Have faith: Roots of faith

Unitarian Universalist Church historian is digging deep to record church history.

Rev. Daniel Waldo Stevens was minister to the sailors who landed at Holmes Hole.- Courtesy MV Museum

Sarah Goodale Shepard is probably hard at work on a computer someplace right now. She’s working on writing a book about the history of the Unitarian Universalist Church on Martha’s Vineyard, and since it begins in earnest someplace around 1860, this may take her awhile.

Already, Ms. Shepard, the Unitarian Universalist Society of Martha’s Vineyard historian, has published an article in the Dukes County Intelligencer, a publication of the Martha’s Vineyard Museum. I managed to get my hands on a copy by touching base with Bow Van Riper, research librarian at the museum. This is just the type of stuff he loves to help with, by the way.

Harvard graduate the Rev. Daniel Waldo Stevens, whose original mission was to minister to the sailors who landed at Holmes Hole en route to New York or Boston, is credited with the true beginnings of the church here.

In her article, Ms. Shepard says that in his history of the Vineyard written in 1911, Dr. Charles E. Banks claimed Pastor Stevens was “a man of strong intellect, unconventional in his methods, and full of enthusiasm.”

The article points out something pretty amazing. Mr. Stevens, who was a Unitarian, served the sailors at Holmes Hole after a Universalist preacher left to minister on the mainland. The two groups — the Universalists and the Unitarians — wouldn’t come together formally until 1960, but it was a different story on the Island.

The First Universalist Society of Holmes Hole was formed in 1860, but after their minister left, they had trouble finding someone to lead the congregation on Sundays. So, the Rev. Mr. Stevens and a representative of the American Unitarian Association called on the congregation and offered Stevens’ services, since he was already here serving the sailors.

The Universalists agreed to have the Unitarian minister preach on Sundays, and then they renamed their congregation the Church of Unity. They were actually 100 years ahead of the times.

Of course, the name of the church was misleading, because the congregation couldn’t come to a resolution over Pastor Stevens’ compensation, leading to his eventual resignation, and the Church of Unity faded into the sunset by 1880.

Undaunted, Mr. Stevens went on to set up the Sailors Free Reading Room, Library, and Chapel, and lead what was the first Unitarian congregation. (Some argue that the Congregationalist Rev. Joseph Thaxter, who served in Edgartown decades earlier, was actually a Unitarian.)

Stevens managed to purchase a small boat with a gift given to him by the Sunday school he attended some 25 years before, and this allowed him to visit the ships in the harbor. He invited sailors of every nationality to the chapel, and wrote that there were no “contribution boxes” in a flyer that he distributed among them.

The flyer also reported that the library and reading room offered 25 different newspapers and 1,100 books. It also states, “No respect to persons on account of dress, color, or religious opinions. The word of God is not bound to any sect, party, or nation.” Now, that sounds a lot like the Island’s current Unitarian Universalist Church.

I’ve only read a tiny bit of Ms. Shepard’s words, but I’m already amazed by her church’s beginnings. I’ll want a copy of her book when it’s finished.


The First Congregational Church of West Tisbury will host a concert fundraiser on Sunday, Sept. 24, at 3 pm, titled “From Opera to Broadway.” There will be arias and duets by Mozart, Verdi, and Donizetti, as well as Broadway favorites from “South Pacific” and “Oklahoma!” A reception will follow the performance. The suggested donation is $15, and all proceeds benefit the continuing work of the church. For more information, call 508-693-2842.


The United Methodist Church of Martha’s Vineyard, at Trinity Church in the Campground, is working with the United Methodist Committee on Relief to help those affected by Hurricane Irma. You can call 508-693-4424 to find out more. This is no surprise, since the church also reports that they served 4,584 people from January to May 2017. With backpacks for kids, Clothes to Go, the Island Food Pantry, community suppers, and Little Dresses and Little Britches for Africa, the congregation has spread a lot of love.


The Lift Fund at St. Augustine’s Church is still in need of support. Most of the community events that happen at the church take place downstairs, and there’s no access for those with mobility challenges. To help the church with its mission to be open to everyone, visit goodshepherdmv.com and click the online giving link.


Remember, some Island churches have changed to their off-season worship schedule, so check the worship service listings in the calendar section of The MV Times, and if your church’s information hasn’t been updated, let us know by calling 508-693-6100, ext. 30.