Funds for the DC Community Heritage Project are provided by a partnership of the Humanities Council of Washington DC and the DC Historic Preservation Office, which supports people who want to tell stories of their neighborhoods and communities by providing information, training, and financial resources. This DC Community Heritage Project has also been funded in part by the US Department of the Interior, the National Park Service Historic Preservation Fund grant funds, administered by the DC Historic Preservation Office and by the DC Commission on the Arts and Humanities.
All Souls’ three churches
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.
Church 1: Sixth and D Streets NW
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 went on to 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.
Church 2: 14th and L Streets NW
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.
Church 3: 16th and Harvard Streets NW
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.
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.
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.
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.
All Souls history
“Let them be remembered in the Church of All Souls with him who took his place among the lowly and went about doing good.”
– Frederick Douglass, 1892
All Souls Church Unitarian was founded on November 11, 1821, as the First Unitarian Church of Washington. The church evolved out of the Unitarian Society of Georgetown, which had been meeting since 1815. John Quincy Adams, John C. Calhoun, Charles Bulfinch, William W. Seaton, and Richard Wallach were among the church's founding members.
From its opening days, the church has answered a call to serve others and to offer a prophetic voice for justice in the nation’s capital. At the dedication of the congregation’s first church building on June 9, 1822, the Rev. Robert Little (1821-1827) called the members to service with these words:
These walls will, I trust, bear witness that our lives have not been altogether useless to mankind. Some I hope may be better and wiser for our exertions in the cause of truth. If not in an obvious and direct manner, yet in some effectual way may we have served our generation and promoted the knowledge, the service and the will of the one true God.
Slavery and abolitionism
Prior to the Civil War, slavery was legal in the District of Columbia. Although the majority of the early First Unitarian congregation sympathized with the Southern attitude to slavery, many of the church’s ministers were vocal abolitionists. As early as 1824, Rev. Little spoke out:
Let the ministers of religion show the importance of its (religious) principles to society and as well as to individuals; let them enforce the advantages and obligations of citizenship as well as of domestic life. Let them protest against national vices, against the belief that pomp and show and luxury are marks of national greatness, against the mistaken policy of our ancestors in introducing and accumulating an evil (slavery) destined to bring so much grief upon our nation.
Later abolitionist ministers included Edward Everett Hale (1844), Samuel Longfellow (1847), Joseph Henry Allen (1847-1851), Moncure Daniel Conway (1854-1857), and William D. Haley (1858-1861). In his first sermon to the congregation, Rev. Conway spoke about the church’s role in denouncing slavery:
The Church must hold itself ready to pass free judgment on all customs, fashions, ideas, facts, on trade and politics, and in this country more especially hold itself ready to give free utterance in relation to our special sin of all sins — human slavery.
The succession of ministers espousing abolitionist views reached its zenith in 1861, when the church called as senior minister Rev. William Henry Channing, a vigorous proponent of the eradication of slavery and of equal rights for women. Over time, more and more of the congregation came to oppose slavery.
The Amistad Slave Ship Incident
In 1839, when captured Africans revolted and seized the Spanish slave ship Amistad and sailed it into the harbor at New Haven, Connecticut, two of the church’s founders became involved on opposite sides of the issue. John Quincy Adams served as the slaves’ defense attorney, while John C. Calhoun argued for the prosecution that the slaves were the property of Spain. Adams won the argument, and the Supreme Court allowed the Africans to return to their country of origin.
In 1855, yellow fever broke out in Virginia. Authorities in Washington declared a “Fast Day,” seeking to persuade God to stem the calamity. Rev. Conway refused to participate, stating that the problem was not religious but rather one of poor labor and living conditions. The congregation generally agreed and raised a large relief fund for the sufferers, but the church was condemned from many of the city’s other pulpits—with some claiming that the Unitarians’ religious insolence would bring even more disease to Washington.
The Revere Bell of Freedom
The church bell (cast in 1822 by Joseph Revere, the son of Paul, and funded in part by President James Monroe) had longed been used for public purposes such as announcing fires. But when, in 1861, the church tolled the bell to mourn the execution of John Brown, the city government denounced it as the “Abolition Bell” and discontinued using it for public purposes. The bell has moved with the congregation and is still rung on Sunday mornings, now in remembrance of all who have died in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.
Church building used as a Civil War hospital
With the outbreak of the Civil War, boatloads of wounded soldiers were coming to Washington. Rev. Channing and the trustees offered the church building as a hospital, and congregants volunteered their services to help the wounded. Sunday morning services were moved to the U.S. Senate chamber. Meanwhile, Rev. Channing also served as chaplain for one of the largest hospitals in Washington DC, and later as chaplain for the US House of Representatives.
Help for freed slaves
Rev. Channing demonstrated his interest in the freed African Americans by organizing the Freedman’s Relief Union, of which he served as president. Later he also helped form the Miner Normal School, which would later become a part of the University of the District of Columbia.
The second church building
In 1877, the church moved its quarters to a new building at 14th and L Streets NW and officially changed its name to All Souls Church Unitarian. In 1881 Rev. Rush R. Shippen began a 14-year ministry, continuing the All Souls tradition of liberal preaching and social activism.
