A Church is Founded
Universalists from New York joined those in Michigan from Columbia and Liberty townships to form a Universalist Society in 1856. Many of our current members are descendents of those charter members. The Tuthills, Delameters, Wetherbys, and others gathered where they could, at various schools and homes, and sometimes in a grove of shade tress near Clark Lake on the DeLameter property. On special occasions, Father Almond Wood Mason, the “grand old man with the sunny face and the pleasant smile” would come from Manchester to meet
Early Years of Growth
In the late 1860s and for a time afterwards, the Universalists shared a building with the Methodists at Liberty Mills. Then because of a misunderstanding, the Universalist families again went back to meeting in a schoolhouse, this time in the brick building that is our schoolhouse. The Rev. John Gilmore came to minister to the group. The Ladies Aid Society was founded on June 24, 1869. The meeting was held at the home of Mrs. M.E. Palmer. The Ladies Aid Society would later become the Alliance of Universalist Unitarian Women (AUUW).
A Church is Built
In 1876, the Rev. William Looker Gibbs began his 40-year ministry with the Universalists. One of the members said of him, “Mr. Gibbs wears well; the longer we know him, the more we love him.” Four years after Elder Gibbs arrived, the Stahl family donated land for a church and in 1881 the congregation built this church. They built it with their own hands. Ms. Lucille Randall Arksey has said, “they built the foundations deep and wide, the walls square and upright as they hoped we would build our lives.”
What a grand and beautiful place this new church must have been to those families who had given so sacrificially of their money, thought, and energy. Our present pews and pulpit were part of the original furnishings as well as the two small plush covered chairs and the accompanying armchair. The pulpit stood in the center of the platform, which extended two-thirds of the way across the front of the church. Toward the west wall, the platform dropped to floor level and served as Sunday School space for small children who sat on two short pews. Later these were put in the back of the church in a recess off the main sanctuary – the area was enclosed and used as a storage and library unit and then opened again into the vestibule. A small walnut reed organ stood on the floor of the choir loft. A trapdoor staircase led from the west side of the platform down to the basement so that the young adults could stage plays and programs. On the front wall hung portraits of the first three ministers, who had done so much for this church: Father Mason, the Rev. Gilmore, and Elder Gibbs. Downstairs a huge wood-burning furnace stood in the northwest corner and it was lit on Saturday evenings in winter to heat the sanctuary for the next morning’s service. Outside, stretching from the back of the church in a long line toward the west were the sheds for horses and buggies. Each family had its own separate stall.
Elder Gibbs retired in 1916, and a special service was held to honor his service by the churches at East Liberty, Concord, and Horton, all of which he had served. For his forty years he was given a gift of forty silver dollars, and forty people joined the church. The Jackson Citizen Patriot described him as “one of the nation’s most patriotic and uplifting citizens and one of Jackson county’s grand old men.”
Dark Days and Bright
“Dark days” followed with languishing membership, but the church never closed its doors. The Universalist Convention appointed Mrs. Dora Bernstein to look after the welfare of the church, which she did very well. Mrs. Bernstein cared deeply about the young people of the church and worked to keep this group alive and strong. Through her care, the church had outstanding guest speakers such as Dr. Luther Adams, president of the Michigan Universalist Association, and Dr. Roger Etz. Dora Bernstein saw that the church was served for the next decade by itinerant, seasonal, and student ministers, including Leon and Martha Jones, Emerson LaLone, George McGraw, Orin Stone, Edna Bruner, and Verna Armstrong. During this time, the church had its first women ministers. Leon and Martha Jones simultaneously served our church and one in Olinda, Ontario. Edna Bruner was a student when she served here, but went on to work in religious education for the Universalist Church of American and later the Unitarian Universalist Association.
Until the early 1920’s, the bell tower had no bell. At that time, La Dow Kennedy donated our four-foot diameter bell in honor of his parents and grandparents to the church. Following the French custom of naming a bell when dedicating, it was christened the “Divine Love.”
In 1924 the horse and buggy sheds were torn down, as they had outlived their usefulness.
The lumber was used to build sheep sheds, and the storage shed at the rear of the church stands as a reminder of these days. Along the cemetery fence are the old hitching rails of that same era.
