Unitarian ideas might sound startlingly modern to people who associate us with mainstream church traditions, but the Brighton Unitarian congregation has been around in various incarnations for more than two centuries.
The history has a long tradition of dissent and refusal to conform to outdated ideas.
Our congregation dates from 1793, when 19 people were expelled from a Baptist Church in Brighton for adopting Unitarian Universalist beliefs. In particular, they rejected the idea of predestination – that anyone God had not already picked for heaven was headed for everlasting Hell, no matter what they did on earth.
For a while, the Unitarian congregation met in each others' houses for worship and discussion, then occupied a chapel in Jew Street, near the present church. Some of the members left Brighton and some returned to their old church. But in 1819 the congregation had grown enough to buy the plot of land for our present church building.
This was purchased for £650 from the Prince Regent. The land was part of the gardens of the Royal Pavilion, but it appears the prince was in one of his frequent states of near-bankruptcy – thanks to his lavish spending on the Pavilion – and needed to raise cash fast. A commentator at the time called the land sale “unbusinesslike”.
The Prince signed the Trust Deed, which states that the land was purchased for the use of "... a Society of Protestant Dissenters established or intended to be established in Brighton".
We are not fully sure how the small congregation raised the substantial sums involved, but we should be very grateful to a John Chatfield, a supporter of the Ditchling Unitarian congregation, who arranged the purchase and donated £200. He also introduced the British & Foreign Unitarian Association, which granted funds to the church.
The church building was completed in August 1820, within 14 months of the land purchase. Dr Morell, a well-known classical scholar, was appointed as the first minister of the church. Due, in a large extent to his influence, its design was inspired by the ancient Temple of Theseus in Athens. Its architect was Amon Henry Wilds – who built much of Brighton’s fashionable Kemp Town.
Some did not like the Greek style – The Royal Brighton Guide of 1827 said it was "built after the manner of a heathen temple", which is ironically apt, given our wide acceptance of different traditions, including Pagan ones, nowadays. The opening service on 20 August 1820 was attended by 350 people.
The pediment on top of the Greek columns was originally engraved with ancient Greek script which, translated, was a New Testament quotation: “To God only wise, be glory through Jesus Christ.” But this was covered over in the late 1800s because hardly anyone could read ancient Greek, and cabmen were given to telling visitors that the place was a synagogue, and the lettering Hebrew.
Over the years, the church has had a habit of calling itself different things to reflect changing attitudes. In 1898, in the annual report, called itself a Free Christian Church. Prior to that, it had called itself Unsectarian. In 1901 it was called the Free Christian Church (Christ Church); by 1922, it became a Free Christian Church (Unitarian); in 1932 the name Christ Church (Unitarian) became generally used. Since the Second World War it has become known simply as Brighton Unitarian Church.
These changes in the public name reflect our long-cherished Unitarian preparedness to be flexible in the ways we see and portray ourselves.
If you are interested in knowing something more of the history of our Church, and particularly the Ministers, please see the Timeline chapter in our book Unitarians Talking.
The magnificent organ in the Brighton Unitarian Church was originally built in 1887 by Alfred Kirkland for the Essex Unitarian Church, Palace Gardens Terrace, Kensington.
The casework was from an earlier organ built for Brighton Unitarian Church by the Brighton firm of Morgan & Smith. In 1965 this organ was rebuilt by the firm of Kingsgate-Davidson.
In 1973 Essex Unitarian Church was demolished and the organ was removed by Geoffrey Ramsden and four helpers, and installed in Brighton. Mr Ramsden was dedicated to saving and restoring Unitarian Church organs. The organ has later beautifully restored by organist Dr Geoffrey Revell.
More history and technical details of the organ are given in this document: