Nineteen ministers have served the First Unitarian Society of Denver since its inception in 1871. This presentation serves to honor those who have graced our institution for the last 140 years. The record is mixed; some were great ministers who inspired, attracted members and resources, and started innovative institutions, while others were asked to leave. They served through good times and bad. There were periods of relative peace and times of great turmoil, reflecting what was happening in the larger world. We have had periods where membership soared and periods where we couldn’t keep the doors open. There is probably a lesson here that churches do not grow steadily, but experience the normal fluctuations of life itself.
The information on this page was extracted from material in the archives. Time did not allow for a complete search of the available material, but was taken from previous histories of the congregation. The first was compiled by Emily Belden in 1886. The second was compiled by Rev. David Utter as part of the 40th anniversary celebration. The third is the work of Frank Merriam Keezer that was written at the time of the 75th anniversary. The fourth work is by Muriel Mills who did a thorough search of the archives for the first 50 years, and then wrote from memory for the period up to the early 1990s. Another source was Betty Pingel’s Occasional History of FUSD series which is contained in Alma Wallace’s Guided Tour of FUSD pamphlet. While there is some variation in the record, we have done our best to provide a meaningful sketch of our past and current ministers.
Loring E. Beckwith 1871-1872
A recent graduate of Harvard Divinity School, Rev. Beckwith came to Denver to visit his parents. Notices were put in the Rocky Mountain News that Rev. L.E. Beckwith, son of George C. Beckwith would preach on the afternoon of May 14th, 1871 at 3:00, and that all persons interested in Liberal Christianity were invited to attend. They met in the District Court room, on Larimer Street. Fifty people attended. After a sermon discussing Unitarianism, prayers, and hymns, they introduced themselves to Mr. and Mrs. Beckwith and to each other. He preached again on May 21st and May 28th. On June 4th a letter appeared in the News, signed by a dozen or so citizens, requesting Rev. Beckwith to remain in Denver and inaugurate a society in our midst for the promulgation of liberal church ideas. They went on to organize a society under the name of First Unitarian Society of Denver. Rev. Beckwith served the growing congregation for only one year. In the spring of 1872 he was forced to resign due to poor health.
W. G. M. Stone 1872-1875
Rev. Stone of Berlin, Wisconsin was called as the second minister, and arrived on October 8, 1872. During his tenure the Society met in a number of different locations because some facilities were not available because of their beliefs and other facilities were not suitable. In 1873 they decided to build their own church. They purchased four lots on the corner of 17th and California, and work commenced at once. Work was completed by the end of that year. Later in 1873 there was a national depression, which affected pew rentals and collections. Finances continued to be poor in 1874 and the congregation was unable to meet its bills and continue to pay the minister’s salary. In December 1874 the Society decided to terminate the contract with Rev. Stone in spite of the fact that they held him in high regard. He continued to preach until April of 1875, when the doors of the church were closed until October 1878. One of his many achievements was organizing a Sunday school, initially with 19 names on the role.
William R. Alger 1878-1879
Rev. Alger was well known in Unitarian circles and highly educated and well traveled. The year began with high expectations, but the congregation found his scholarly and profound sermons hard to follow. Membership dropped, finances suffered and the congregation became very discouraged. At the end of his first year the Society terminated his contract. Without a minister, the Society closed for a time.
R. L. Herbert 1880-1881
Mrs. D. D. Belden wrote in her history of the church that Rev. Herbert “was a man of talent—a profound thinker—a forcible writer, and a conscientious and laborious pastor”. His first goal was to pay off the church debt, now increased to $3700. He secured a payment of $1000 from the American Unitarian Association, and the remainder he raised from the congregation. In August of 1881 he died suddenly. He left us with a debt free church.
A.M. Weeks 1882-1884
Rev. Weeks was a well-liked minister. He was said to have, “high aims, broad views, and far-reaching sympathies”. His sudden death in January, 1884 left the congregation grief-stricken and discouraged.
Thomas Van Ness 1884-1889
During most of the years of Rev. Van Ness’s ministry the board of directors was focused on plans for a new building. The congregation had grown and the little church no longer provided enough space. Four lots on the corner of 19th Avenue and Broadway were purchased. Building began in 1886 and was completed in the fall of 1887.
