Despite the modern building we occupy today, our Upper St community actually dates all the way back to 1667, with a proud history of campaigning for freedom of belief and social justice.
Freedom of Belief
In 1660 - after the Civil War, Cromwell’s Interregnum, and decades of religious extremism, persecution and martyrdom - Charles II returned from exile. He promised freedom of belief to all his subjects, from Catholics to Puritans. In spite of this, laws were passed to make life difficult for anyone who wasn’t a member of the Church of England. The 1662 Act of Uniformity required all clergy to sign up to certain beliefs. About 2000 of these clergy valued their conscience more than their living, and left their pulpits in what became known as the Great Ejection.
A Place to Call Our Own
Five years after the Great Ejection, our congregation was founded in the City of London (1667). At first it had to meet in secret. When times began to seem safe, we built our first meeting house. But this confidence turned out to be premature: our building was destroyed in the High Church Riots. Over the next two centuries, we had several different homes. (We also had several names: Rational Dissenters, Non-Conformists, and Unitarians.) In 1862, we moved to our current site in Islington, which at that time was still semi-rural. We raised a cathedral-like Dissenting Gothic palace, facing onto Upper Street. This building was destroyed in the Blitz. Our present-day building is the practical post-war reconstruction, with the fire station occupying the footprint of the huge Victorian church.
No to Slavery; Yes to Rational Inquiry
One of our members, Richard Holt Hutton, went on to become editor of The Spectator. There, he argued passionately against the slave-holding South of the American Civil War. He also founded the Metaphysical Society, a venture which has been said to mark ‘the intellectual fracture zone between science and religion.’ (Oxford Dictionary of National Biography)
Sir James Clarke Lawrence (1820-1897) was the treasurer who oversaw the construction of our Islington building. As a Liberal MP - and later, Lord Mayor of London - he helped to drive social policy reform. Another of our Victorian MP members was Joseph Chamberlain, described by Wikipedia as ‘one of the most important British politicians of his day, as well as a renowned orator and municipal reformer’.
Seeking Wisdom from Alternative Sources
In 1870, the congregation lent its pulpit to Indian social reformer Keshub Chandra Sen. His farewell sermon thanked the Unity congregation who had made him so welcome, and questioned the prevailing view that wisdom lay in any one religion. Arguing for a universal belief-system, he fused elements of Hinduism and Christianity, and referred to his God as 'Mother'.
Education for All
The congregation consistently championed the value of education across the social classes. 18th-century minister Edward Pickard founded the Orphan Working School for the Children of Protestant Dissenters. And 19th-century member Matilda Sharpe set up Channing House School, primarily for the daughters of Unitarian ministers. Both schools still operate in 21st-century forms. Well before the advent of state education, we also sponsored a day-school, providing a basic education for all children, however poor.
In 1912, the Unity Minister (William Tudor Jones) wrote that 'we cannot understand our Present without understanding our Past'. We believe that New Unity’s 21st-century identity can be seen as a natural progression of Islington’s historical Unity church. We continue to honour the legacy of our predecessors, and we hope that they would be proud of everything we’re working towards and achieving today.