Our Church History
The Unitarian Universalist Church of Jackson was founded as the Unitarian Fellowship of Jackson by seven families, including local physicians and professors teaching at Millsaps College on September 7, 1951. The fellowship began as a lay-led fellowship focused on religious freedom meeting on alternating Sundays in several downtown hotels, including the King Edward. From this modest but determined group, we have evolved over the years to become a diverse and thriving community — just like the city we serve.
In the 1950s, the Fellowship had expanded its membership and was renamed as First Unitarian Church of Jackson. The congregation secured its first permanent facility on Ellis Avenue in 1958.
During the early 1960s, the congregation increased its involvement in the civil rights struggles eventually integrating its membership in 1963 with guidance from the newly formed Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA)1 who also helped settle the Rev. Donald Thompson as minister. He continued the church’s involvement in civil rights and participated with the integrated Mississippi Council on Human Relations, a group that had caught the attention of white supremacist. The year 1965 brought great change. On a positive note, Florence Newman, a founding member, initiated the first integrated head start program in Mississippi; however, Rev. Thompson was shot and severely injured by those wishing to end his and the congregation’s efforts in civil rights. Despite wishing to stay on, for the safety of his family, he left after being released from the hospital. Despite declines in membership, a dedicated core of members remained committed to civil rights retaining “an exhibition of openness: openness to out-of-state civil rights volunteers, openness to housing the Council on Human Relations, openness in membership policy when other Jackson churches were calling in the police to enforce racially exclusionary attendance policies, openness to ‘radical’ members like Bill Higgs (an attorney handling civil rights cases until he too was driven from the state), and so on.”2
At the beginning of the 1970s, the church, led by the Rev. Gordon Gibson, decided to move to its present North State Street location, where a two-story home was torn down and a new sanctuary was built. The adjoining home was converted into our religious education space and dedicated in the name of founding members Harry and Florence Newman. The Rev. Gibson served UUCJ again in the late 1970s until the mid-1980s; during his tenure UUCJ grew in membership, serving many families and lively children and youth groups, as well as became active in supporting the women’s and gay liberation movements.
In the late 1980s, the congregation was led by the Rev. Shirley Ranck, writer of the Cakes for the Queen of Heaven, a celebrated curriculum re-introducing a new generation to Goddess and Pagan studies.
Throughout the 1990s until her retirement, the congregation was served by Joan Jebsen, the only UU Chaplin in the U.S. (She, in fact, had to create a course of study with the support of the UUA to attain this distinction!)
After 2000, the congregation underwent a transformation under the guidance of a series of consulting ministers who helped UUCJ establish a new covenantal understanding of its relationship among its members and sister congregations.
In the 2010s, the congregation considered how best to expand its impact in the community to promote justice and compassion within the Jackson metro-area and beyond. UUCJ remains committed to religious freedom and seeking truth, with the teachings of diverse wisdom traditions and individual experiences as a guide. UUCJ members are active in social justice issues of our times, standing against oppression and privilege and seeking to align with the marginalized in a loving spirit of community to affect transformational change in the world.
1 The American Unitarian Association and the Universalist Church of America merged in 1961 forming the UUA.
2 Quote from Rev. Gordon Gibson who served as minister from 1969-1972 and 1978-1984.