Shippen resigned for reasons unclear, and George F. Noyes began his brief but fruitful pastorate in 1857. He saw the need to expand the social services which the Society had begun to offer the community. So in 1859 he got the congregation to establish a Ministry-at-Large, in addition to the regular ministry, as a social service agency supported by the church and manned by volunteers. It is said to have been “the only private agency for general relief in the city at that time,” and that was when the government did little for the poor and needy.
After this Ministry-at-Large was under way, we hired as its director a man whose pioneer leadership in social work with us makes him noteworthy in the history not only of our Society and of Chicago but also of nineteenth-century America. He was Robert Collyer, an English blacksmith living in Pennsylvania, a Methodist lay preacher who had been refused a preaching license because of his heretical Unitarian and Abolitionist views.
Under Collyer’s inspired leadership, this Ministry established an outside Sunday School “distinctively for the poor” which had 200 pupils, an evening school for all ages with an enrollment of 180, sewing classes, an employment service which found 150 jobs for the unemployed, a bureau for the placement of children and the elderly in foster homes. (We should note the segregation of the poor in an outside Sunday School instead of their integration into the regular one. These poor were white, not black. Segregation then was a class, not racial, matter, as indeed it still is to a great extent.)…
Collyer graphically described his work in a letter to a friend:
“The Ministry-at-Large is devoted to the poor–to their help in every possible way…All the publicans and harlots are members of my parish (the Ministry-at-Large, not the church itself) –when all the churches turn them out and they are lost to society, I am here to help them to themselves and to God. I visit prisons and get the deserving, or those that desire to do well, into good places when they come out, or if it is better, get them out. No doubt, I am busy–just as I sit down to write this I have been out (nine at night) to get a poor woman an extension on two pawn tickets–to read and pray with a young man in consumption…and to buy meat, bread and sugar for a woman quite sick and destitute, with a drunken husband. I am kept going by the Unitarian Church…I need not be other than a Methodist to be their Minister-at-Large, but I am from conviction on the liberal side.”
Surely Collyer is one of our uncanonized Unitarian saints!
Eventually, Collyer was called away for other projects such as the U.S. Sanitary Commission in the Civil War, started by Unitarians and Universalists to care for the Northern armies. It was the precursor of the American Red Cross. Then Collyer was drafted by the new Second Unitarian Church of Chicago to be its first minister. So the Ministry-at-Large gradually faded away.
Meanwhile, Noyes suddenly resigned his pulpit in 1859 because, as he wrote to the congregation, he felt that he did not have “a free church, wherein I should be entirely untrammeled by the usual conditions of society-organization and enabled to follow, without reserve, the guidance of my own convictions of truth and duty.” What were the pressures which he felt limited his freedom? Did our Society censor his sermons or curb his self-expression? We would like to know more about this disquieting event, but the record states only that the congregation accepted his resignation with regret and appreciation for his pastorate.
Our next minister, Charles B. Thomas, arrived in 1861 from New Orleans when the Civil War began. An Abolitionist and opponent of secession, he fled to the North. He soon took the lead in planning a larger church on South Wabash Avenue near Balbo Street. It was an impressive stone Romanesque structure, but its tower promptly leaned, sank two feet, and had to be taken down. Chicago lost its chance to have a tourist attraction and its own leaning tower. The new edifice was named the Church of the Messiah, although the Society retained its original legal name which we continue to use today.
Meanwhile, despite his leadership in reviving the Society and building a new building, Thomas was dismissed for “having violated the laws of God and society and thereby become unworthy in the name of a Christian man.” Again, as in the case of Noyes’ departure, we wonder what happened behind the scenes.
Thomas was followed in 1866 by Robert Laird Collier, not to be confused with his contemporary Minister-at-Large Robert Collyer, previously mentioned. He, too, was outstanding in his pastorate. He became the active head of the Chicago Relief and Aid Society.