During Rev. Van Ness’s tenure the Men’s club was established; its objectives were to get better acquainted and, hopefully, to collect money for the church. A Unity Club was started which focused on musical, dramatic and literary activities. The first kindergarten in Denver was also begun at Unity Church and a sewing school for girls; the latter to provide employment options for women. In 1989 he became ill and resigned so that he could go to a lower elevation.
Samuel Eliot 1889-1893
There are conflicting views of Rev. Eliot in the church’s records. He appears to have been a good preacher, and his earnestness and sincerity always made a strong impression. He was a great organizer, a man of marked executive ability. His period was probably the most prosperous that the church had ever known. More money was raised, and spent on church activities, than at any time in our past. During his tenure the congregation grew to 535 people.
However, he appears to have been a controversial figure. While Rev. Van Ness emphasized socializing, or community building, Rev. Eliot felt that was irrelevant. He believed in lectures. He changed the format of the Unity Club to one of lectures and the Unity Club eventually died out. He tried to change the Ladies Alliance, but they kept up their usual activities of sewing, dinners, charity and helping with the church debt. Rev. Eliot did establish a Young Peoples Group which had a discussion format.
Near the end of his tenure members felt disenfranchised and there were mass resignations. He resigned in December of 1892, to take effect on March 1, 1893, to accept a call from the First Unitarian Church of Brooklyn, New York. He went on to become the President of the American Unitarian Association headquartered in Boston.
N. A. Haskell 1893-1895
There is very little record of the activities and achievements of Rev. Haskell. He arrived during a year of severe economic downturn, “the panic of 1893.” The congregation was at low ebb during this period, due in part to declining membership and revenues. Rev. Haskell’s wife died during his time at Unity Church. He resigned effective September 1, 1895.
Note: Even though the church was organized as the First Unitarian Society of Denver, it was called by the Unity Church by members and the media. This usage died out in the 30’s.
David Utter 1896-1917
Rev. Utter was long serving and much loved. He came to our ministry at a time of low attendance and meager income. He was an eloquent preacher known for elevating and thought provoking sermons which were published by the Denver newspapers of that time. In fact, no preacher in the previous 50 years received so much favorable publicity as was accorded Mr. Utter.
One of his first activities was renewing the Unity Club, which studied literature and put on plays. They studied Chaucer and Browning, and when they started on Shakespeare, sufficient books were available for each participant to read his/her part. During this period, the Unity Club had eight lectures, seven dramatic presentation, and six dance parties. He also formed a mountain climbing group of young woman who frequently climbed mountains with him.
With his leadership the $10,000 debt from the 1890s was paid off. The church was electrified at this time and the rental of pews was abandoned, and replaced with pledge cards.
Toward the end of his tenure Rev. Utter suffered from what was called mental illness. From the description it sounds like Alzheimer’s. In 1917 he asked to be relieved of his duties. On June 14, 1917 he became pastor emeritus with a pension of $1000 per annum.
Fred A. Weil 1917-1920
Rev. Weil came to us from Bellingham, WA on September 1, 1917. He was young, vigorous, and energetic. He successfully conducted the affairs of the church, but was also very active in supporting the war effort. The Women’s Alliance during this time formed a branch of the Red Cross.
In 1918, many activities were cancelled due to the influenza epidemic.
Rev. Weil was here during the transition period following 21 years of Rev. Utter, some of whose friends were unable to graciously accept him as successor; some members still wanting Rev. Utter to preach. Rev. Weil resigned and accepted a call to the First Unitarian Church in Quincy, MA.
George Gilmour 1921-1932
Rev. Gilmour came to the church from Dallas, Texas on November 21, 1921. He worked actively to increase membership and attendance at services, and expanded the organizations in the church. Social activities increase. Mrs. Gilmour was active in women’s activities. For many years he was well-liked and his sermons were well-received.
Later he became interested in existentialism, the “character” of his sermons changed and were “distasteful” to some of the congregation. He defended his sermons as “freedom of the pulpit.” He was asked to resign and it was accepted in June 1932.
