(This history is excerpted from Joyce Johnson’s 1975, well-researched and richly detailed history of the formation of UUCM. To read the entire document, click here.)
In early New England settlements and towns, most of the people were of the Congregational faith. The property of the settlers was taxed for the support of preaching and the erection of meeting houses for public worship. The small numbers of people who held to other faiths were not able to support their own churches and so attended the Congregational Church.
At first the Congregational churches left parishioners free to believe as they chose. Later, doctrinal beliefs were stated, widening the differences among the people. By the early 1800s, the other denominations had grown and begun their own houses of worship.
As the doctrinal differences among the Congregationalists became stronger, many people moved toward Unitarianism. This move was defined when the eloquent William Ellery Channing preached in 1819 in defense of Unitarianism. As he explained the liberal religion, Jesus was considered a divine guide, not a deity. Great stress was put on the goodness of man and his ability to emulate Jesus. The one-ness of God, not the Trinity was considered. Truth was the foundation of the religion. Many authors saw the Bible as a great library that was not infallible.
Liberal Christian doctrines began taking hold in Milford and neighboring towns in the early 1800s. In 1824 a Unitarian church was begun in Amherst, and Wilton had a group of liberal thinkers also. The liberal thinking members of the Congregational church in Milford had been allowed a few Sundays each year for which to choose a preacher of their own views. This arrangement was not destined to work well for too long.
So, a liberal Christian minority of about 50 or 60 families in 1833 formed a Unitarian church, the Milford Unitarian Society. This number increased somewhat as anti-slavery became an issue. The Congregational church would not take a stand against slavery and so lost some members who were vehemently opposed to it.
The church operated on a pay-as-you-go basis, holding services when money was available. The Unitarian churches of Amherst and Wilton aided the Milford church when possible. As some families moved and some members died, the society underwent a slow decline and had ceased to exist by 1849. Yet religious liberalism persisted in Milford.
With the dissolution of the church, those remaining attended the Unitarian church in Wilton. The Milford Unitarian Society was gone, but the liberalism was there for good.
These people cared for humankind. They were ready to help in any movement which tended to promote morals or good citizenship. Many were ardent abolitionists. Among their numbers were farmers, doctors, shopkeepers, homemakers, lawyers, and teachers. Some were wealthy. Some were not. They included school board members, a school superintendent, congressmen, and officers of civic organizations. Some were educated in local schools, others were college educated. All contributed to the welfare of Milford in ways large or small.
By 1870, attentions were no longer caught up in the Civil War. The slaves were free, by law. Many Northern abolitionists had believed in abolishing slavery for freedom’s sake, not for the sake of the Negro, and many were prejudiced against blacks. Elizabeth Livermore stated an opposing view, perhaps also held by other Milford abolitionists, when she wrote her belief that “the coming civil war was a working out of divine retribution for America’s criminal treatment of the Negro race.”
In 1870 this war on hate had still to be won. Perhaps this was one of the reasons that drew a company of men and women together in 1870. Their purpose was to discuss forming a new religious society in Milford. A committee was chosen to ascertain how much money could be raised to support preaching for one year. These people also decided that if a society could be formed it would be known as a Unitarian society.
With the help of a benefactor that provided land for less than market value on which to build the church, and with support from the N.H. Unitarian Association (NHUA), the Unitarian movement in Milford, in 1878 began construction of a stone church fashioned after an English chapel. Work continued for a decade until the church was completed and dedicated in 1888.