The Rev. Charles Henry Brigham, Minister from 1865-1877
Rev Brigham was the first minister of our congregation. He was known as an exceptional scholar and a powerful and convincing speaker. He was sent by the American Unitarian Association to Ann Arbor in large part to reach out to university students and mold the minds of the upcoming leaders of the West. He drew large numbers of students and townspeople alike to his sermons. One year his very popular Bible Study classes drew students from over 180 different towns and cities in 20 states. A friend speaking of Rev. Brigham after his death noted that over 30 of his students had become editors of secular journals; and "I have no doubt that the liberality of many such journals in the West is the natural outgrowth of this Bible class."
The Rev. Jabez T Sunderland, Minister from 1878-1898
Rev. Sunderland was a much loved and highly influential minister for two decades. In 1882 he oversaw the building of the lovely romanesque stone church at the corner of Huron and State Streets where the Unitarian Church resided for 60 years. He initiated the Sunday evening Unity Club lectures widely attended by members of the Ann Arbor community. He wrote prolifically, edited "The Unitarian" and authored the "College Town Pulpit" pamphlets. He had a great deal of influence in the Unitarian Western Conference. He is globally known for his writings in support of independence for India, where he traveled several times. Our congregation still has ties to Unitarians in the Khasi Hills of India where Rev. Sunderland visited in the 1890s. Learn more about Jabez Sunderland.
Eliza Sunderland, Wife of Jabez Sunderland
Although not officially a minister of our congregation, Eliza Sunderland spoke frequently from the Ann Arbor pulpit and many considered the Sunderlands a co-ministry since Eliza was involved in the running of the church and taught very popular Bible study classes to university students.
She was known as an innovative religious educator, prominent reformer, and a popular lecturer. She was one of the first women in the United States to head a public secondary school and was almost appointed a professor at the University of Michigan, leading the way for women who followed her. A scholar of world religion, she advocated the broadest possible church, one that she hoped would in time encompass all people. For more information follow this link to the University of Michigan Bentley Library's "Women of Michigan" or read more in a UU biography of Eliza Sunderland.
The Rev. Joseph H Crooker, Minister from 1898-1905
Joseph Crooker was described as tall and bearded, meticulous and imposing. Many of his tracts and books were published by the American Unitarian Association. He was strongly anti-imperialist and opposed to interpretations of the Bible being taught in the public schools. He was also strongly theistic, which conflicted with the increasingly liberal views of many members of the church. This led him to resign in 1905. He and his wife Rev. Florence Kollock were responsible for establishing and re-invigorating both Unitarian and Universalist churches across the country, foreshadowing the much later merger of the Unitarian and Universalist churches.
The Rev. Florence Kollock Crooker, wife of Minister Joseph H Crooker
Rev. Florence Kollock Crooker was not a minister of our congregation but she was an ordained Universalist minister who did preach from the Ann Arbor pulpit as well as other pulpits in Michigan where she served as a missionary to both the Univeralist and Unitarian churches. She was often interviewed about the role of women in the ministry and stated that if there were more women in the pulpits there would be more men in the pews.
Rev. Kollock had a flourishing Universalist Church in Illinois for many years and served Universalist churches in California and on the East Coast before marrying Joseph Crooker. She was a popular speaker and activist for women's rights. Learn more about Florence Kollock Crooker...
The Rev. Henry Wilder Foote II, Minister from 1906-1910
Dr Foote was a hymnologist who built up the church choir and expanded the church library of over 2500 volumes and took an active part in interdenominational affairs in the community. He was a traditional conservative new England Unitarian. He left the Ann Arbor church to serve as the Secretary of the American Unitarian Association's Education Department. Read more about Henry Wilder Foote II...
Dr. Percy Dawson, Minister from 1910-1912
The Ann Arbor Church was the first and last ministry for Dr Dawson, who was a Professor of Physiology before and after. He was called to Ann Arbor in hopes that his strong social activism would revive waning university student interest in the church as the preceding ministers had been rather conservative. Students with no particular interest in the church, but with an awakening social and political consciousness were drawn to the new minister as he befriended the Socialist movement on the campus. However, he found himself "misfitted for what he considered 'the most conservative Unitarian church in the Western Conference'. Members who might have accepted Dr Dawson's strong commitment to social views were unhappy with the church serving primarily as a lecture hall without any conventional ministry. Conflict arose and Dr Dawson was increasingly abrasive and was asked to resign in 1912, leaving behind a bitterly divided congregation and university students vowing to have no more to do with the church.
