Reverend William Henry Furness: A Philadelphia Unitarian

1426-1434 Pine Street, 1961. The Reverend William Henry Furness house is the furthest on the left. These homes were the quintessence of the “Quaker style” Furness so disliked. This was the childhood home of architect Frank Furness, and it still stands today.

Born in Boston and educated at Harvard, Reverend William Henry Furness (1802-1896) came to Philadelphia at the tender age of 22 to nurture the city’s small Unitarian community, which had been founded by scientist and British immigrant Joseph Priestly in the 1790s.

Like Quakerism, which holds that the light of God is in all of us, Unitarianism was considered revolutionary, even dangerous, by traditional Protestant theologians.  Unitarianism holds that God is not triune (Father, Son, and Holy Ghost), but a single being, and that Jesus Christ was a great teacher and major historical figure, but not necessarily divine.  In his groundbreaking A History of Jesus, Furness rejected the Immaculate Conception and other miracles, arguing that, “these stories may have been pure fictions, generated by the marvelleous [sic] which the great life of Jesus did much to inflame. Or they were exaggerations of certain simple and very natural incidents, magnified by wonder.”*

To the scientifically-inclined urbanites of the Early American Republic, this was a theological breath of fresh air.  To Methodist revivalists under the sway of the Second Great Awakening, this was complete and utter heresy!

As a Boston transplant to Philadelphia, Furness was a liberal, open-minded humanist, and a devoted friend of the New England philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson, who preached individuality and self-reliance over conformity.  In his 1836 speech “Nature,” published by The American Scholar, Emerson argued that education should not be geared towards material gain and the practical sciences, but towards self-improvement and enlightenment:

So shall we come to look at the world with new eyes. It shall answer the endless inquiry of the intellect, — What is truth? and of the affections, — What is good? by yielding itself passive to the educated Will. … Build, therefore, your own world. As fast as you conform your life to the pure idea in your mind, that will unfold its great proportions. A correspondent revolution in things will attend the influx of the spirit.

The Emersonian spirit pervaded the Furness family home. Reverend William Henry Furness raised his children in a modest brick rowhouse at 1426 Pine Street, in which according to Frank Furness biographer Michael J. Lewis, “judgments about art were formulated with Puritan zeal  and in witty, forceful, literate language.”**   Furness and his wife Annis had four children, all of whom went on to pursue intellectual and artistic careers: William Henry Jr. became a portrait painter, Horace a renowned Shakespeare scholar and professor at the University of Pennsylvania, and Annis a German translator. Finally, there was ill-tempered, school-hating Frank, who went on to become Philadelphia’s most celebrated architect.

As prominent and educated minister, Furness’s place in society was secure, but he always felt aloof, different, a bit of a misfit in Philadelphia.  He longed for the rich intellectual ferment of Boston, and as a man of strong opinions he grew bored with polite drawing room prattle.  Despite Reverend Furness’s groundbreaking preaching and social activism on behalf of African-Americans (or perhaps because of it), Unitarianism never gained a strong foothold in Philadelphia. Most of Philadelphia’s upper class had blood or economic ties to the slave-holding South, and Furness frequently found himself shunned or verbally abused on the streets of the Quaker City. Yet Furness held his ground.  He hosted a convalescencing Massachusetts senator Charles Sumner at his Philadelphia home after he was brutally beaten by South Carolina congressman Preston Brooks, and personally protected abolitionist Frederick Douglass from an angry mob in New York City.***  Reverend Furness also found an intellectual soul mate in the actress and abolitionist Fanny Kemble, unhappily married to the slave-owning, Southern-sympathizing Philadelphia playboy Pierce Butler.****

Furness fostered ecumenical outreach with the city’s Jewish community. In the late 1860s, his son Frank Furness, who had gallantly served the Union as a cavalry officer, designed a new, Moorish-revival shul for Rodelph Shalom.  Following the dedication of this splendid structure in 1870, Furness declared to Rodeph Shalom’s Rabbi Morris Jastrow that the two congregations should have an annual joint Thanksgiving service.***** In an era when Philadelphia’s historically well-integrated Jewish community was facing increasing discrimination, this was a bold gesture.   In his own writings, Furness was sympathetic to the plight of the Jewish people in the Russian Empire.  “The Hebrew race is a great race,” he declared in his A History of Jesus. “With no civil order, no country, its remnants have been now scattered for centuries over the world, maintaining a national existence without any national institutions. What a vitality does this fact disclose!”******

Even though his children married into Philadelphia’s social establishment, Reverend Furness grew increasingly bitter with what he saw as his adopted city’s conservative, prudish, anti-intellectual climate. At an 1870 meeting of the American Institute of Architects, Reverend Furness had the gall to bite the hand that fed him. Deriding what he saw as dull Philadelphia taste, he argued that American architects must liberate themselves from the “Quaker style, marble steps, and wooden shutters.”*******

Furness retired from the leadership of the First Unitarian Church in 1875, and devoted himself to scholarship and cultural criticism.  Yet in 1886, the old minister must have felt vindicated, when new home for the congregation was consecrated at 21st and Chestnut Street.  It was a bold, craggy limestone pile, bristling with towers and adorned with colorful tiles.

This new home for the First Unitarian Church was designed by his son Frank Furness, who had followed his father’s (and Emerson’s) advice to build his own world. Like Frank Furness’s residential commissions, it stood out in bold relief against the subdued rowhouses and churches of the Quaker City.  As Reverend Furness had defied orthodoxy and convention from his pulpit, his son Frank did so with his draftsman’s pen.

The old man must have been proud, indeed.

William Henry Furness. Source:


“Build, therefore, your own world.” The First Unitarian Church, 2121 Chestnut Street, designed by Frank Furness, 1893. The tower and port-cochere have been demolished.

*Reverend William Henry Furness, A History of Jesus (Boston: Crosby, Nichols & Company, 1853), p.19.

**Michael J. Lewis, Frank Furness: Architecture and the Violent Mind (New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 2001), p. 12.

***Michael J. Lewis, Frank Furness: Architecture and the Violent Mind (New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 2001), p. 13.

****Michael J. Lewis, Frank Furness: Architecture and the Violent Mind (New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 2001), p. 81.

*****E. Digby Baltzell, Puritan Boston, Quaker Philadelphia (New York: The Free Press, 1979), p.302.

******Reverend William Henry Furness, A History of Jesus (Boston: Crosby, Nichols & Company, 1853), p.9.

*******James F. O’Gorman, The Architecture of Frank Furness (Philadelphia: Philadelphia Museum of Art, 1973), p.15.