The history of Unitarian Universalism in Mobile was led by two separate ministers over 100 years apart. The first minister was James Freeman Clarke in 1836 and the second minister was Robert Weston in 1950. Each minister was instrumental in forging the way for Unitarian Universalism in the Port City.
Ministers following Clarke were:
- George Washington Hosmer (1836)
- Ephraim Peabody (1836)
- Charles Briggs (1836)
- William Greenleaf Eliot (1837)
- Henry Whitney Bellows (1837-38)
- George F. Simmons (1838-40)
- Charles H. Dall (1842)
- Samuel Larned (1849-51).
James Freeman Clarke came to Mobile in January of 1836. He stayed only a month in Mobile but inspired local Unitarians to organize themselves. The local Unitarians purchased a building and established a church.
During Clarke’s visit to Mobile he wrote in his diary that he wanted to reach out to those that were not part of the prevailing religious community. His diary stated that he wanted to "...reach out to practical deists and atheists. I want to make them Christians; not nominal but real."
After preaching at the Mobile County Courthouse for over an hour, about fifteen listeners agreed to help establish a Unitarian church in Mobile. Clark appointed a building committee and appealed to the American Unitarian Association for assistance. By the beginning of 1838 the society boasted a membership of over 150 of "the most thoughtful, intelligent and upright men in the city."
After Clarke left Mobile, he was succeeded by Henry Whitney Bellows. Bellows, like Clarke before him, only remained for a month. Two subsequent temporary ministers followed. By this time the slavery issue was becoming a hot point for the Unitarians in the South.
Bellow’s successor had his hands full with a yellow fever outbreak, a city-wide fire that burned over 500 buildings and the strong abolitionism movement of the northern Unitarians. The slavery issue was splitting the Baptist and Methodist churches (1845 saw the split between the north and south churches). Out of the fourteen prominent families in the Mobile Unitarian Society, eleven of them owned slaves, totaling over 120 slaves altogether.
Bellow’s successor, George F. Simmons, addressed the issue of slavery a few months after he arrived in Mobile. His first anti-slavery sermon went unnoticed. His second anti-slavery sermon found him being arraigned before a grand jury and charged with inciting slaves to riot in the city.
After that incident two letters arrived at the office of Charles Briggs, Secretary of the American Unitarian Association. The first letter was from Simmons, reporting that he was without injury and was departing Mobile. The second letter was from Charles Dellinger, a member of the Mobile Unitarian Society. Dellinger advised Briggs that, "...only a strictly Southern man sensitive to the feelings of the community could have handled the slavery subject successfully."
For two years the society went without a minister. Charles Dall, a visiting minister, arrived in 1842 and began holding Sunday meetings in the County Courthouse and Bible study sessions in the homes of members. Dall began a movement to teach poor children to read. The school was housed in the basement of the Unitarian church because the upper floor was being rented to the Methodists in order to pay back the debt of the Unitarian Society. The school started by Dall would ultimately become incorporated into the free Mobile public schools in 1852.
After 1842 the Unitarian Church in Mobile was practically disbanded. Several appeals were made to the American Unitarian Association for financial and ministerial assistance, but those appeals fell on deaf ears. It wasn't until 1849 (7 years later) that the AUA finally sent a minister to Mobile. The AUA sent Samuel Larned to Mobile. Unfortunately, Larned was in poor health and resigned after a few months.
After Larned left the church sold its building to a Jewish congregation and they Unitarians dissolved as a congregation and church.
After 1849 there were still Unitarians in Mobile, but they were not organized and there was no church, society or fellowship. The issue of slavery continued to be a burden upon many as was testified by the splitting of several churches into northern and southern divisions.
It wasn't until 1950 that "organized" Unitarianism would return to Mobile.
Reverend Robert Weston arrived in Fairhope in 1950. Weston encouraged a group of Unitarians in Fairhope to form the first Fellowship in Alabama. Weston spent h is summers on Mobile Bay and whenever possible would meet with the Fairhope group and continue to encourage them.
In 1956 some of the Fairhope Fellowship inspired Unitarians in Mobile to begin meeting on their own. After advertising and forming an impromptu group, the Mobile group languished because they could not agree on the issue of race. For the second time in a row a group of Unitarians in Mobile were trying to stay together during trying times when equal rights and segregation were competing.
It wasn't until 1958 that the Unitarians in Mobile met again. In 1958 the group met at the Mobile Garden Club. They elected Blanche Thul as the first president and applied for recognition from the Unitarian Association.
The Garden Club proved inadequate quickly and the group moved to the Annie Louis Harrison Child Day Care Center on Conti Street. Weston often gave sermons when he could and helped guide the society’s leaders in their quest for organizing a Fellowship.
Ten years later in 1968 the fellowship purchased a four-acre lot on Old Shell Road. There was a small house on the property that the members began renovating. The renovated house served as their meeting place with the church on one side and the school on the other side.
While this house met their needs initially, the group quickly outgrew the house and needed a larger building. The group began construction on a separate building for services and designated the house as the church school. The new building was completed and dedicated in 1971.
The UUFM is still located in the brick building at 6345 Old Shell Road with the children’s religious education program still conducted in the renovated house; each room in the house serves a function; toddler room, RE room, kitchen, lounge and director’s office.
The UUFM officially became the UUFM in 1978 when the by-laws were changed to add "Universalists" to the name of the fellowship. The new name of the fellowship was now the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Mobile. That same year saw the fellowship celebrate its 20th anniversary.