Dedication of First Unitarian Church of Detroit, Nov. 29, 1890


On Saturday, November 29, 1890, weekend services began to dedicate Detroit’s new Unitarian Church, a colossal red sandstone building at the corner of Woodward and Edmund.

A.G. Boynton, the chairman of the building committee, formally “presented the building” to the Unitarian Society that evening. On hand to accept on the society’s behalf was Thomas W. Palmer (Unitarian, former U.S. Senator, log cabin builder, namesake and donor to Detroit of Palmer Park, major benefactor of the Detroit Institute of Arts, President of the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893), who gave a short speech about his happiness in, and his hopes for, the new church.

I share this excerpt from his speech (originally reported in the Detroit Free Press on Dec. 1, 1890) with little comment, but in context of the loss of First Unitarian in a massive (and extremely suspicious) fire this weekend. I’ve been taking it hard, but old Tom Palmer’s words have been a grace to me.

Now, Mr. Chairman, ladies and gentlemen, I accept this structure in the name of the people — in the name of the people who shall come here to worship — in the name of the good, who will come here and receive stimulation to further endeavor — in the name of the bad, who will come here and be led to see the error of their ways — in the name of the young, who will here see examples, which shall stimulate them to greater good — in the name of the sinful and erring, who will here find an atmosphere and teachings which will induce them to live different lives.

As I stand here I look down the long vista of thirty-seven years. Where are those faces which I used to see in this congregation? They have disappeared from our sight. Yet they come to me today and seem to rejoice with us in our fortune. In the name of them who have gone from us and those who shall come in the future, I accept this building as a place where souls may be uplifted from evil ways and habits and led to a perfect rest.

Let it be a stimulation to higher endeavor wherein we shall come to divulge the mysteries of God’s ways and the mysteries of man.

Twenty-three years later, Thomas Palmer’s funeral was held at First Unitarian.

At the Detroit Institute of Arts, you can see four stained glass windows from First Unitarian, designed by John La Farge. (They were removed from the church when it changed hands in the 1930s, as I understand it.) Thomas Palmer and his wife sponsored one of the windows, dedicated to the memory of Lizzie Merrill Palmer’s father, Charles Merrill. Mr. Boynton, building chairman, also has his own memorial window. But my favorite is dedicated to the memory of John Judson Bagley, tobacco magnate, Governor of Michigan.

I love it because the inscription reads: “Write me as one that loves his fellow men.”


I’m so sad that we lost this one.

#first unitarian church#thomas palmer