Clifton Universalist Unitarian Church may have gotten its start meeting in a log cabin once used as slave quarters, but it has a long history as a liberal religious community committed to standing against the forces of oppression. It began about 1900 when members started meeting in the home of Henry and Katherine Fust at 2245 Payne Street, just around the corner from where it meets today. In 1903 the couple donated some of their nearby land and began construction on the current building, naming it in honor of Katherine’s family, the Westermann Memorial Evangelical Church. In 1906, two years after joining the German Evangelical Synod of North America (Lutherans), it changed its name to Clifton Evangelical Church.
Unitarian Universalism has a long history of supporting women’s equality, and our ranks have included such famous Women’s Suffrage activists as Clara Barton, Susan B. Anthony, Margaret Sanger, and Margaret Fuller, and Universalism, in particular, was the first denomination to ordain a woman to ministry, Olympia Brown, in 1863.
In a very real sense it can also be said that Clifton initially became a Unitarian church over the issue of women’s suffrage. Minutes of a 1917 congregational meeting state, “We the members of the Ladies’ Aid of the Clifton Evangelical Church ask the congregation to change that part of the constitution which calls for male members only on the Board to read as follows—that any member of the church over 21 years of age is eligible for membership on the board.” Just four months later the change was made and three women were immediately elected to serve on the board, making Clifton the first known church ever to take this bold step toward gender equality.
This change occurred under the progressive leadership of its second minister, Rev. Theodore Hempelmann, who first served from 1911 to 1928, and again from 1936 to sometime in the 1940’s, and again in 1957. Hempelmann was greatly influenced by the emergingSocial Gospel and on April 2, 1917, at the same meeting during which the congregation elected three women to serve on its governing board, it also voted to remove the following language from its bylaws…
"This church acknowledges the Holy Scriptures to be the Word of God, and therefore the only infallible rule of faith and practice. We accept also the symbolical books of the Lutheran and Reformed Churches as correct explanations of the Bible."
…and replaced it with the following seven principles;
•The Universal Fatherhood of God.
•The Universal Brotherhood of Man.
•The Equality of the Sexes and the same standard of life for both.
•The superiority of Human Rights over Property Rights and the subordination of institutions to human wellbeing.
•Personal liberty in matters of conscious, speech and activity, limited by and in keeping with the collective good.
•The limitless possibilities of man and society under a social order of justice,
•The organic Union of the Human Race, a universal co-operative commonwealth.
After proving unable to reverse these changes, the German Evangelical Synod tried unsuccessfully to forbid services from being held, and later cancelled the church’s membership altogether. It then became The People’s Church of Louisville (Independent) until 1922 when it joined the American Unitarian Association and officially became Clifton Unitarian Church. In 2005 its members voted to include “Universalist” in its name to better reflect the 1961 merger of the Unitarians and the Universalists into the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA).
Clifton Universalist Unitarian Church continues its legacy as a liberal religious community and progressive voice in Louisville and the world at large. In 2013, Clifton’s Board of Directors decided to reverse the previous position that prevented Weddings at Clifton UU.
We have decided to open our Church to members and non-members without discrimination for Wedding and Civil Union Ceremonies.
Clifton UU is also heavily engaged in the environmental movement, including its annual Sustainability Fair, and its Community Orchard Project. It also has an active prison ministry and is involved in the Restorative Justice movement. Several of its members are also sponsors of an educational program for lower caste children in Nepal.