Ten dedicated men formed the first Unitarian Society in Newport in October 1835. They met at William Ellery’s home in the city area now called Washington Square. Mr. Ellery was the son of William Ellery, a signer of the Declaration of Independence. The men who met were determined to provide an alternative to “stern and appalling theology” and “religions of show” and to reinforce the principle of religious freedom upon which Newport was founded. They moved quickly: received a charter from the state in January 1836, as the Unitarian Congregational Church of Newport; established a Sunday school; and purchased the old Hopkins Meeting House on Mill Street, which had been left empty by the union of its Calvinist parish with another. Less than a year later, the Society was ready for the dedication of the church. They invited the Rev. William Ellery Channing to the ceremony and, despite ill health, he gave the dedication lecture, entitled “Christian Worship,” on July 27, 1836.
The Society called its first full-time minister, the Rev. Charles T. Brooks, in 1837. Dr. Brooks’ ministry spanned the next 40 years, during which time the Society grew as the city of Newport grew. After his retirement, the Rev. J. C. Kimball replaced him, and was succeeded five years later by the Rev. M. K. Schermerhorn. In 1879, Dr. Schermerhorn conceived the idea of a memorial to the illustrious Dr. Channing, whose centenary would be the following year. He decided upon the ambitious project of a new church building and set out with great vigor to accomplish that purpose. (See “Our Sanctuary” for a history and description of the building.)
In its new home, the Unitarian Society became a forceful religious and cultural center for the Newport community. Its well-attended activities included the Unity Club, formed for “the furtherance of social, intellectual and moral interests of its members, to do what it can for the larger community.” Its members performed plays, readings and musical events for the public, sponsored essay contests, and heard such speakers as Matthew Arnold and Herbert Spencer. The Sunday school remained strong, and other societies, like those for ladies, young people and laymen, attracted the congregation and the community.
In 1969, the corporation purchased from the Elks the 20-room house next door and named it Channing House. It holds the minister’s study, a library containing Dr. Channing’s works among others, and offices for the secretary and the RE director. Three apartments are rental units.