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.

Earlier Days

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.

The Church, the Parish Hall (the original cottage), and Channing House provide meeting places for religious and social groups and other community purposes. Seriously damaged by fire in 1980, the Parish Hall was then repaired and remodeled, and an apartment unit was constructed on the second floor.

Recent Decades

In 1996 and 1997, with budget over-runs and a decreasing endowment, the congregation decided to balance its budgets and protect its endowment. This led to a year of working without a settled minister. Congregational volunteers took on increasing responsibility for vital church activities. A worship committee found guest ministers and speakers including lay members of the congregation to fill the Sunday pulpit. A care giving committee was formed to monitor and tend to the congregation’s pastoral needs.

Members learned a lot in a short period of time. Most agreed that, to perform the ministry of the church successfully, they needed the partnership and stability of a full-time professional minister. Working with two interim ministers, the Rev. Dan Hotchkiss and the Rev. Melora Crooker, they developed the concept and increased their annual giving. As a congregation, they became committed to the idea of “ministry together” in which the church’s ministry became recognized as a shared responsibility among both the professional minister and the members of the congregation.

Ministers at Channing in the years since were the Rev. Amy Freedman for ten years, the Rev. John Nichols for two years as interim, the Rev. Jay Deacon for four years, and the Rev. Bill Zelazny, our present minister, who began serving the church in 2016.

Funding comes largely from annual giving by members, and it has remained a challenge. Yet the congregation can point to many heartening financial successes over the period. Most significant were revitalization of the historic buildings and renewal of attractive space for fellowship and programs in the Parish Hall and adjacent Channing House. In 2009, with grants and a capital campaign, the church rebuilt and re-dedicated its steeple and bells, and made significant progress in the restoration of the sanctuary. The work was completed the same year. Members raised additional funds to purchase a tenth bell.