The Universalist Society of Peoria was organized May 5, 1843, with 37 members. The society met irregularly for several years, usually at the courthouse.
The society purchased its first building in 1857 and called its fourth minister, Rev. Dennis M. Reed, early the next year. On June 25, 1858, the society officially became a church, complete with a constitution, covenants, and national affiliation. The church had 83 members at that time.
The church grew and prospered for a while, but had a hard struggle during the Civil War years. By 1865 the congregation had lost its minister and sold its church building. But in 1866 the church became revitalized after the Northwest Conference of Universalists was held in Peoria. A large new church building on Main Street was dedicated in 1868. (See pictures of our previous church homes.)
As the decades passed, the cycle of waxing and waning was repeated several times. The church grew and flourished, occasionally experienced setbacks (often due to general economic conditions), and then recovered to grow again.
Today our congregation is enjoying steady growth. Since 1991, our membership has increased from 140 to well over 300. With our new building, a talented professional staff, dedicated leaders and volunteers, and no long-term debt, we are poised to continue as a beacon of liberal religion for many years to come.
One Church, Many Names
Since its founding, our congregation has gone by at least seven different names:
- Universalist Society (1843–1858)
- Church of the Redeemer (1858–1867)
- Church of the Messiah (1868–1886)
- Bradley Memorial First Universalist Society and Church (1886–1899)
- First Universalist Society and Church (1899–1912)
- First Universalist Church (1912–1963)
- Universalist Unitarian Church (1963–present)
• From around 1912 to 1937, the church held a series of Sunday Evening Lectures on various literary, scientific, political, and social topics. Among the more famous speakers were Clarence Darrow (1915 and 1928), Jane Addams (1925), and W. E. B. DuBois (1936).
• In 1926 the church had about 1,000 members. Around that time it was reportedly the largest in the denomination.
• Rev. Dr. Clinton Lee Scott, who served our church from late 1929 to 1940, signed the original Humanist Manifesto in 1933. He was the only Universalist minister among the 34 signers.