Christian Union Church | Wesley Chapel.
The U. U. Meeting House at 236 Commercial Street is beautiful, venerable, and — forgive me — iconic. But it is not the cradle of Universalism in Provincetown. That distinction falls to a little house of worship, demolished a long time ago, known first as the Christian Union Church, and then, when it was acquired by the Methodists, as the Wesley Chapel. The sanctuary occupied the east corner of Commercial and Central Streets, where the Prince Albert Guest House stands today. Significantly, it was the childhood church of the Rev. William Henry Ryder (1822-1888), who was destined to become an important leader of the Universalist movement in the 19th century, and an estimable civic figure of great renown in Chicago, where he spent much of his career.
Detail of A Map of the Extremity of Cape Cod: Including the Townships of Provincetown & Truro: With Chart of Their Sea Coast and of Cape Cod Harbour, State of Massachusetts, by Maj. James Duncan Graham, 1835. From the Boston Public Library, Norman B. Leventhal Map Center. Call No. G3762.C35 1835 .G7.
Actually, the real birthplace of Universalism at the tip of Cape Cod was out on Long Point, when it was still a small fishing community. There, it is said, some youngsters combing the surf for driftwood one day came across a waterlogged copy of The Life of Rev. John Murray (1816), the posthumously published autobiography of one of the founding figures in the American branch of Universalism. They showed it to their older sister, Elizabeth Freeman (1809-?), who read the book after drying it out, embraced its message, and passed it on to her parents, who were similarly impressed. From there, the book traveled to friends and neighbors on the point and in town, and soon Universalist fervor gripped a small band of Provincetown residents. Or, at least, as the story is told.¹
(A word here about the tenets of Universalism and Unitarianism, distinct liberal denominations that grew up together through the 18th and 19th centuries in America, then merged in 1961 as the Unitarian Universalist Association. Put simply: Universalists embraced the notion that God’s salvation awaits everybody, while Unitarians embraced the notion that God is one entity, not three in one; the implication being that Jesus is to be followed, not worshipped. Put glibly: Universalists believed that God is too good to damn people, and Unitarians believed that people are too good to be damned by God.²)
No matter how Universalism arrived in Provincetown, it did attract enough adherents that a place of worship became a necessity. A school house belonging to Enos Nickerson was used at first. Then, on this site, Joseph Fuller and Thomas Lothrop built a church costing $3,105. It was dedicated 3 November 1830.⁶ The next year, a committee of the fledgling First Christian Union Society — John Adams, Simeon Conant, Elisha Freeman, Thomas Lothrop, and Jonathan Nickerson — bought the land itself from Joseph and Ruth Atkins.³ The Rev. Asahel Davis, a Unitarian, was called from Portsmouth, N.H., as the first settled pastor. Services were conducted here until the completion in 1846-1847 of the sublime Church of the Redeemer, now called the Unitarian Universalist Meeting House.
The Rev. William Henry Ryder. Frontispiece from the Biography of William Henry Ryder, D.D., by John Wesley Hanson, Boston: Universalist Publishing House, 1891.
Capt. Godfrey Ryder was an early member of the congregation. His son William was impressed enough by whatever he heard here as a boy to make Universalism his calling. (A disastrous sea voyage early in life cured him of that aspiration.) Ryder was called to the pastorate of St. Paul’s Universalist Church in Chicago in 1860, where he remained for 22 years. “He had a deep, sonorous voice and a marked degree of impressiveness,” The Chicago Tribune said. “There was in his delivery an indication of cool self-confidence in very word and action. He was a thoroughly fearless man, and whatever he believed to be right he would maintain at any cost.”⁴ The church, at Van Buren Street and Wabash Avenue, was destroyed in the Great Chicago Fire of 1871. Ryder immediately set out for New England and, “by personal application to his friends, succeeded in raising $40,000 to repair the fortunes of his church,” The Tribune recounted. A new church was completed in 1873 on South Michigan Avenue, more than a mile away. Ryder served on the Chicago Board of Education from 1862 to 1867, and had just been appointed president of the Home for the Friendless when he died at the age of 65. The William H. Ryder Math and Science Specialty School at 8716 South Wallace Street carries his name.
After completing their exquisite new church downtown, the Universalists turned this sanctuary over in 1848 to a group of Methodists.⁵ They remodeled the building and renamed it the Wesley Chapel, after John Wesley, the leader of the Methodist movement. It continued in use until 1866, when the Centenary Methodist Church was dedicated just three doors east, at 170 Commercial Street.
Abner D. Rich then acquired the Central Street property and built the fine Second Empire-style house that remains to this day.
¶ Last updated 10 July 2020.
164 Commercial Street on the Town Map.
Also at 164 Commercial Street:
Thumbnail image: Detail of A Map of the Extremity of Cape Cod: Including the Townships of Provincetown & Truro: With Chart of Their Sea Coast and of Cape Cod Harbour, State of Massachusetts, by Maj. James Duncan Graham, 1835. From the Boston Public Library, Norman B. Leventhal Map Center. Call No. G3762.C35 1835 .G7.
• William Henry Ryder (1822-1888)
Find a Grave Memorial No. 89057758. Chicago.
¹ Biography of William Henry Ryder, D.D., by John Wesley Hanson, Boston: Universalist Publishing House, 1891, Pages 34-35.
² Cribbed in large measure from “Unitarian Universalist Origins: Our Historic Faith,” by Mark W. Harris, on the Unitarian Universalist Association website.
³ Atkins to Conant, 4 August 1831, Barnstable County Registry of Deeds, Book 2, Page 287.
⁴ “End of a Useful Life. The Rev. William Henry Ryder, D.D., Has Passed Away,” The Chicago Tribune, 8 March 1888, Page 1.
⁵ “A History of Churches of in Provincetown,” by Bonnie Steele McGhee, 1992. From the Municipal Collection of the Provincetown History Preservation Project, Page 4883.
⁶ History of Barnstable County, Massachusetts, edited by Simeon L. Deyo, New York: H. W. Blake & Co., 1890, Page 991.