Dr. Robert S Loring, Minister from 1912-1918
Rev. Loring tried to smooth the rift in the congregation left by Dr. Percy Dawson's unconventional ministry. He returned to a more conservative Unitarianism. World War I arrived and membership dwindled. He kept members involved by stressing the social life of the church and shocked the community by allowing card playing and dancing in the church. He led the church's celebration of the 50th anniversary on April 30, 1915.
The Rev. Sidney S Robins, Minister from 1919-1928
Rev. Robins brought enthusiasm to restore the church to the place of importance it had once occupied before 1910. He brought a stability much needed in the turmoil following the First World War. Membership remained small during this time period and consisted primarily of university faculty and their families.
The Rev. Harold P. (H.P.) Marley, Minister from 1929-1942
Rev. H.P. Marley arrived on the brink of the Great Depression and served as an "activist in a church of activists" during the decade leading to the Second World War. In 1933 a first version of the Humanist Manifesto was drafted by U of M philosophy professor and church member Roy Wood Sellars . It was signed by local and nationally prominent thinkers including H.P. Marley. Rev. Marley had strong ties to labor movements and a labor newspaper was published in the church. Early organizing meetings of the UAW were held there. As the Second World War approached, he established a "Wayside Pulpit" in Ypsilanti to provide child care and playgrounds for workers families in the Willow Run bomber plant. The church fell into financial difficulties and Rev. Marley left for another church in 1942.
The Rev. Ed Redman, Minister from 1942-1960
Ed Redman was working at an Ypsilanti Unitarian Youth Camp organized by H.P. Marley when Rev. Marley left the congregation. Rev. Redman became the minister of the congregation as well as the Director of the Willow Run Area Recreation Project. Shortly after becoming the minister, the congregation sold the deteriorating State Street church and in 1946 moved to the Dean Myers stone chalet at 1917 Washtenaw Ave. There the church grew in membership and a George Brigham addition to the building was added in 1956. During the Joe McCarthy hearings in the 50's, the Unitarian Church provided a safe haven for liberal discussion. Rev. Redman testified on behalf of U of M faculty and students under investigation.
The Rev. Erwin Gaede, Minister from 1961-1980
During the 1960s and 1970s, Dr. Gaede was strongly committed to protesting the War in Viet Nam. He was also actively involved in the Civil Rights Movement and played an active role in working for fair housing laws and jail reforms. He had an ongoing media feud with Ann Arbor's Sheriff Doug Harvey. The church continued to grow during Dr. Gaede's ministry, but lost some members in a division over what some felt was Rev. Gaede's over-zealous opposition to the Viet Nam War. Rev. Gaede retired in 1980.
Rev. Kenneth W Phifer, Senior Minister from 1980-2005
Minister Emeritus, 2005 - present
Rev. Phifer took over a relatively small congregation and led it to a dynamic larger congregation capable of focusing on a greater variety of social issues. Throughout his ministry, he encouraged programs supporting gay/lesbian/bisexual/transgender persons. In 1988 the church became a sanctuary for a family fleeing El Salvador. In 1999 the congregation had outgrown the 1917 Washtenaw Ave church and moved to the current location at 4001 Ann Arbor Saline Road. After overseeing the 2004 addition of a Religious Education Wing, Dr. Phifer retired from his 25 year ministry.
The Rev. Eva Cameron, Assistant Minister from 1994-2003
While serving as the congregation's Assistant Minister, the Rev. Eva Cameron followed in the footsteps of Jabez Sunderland, visiting the Khasi Hills of India. Her connections there allowed the congregation to create a "Sponsor a Student" program that is still a ministry of the congregation. Rev. Cameron was very involved in interfaith programs in the Ann Arbor area. She is currently the Minister of Cedar Valley Unitarian Universalists
The Rev. Nancy Shaffer, Minister of Religious Education from 2008-2012
Rev. Shaffer graced the congregation with her poetry and her programs for children over her four year service in Ann Arbor before she fell seriously ill. You can read more about Nancy Shaffer in this memorial tribute.
The Rev. Mark D Evens, Associate Minister from 2008 - 2015
Rev. Evens served as the congregation's Associate Minister first under Interim Minister David Keyes and then Senior Minister Gail R. Geisenhainer. Mark left ministry for the world of high tech in August, 2015.
The Rev. Gail R. Geisenhainer, Senior Minister from 2008 - 2016
Minister Emerita, 2016 - present
During her eight year ministry, Rev. Geisenhainer orchestrated stimulating worship services, nurtured our music ministries, worked with youth and spoke out on climate action, Black Lives Matter and marriage equality. She guided the congregation through a year-long joyous and unifying celebration of our 150th anniversary.
*Photo of Percy Dawson from the collection of the National Library of Medicine