Schenectady County

First Unitarian Society of Schenectady changing its name

The First Unitarian Society of Schenectady will soon go by a new name.
Holly Hawkes, First Unitarian Society of Schenectady, stands in front of the sign outside the building.
Holly Hawkes, First Unitarian Society of Schenectady, stands in front of the sign outside the building.

The First Unitarian Society of Schenectady will soon go by a new name.

Congregants voted in May to change the name of the liberal religious group to the Unitarian Universalist Society of Schenectady, a move that will likely become official this month.

FUSS incorporated back in 1901, when Unitarianism and Universalism were separate religions.

Founded in 1825, the American Unitarian Association initially subscribed to the belief that there was no Holy Trinity of God, but rather God alone. Later, Unitarians’ beliefs centered on the importance of rational thinking, a direct relationship with God and the humanity of Jesus.

The Universalist Church of America, founded in 1793, focused on a central belief that all people will eventually be reconciled with God. The line of thinking at the core of Universalism was that “if God was merciful and loving, and humans were created in his image, why would he condemn us to eternal hell,” explained the Rev. Priscilla Richter, minister at FUSS. “So love became the central quality that we, as human beings, sought to grow and promote and act on in the world.”

FUSS was founded at a time when Schenectady was growing. The “First” in First Unitarian Society of Schenectady was likely included in the name because there was speculation that there would eventually be a Second Unitarian Society in the city, said Holly Hawkes, a past president of FUSS.

Unitarianism was appealing to the founders of FUSS in part because of their backgrounds.

“Schenectady came out of a very humanist tradition — GE engineers, scientists, very rational people. They were more into the free and individual search for truth and meaning than they were into ‘love for all,’  ” explained Hawkes.

In 1961, Unitarianism and the Universalism merged to form a new religion, Unitarian Universalism. Following that move, many churches changed their name to reflect the merger.

Both traditions

There was discussion in the late 1990s about changing FUSS’ name, Hawkes said. Although an informal vote showed the majority of the congregants were in favor of such a change, it didn’t take place at that time.

Despite the fact that the name didn’t change, over the years, FUSS began incorporating elements of Universalism.

“A lot of the work we’ve done in terms of our social justice work comes out of the Universalist tradition,” Hawkes said. “So I think over a number of years now we have acted out of both traditions.”

The Unitarian Universalist Association’s public advocacy campaign, “Standing on the Side of Love,” which supports issues such as marriage equality and immigrants’ rights, comes directly from the Universalist tradition and is part of FUSS’ social justice work, Hawkes noted.

Richter defined the congregation at FUSS as a diverse group of people of varied religious backgrounds who come together because their motivating purpose is how they live their lives.

“As human beings, our mission is to grow in love, to grow in service, to have a purpose in this world other than to live a life focused on amassing wealth and power,” she said. “Moral development and growing and compassion and service and justice are important parts of who we are, because it’s how we live that’s more important than what specifically we believe.”

Passed easily

The name change was proposed again at FUSS’ November 2012 congregational meeting and a vote was taken in May of this year.

The motion passed with about 80 percent support, according to Hawkes.

There were a few concerns voiced by the congregation, including questions about why the word “First” was going to be dropped from the name, and why the change was even necessary, she noted.

“Times change, things change and people change, so it just seemed like this was the right time to acknowledge that, ‘Yes, we do have another tradition that is very much a part of us — the Universalist tradition,’ ” Richter said.

Nothing about the way the church operates will change, she noted.

Expenses associated with the name change will be minimal. They will include a filing fee for an amendment to the church’s certificate of incorporation, new checks and a new sign for the building.

Reach Gazette reporter Kelly de la Rocha at 395-3040 or [email protected]

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