RHYS WILLIAMS: A PROPHET IN ROCHESTER 18901970
by Nancy J. Salzer
From A History of the First Congregational Society
of Rochester, New York
In 1928 David Rhys Williams left the Third Unitarian
Church of Chicago to answer the call of our church.
His thirty-year ministry was the longest in our history.
He retired in 1958, but served as Minister Emeritus
until his death in 1970. David Williams's ministry
here spanned three tumultuous decades of American
historyeconomic depression, world war, cold
war, and internal suspicions. Through it all, he was
steadfast in his principles, and our church grew under
The first major event of Williams's ministry was the
church's centennial, which was celebrated in March,
1929. American Unitarian Association President Lewis
C. Cornish came to Rochester and preached the centennial
sermon: "A Century of Increasing Liberalism."
Community religious leaders of all faiths extended
greetings to the Unitarian Church, and the centennial
was widely publicized in the local press. News stories
emphasized the historical importance of our churchits
connections with abolitionism and women's suffrage,
and its pioneering social service involvement.
When David Williams was called by our church, he told
the trustees: "If there is anything you don't
want me to talk about in the pulpit, let me know about
it now, so I can decline the call of this church."
He was not restricted, and he did not hesitate to
put into action as our minister his deep belief that
social questions were truly religious questions. He
once said that a vital function of religion is to
"challenge the complacency and inertia of the
rest of mankind."
He had not been in Rochester long before he plunged
into controversy. In 1932 he protested from his pulpit
the arrest in Rochester of several women who had been
distributing pacifist literature. In the same year
he protested when the city council, citing depression
related financial problems, cut back on appropriations
for libraries, schools and museums.
0ur church gave planned parenthood its first home
in Rochester, and David Williams was the first local
clergyman to support planned parenthood publicly.
generations of ministers: David Rhys Williams
(right) with his father (center) and son,
George Huntston Williams (left).
Williams was twice the target of right-wingers seeking
to brand him a Communist. In 1938 he was labeled a Communist
by a small group of Rochesterians calling themselves
the Rochester Social Justice Club. In this period Williams
had been criticizing Father Charles Coughlin's pro-fascist,
anti-Semitic radio talks. Williams answered the charge
with a sermon outlining his belief in democracy, parliamentary
government, minority rights, and civil liberties.
the McCarthy period (the late 1940s and early 1950s),
Williams again came under fire. Around this time, thirteen
members of the church accused Williams of being "soft
on Communism," and sought to oust him from our
pulpit. Beyond the political issue, there were factors
of just plain church politics involved. This faction
attempted to sway the opinions of others in the congregation,
but when the affair was brought to a vote in a congregational
meeting, only the original thirteen voted against Williams.
The thirteen subsequently left the church. This incident
could have become very difficult, but during that period
the board of trustees had excellent leadership which
worked hard to maintain church unity.
As often as he found himself under attack, David Williams
was also highly respected in the city. In 1945 he was
invited by the Rochester Ordnance District to conduct
a military memorial service for President Franklin D.
Roosevelt, in spite of the fact that Williams had been
a registered pacifist since 1917. In 1952 he received
the Champion of the Oppressed award from the Unitarian
Fellowship for Social Justice. For Williams, personal
liberty stood above any other consideration.
Our church moved into the decade of the 1950s with booming
growth. Between 1952 and 1956 the number of families
on our mailing list doubled to 423. Not only had there
been growth, but there had been a change in the character
of the membership. Many of the new members were young
couples with children. By 1955 plans to enlarge our
building were being discussed.
In August of 1955 David Rhys Williams suffered a serious
heart attack. He was hospitalized for a month and spent
the autumn recuperating. At Christmas he was back in
the pulpit, and by February, 1956 he was carrying his
full preaching load and launching a new series of sermons.
(right) and Rev. Dale DeWitt, Middle Atlantic
Conference director, with a sculpture of noted
Unitarian and social reformer Susan B. Anthony.
1957 several members organized the Rochester Memorial
Society, advocating simple, dignified memorial services
rather than the traditional elaborate and ostentatious
funeral practices. The Society has grown to a membership
of over a thousand families, now a majority from outside
our congregation. Our church serves as the Society's
mailing address, and members of the church still provide
much of the leadership of the Society.
