Faith CoLab: Tapestry of Faith: A Chorus of Faiths: A Program That Builds Interfaith Youth Leaders

Jenkin Lloyd Jones and the Abraham Lincoln Center

Every religion has factions that disagree about "doctrine"—that is, the official beliefs of that religion. Even ours.

Even though Unitarian Universalism is a free religion without a set doctrine or creed, there are plenty of ways to disagree about what it means to be a UU. One such disagreement among Unitarians, more than 100 years ago, led the Reverend Jenkin Lloyd Jones to start a successful interfaith service organization in Chicago that still helps people today.

By the middle of the nineteenth century, there were Unitarian leaders in the West—in cities like Buffalo, and Chicago, and Wichita—and the established leaders of the American Unitarian Association (AUA), back in Boston. Most of the Boston Unitarians still considered themselves to be Unitarian Christians. However, few of the Unitarians in the West were interested in traditional Christian theology. The Western Unitarians were more liberal, socially, as well. They ordained and settled a significant number of women ministers, they attracted new, non-Anglo-Saxon immigrants to their congregations, and they published Sunday School materials that promoted a liberal religious education, including the study of science and literature along with the Bible.

The ministers in the West had organized themselves as the Western Unitarian Conference in 1852. As time went on, the Western Conference ministers felt they weren't getting enough support from the American Unitarian Association in Boston. They decided to do more on their own. In 1876, they appointed Jenkin Lloyd Jones as secretary.

In that role, Rev. Jones became the Western voice of Unitarianism in the AUA. He founded a weekly magazine called Unity with the mission of getting people to work together to improve human life. A religious, yet non-Christian, publication, Unity's mast head proclaimed the principles of "Freedom, Fellowship and Character."

Led by Jones, the Western Unitarians pushed the boundaries of what it meant to be a Unitarian. They rejected statements of doctrine—"official" Unitarian belief—that would limit a minister or member's beliefs about the nature of God, the Divine, or Jesus Christ. Jenkin Lloyd Jones served on the boards of dozens of social service agencies. He helped organize an American Congress of Liberal Religion, an alliance of liberal Jews, Unitarians, Universalists, and Ethical Culturalists.

In the meantime, the American Unitarian Association relaxed their statement of doctrine. By 1890, many of the Western Unitarian ministers now felt the official statement was liberal enough for them, and tension between the West and New England began to lessen. When the Western Unitarian Conference replaced Jones' Unity magazine with another publication, Jones was deeply hurt. He remained a Unitarian minister, but he convinced his congregation, All Souls, to become nonsectarian. The congregation removed the word "Unitarian" from their name and returned $4,000 that Unitarian groups had donated to build a new church. Some other Unitarian congregations, many led by women ministers he had mentored, chose new names without the word "Unitarian"—such as "Unity Church" and "All Souls"—to support Jones.

Jenkin Lloyd Jones then put all his energy into what he considered his faith's mission: improving human lives without the fetters of a particular denomination. When it was time to build a new church, he chose to construct one that would house traditional worship alongside social services. He decided to establish a new settlement house—similar to Jane Addams' Hull House, but with more services—on the south side of Chicago. Settlement houses were urban missions, usually in immigrant communities, where members of the educated class lived among the poor and oppressed. Some paid and some as volunteers, the settlement house workers taught liberal arts, such as literature and history, and practical arts such as sewing and household management. The settlement houses provided social and cultural opportunities for people in the neighborhood.

Jones named the new settlement house the Abraham Lincoln Center. He asked his nephew Frank Lloyd Wright, an architect who was just getting his start, to design the building. The Abraham Lincoln Center included apartments for Jones and other resident teachers, a nine hundred-seat hall for Sunday services and other programs, a gymnasium, a library, classrooms, art rooms, and spaces for socializing and amusement. He invited leaders from various faiths to be charter members, to serve on the Abraham Lincoln Center's board, and to join in the Center's programs; he included Jews, Christians of various denominations, and members from groups as diverse as the Salvation Army and the Ethical Culture Society. Jones stated his vision for the building:

It is hoped that this building may become a center of life and love, towards which will gravitate the needs of head, heart, and body, and from which will radiate all forces that will help redeem and elevate the individual and the community. It will be a common meeting-place for those who need and those who will give help—nonsectarian, non-partisan, non-racial—where the distinction between the classes and the masses will not appear.

Today, over a century later, the Abraham Lincoln Center remains a nonsectarian center for residents of Chicago's South Side neighborhood, regardless of religious, ethnic or cultural background. It is a place where people help one another, a project true to Jenkin Lloyd Jones' vision of a world without sectarian boundaries.