Lakeside School of New Theology

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Bemus Point, NY - Town of Ellery
As Written by the late Clayburne B. Sampson
Former Town of Ellery Historian

Over a period of fifty years I occasionally heard casual reference to an auditorium and
grounds surrounded by a high fence, and presumably located at, or near Bemus Point.  My
questions were invariably answered by the tantalizing and vague information:  “I guess
there was something like CHAUTAUQUA started at Bemus Point -- but it didn’t last long
--- and I can’t tell WHEN it was.”

Finally, my curiosity became aroused and I decided to find out what I could -- and at least
settle the matter in my own mind.  From newspaper files and scrapbooks and
conversations with dozens of people -- little by little I have gathered data -- which pieced
together makes this paper.  I know full well this is not a literary masterpiece -- and I know
there are omissions.  I hope I have made no mis-statements.  This paper is too long to be
exciting -- perhaps even very interesting, but it is a record, which three generations of
historians have failed to make.

This paper is a brief account of the development of the Unitarian Church in Jamestown --
and particularly the work of one of its Ministers, Dr. James G. Townsend.

The history of the Unitarian Church in Jamestown divides naturally into three Periods:

The First Period embraces the organization and activities of the first liberal religious
movement in the city, and known as the Universalist Society of Jamestown 1858 - 1881.

The Second Period includes the birth and growth of a new and MORE liberal religious
era; the pastorate of Dr. Townsend, and the organization and work of the Independent
Congregational Society, 1885 - 1890.

The Third Period, is briefly, the uniting of the Universalist and Independent
Congregational Societies, and the resulting Unitarian Society.

I shall devote most of this paper to telling the story of the Second Period:  Dr. Townsend;
his pastorate and the Lakeside School of New Theology.

Dr. James Graham Townsend, was born in Pittsburgh, in 1839.  He graduated at Oberlin
College, attended Allegheny College at Meadville -- but did not graduate there; later - the
College gave him the Degree of Doctor of Divinity.  When 22 years old he went to the
Civil War with an Ohio Regiment, in service he was wounded -- and was never afterward
able to lift his left arm.

He later became a Methodist Minister, in the Erie Conference, and for eighteen years he
remained in the Methodist Church, having happy pastorates in Oil City, Meadville, Corry,
Jamestown and Buffalo. He was pastor of the Methodist Church in Jamestown three years
-- as long as the law of the Church then allowed.  Going to Buffalo, he became pastor of
the Pearl Street Methodist Church -- where, after a year, he returned to Jamestown -- to
later found the Unitarian Church.  In accepting his pastorate here, he renounced his
affiliation with the Methodist Denomination.

Of this act, he later said:  “I had no grievance with the Methodist Church, for she gave me
her best Churches, and my Doctor’s Degree came from Old Allegheny College.  I
withdrew, because I was no longer in harmony with her theology and philosophy of life.  I
came to Jamestown to preach what I called, The New Theology.”

Dr. Townsend returned to Jamestown in October 1885 and 18 officers were elected --
membership was solicited, and the Society took the name, “Independent Congregational”,
because the Church was independent of all other Church organizations and because it’s
government was democratic.

In 1886 the Church building located at the Junction of East Second and Chandler Streets
(the old Methodist Church building) was purchased.  During this busy year while the old
M. E. Church was being converted into the new home of the independent Congregational
Church -- Dr. Townsend, not being satisfied with the really rapid growth of his Church,
sought to give wider scope to his Theology, and proposed a Summer Lecture Course,
something after the style of Chautauqua.

In July 1886 a very entertaining and instructive two weeks course of lectures was given in
a tent at Lakewood located, I believe, where one of the large hotels later stood.  These
lectures were by Dr. Townsend and also many of the brightest minds in the country.
Madame Belle Weaver Cole, of London and Jamestown -- a noted singer -- and her
Concert Company composed the choir -- attendance was heavy and the meetings were
altogether a grand success.  Dr. Townsend named these meetings, The Lakeside School of
New Theology.  This was in July 1886.

1887 -- The Second Season of Meetings of the Lakeside School of New Theology.  At
this time of which I am now writing -- the early Spring of 1887 -- construction was begun
on the Chautauqua Lake Railroad.  Mr. Willard White, of Boston, the originator of that
railroad --  approached the Directors of the Lakeside School of New Theology with the
proposition to present the Association -- the three and one-half acre Wilcox Grove, at
Bemus Point -- if they would make it the future home of the Lakeside School of New

This Grove extended from a point near the Universalist Church (by this, I do not mean the
present point -- where the roads divide -- I believe the south end of the park was near the
south line of the lot on which is now Evan’s Funeral Home) to within a few rods of the
railroad, with the Lake Road on the West and the Road to the Depot, on the East.

On April 12, 1887, the Committee of the Lakeside School of New Theology, met Mr.
White at a lawyer’s office in Jamestown, and accepted the magnificent gift -- Clara Wilcox
to Lakeside School of New Theology, amount $4,000.00.

Work was immediately begun upon the GROUNDS.  Dead trees and stumps were
removed -- benches were built around trees, grounds were leveled off -- a large
auditorium 90 x 100 ft., with the roof projecting five feet all around -- was built.  A high
board fence was built around about half of the Grove -- the remainder was a wire fence.
The Second Season of the Lakeside School of New Theology began at the NEW
GROUNDS AND TABERNACLE at Bemus Point, August 5, 1887 -- and lasted until
August 21 - 17 days.

The two weeks course of lectures, concerts, Church services and illustrated lectures, was
given by noted people form all over the country and meetings were largely attended --
again, the SCHOOL was a success.  The two week’s program was fully equal, and quite
similar to that at Chautauqua -- admission was 25 cents for all day and evening -- with
privilege of leaving the grounds, and returning at leisure. There were tickets costing ten
cents, for those who wished to hear the afternoon (or evening programs) and a season
ticket -- 17 days -- $1.00.

I wish I might go on and tell you many pleasant things about the Lakeside School of New
Theology at Bemus Point, but such a happy ending is not possible.

In 1888  Dr. Townsend suffered a “nervous breakdown” and the “meetings” at the
“Grove” were discouraging to say the least.  In 1889 misfortune came up the Association

When Willard White presented the beautiful “Wilcox Grove” at Bemus Point to the
Lakeside School of New Theology, he had not paid Mrs. Clara Wilcox of whom he
purchased it -- the full amount of the purchase price of $4,000.00 but gave a mortgage of
$1,500.00.  That mortgage was not paid at maturity.  Consequence was the mortgage was
foreclosed by Mrs. Wilcox.

The Association was heavily in debt -- Dr. Townsend was ill and resigned his pastorate --
the foreclosure of the mortgage and the final taking away of their property -- well --

Thus ends the story of the Lakeside School of New Theology as far as I know about it.

Clayburne B. Sampson

SOURCE: Loraine Smith, Town of Ellery Historian. 2002.