History

University Church: A Brief History

“Remember the wonders God has done”
-Psalm 105

University Church began its ministry in 1894 under the name “Hyde Park Church of Christ (Disciples of Christ)” and the leadership of Herbert Lockwood Willett, who also served as the first Dean of Disciples Divinity House. Dr. Willett came to Chicago at the invitation of his Yale buddy, Dr. William Rainey Harper (then-President of the University of Chicago). He gathered a few people together and formed a branch of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in Hyde Park, directly next to the university. University Church was born.

From the beginning, University Church was devoted to a gospel of justice and peace, and creating loving community among students and the wider community. Throughout its history, University Church leadership has sought to address issues of the Hyde Park and surrounding neighborhoods, providing a voice of challenge and social conscience. Under the leadership of Edward Scribner Ames (the church’s third pastor, serving from 1900-1940), the church addressed the issue of the relationship between science and religion. Dr. Ames was instrumental in helping to construct a coherent and consistent vision of what University Church could be in the world:

This church practices union; has no creed; seeks to make religion as intelligent as science, as appealing as art, as vital as the day’s work, as intimate as home, as inspiring as love.

These words from Dr. Ames, found on the sanctuary walls, continue to be central to the church’s mission.

South Congregational Church (c. 1870) also had a storied legacy of working in the neighborhood. Pastors at South Congregational would often keep an eye out for neighborhood children, who had few places to play. Also oriented towards the social gospel, they sought to serve their neighbors best through direct action – studying the needs of the neighborhood and going door to door. Over time South Congregational became almost wholly African-American, while University Church remained mostly white.

Racial integration became a priority for University Church in the years after WWII, leading this change while the city itself was still struggling with artificial and real lines of segregation. The issues changed as well, and University Church became a social justice congregation committed to the Civil Rights movements of the 50’s and 60’s. Evidence of anti-war campaigns and marches for poor people’s rights can still be found throughout the church, and these commitments were intentionally reflected in the church’s liturgy and art of the time. A lasting sign of the commitment to social justice came when University Christian Church became dually affiliated with the United Church of Christ denomination in 1977. A second crucial partnership was formed when South Congregational merged with University Christian Church in 1980, together forming University Church Chicago – an intentionally multicultural faith community.

With the decades of the 70’s and 80’s came public dialogues of gender roles; gay rights; Vietnam and Iran Contra; and continued race and class conflict in the nation. In 1980, the church went on public record as opposed to America’s involvement in Indochina, also drafting a resolution to become a “Peace Church”, assisting pacifist youth in their opposition to participating in military service. At the same time, University Church has a memorial stained glass in the sanctuary to honor service men and women. In 1985 the church joined the Sanctuary Movement for political refugees and victims of violence in Central America. University Church provided sanctuary for two Guatemalan families, and continues the relationship by sending delegations to Guatemala on a yearly basis (learn more in “Ministry Partners”). We are also now part of the New Sanctuary Movement.

University Church was also known for many years as the home of the Blue Gargoyle organization, a non-profit group that provided tutoring, skills training, and employment assistance to the surrounding community. The Blue Gargoyle began with the leadership and vision of members of University Church (to this day, people refer to UChurch as “Church of the Blue Gargoyle”), and pastors Charles Bayer, Charles Harvey Lord, Peg Stearn, Don Coleman and AnnMarie Coleman are responsible for the legacy of social advocacy and prophetic witness that became a trademark of University Church during this time.

The commitments of University Church are clear: to be welcoming to all who enter, to proclaim a gospel of justice and peace, and to celebrate and honor the gifts brought by diversity. In the spirit of welcoming all, UChurch is “Open and Affirming”, providing opportunities for leadership and ministry with no stipulation of race, class, gender, age, orientation, personality, or ability.

Whoever you are, Wherever you’re from, you are welcome Here.

In 2010, the congregation called Julian DeShazier to serve as senior minister, the first African-American pastor in the church’s history, and the first to serve while under thirty years old. With Pastor Julian comes a renewed commitment to our storied tradition, a fresh energy towards students and the arts, and a community that is in covenant to be faithful and active in Chicago and everywhere the love of God is needed!

 Join us in God’s continuing testament, as we honor the past, embrace the present, and hope boldly into tomorrow!

Further historical resources (all pdf):

A Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) timeline
(c. 2010, with thanks to Garry Sparks)

University Church – The First One Hundred Years
(c. 1994, 272 pages)