Charles A. Wing 1932-1941
Rev. Wing came in the fall of 1932, another minister who arrived in the middle of a great depression. He was considered a splendid preacher who delivered excellent sermons, and also introduced a new element to the morning service: “pulpit editorials” which were devoted to a discussion of current events. He was described as friendly and a good speaker. Rev. Wing left in 1941 when he was called the First Unitarian Church in Quincy, MA.
Note: Fred A. Weil, 1917-1920, was also called to the Quincy church making this the second minister we lost to that organization.
Jacob Trapp 1941-1944
Rev. Trapp was a scholar, and a poet. He wrote many books of poetry. Two of the songs he wrote are in our hymnal and two other poems are responsive readings. His sermons were well received and he and his family participated in the social activities of the church. Sunday school was not one of his priorities and it diminished during his tenure.
Rev. Trapp saw the need and facilitated improvements to the church’s interior. Also during his time the church bought a parsonage at 2045 Ash Street. We were assisted by the American Unitarian Association in both of these efforts.
Later in life he wrote a book on world religions, The Light of a Thousand Suns, which had as its subtitle "mystery, awe and renewal in religion."
Rudolph Gilbert 1945-1957
Rev. Gilbert was a controversial figure. His politics were left wing and anti-business, and he made friends with those in the congregation of like mind. Many parishioners who were more moderate politically, or who owned businesses, left the church. In spite of these difficulties the church helped Boulder residents to form the Boulder Fellowship. He also oversaw the revival of the Sunday school. He will also be remembered as having a printing press in the basement of the parsonage where he printed the newsletter and orders of service.
The Broadway church was in very poor repair, and plans were made to build or buy another church. Several building sites were considered, and then the Plymouth Congregational Church, our current location, came up for sale. The congregation split over the issue, and we lost many members. Rev. Gilbert resigned over the issue.
We received $20,000 more for our Broadway church than we paid for our current church.
Richard Henry 1957-1977
Rev. Henry arrived as we were negotiating for the current property on Lafayette Street which we acquired in the fall of 1958. He was very interested in social problems and many social action committees were formed. (Many of the records of these activities were destroyed in the 1985 fire.) He also upgraded the Sunday school. It was also during this time the board decided to purchase (without congregational approval) the Point of Pines mountain property for $20,000. It became a financial burden and eventually was sold.
During the Henry years, the tradition of a spring trip to Indian country began. It was started by Mrs. Henry (Helen), who with a friend was teaching Cultural Anthropology to the ninth grade class in our church school. They took the classes to Taos in the early 60's. Currently the trip involves 9th graders from Front Range churches and goes to Hopi and Navajo reservations.
A little known fact about Rev. Henry is that he gave us the name of our newsletter, The Ploughshare.
Brooks Walker 1979-1981
Not much is known about Rev. Walker’s ministry here at the church. We do know that during his tenure here he was clean shaven, not like his picture. While here, he divorced his second wife and married his third, a member of the choir. We apparently resigned after alienating much of the congregation.
James Hobart 1983-1991
James and Nan Hobart 1991-2001
After an unsatisfactory period of lay ministry, Rev. James Hobart was called as minister in 1983. He was the minister who brought the congregation back from a near-death experience in the early 1980's and guided the congregation through the pain of the fire in 1985. As was not unusual in the history of the congregation, the church was on the ragged edge of solvency and the building needed repair and upgrading. Rev. Hobart, working with Gail Johnson (a Board member and dedicated worker), formed a Facilities Implementation Committee to raise funds and develop plans for a major remodeling. Buildings north of the church were sold as part of the fund raising. Before the work could begin, fire struck in December 1985. By adding the insurance funds with the previously collected money, the congregation was able to restore the church. The newly renovated church was reopened for the Easter service in 1987.
Around 1991, Nan Hobart finished her ministerial studies as was called as co-minister with Jim. Social action and justice were central to the church during their ministry. Membership grew. Religious education became more robust. They retired in 2001 leaving positive memories with the congregation.
Michael Morran 2002-present
This page is made possible by the hard work and caring of Donald Martell and the entire 140th Celebration team.