Universalists from New York joined those in Michigan from Columbia and Liberty townships to form a Universalist Society in 1856. At first they met in a grove of shade trees near Clark Lake. Then they shared a church the Methodists had built at Liberty Mills in the late 1860s. But when the Methodists dedicated the church to their own religion, the Universalists began meeting in the schoolhouse. The church was then designated as East Liberty, a place that appears on no map.
That schoolhouse was constructed around 1860, when the congregation also laid out its cemetery where our ancestors are buried. In 1876, the Rev. William Looker Gibbs began a 40-year ministry with the Universalists and oversaw the creation of our church building, built by the congregants’ own hands, and dedicated in 1881.
After Elder Gibbs retired in 1916 dark days followed with languishing membership, but the church never closed its doors. In the early 1950’s the Kupples Club, young members of the church, helped build a parsonage to attract a settled minister.
The early 60’s saw the last class in the schoolhouse which then transformed into a community center. Eventually the township deeded the school building and grounds to the church in exchange for the cemetery. The schoolhouse now houses religious education. In 1975-76 both the church and the school were designated as Jackson County Historical Landmarks.
In 1961 the beloved Rev. Ruth Smith started a twenty-year ministry. Her arrival coincided with the merger of the Universalist Church of America and the American Unitarian Association. In 1979 the congregation voted to change the name to the Universalist Unitarian Church of East Liberty. In the same year the Jackson UU Fellowship was established which thrived until 1991 when several people became church members. In the late 1990’s UU neo-pagans were also active in the church.
In the 80s several ministers served the congregation for short periods of time until the Rev. Susan Smith arrived. Under her leadership (1997-2002) the church conducted a capital campaign to raise funding for future building projects and started the Rainbow Family Alliance to support LGBTQ persons. During the term of interim minister, Rev. Jill Terwilliger, the church was designated a welcoming congregation, and we founded the Jackson Interfaith Peacekeepers to protest the immanent invasion of Iraq.
In 2004 the Rev. Dr. Cindy Landrum began her ministry, the third longest in our church. In recognition of her tenure, she was awarded the status of “emeritus” in 2018. Under her guidance, there were both external and internal changes. The Jxn Community Forum Series (2005-2017) was created and held in downtown Jackson, featuring a wide range of social issues. Rev. Cindy was also instrumental in the city’s passing of Non-Discrimination Ordinance. In 2005 we became fully accessible by adding a lift, ramp and accessible restroom. In 2011 The church was recognized as a historical site with an official state historical marker.
Our interim minister, Rev. Jenn Gracen, had barely arrived when in 2020 the COVID pandemic closed the church. She began offering Sunday services from her home via Zoom. In 2020 our new full-time minister, Rev. Dan Miyake, continued this approach by preaching to an empty church while services were recorded and distributed.
Committees carried on, a book group met, and adult religious education programs were offered such as Transforming Hearts Collective, all via Zoom. Religious education activities for children continued in outdoor settings. When the church reopened, we installed the technology necessary to livestream Sunday services to Facebook.
In 2022, facing serious financial constraints, the congregation voted to reduce Rev. Dan’s status to half-time. Thus began the creative adventure of a shared ministry with the UU Fellowship of Poughkeepsie in New York. In recognition of our continued efforts to be an inclusive church, we received the renewal of our status as a Welcoming Congregation in 2023.