Unitarianism first came to Pittsburgh in the person of Benjamin Bakewell, an English immigrant who journeyed to Pittsburgh from his home in New York in 1808. With the help of Rev. John Campbell, a Unitarian minister recruited from England, Bakewell and other Unitarians in Pittsburgh built the First Unitarian Church on the corner of Smithfield and Virgin Alley (later Oliver Avenue) in 1820. The society was maintained with great difficulty because of the transience of ministers after Campbell’s death and the little building was lost to Bakewell's heirs after his death in 1844. It experienced a revival in 1850 under the leadership of Mordecai De Lange, who served the church as a minister at large until 1860; he was followed by the Rev. Walter Wilson, the first Unitarian Minister ordained in Pittsburgh, who stayed through the duration of the Civil War.
The congregation had better chances of succeeding after the advent of industrial growth in Pittsburgh, which brought a wider variety of people to the region. The church was incorporated in 1890 under Rev. Charles Townsend. Rev. Charles Elliott St. John arrrived in 1891 and was successful in soliciting funds to build a new church on the corner of Craig Street and Fifth Avenue, in the heart of the fast developing section of Oakland. St. John was eager to have the church serve the needs of the city.
The Rev. L. Walter Mason succeeded St. John in 1900. Mason’s ministry was marked by steady growth and increasing stability. In 1902, the congregation sold the lot on Craig Street to St. Paul's Cathedral and the building to a Lutheran congregation in Sharon, PA. They built a larger church on Morewood Avenue at Ellsworth, completed in 1904.
Rev. Mason became reknowned for challenging the criticisms of Rev. Billy Sunday toward Unitarians in 1914. During World War I, many young men in the church served in the armed forces, and the Woman’s Alliance worked as a Red Cross Auxiliary . When Rev. Mason died suddenly on January 1, 1929, the church and the religious community of Pittsburgh mourned, as he had endeared himself to so many people.
The church struggled through the Depression era under the leadership of Rev. Frank Edwin Smith, who was fellowshipped as Unitarian and Universalist. Smith's departure in 1943 led to the ministry of Rev. Irving Murray who presided over a period of much growth and social action in support of Fair Employment and Fair Housing practices.
The period from 1961 to 1980 was a time of deep turmoil due to the social issues of the time. Of the four ministers who served during this time -- Rev.’s Edward Cahill, David Johnson, John Szala, and Jim Hobart -- three were involuntarily made to leave by one faction or another in the congregation. Rev. Paul Beattie arrived in 1982, and under Beattie’s leadership, the church began to gain back some of what it had lost in the 1970s. His death from a stroke following heart surgery in 1989 was a serious blow to the church and the larger denomination. Rev. Clarke Wells came in as Interim minister in 1989-90, and was remembered for his Centennial Sermons commemorating the 100th Anniversary of the incorporation of the church.
During the ministry of Rev. David Herndon from 1990 to 2013 (and continuing at present), the church became a Welcoming Congregation for LGBT persons and built up a life-span Religious Education program that includes significant Adult RE courses. The Garden Lobby was constructed in 1999, connecting the educational wing and worship space. The church maintains an active music program for all ages, and is engaged in social action concerns in the community, state, and world. With a mission to "Connect, Inspire, and Serve," the church is currently re-imagining its ministry in the 21st century.
Brief Historical Sketch of the First Unitarian Church of Pittsburgh
by Kathleen Parker, UU Historian