At Sunday services on January 5,1958 David Williams
announced his planned November retirement. He made the
announcement far in advance in order to give the congregation
ample time for the selection of a new minister and for
a smooth and orderly transition. Williams paid tribute
to his wife Lucy and her work for the church saying
that she had been virtually his co-pastor for thirty
years. David Williams retired on November 2, 1958.
our congregation was in the midst of selecting candidates
for our pulpit, we were struck by another crisis: In
April we were approached by planners of the proposed
Midtown Plaza Project with an offer to purchase our
church property. While the Pulpit Committee deliberated
over ministerial candidates, another major committee
had to be chosen to consider this offer. One element
that had to enter into the decision was the fact that
we did need more space.
David Williams was especially opposed to selling our
buildings. His reasoning summed up the feelings of those
who opposed a move. The buildings themselves were important
architectural works, and they were important in the
history of the city of Rochester. Williams pointed out
that at least a dozen institutions or organizations
then serving the whole community had been launched under
our shelter. He argued against moving from the central
city, believing that our location had "obliged
us to grapple with civic and social problems at our
own doorstep." He expressed the hope that space
could be found in the Plaza Project itself for the church.
A new problem soon arose. Our church building was becoming
physically unsafe, shaken by the construction work going
on all around it. The contractors offered us an additional
sum of money if we would vacate immediately. Dr. Williams
urged that demolition be delayed and a careful examination
be made to see if the building could be preserved as
an urban interfaith Susan B. Anthony Memorial Chapel.
On October 1, 1959, as workers removed furnishings and
prepared for the demolition, David Williams prayed in
the Galilee Porch that had been added to the church
only fifteen years before. Through this vigil (which
he called a prayer strike) he sought to focus attention
on his hope that this landmark would not be destroyed.
He spent the day and evening there, and left only at
midnight when the church building legally became the
property of the construction company.
His vigil got wide newspaper coverage, and the Democrat
and Chronicle published a dramatic photograph of
"our David" praying in a rather darkened room,
with a shaft of sunlight streaming in upon him and his
church. He had said on September 27, "To me, this
church is no dead pile of stone and timberbut
a living thing filled with the voices and the faces
of those who have worshipped here over the years."
On October 4 the church steeple was felled, and the
rest of the demolition proceeded. We had to move on.
On March 28,1970 Minister Emeritus David Rhys
Williams died at the age of eighty. There was a kind
of irony in the fact that he died on Easter weekend.
A signer of the original Humanist Manifesto in 1933,
Williams had moved in a different direction in some
theological areas in the intervening years. He was interested
in studies of the new field of parapsychology, and he
held to a belief in an afterlife.
Prays For Doomed Church From the Unitarian Register,
sits alone in meditation as demolition of the
Rochester church begins. Dr. Williams remained
in the church from 11 A.M. until midnight to
protest its destruction.
a last-minute attempt to prevent its demolition,
Dr. David Rhys Williams, minister emeritus of the
First Unitarian Church, Rochester, New York, spent
a day in solitary meditation in the deserted building.
The congregation in September voted to sell the
church and vacate immediately. It considered the
structure, on the lip of a new shopping plaza excavation,
a noisy, unsafe meeting place. Under the original
agreement with the firm building the plaza, the
church was to vacate in 1961.
As reported in the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle,
Dr. Williams stated his "prayer strike"
was "an eleventh hour move to try to gain support
for a project to save the building. I thought I
had two years of grace; it turned out that I didn't."
Dr. Williams emphasized that his protest was a personal
one: "I have only moral force today; I am no
longer minister of the church. It is not my function
as minister emeritus to intervene in the internal
affairs of the church. But in good conscience I
cannot let this matter go by.... This is generally
regarded by experts as one of the finest specimens
of early English Parish Gothic architecture in the
United States. It is also the place where Frederick
Douglass, the great Negro leader, spoke. It is one
of the few remaining early shrines of the women's
suffrage movement. Here Susan B. Anthony worshiped,
lectured, conducted classes, and went forth to preach
the gospel of women's suffrage."
"We must hold the line against cultural deterioration,"
he said. "I believe, in view of the protests
raised against demolition of this building, its
razing is a cultural crime of the first degree."