Our History

  • 1808 Land for Meeting House purchased.
  • 1809 Meeting House built, pews sold to Proprietors, and dedication on November 9.06
  • 1810 Formation of new church sanctioned by Council of Ministers convened for the purpose; the first minister, Seth Freeman Swift, ordained by this Council (April 27). Proprietors incorporated as the Second Congregational Meeting House Society, by act of the Senate and House of Representatives of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts (June). Copy of the Act hangs in the vestry.
  • 1810 Portuguese bell cast by Joze Domingues da Costa in Lisbon; purchased by Captains Cary and Clasby and brought to Nantucket in 1812.
  • 1814 Land for the Society’s burying ground, now Prospect Hill Cemetery, granted by the Proprietors of the Common and Undivided Lands of Nantucket.
  • 1815 Portuguese bell placed in church tower.
  • 1823 First Town Clock, made on the island by Samuel Jenks, installed in the tower.
  • 1825 Universalist Church built on the site of the Atheneum.
  • 1827 The Universalist Church incorporated January 20.
  • 1830 Tower rebuilt to support three-quarter-ton bell.
  • 1831 Organ built and installed by William Marcellus Goodrich; oldest American-built organ intact and in continuous use.
  • 1834 Universalist Church building sold to the Atheneum.
  • 1837 Last mention of the Universalist Church in Nantucket records. Harvard Covenant adopted, whereby Society officially became Unitarian.
  • 1839 The Reverend Cyrus Peirce, a member, becomes head- master of the country’s first normal school, devoted to the education of teachers.
  • 1844 Extensive alterations of Meeting House included removal of side galleries, installation of full-length windows, construction of domed ceiling, addition of the chancel, and raising the sanctuary floor to provide for vestry and kitchen. Carl Wendte painted trompe l’oeil decorations.

    unitarian bell

    Old Spanish Curfew Bell acquired from Portugal by Nantucket’s Unitarian Universalist Church and hung in 1815.

  • 1848 The Great Fire of 1846, combined with the collapse of the whaling industry, brought hard times to the island. The congregation found itself unable to support a minister, and for the next forty years the church struggled on the brink of financial collapse.
  • 1873 Member Maria Mitchell, the first woman elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences (1848), honored by election as first president of the Association for the Advancement of Women.
  • 1881 Present (Howard) clock installed in tower as gift of William Hadwen Starbuck to the Town.
  • 1957 Clock electrified. Jay Gibbs retires as last bell ringer. Until this time the hours had been rung by hand in addition to fifty-two strokes at 7 a.m., noon, and 9 p.m.
  • 1959 Nantucket tercentenary. 150th anniversary of founding of Society; the same year, with the merger of the American Unitarian Association and the Universalist Church of America, the Society officially became Unitarian Universalist. The Reverend Brainard Gibbons, president of the Universalist Church at the time, was minister of this church from 1970 to 1972.
  • 1967 Meeting House included in the Historic American Buildings Survey.
  • 1982 South Church Preservation Fund established; major repairs to structure and restoration of Wendte painting. Main sanctuary closed for four years.
  • 1983 Dedication of rebuilt vestry. 1986 Reopening of the church.

 


Unitarian congregationWhat’s Our Name?

The congregation’s original name, the Second Congregational Meeting House Society, was approved by the Commonwealth Legislature in 1810 when it approved our charter. The congregation was founded in 1809 by members of the Congregational Church on Centre Street. The two churches soon gained informal names, ours being “South Church” and the first Congregational Church “North Church.”

In 1837 the congregation adopted the Harvard Covenant, created in 1834 by the Congregational Church in Harvard Square.  The Harvard Covenant didn’t use the word “Unitarian” but was considered to be Unitarian in spirit. It’s likely that about this time people began referring to the Second Congregational Meeting House Society as the “Unitarian Church.”

Around the same time, the congregation absorbed many of the Universalist Church members when it closed.  The two churches merged formally in 1961, and the congregation’s name changed to the Second Congregational Meeting House Society, Unitarian Universalist.

Over the years the terms “South Church” and “North Church” fell into disuse.   In 1982, when the church undertook a major fundraising drive to make extensive repairs, the South Church Preservation Fund (“SCPF”) was established as a separate tax-exempt organization.  The name “South Church” was revived to distinguish the historic, community-funded restoration project from congregational functions.  Funds donated to the SCPF are used for preservation work only, never for congregational programs.

Today, people on Nantucket often refer to the Unitarian Meeting House, with its iconic clock tower, as the Unitarian Church. The congregation’s legal name is still the Second Congregational Meeting House Society, Unitarian Universalist. Yes, it’s a mouthful. Checks can be made payable to the Unitarian Church (or any of the variants).