Funding for education
In the 1880s, the congregation combined the efforts behind the Miner School and a sewing school for girls in Georgetown known as the Industrial School, conducting a day nursery and kindergarten at the school. In 1891 the church started another kindergarten and successfully encouraged the District government to establish kindergartens as part of the public school system.
At the turn of the century a strong movement for women’s rights developed in the congregation. When Rev. Ida C. Hultin came to Washington to deliver an address before the Women’s Suffrage Convention, there was a movement to call her to the pastorate of All Souls Church. After conservative members objected, the matter was put to a vote by the congregation. Although the vote went against Rev. Hultin, the fact that she was given consideration created a sensation in Washington and in the Unitarian denomination.
World War I
During World War I, All Souls congregants furnished an ambulance for the Red Cross, sold Liberty Bonds, and collected books and other materials for men in the service. The church took up special collections for War Camp Community Services and took on the rehabilitation of a French village after the war. The church’s participation in raising funds for the Red Cross continued after the war.
The third church building
The church's rapid growth under the long ministry of Rev. Ulysses G. Pierce (1901-1943) required the construction of a new church at 16th and Harvard Streets NW, completed in 1923 and inspired by St. Martin-in-the-Fields Church of Trafalgar Square, London.
During the Depression, several relief projects were undertaken. Those applying for help at the Church were provided with an opportunity to earn enough to meet immediate needs through funds provided by the Church Welfare Committee.
In the 1930s, the church housed Boy Scouts, Girls Scouts, and Campfire Girls. When the All Souls began hosting a branch of the Police Boys’ Club in 1937, shoplifting on 14th Street measurably declined. For seven summers beginning in 1944, church facilities were used for an interracial community vacation school. A weekday play group that began in the 1930s developed into the interfaith, interracial Meridian Hill Cooperative Nursery School, which operated from 1947 to 1952.
World War II
In 1943 a dynamic new leader, A. Powell Davies, entered the pulpit of All Souls, where he would stay for 13 years. Davies quickly won a national reputation as a forceful advocate for civil rights for African Americans and women, as well as an activist for nuclear disarmament. Locally, his inspired preaching and leadership spawned the growth of new Unitarian churches and societies throughout the Washington suburbs.
Response to war-torn Europe and Japan
Rev. A Powell Davies’ sermon on November 25, 1945, What Can Anyone Do?, spoke of the desperate need for food in Europe and proposed that the church collect a fund to supplement what the government might do. More than 100 tons of canned foods, and more than 32,000 pounds of clothing (contributed not only by congregants but also by many outsiders), were shipped from All Souls church to Europe. Members of the church also contributed for years to a Child Welfare and Educational Mission to Germany.
Davies’ February 23, 1947 sermon, In Reply to a Letter from Japan, resulted in a large shipment of school supplies for the innocent victims of the nuclear bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. In return, and as a gesture of appreciation, Japanese children sent paintings and drawings that the church has kept safe. This remarkable collection was professionally restored in 2009, and in August 2010, they traveled to Hiroshima for a special exhibit, where they were seen by thousands of museum visitors and many of the children, now in their 70s, who had created them.
All Souls’ dining room was one of the few places in Washington where racially integrated groups could be served. Eleanor Roosevelt met there with women of all races. Still, although a few African Americans, including Frederick Douglass, had attended the church many years earlier, it was not until 1950 that the church welcomed its first African Americans members.
After his February 1953 sermon, The Shelter of Good Intentions, Rev Davies pledged himself—and invited members of the congregation to join him—to refusing to patronize restaurants and places of entertainment that refused entrance to African Americans. A list of non-segregated establishments was compiled, and congregants distributed more than 40,000 copies throughout the Washington area.
In 1954, when the Board of Trustees requested that the leaders of the Police Boys Club No. 10, which had been using church facilities since 1937, admit children of all races, the club refused and withdrew from the premises. With the assistance of the Unitarian Service Committee, All Souls organized the Columbia Heights Youth Club, Washington's first desegregated youth club, which still operates in new facilities just blocks from the church.
Rev. Duncan Howlett, who served as senior minister from 1958 to 1968, led more than 1000 people from All Souls Church to the Lincoln Memorial for the landmark March on Washington on August 28, 1963, where the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered his I Have a Dream speech.
In 1965, the Rev. James Reeb, who had served as assistant minister at All Souls, was murdered in the civil rights struggle in Selma, Alabama.
Helping the neighborhood
Rev. Howlett demonstrated his concern for the war on poverty, not only by sermons, but also by the establishment, in cooperation with the Planned Parenthood Association, of a birth control clinic at the church. The Girard Street Playground Project begun in 1962. Rev. Reeb helped establish a clothing center at All Souls in cooperation with the Commissioners’ Youth Council. Church members also supported the Poor People’s March in the spring of 1968 through its Center for Surplus Food Distribution. Volunteers also developed a breakfast program for the homeless that continued until 1994.
