Over its nearly two centuries, the congregation originally known as First Unitarian and now called All Souls Church Unitarian has worshipped in three buildings, each a treasure of memories.
The First Unitarian Church was formally organized in 1821, and the next year the congregation dedicated its first home at Sixth and D Streets, NW. Charles Bulfinch, the second Architect of the Capitol and a founding member of First Unitarian, designed the church, which stood less than a block from Washington’s City Hall, in the fashionable Judiciary Square neighborhood.
Other founding members included two cabinet members: Secretary of State John Quincy Adams (later president, 1825-1829), and Secretary of War John C. Calhoun (later Vice President, 1825-1829). In addition, the founding members included two future mayors of Washington: William Winston Seaton, 1840-1850, and Joseph Gales, Jr., 1827-1830.
Although many members of the congregation were northerners, South Carolinian Calhoun would defend slavery and become a hero to secessionists.
Joseph Revere, the son of Paul Revere, cast the church’s 1,000-pound bell in his Canton, Massachusetts, foundry in 1822. Fundraising for the bell was boosted by a $100 contribution from President James Monroe. For years, it served as an unofficial city bell, rung to announce fires or call public assemblies. That stopped on December 2, 1859, when the church tolled the bell throughout the day that John Brown was hanged for leading a raid on the federal arsenal at Harper’s Ferry. DC’s mayor and city council denounced this act and ordered the discontinuance of all further public use of what became known as the “Abolition Bell.”
In 1839, two founding members found themselves on opposite sides of a slavery case. That year captured Africans seized the Spanish slave ship Amistad and sailed it into the harbor at New Haven, Connecticut. John C. Calhoun led the prosecution of the slaves, arguing that they were the property of Spain, while John Quincy Adams defended them. Adams ultimately won the argument, and the Supreme Court allowed the Africans to return home.
Samuel Longfellow, brother of poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, briefly occupied the pulpit at First Unitarian in 1847. He wrote hymns used in church hymnals all over the country, nine of which are still included in Singing the Living Tradition, the UUA’s current hymnal.
In 1862, as the Civil War ravaged the country and the city, Rev. William Henry Channing and First Unitarian’s trustees offered the church building as a hospital. With the E Street Baptist Church (one block north at Sixth and E), it became Cranch Hospital (named after Judge William Cranch, a founding member and the nephew of President John Adams). Congregants volunteered their services to help the wounded and, because their sanctuary was not available for worship, were invited to hold Sunday morning services in the US Senate chamber. During this period President Abraham Lincoln attended at least one service.
When the time came to move from the 50-year-old “dreary, mildewed, and tumbled-down” church, the congregation faced several hurdles. First, money raised to build a new church was sent instead to help victims of Chicago’s Great Fire. Then, the fractious congregation split over theological doctrine. Finally, it took a long time to find a buyer for the old building. The Washington Post reported that the church was “for some time hawked about the city for sale, and nobody would give the price asked. The proceeds of the sale were wanted to build another church in a more fashionable section of the city. As no buyer could be found, what course more natural and proper than to impose the purchase upon the taxpayers of this District.” The litigation that ensued when the city bought First Unitarian’s first home to use as a police court and jail went all the way to the Supreme Court, which approved the sale. The building was razed in 1906.
In 1877, the congregation voted to change its name to All Souls Church Unitarian, and to erect a new building at 14th and L Streets, NW. With funds from local contributors, the American Unitarian Association, and the sale of their first home, the congregation was able to build the second church without going into debt.
Senator Ambrose Burnside, a Union general in the Civil War, presided at the dedication of the new church, in 1878.
Among the prominent worshippers at the second church were African American activist and public official Frederick Douglass and historian George Bancroft.
In 1902, Rev. Ulysses Grant Baker Pierce, who had taken the pulpit at All Souls one year earlier and who would go on to be All Souls’ longest serving minister (serving until his death in 1943), recommended to the fast-growing congregation that it build a new, bigger church.
In 1913, President William Howard Taft, who often attended services at All Souls, laid a cornerstone on a lot at 16th and R Streets, NW. The congregation planned to build a new church in the style of an “old English monastery,” but World War I interrupted, and the congregation voted instead to build on a larger site farther out. The property at 16th and R was later sold.
The congregation dedicated its third and current church at 16th and Harvard Streets NW in 1924.
Rev. Pierce conducted the funeral service for Chief Justice (and former President) Taft at All Souls in 1930.
The current church building has been the center of much of 20th century life. It was a rallying point for the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom and a hub of activism during the fight for racial equality.
All Souls Church installed the first African American senior minister to serve in a large Unitarian church: David Eaton (1969-1992). During his tenure as senior minister, Rev. Eaton served as the Chairman of the DC School Board and actively supported the Wilmington 10 in the 1970s, as well as other civil rights causes.
Antioch Law School, many of whose graduates were active in social justice and community politics, held its classes at All Souls during the 1970s.
The Green Door, an outpatient resource center for people with mental challenges, started out at All Souls.
One of the first public birth-control clinics in the city was established at All Souls.
Columbia Heights Boys Club replaced a whites-only Police Boys Club that met in the church during the ministry of Rev. A. Powell Davies. The club later admitted girls and became the Columbia Heights Youth Club.
In the early 1970s, the church took the initiative to establish low- and middle-income housing around 14th and Harvard Streets, an early effort to rebuild the 14th Street corridor after the death of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
All Souls continues to be an active member of the Washington Interfaith Network, whose mission is to work with houses of worship to increase affordable housing in the District.
DC’s mayor chose the All Souls sanctuary as the site for the signing ceremony for the city’s 2009 marriage equality legislation.
Currently, the church houses and runs an English as a Second Language program for the community.