In 1931 the parishioners celebrated the fiftieth anniversary of the building, its Golden Jubilee. During the ministry of Rev. Verna Armstrong, and because they had difficulty attracting a settled minister, the congregation added a brick parsonage, attached to the rear southeast portion of the church building. At the Golden Jubilee, there was an old-fashioned Sunday School presentation, special organ music by LaDow Kennedy, and the Rev. Roger Etz as the main speaker.
Dr. Case Comes to East Liberty
Serving in two periods, separated by one year of absence, Dr. L. D. Case contributed in many rich and varied ways to the East Liberty Church and the community. He was mainly responsible for starting Lenten noonday services held in the Capitol Theater for Jackson county churches, with widespread enthusiasm and cooperation. During his pastorate, the sanctuary received new Florentine glass windows along with an altar lectern, hymn board, cross and candlesticks; the wood exterior of the church got a new coat of paint; and new steps, designed and built with fieldstones gathered from farms of the church pioneer families were added. Playground equipment was added for the young people. With Mrs. Hayes, Mrs. Beatrice Case and Mrs. Dora Bernstein, Rev. Case had very successful youth camps for the East Liberty young people.
The Fellowship Is Born
Shortly after our church celebrated one hundred years of the congregation’s existence, and 75 of the building, a new liberal religious presence in Jackson was founded, which would later become a very important part of our church’s history. The Jackson Fellowship was organized April 20, 1958. They voted by a narrow majority, aided by Don Beagle of the Universalist Church of East Liberty, to join the Unitarian Association, thus becoming the Jackson Unitarian Fellowship, and in 1961 upon merger of the two denominations, the Jackson Unitarian Universalist Fellowship. They first met at the YWCA building next door to the present Jackson District Library Administration building until it was torn down, then in each others homes for many years like the house churches of the ancient Christians. Then they met a few years in the Ella Sharp Art Museum display room, which was fascinating and stimulating. Then it was back to private homes again. In 1966 and 1967 they met in the social rooms of the First Universalist Church of East Liberty, while services went on in the sanctuary, so the Fellowship children could attend the Sunday School.
1940s and 1950s
Rev. W. O. Bodell served the church from 1942-1955 with a two-year interruption in the middle. During his tenure he greatly endeared himself to the church and received 45 new members during his last three years. He was also instrumental in starting a Men’s Club. New choir robes were purchased, and then in the early 1950s, after much hard work by the members to raise the money, a new organ was purchased.
During the two years that Rev. Argyle Hauser served the church, between the two periods served by Rev. Bodell, the Kupples Klub came into being, a group that would do so much for the church. They remodeled the parsonage any number of times as ministers moved in and out. About ten couples labored to turn the dirt basement into a completed basement with cement and a new metal stairway. They painted, and they added a kitchen. When it was no longer needed by a minister, private families lived there, into the 1960s. Later study groups met in the living room and then the youth used it as a classroom, and now our littlest UUs gather there in their nursery. The Kupples Klub also worked on the schoolhouse, which, like the parsonage, has changed one way and another over time. Once the Klub divided the schoolhouse into three rooms using portable partitions. This “portable walls” idea turned out to be a good one when the church later decided that it should be a single large room again! The early 60’s saw the last class in the schoolhouse, which then transformed into a community center that hosted games and dances. In the late 70’s the township deeded the school building and grounds to the church and the little schoolhouse is now the home of religious education.
Our First Hundred Years Draws to a Close
The Rev. Alfred Judd was the last minister for a while to occupy the parsonage. He supervised the writing of new by-laws. Following his ministry, Joseph Schneiders occupied the pulpit. He was ordained by our congregation.
In 1961 the beloved Rev. Ruth Smith arrived at East Liberty. Her arrival coincided with the merger of the Universalist Church of America and the American Unitarian Association, an enormous change through which she lovingly guided the congregation. Rev. Smith came first as a guest speaker, and then as a part-time minister. The church grew in both size and spirit, and her pastorate grew to twenty years.
In the early 60s the Kupples Klub orchestrated the removal of the furnace that was still in the middle of the floor downstairs in the church. They replaced the floor where the furnace had stood, insulated the basement, and installed the paneling.
