In 1817, Charm City was called Baltimore Town and had only 60,000 residents.  Mount Vernon -- which now boasts marvelous architecture, magnificent monuments and small, grassy squares -- was still a forest.  And a group of leading citizens met at the home of Henry Payson "to form a religious society and build a church for Christians who are Unitarian and cherish the liberal sentiments on the subject of religion."  These leaders opted to call the church The First Independent Church of Baltimore.

Unitarianism had found a home in Baltimore.

A year later, the large, domed building with an expansive sanctuary was built.  The Rev. Dr. William Ellery Channing delivered a landmark sermon on May 5, 1819, at the ordination of the church's first minister, Jared Sparks.  The sermon -- now called the Baltimore Sermon -- defined American Unitarianism and led to the formation of the denomination in 1824.   In it, Channing identified freedom, reason and tolerance as tenets of Unitarianism.  He preached that our lives are better illustrations of our faith than words and symbols.  This truth has inspired a commitment to social justice, along with theological diversity.

Throughout history, the church has been committed to community service and social justice.  During the Civil War, the Reverend John F.W. Ware worked with abolitionists and tended Union soldiers.  He later organized and directed The Baltimore Association for the Moral and Intellectual Improvement of Colored People, which established more than 200 schools for freed slaves.  In 1874, the congregation organized Baltimore's first vocational school for teenagers. 

In the late 1800s, the congregation oversaw a major reconstruction of the sanctuary.  A barrel-valuted ceiling was added, along with a Niemann organ,  a Tiffany mosaic and six Tiffany, stained-glass windows.  Baltimore philathropist and congregation member, Enoch Pratt donated the Parish Hall in 1879,  It was built from the bricks of the house demolished on Mulberry Street to make way for the Enoch Pratt Free Library.

In 1935, the church merged with the Second Universalist Church, and the name was changed to First Unitarian Church of Baltimore (Universalist & Unitarian).  In 1954, at a time of general exodus from the central city of Baltimore, the First Unitarian Church congregation decided to remain in its historic location, to preserve its phyusical heritage and testify to its faith in the futre of the inner city.  A building addition for religious education was constructe din the following year.  This commitment was reaffirmed in the 1960s, and members were activists in the black civil rights movement.

This activisim continued throughout the 20th and into the 21st centuries, as the congregation and members have advocated for a variety of movements, including reducing poverty , opposition to war, and rights for LGBT people, including same-sex marriage.  In 2007, the church hung a banner proclaiming "Civil Marriage is a Civil Right" from teh columns of its portico as a testiment to its commitment to equal rights for all.  The message was adopted for GLBT rights group, Equality Maryland and now appears on signs and bumper stickers across the state.  

Many members of First Unitarian were also city and state leaders.  Learn more about these individuals here.


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Contact Information

On the Map: 12 W. Franklin St:
Corner of Charles and Franklin Streets in Downtown Baltimore

Mailing address: 
1 W Hamilton St,
Baltimore, Maryland 21201 

Hours: Tues-Fri,  10 - 3:30
Phone: 410-685-2330 
Fax: 410-685-4133 
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