The Church of the Restoration - Since 1793
The following are excerpts from a book by William Dikeman, Restoration at 175: Milestones and Landmarks.
The Church of the Restoration traces its beginnings back to the First Independent Church of Christ Commonly Called Universalist - which began its campaign to raise funds for a meeting house in June of 1793. According to the Rev. Abel C. Thomas, writing 80 years later, the original papers contained the names of 49 subscribers - all the leading Universalists of Philadelphia of that day.
"When the house was first occupied for worship," the Rev. Mr. Thomas writes, "the walls were without plaster, and the only seats were plain benches. I was told that the first pulpit was a rough platform made by a mastmaker and a shoemaker."
During this period, Dr. Joseph Priestley had come to Philadelphia - only to find that because of his heretical views, most churches were closed to him. The Universalist church, however, was open, and here he gave the lectures which were to launch Unitarianism in America. Dr. Priestley gave the first of a series of six lectures on Unitarianism in this nation on February 14, 1796 in the Universalist meeting house on Lombard Street. Thereafter, he was said to have spoken to numerous and attentive audiences, including Vice President John Adams and others of both houses of Congress.
Among the prominent pastors who spoke at the church were Elhanan Winchester, Hosea Ballou, Abner Kneeland and George Richards. Richards took a group of 115 members out of the church to form a new church called the Church of the Restitution. He became emotionally upset and took his own life in 1814 - which put an end to his own church and also ended much of the activity of the First Church until 1816 when Abner Kneeland came upon the scene. Kneeland revitalized the church and - since the distance from the Northern Liberties seemed much greater in those days of travel by carriage over indifferent roads - established a spin-off church on 2nd Street, a church which was to later take the name of the Unitarian Universalist Church of the Restoration. Kneeland served as pastor of both First Church and Second Church simultaneously for more than three years.
The First Church was also to spin off the Church of the Messiah at Broad and Montgomery, at the Temple campus, as well as the Fourth Universalist Parish and Church of Our Savior in South Philadelphia.
Early in 1850 the name of The Second Independent Church of Christ Commonly Called Universalist of the Northern Liberties of the City of Philadelphia was changed to The Second Universalist Church. In February of 1854, the trustees purchased the Eighth Street Methodist Church on 8th above Noble Street for $17,000.
Following several years of controversy, a new church was built at 17th and Master (Greenhill and Master Streets) were its congregation stayed for 66 years. It was during this time that the Moderator, Edward Deemer, continued the church's growth. He set up a substantial sum in his will toward that goal. The church at length purchased the present property for $7,500. In 1936, our move to Mt. Airy was equivalent to a move to the suburbs. Stenton Ave. was a two-lane road with a broad expanse of dirt on either side for parking. Across the street from the site of the church were a number of farms - including a pig farm which added its own aroma to Sunday services.
Between the time that the building on Master Street was sold and the congregation moved into their new home, the membership of the church had dwindled. The Rev. Harmon Gehr was forced to play down the liberal aspects of Universalism in order to appeal to the neighborhood. Gradually the congregation was expanded. Gehr then began to speak his mind on such topics as the doubtfulness of the Virgin Birth. Some of the new people were appalled by such liberal sentiments and left the church. But enough stayed to maintain a viable church. From then on, Harmon Gehr created a strong church of people who believed in Universalist principles and were attracted to his ministry.
Following Gehr's ministry at Restoration and a short tenure by Dr. Fenwick Leavitt, Gilbert Phillips became the minister. It was during his ministry that the Universalists and the Unitarians merged in 1961. Although there had long been cooperation and similarity of beliefs between the two denominations, it took over one hundred years from the first suggestions to the final agreement of merger. The Universalists feared that they would be swallowed up by the more numerous and affluent Unitarians. But there comes a time when practical considerations overcome fears. Since 1961, Restoration has been a member in good standing of the Unitarian Universalist Association. Although still "Universalist" in name, the church had moved very much closer to the mainstream of Unitarian-Universalism, just as it was in the mainstream of Universalism during the first 141 years of its history.
In February of 1964, Rudolph Gelsey was called to serve as minister. The Gelsey years were not calm. It was the era of Civil Rights and the Vietnam War. It was a decade of discontent, and Restoration was not immune. Rudi was concerned about social responsibility. Through his increasing activism he drew the church and its members into the fray. An increasing number of black people became involved. Social action became the byword. This placed a great strain on the membership of the church. Some left; others stayed and fought both to maintain the church as an institution and to keep it relevant by its involvement in social concerns. After Rudi's departure, some of the social-action-oriented members drifted away, as have many of the issues which strained relationships during the 1960's.
This has been the history of a Universalist church. It was the faith and hope of past members such as Edward Deemer that its principles would always be promulgated from the pulpit. It is to their credit that Universalism is no longer a lonely, despised heresy. The principle of human brotherhood has been passed to future generations through wider acceptance. Society has become more humane because of the humanistic principles espoused by Universalists, as well as Unitarians, over the years. We now go forward building on those principles and creating new ones, which too, may someday be adopted by mankind. By whatever name our church is known, it will still be concerned with the welfare and future of all mankind.