On July 10, 1889 a formal meeting was held in the free library to establish a Board and to elect trustees for the new Unitarian congregation. Job Male, Plainfield’s first mayor, was one of the newly elected trustees. The Reverend William P. Tilden was the first minister of the new congregation. On January 13, 1890, the society held its first annual meeting with 44 members on the roll. At a special meeting in February of 1891, the congregation voted to build a stone structure on the current property site on Park Avenue. The architect O.M. Teale designed the building with rusticated stone, multiple windows, turrets and towers placed asymmetrically. The new building was completed in April 1892 and christened All Souls Church a month later. At the dedication, the Rev. Hobart Clark explained that “within its doors all souls, whatever their belief or want of belief, whatever be their worldly circumstance or their spiritual needs, shall find a welcome, a refuge and home.” Over the years All Souls became known as First Unitarian Society of Plainfield, and then First Unitarian New Jersey. Our congregation is the oldest Unitarian Universalist congregation in New Jersey.
By 1884, the railroad had greatly changed the economy and industries of the city. The grist mill and farm life were replaced by factories that made hats, clothes and carriages. As the town grew, two distinct districts emerged. On the west side of town, low cost housing for lower–income residents sat next to run-down houses, dollar stores and fast-food restaurants. On the east side were the wealthier residents with their expansive landscaped yards, their huge maple trees and their homes with as many as ten bedrooms, a ballroom and servant quarters on the multiple floors. The First Unitarian Society of Plainfield sits on the border between both of these districts.
The marked border between the two areas of Plainfield contributed to the race riots in July of 1967. Now known as The Plainfield Rebellion, the events were part of a series of racially-charged episodes that also impacted other cities like Newark, New Jersey. By the end of the week-long disturbances, one White police officer was dead and over 50 Black citizens were injured. Another 100 people were arrested for looting and rioting by the time the National Guard and State police were pulled out of the city.
While many people and the congregations they belonged to left Plainfield, this congregation has remained committed to the Queen City. This was in part this is due to her historic landmark building, but with the move out of Plainfield the link has continued through a sense of obligation to Plainfield and the opportunities for the social justice work and service that are the foundation of the congregation’s mission.
The Rev. Alson Robinson, for whom the large stained glass window in the Sanctuary is named, was a strong leader in social justice. When World War II erupted, the church voted to recognize conscientious objectors and provide any necessary protection for them. At the same time, many of the members of the congregation served in the military. At one point, Rev. Robinson was personally corresponding with 90 Unitarian men in the service.