The roots of Unitarian Universalism go back to at least the 16th century and the Reformation in Europe when scholars began to question the man-made doctrines of the Trinity and, instead, insisted on the Unity of God. Hence the name Unitarian as opposed to Trinitarian. At the same time others proclaimed universal salvation for all after death, as opposed to hellfire and damnation for the wicked. From this perspective came the name Universalist. Unitarianism and Universalism flourished in England and America at the end of the 18th century. Some famous Unitarian Universalists include Thomas Jefferson, Issac Newton, Charles Darwin, Florence Nightingale, Oliver Wendell Holmes, William Ellery Channing, Susan B. Anthony, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Adlai Stevenson. In 1961 these two denominations merged, resulting in the formation of the Unitarian Universalist Association, the UUA, of which we are a member.
The Unitarians gained a foothold in the Mid-Hudson Valley in the 1830’s with the establishment of religious meetings in the home of Mr. and Mrs. John Peter DeWindt in Fishkill Landing (present-day Beacon, NY). Mrs. DeWindt was the granddaughter of President John Adams, a Unitarian, and the young couple was married in the presidential mansion and later attended a Unitarian Church in New York City. After moving to Fishkill, the DeWindts built a small chapel where Unitarian services were held. At about the same time, a Universalist group in Newburgh dedicated a little church on Liberty Street. In the meantime, tragedy took the life of Mrs. DeWindt, and later fire destroyed both the beautiful homestead and all the records of the Fishkill group.
Conversations in the 1840’s between John Peter DeWindt and Warren Delano, grandfather of Franklin D. Roosevelt, resulted in Unitarian meetings being held in the Court House on Grand Street in Newburgh and combined the Fishkill Unitarians with the Newburgh Universalists. In 1868 the Unitarians formally organized themselves in Newburgh by adopting a Constitution affirming their establishment of “Liberal Christianity” in the community. A church, “Church of Our Father,” was built on the corner of South and Johnson Streets in Newburgh. It was dedicated in 1870 to “the worship of one God, according to the teachings of Jesus Christ.” (More information about the Church of Our Father can be found here. The Unitarians maintained a minister and met in that church for services until 1967, when the congregation decided to sell the building. Seven acres of land were purchased in Rock Tavern in 1969 and the new building was dedicated on Sunday, October 25, 1970, “as a place where reverence for life and human values will outweigh material concerns.” The new dedication reflected the change that had taken place in Unitarian thought in the past 100 years.
During this time Unitarianism had transcended the bounds of Christianity into the area of universal religion wherein all ancient wisdom and modern thought were made available for the enrichment of our lives and the benefit of humanity. It had moved away from the concept of a father-like God to a more naturalistic, abstract approach. Partly due to this, “The Church of Our Father” was renamed to become the Unitarian Society of Orange County (USOC), which in 1995 was again renamed to be the Unitarian Universalist Society of Orange County (UUSOC). From 1970 onward, the congregation has operated as a fellowship rather than a church. In the fall of 1998, we returned to having a minister on a part time basis. In the spring of 2002, we changed our name to the Unitarian Universalist Congregation at Rock Tavern (UUCRT). On September 12, 2006 at 5:45 a.m., smoke was reported in the building by our alarm company, and by 7:30 a.m., the building was fully destroyed by fire. The congregation then decided to meet a few Sundays in the sanctuary of the Blooming Grove United Church of Christ, and it then moved to St. Anne’s Episcopal Church on Route 94 in Washingtonville, NY. Three and a half years after the fire that destroyed our building, we moved into our new spiritual home at the site of the previous building in Rock Tavern. Our first service there took place on Sunday, May 23rd 2010 with about 100 very excited people in attendance.
After moving to Rock Tavern, the congregation functioned as a fellowship without professional ministerial leadership. In November 1998, after receiving his Masters of Divinity from Drew University, the congregation voted to ordain and call as its half-time minister, James R. Bridges, who previously was active within the congregation, serving as Board President, on various committees and on the Metro NY District board. During 12 years as our minister, until his retirement in December 2010, Rev. Bridges left a legacy of working to raise the consciousness of the congregation as to what it meant to be a Unitarian Universalist. He was instrumental in keeping our congregation focused and together after the tragic fire of September 12, 2006 in which our building was completely destroyed. He shepherded the congregation through the four years it was housed at St. Anne’s Episcopal Church and the rebuilding process into its newly constructed and dedicated religious home, after which he entered retirement.
In 2011 we hired a half-time Consulting Minister, the Reverend Chris Antal. In the summer of 2012 Rev. Antal deployed to Afghanistan, where he served our troops as a Chaplain. We had a quarter-time Interim Minister, the Reverend Dr. Holly Horn, from September 2012 to the summer of 2013. Rev. Antal returned as our Consulting Minister on a quarter-time basis in May of 2013 and returned to half-time service that September. In November of 2014 the congregation voted overwhelmingly to call Rev. Antal as our Settled Minister and he was installed on March 22, 2015.