The First Unitarian Church of Baltimore has stood at the corner of Charles and Franklin Streets for over two centuries. Inside the 1818 landmark, visitors can find beautiful Tiffany glass and original furnishings designed by the architect and crafted by noted Baltimore artisans. Beyond the building’s remarkable architecture, the congregation has served as the spiritual home to many local civic leaders, such as Enoch Pratt and George Peabody. Recognizing the significance of the building as the oldest purpose-built Unitarian church in North America, First Unitarian Church was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1972.
The history of the church began in 1817, when Baltimore had sixty thousand inhabitants and Mount Vernon Place was the undeveloped edge of the city. A group of leading citizens met in the home of merchant and city councilman Henry Payson on February 10, 1817, and, according to church histories, committed “to form a religious society and build a church for Christians who are Unitarian and cherish liberal sentiments on the subject of religion.” The original name selected for the church, The First Independent Church of Baltimore, reflected the independence of thought and action that became the hallmark of this group of freethinkers and those who succeeded them through subsequent generations. The church was later renamed First Unitarian in 1912.
Designed by Maximilian Godefroy, the French architect of Saint Mary’s Chapel and the Battle Monument, the First Unitarian Church of Baltimore is recognized as the finest American example of French Romantic Classicism. Dedicated on October 29, 1818, the church was a daring modern design when it was constructed. It 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. The chancel features a pulpit, designed by Godefroy and executed by William Camp, and two sets of sedilia. One set of two chairs and a loveseat was designed by Godefroy and is original to the church; the other set was designed by Tiffany and added in the 1890s.
In the late nineteenth century, the church undertook a major reconstruction of the interior of the sanctuary to improve the acoustics of the space. Joseph Evans Sperry designed a barrel-vaulted ceiling with supporting arches. The reconstruction also added a large Tiffany mosaic, seven Tiffany windows, and a magnificent Henry Niemann organ. The Tiffany mosaic of the Last Supper, designed by Tiffany artist Frederick Wilson, is composed of 64,800 pieces of favrile glass. The Niemann organ and the church’s Enoch Pratt Parish Hall (built in 1879 at 514 N. Charles Street), were both gifts of Enoch Pratt, a member and leader of the church for sixty-five years.
The First Unitarian Church of Baltimore is important to Unitarian Universalists throughout the country because of a landmark sermon delivered by the Rev. Dr. William Ellery Channing on May 5, 1819, at the ordination of the church’s first minister, Jared Sparks. The sermon, which defined the essence of Unitarianism in the United States and led to the formation of the denomination in 1825, came to be known as the Baltimore Sermon. Channing emphasized freedom, reason, and tolerance and taught that the way we live is more important than the words and symbols we use to describe our faith, a truth that has inspired a commitment to social justice along with theological diversity.
This spirit helped shape the work of the congregation and its members over the decades. In 1874, the congregation organized Baltimore’s first vocational school for teenagers. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the First Unitarian Church sponsored an Industrial School for Girls, a Boy’s Guild, and Channing House, a settlement house for South Baltimore. Church members have contributed to the city through public service and philanthropy in many ways up through the present day.