Church of the River

Written by Ethan Williford

Photographed by Sam Prager

Originally Published in Memphis Current Issue 6. Order a physical copy today.

Reverend Sam Teitel smiled at the question. “My favorite band? All-time? It has to be the Clash,” he says. “In fact, Joe Strummer is one of my minister role models.”

Born in Freestone, California, Teitel spent his adolescence and early adulthood in Boston. So understandably, his 2017 relocation to the Bluff City presented quite the culture shock.

“Memphis is totally different from anywhere I’ve ever been. My wife and I talk about all the cities we’ve seen—cities all over the world—that are more like Boston. Memphis is its own thing.”

It only took a few short minutes into our conversation to notice that Teitel is not a typical Memphis minister; that Unitarian Universalism is not a typical southern denomination; and that the Church of the River is not a typical sanctuary.

Unitarianism in this city began in 1893, when Polk Spinnings led a group of like-minded progressive Memphians to establish the First Unitarian Church of Memphis. The national Unitarian headquarters sent Frederick Preston, a recent graduate of Harvard Divinity School, to minister the new congregation. Originally holding their services in Knight’s Honor Hall at 12 Hernando Street, the church slowly began to grow.

“We’re called a denomination, but I don’t know if that term is really accurate,” says Teitel. “That is, at least in theory, what we are, but we are a religious movement based around the idea that people of different beliefs, people of different value systems, people of different backgrounds can come together and worship together. They can all be welcomed, and they can all be valued. We don’t have to agree, and in fact, it’s better if we don’t.”

After its early founding, the First Unitarian Church jumped from home to home over the next half-century. The congregation even held some services in local movie theaters during the dawn of the cinema age.

However, in 1961, Unitarians nationally found themselves in a transitional period when the American Unitarian Association officially merged with the Universalist Church of America.

“One of the people who negotiated the merger told me that, basically, the Unitarians ran out of money and the Universalists ran out of people,” Reverend Teitel explains. “I’m sure that it’s much more complicated than that, but they were both very liberal Christian denominations.”

Appropriate for the changing times, the First Unitarian Church of Memphis opted in 1962 to purchase a plot of land on the Mississippi River and build a permanent spiritual home. Church leaders chose Roy P. Harrover, a famed Memphis architect and member of the congregation, to design the building. In his original proposal, Harrover wrote of his hope for Unitarian Universalists to “worship in a structure specially designed to express the tenets of their faith.”

Construction on the Church of the River concluded in late 1965, and its pulpit was christened on a snowy January morning, 1966. Located a stone’s throw from Chickasaw ceremonial mounds and graced with three evocative Burton Callicott paintings, the site exuded a majestic cultural spirituality.

“Perhaps this ground will become a revered shrine someday,” wrote congregation member Katherine Rice in a recent recollection about the church, “like the sacred temple at Delphi in Greece and all the other marvelous places where people have sat and wondered about the mysteries of our human lives.”

The Church of the River remains one of the only examples of organic architecture in Memphis. Characterized by the integration of design processes with the surrounding natural world, the style unifies the building and site into one structural art piece. World-renowned architect Frank Lloyd Wright was the best-known proponent of organic architecture, writing in his 1954 book “The Natural House”:

“So here I stand before you preaching organic architecture: declaring organic architecture to be the modern ideal and the teachin