A Special Celebration
The weekend of July 16 and 17 of 1966 marked the anniversary of 110 years of Universalism in Liberty Township and the 85th anniversary of the construction of the church building. To prepare for this festive weekend, new carpeting was laid down the center aisle and across the sanctuary platform. The Kupples Klub refinished the church pews. The chandeliers were hung. For the celebration, a chicken barbeque and a pageant of the church history titled “And Over at East Liberty” were held on Saturday evening sponsored by the youth group. The Sunday morning service featured Rev. Edna Bruner, who was now Education Consultant for the Unitarian Universalist Midwest Region, as the speaker. Mr. William Hammond, the Michigan Executive Secretary of the Ohio-Valley District also participated.
In the early 1970’s the sanctuary got yet another makeover with new wallpaper, paint and carpeting. Both the church and the school building were designated as Jackson County Historical Landmarks in 1975-76.
District Meeting Held at East Liberty
A major event of the 1970s was the hosting of the 1977 Unitarian Universalist District of Michigan (UUDOM) Annual Meeting. Previous District conventions had always been held in the larger urban churches, but East Liberty met a formidable organizational challenge with flying colors. Using our area’s many apple orchards as a theme, the church family entertained and lodged a large throng of Michigan UUs on a typical fall weekend in rural America. Many left with a realization that liberal Protestantism can prosper in the country as well as the city.
The 1970s also saw the former school building and grounds become the responsibility of the church, preserving a community meeting place for Liberty Township. A proud moment for Rev. Smith and the congregation occurred in the mid-1970s when church member David Arksey became an ordained UU minister. For a small rural church to nurture a member of the liberal clergy is a significant accomplishment.
Ruth Smith’s Tenure End
In 1980, a time capsule was planted in the steeple at the church when the steeple blew off the roof during a storm. Its contents would be revealed 26 years later when the steeple blew off again. Both the 1980 steeple and the 2006 steeple were made by George Haynes. The contents of the time capsule were revealed in 2006, and it and a new time capsule were placed back in the steeple for future generations. It wasn’t until 1980 that the church underwent its late name change, from the First Universalist Church of East Liberty to the Universalist Unitarian Church of East Liberty.
George Haynes also made a chalice for the church. Sometime near the end of Rev. Smith’s tenure she commissioned this chalice to serve as the symbol of our faith. The chalice was made out of California Redwood. The chalice is lit each Sunday during the service.
In 1981, Rev. Smith retired, ending a twenty-year pastorate. That same year, as the church celebrated 125 years of Universalism and 100 years of our church building. The anniversary was marked by a barn dance, open house, chicken barb-b-que, a presentation of “And Over at East Liberty,” and a special service at the church with a sermon offered by Rev. Robert C. Sallies, Vice President, Finance, of the Unitarian Universalist Association. His sermon was titled, “Centennial Perspectives.” Our historical quilt which holds a place of honor in our sanctuary documents the celebration of our centennial year in 1981.
Decades of Transition
After the end of Ruth Smith’s tenure, more changes would come to our church, both to our building and in our ministry. More renovations to the building took place in the late 1980s when members remodeled the kitchen with new counter tops and removed a wall. In the 1990s the UU Pagans dedicated a sacred fire ring outside between the church and schoolhouse. The quilt that displays our unison-closing hymn that now hangs on the front wall of the sanctuary was added.
Changes happened to our church community, as well. Rev. Ruth Smith was succeeded by several ministers. The first was the Rev. Eve Bardas, who came from New Mexico, and was the last minister to live in the parsonage. Eve Bardas was the first minister of UUCEL to also have a formal relationship with the Jackson UU Fellowship. She was jointly ordained and installed by both religious bodies, and the JUUF contributed to her salary package. The ministers following her would continue to have formal relationships to the Fellowship, as well. After her two-year ministry, the Rev. Larry Hutchison was a two-year interim minister. Rev. Hutchison went on to be the minister of the Detroit UU church for many years. He was followed by Rev. Richard Venus, who had spoken a few times at the church while working on a newspaper in Hillsdale. When the congregation discovered he had been a minister, he was convinced to serve as interim. For the first time, the Fellowship had a role on the search committee, as well. He stayed an extra year and went to school for his fellowship while he and his wife Marcia lived in Adrian.