Following the riots that swept through Washington after the assassination of Dr. King, large sections of Washington’s inner city lay in ruin. This included a section on 14th street, only one block from the church. Under the leadership of member John Shively, the All Souls Housing Corporation was formed in 1970. After federal funds were secured, 140 housing units were constructed on 14th Street.
Since the late 1970s, the congregation's community outreach has been extended by the Beckner Fund, the annual proceeds of which are used to enhance the church's immediate neighborhood.
Church members formed committees to oppose the war in Vietnam; large numbers of All Souls members participated in protest rallies; and All Souls helped house many protesters who came from out of town.
David Eaton, All Souls’ first African American senior minister
All Souls emerged from the social, political, and cultural turmoil of the 1960s with a renewed commitment to making the church a witness to interracial harmony and social justice. This commitment was underscored in 1969, when, upon the advice of the retiring Rev. Howlett, the church called its first African American senior minister.
The Rev. David H. Eaton brought prophetic vision, pulpit mastery, and a determination to serve the Washington community. His activism and involvement, which included serving as president of the DC Board of Education, encouraged many groups to launch or house their activities at All Souls, including the Antioch Law School, the DC Music Center, the DC Rape Crisis Center, and the Green Door (which helps men and women with mental illnesses to live and work independently). The Jubilee Singers group was formed under his ministry. In 1986 Rev. Eaton received the Clarence Skinner Award for the sermon that best expressed Unitarian Universalist social principles and was awarded an honorary doctorate of sacred theology by the Starr King School for the Ministry.
The FBI’s J. Edgar Hoover viewed Rev. Eaton as a threat and planted an agent in the church with instructions to “remove Reverend Eaton from his congregation.” When the plot was revealed under the Freedom of Information Act, Eaton and other civil rights activists sued the federal government and won.
Challenge to DC Crime Bill
In 1969, the Nixon administration proposed legislation to fight crime in DC. The bill would have allowed police to enter homes without warrants and without knocking, would have denied bail for certain crimes, and would have allowed persons to be held if they were considered to be a danger to the community. In May 1970, Rev. Eaton warned the congregation that the proposed bill was one of the most oppressive pieces of legislation ever devised, and compared it to legislation passed in Hitler’s Germany. He suggested that “any time persons break into your homes unannounced, shoot them.” The resulting headlines carried throughout the nation provoked not only criticism, but a debate on the merits of the legislation. The majority of the board of trustees and congregation stood with Rev. Eaton, and by July 19 many of the bill's worst provisions had been removed.
In the early 1980s Rev. Eaton challenged members of the All Souls Church congregation to act for social justice wherever it was urgently needed. A group formed a chapter linked to The Pledge of Resistance, a nationwide movement opposing the US government’s interference in the affairs of the elected Sandinista government in Nicaragua. While participating in Pledge of Resistance demonstrations inside the US Capitol, several All Souls members were arrested in acts of civil disobedience.
The Reagan Administration’s efforts to overthrow the elected government of El Salvador resulted in thousands of refugees coming to this country to escape persecution. All Souls Church declared itself a sanctuary and embraced several El Salvadoran families who later became US citizens.
Members of the congregation were also active in the anti-apartheid movement. During demonstrations in front of the South African Embassy, members of All Souls were arrested in acts of civil disobedience.
In 1996 All Souls hosted Jerusalem: Is Coexistence Possible?, a forum with representatives from Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.
Under the leadership of the Rev. Daniel Webster Aldridge, Jr., called to be senior minister in 1994, the church established a formal Policy Statement against Violence toward Women.
During Rev. Aldridge's ministry the church sponsored jazz vespers, the All Souls Church Chess Club, and the All Souls Music and Cultural Festival. In 1998, a very difficult time in the church's history, the congregation voted to dismiss Rev. Aldridge. Following Rev. Aldridge's departure, All Souls was served by Interim Associate Minister Rev. John DeTaeye, Interim Consulting Senior Minister Rev. Terry Sweetser, and Interim Senior Minister Rev. David Keyes.
In May 2001, All Souls called the Rev. Robert M. Hardies to be senior minister, the church’s first gay minister. Rev. Hardies preached his first sermon on September 9, 2001. Two days later, the sight of the Pentagon smoldering across the Potomac was visible from the bell tower. That night, many people sought comfort and solace at a service held at All Souls, which was covered by NPR's Scott Simon. Later that fall, All Souls was once again called upon to serve city and nation by hosting the public memorial service for Joseph Curseen Jr. and Thomas Morris Jr., the two postal workers who died from exposure to anthrax.
All Souls has provided a forum for a broad spectrum of political, intellectual and religious leaders to present their views. Ralph Waldo Emerson, James Luther Adams, Ashley Montague, Margaret Meade, Howard Thurman, Helen Caldicott, Norman Thomas, Taylor Branch, William McFee, Randall Robinson, Noam Chomsky, Eleanor Holmes Norton, Cornel West, Nikki Giovanni, Henry Louis Gates, E. Lynn Harris, and Alice Walker have all received a warm reception at All Souls Church.
- Laurence C. Staples’ Washington Unitarianism
- All Souls minutes and personal remembrances
- The Norton Anthology of African American Literature