What Happened When: Christian Union Church
March 11,1810: first congregation started; met in homes. Records last only short time. – year or two: Job Cook, Nancy Cook, Sally Cook, Hannah Newman and Esther Bailey “made a covenant to walk together in the Love of christ and Fellowship with one another having pledged ourselves to one another by the will of God.” Called themselves “the Church of Christ.”There was no meeting house. Met at schoolhouse. This group faded out with little trace of the church
1820: Meeting at Southermost School to re-organize.
1821: Renewed congregation: Formed itself into the Rhode Island Union Society: Incorporated June. William Ellery Channing took great interest in this group. Charter members Peleg Sanford, Richard Field, Giles Manchester, James Durfee and others. Began to build but ran out of money.
1823: Society received permission to hold lottery.
1824: Amended charter and desire to build meeting house. Belief that denominations tended to divide, but they focused on belief in scripture which each member interpreting them for themselves. Called their building “Union Meetinghouse.”
1827: First record of Sunday School
1833: 60 Women formed “Female Home Mission Society”
1834: Men joined the women: another group met to form yet a third congregation. “persons professing to be Christian” formed Christian Church. No rules other than bible. All can participate in communion. This church would be independent of all other churches.
1853: Fifty-five members in the church.
1858: Six day revival: 48 new members (23 of which stayed).
1861: This third congregation formally incorporated.
1865: Union Meetinghouse sold to Edward S. Sisson
1865-66: Building of “ The Christian Church of Portsmouth” that we know today. Cost $7,000. January 9, 1866 Dedication of church. 1861 to 1871 William Miller (pastor from 1861-1871) was a skilled craftsman. He supervised building process and made the pulpit himself.
Sept. 4, 1869: Julia Ward Howe first asked to speak.
1872-1878: Rev. Ellen Gustin of Attleboro (friend of Julia Ward Howe) often occupied pulpit.
1872: Church purchased a horse-drawn hearse. John T. Brown cared for the hearse.
1872: Church used for lecture on women’s Suffrage
1893: Cornelius Vanderbilt began to give donations of $100. Continued to do so unit his death in 1899. Alfred Vanderbilt (son of Cornelius) gave donations until death (on Lusitania) in 1915.
1894: Vote that church not be used for Prohibition meetings but changed vote to allow two weeks later.
1898: Parsonage lot purchased from Bathsheba Slocum. Joseph Coggeshall built parsonage for $2,000.
1901-1908: Rev. Macy founded “Active Culture Club” to enhance level of culture in church.
1903: Church purchased pipe organ from Emmanuel Church in Newport for $300.
1915: Rev. Robert Downing (a former actor) tried to put some zest into services by acting out parts.Downing was a controversial minister. He was asked to leave but held onto parsonage. He was the last full-time minister.
1924 on church closed over winter.
1927; Sunday school closed
1932 “Union Evangelical Meetings” held in afternoon so people could attend their own churches as well.
1934: Parsonage sold
March 16, 1939 voted to dissolve corporation – down to 14 members.
Timeline – Construction of the Christian Union Church
Details gathered through the Christian Union Church Records (CR)
Aug 26, 1865: Vote to to build a new house of worship on land occupied by Union Meetinghouse. (CR Page 46)
Aug. 31, 1865: Selected Finch engineering company in Newport to design building (CR Page 47). Also voted that John H Coggeshall be employed to build church.
September 1865: Beginning the building. G. l. Potter to build foundation.
Sept. 25, 1865: Hiring painters, buying windows from Fall River, raising money with a clambake.
Oct 1865: Purchasing blinds and installing them. Debate about installing them Inside or outside.
Nov 6,1865: Purchasing furnace from Sanford Furnace. Purchasing carpet and chandeliers from Fall River.
Dec 1865: Voted to raise money for incidental expenses. (CR Page 49)
Jan 9, 1866: Church dedicated.
March, 1866: Amasa Sprague esq. gave a donation of $500 for church debt.
June 1866: American Unitarian Association gave a donation of $500 for church debt.
June 23, 1866: Building supports for gallery floor.
Oct 1866: Still painting church.
December 27, 1866: Still raising money to pay for church – turkey suppers, ice cream socials, etc.
Gambling for the Good? Lottery Used to Build Union Meetinghouse in 1824
I’m not much of a gambler. I don’t even buy scratch tickets, but I was thinking about gambling as a fundraising idea this week. While the Portsmouth Historical Society is gearing up to celebrate the one hundred and fiftieth anniversary of the old church we now call our home, we are trying to find ways to pay for needed repairs to the building. As I researched the history of the church for next year’s displays, I came across an interesting fact. The first church built on the site was constructed with the help of a lottery.
Meeting at the Southermost School in 1820, a group calling themselves the “Rhode Island Union Society” wanted to built a church where people of all denominations could worship together. They tried to raise money, but the church was left half-built. So in 1824 they petitioned the State of Rhode Island for permission to hold a lottery to raise the sum of $2000 to complete their church.
From Revolutionary times to the 1840s, lotteries played a big role in providing revenue for civic buildings in Rhode Island. Banks were rare and taxes were too low to cover needed civic improvements. In the same year that the Union Meetinghouse lottery was approved, the town of Portsmouth was granted a lottery to pay for Charity Bridge and roads along what we call Park Avenue today. In Newport County lotteries were used for rebuilding Long Wharf, buying books for Redwood Library, building a public school in Newport and even paying for the reconstruction of the 1795 bridge over the Sakonnet River!
“The bridge connecting the island of Rhode Island with the mainland at Howland’s Ferry was first opened for crossing on Thursday, Oct. 15th, 1795; it was washed away in the great gale of September, 1815, and in the October following the Rhode Island Bridge Co., under whose auspices it had been originally built, and subsequently managed, obtained a grant from the Assembly to raise the sum of $25,000 by a lottery, the money so raised “ to be expended in rebuilding the bridge and rendering the same permanent ” (Bulletin of the Newport Historical Society, 1912).
Maybe lotteries were not such a great idea. Lotteries were ended by the state in the 1840s. Many of the lotteries authorized didn’t raise the needed funds. The lottery for the Union Meeting House didn’t quite generate enough money and the church was forced to “sell” pews to members to make up the difference.
By 1865 the little meetinghouse was too small for the congregation and the building was moved to the Sisson lot across East Main Road. A larger church was built on this same site and renamed the “Christian Church.” The Portsmouth Historical Society now has the care for this historic building. Should history repeat itself? Do we hold a lottery to raise funds to repair our building?