In 1991, Rev. Michael LeDuc arrived as a settled minister and stayed for three years. After he and his wife Donna had a baby girl, they decided to return to their home in Massachusetts.
Also in 1991, the Jackson UU Fellowship closed its doors. The fellowship had had a cordial relationship with our church for many years, helping to support at least one of our ministers. April 20, 1991 exactly to the day 33 years after its founding, the board (John Duane, George Tramp, and Bill and Claudia Hamel) met and formally dissolved giving the savings account of $2000 to East Liberty because death and departure had reduced the Fellowship membership below the viability level. The Fellowship encouraged its members to join UUCEL, many happily did, particularly the board members, and several are still members of our congregation.
Rev. Jean Whalstrom was the interim minister who served next, followed by another interim, Rev. Harold Beu. In 1997, Rev. Susan Smith came as a settled minister. She gave her sermons extemporaneously from the pulpit. Susan also actively promoted civil rights. The Smiths adopted two young girls who were sisters and a whole new life took shape for them. After five years with the church, they decided it would be best for the girls if they moved to Florida. During Rev. Smith’s tenure the congregation started the Rainbow Family Alliance, to support gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender persons in our church and community. A capital campaign was held to raise money for future building projects during this time, as well. Rev. Susan Smith was followed by the Rev. Jill Terwilliger as interim, and during her tenure the congregation became a welcoming congregation. The Jackson Interfaith Peacekeepers was founded by members of our church during this time to protest the immanent invasion of Iraq. The Peace Keepers have broadened their mission and now work for peace and justice in our world and in our community through education and dialogue.
The Last Ten Years
The most recent minister to serve the church is the Rev. Dr. Cynthia Landrum, who came in 2004. Her husband Peter Larkin Morrison, also a minister, served congregations in Lyons, Ohio; and Mt. Pleasant, MI, and now teaches at Jackson College. We launched a new effort in the community, the JXN Community Forum series of programs hosted at the library in downtown Jackson, in the 2005-2006 church year. In 2005 we became fully wheelchair accessible by adding a lift, ramp and restroom. A new furnace was added in 2006. Shortly after we finished renovating the kitchen and social hall. The sesquicentennial in 2006 was celebrated joyously with the Rev. David Bumbaugh of Meadville Lombard Theological School preaching. Our steeple had fallen down, 20 years after it had been place up. We took down the steeple, looked at the contents of the time capsule in it, and replaced the steeple, with the old time capsule and a new time capsule in it. A new section of our history quilt was dedicated, as well. And in the Spring of 2007 we hosted a state-wide social justice conference and brought William Schulz to speak at our congregation. The most recent changes to our building have been the addition of our stained glass window over the front doors and the recognition of our church as a historical site with an official state historical marker.
Now, after over 150 years of liberal religion in Jackson County, after countless worship services have been held in our historic sanctuary, we face the future confidently, knowing that our liberal faith will shine brightly for future generations.
This history is taken from several sources, and updated and added to by Cynthia Landrum:
The Liberty Belles Cookbook.
The history from the 2006 UUCEL website (www.libertyuu.org), then maintained by Alice Diebel.
The History published at the celebration of 125 years of Universalism and 100 years of our church building in 1981, chairpersons Edna Bowen and Joyce Choate.
The History published at the celebration of 110 years of Universalism and 85 years of the church building in 1966, by committee members Lucille Arksey, Florine Choate, Mary McUmber, Grace Mulnix, Marjorie Choate and Ruth Smith.
Universalist and Unitarian Women Ministers by Catherine F. Hitchings.
A newspaper article titled “East Liberty Church Reviews 110 Years” published in 1966.
The histories of our quilts, written by Margaret Essex, Ann Green, and members of the AUUW.
Letter to Members of the Jackson UU Fellowship, 1991, John W. Duane, President.
A brief history of the Jackson Fellowship provided by George Tramp.
Jackson Unitarian Universalist Fellowship Documents.
“Jackson Unitarian –Universalist Fellowship: History,” 1986.
“Jackson Unitarianism” by George Tramp, 1982.