A Light on the Prairie: First Universalist Church of Minneapolis
By 1860, the vigorous growth of Universalist churches in the Midwest was slowing; congregations in the region experienced stability at best, decline at worst. Over the next century this did not improve, and the 1961 merger was sometimes seen as a matter of thriving Unitarians offering shelter to faltering Universalists.
One congregation did not follow that pattern. Today, of the eleven Unitarian Universalist congregations of the Minneapolis-St. Paul area, First Universalist is the largest, with 951 members. From its founding meeting in October 1859, chaired by flour milling magnate William Drew Washburn, First Universalist has been for most of its existence a robust congregation and an effective force for progressive social values.
Like Washburn, other early members guided development of the region and helped found Minneapolis institutions such as the public library and school systems, the parks, the fire department, the Institute of Arts, Lakewood Cemetery, and the first settlement house. Thomas Lowry created the city’s street railway system. Dorilus Morrison was first mayor of Minneapolis, first editor of the Tribune, developer of St. Anthony Falls for water power and transportation, and a lumber and flour mill magnate. Flour mill entrepreneurs like the Crosbys and Pillsburys were also early members.
The first two ministers, who each stayed only two years, steered the congregation toward growth, pressing the members to incorporate and to use their wealth to put up a building instead of using rented space. In 1866, when a wooden Gothic structure was completed (local wags called it “the church with cushions in the pews and no hell”), the congregation welcomed Rev. James Harvey Tuttle, who stayed for a long and effective ministry. Tuttle revitalized the Universalist congregation in St. Paul and organized a separate congregation in South Minneapolis that would serve the less affluent. Later known as the Tuttle Church, it was considered remarkable because, among other things, visibly pregnant women were welcome at services. The Tuttle Church endured until the 1930s.
At First Universalist, Tuttle oversaw the creation of what is today the Association of Universalist Women (AUW), which pursues social service, social reform, and women’s rights. Tuttle believed Christianity should aggressively promote social as well as moral betterment, and attracted members with this philosophy. Having a conservative side, he opposed his colleague Herman Bisbee’s advocacy of Darwin’s theory, but was troubled by the resulting heresy trial and removal of Bisbee from fellowship in 1872. (Within twenty years, most Universalists, including Tuttle, agreed with Bisbee’s views.)
When Tuttle retired in 1891 he was succeeded by his assistant minister, Dr. Marion Daniel Shutter. Shutter and his wife Mary oversaw the founding in 1897 of Unity Settlement House, which offered child care, classes in English and citizenship, a kindergarten, a free library, employment assistance, work skills, and the county’s first parole officer. Its playgrounds and vacation schools eventually became part of the public school system. By 1968, government had taken over much of its work and Unity House was torn down to make way for a new freeway. Today the First Universalist Foundation is supported by the Unity House legacy.
Shutter publicly defended evolutionary theory as compatible with theism and took an active role in city matters. A national Universalist leader whose sermons were widely read, he brought community leaders together to build the chapel that stands today at Fort Snelling.
Shutter was an able administrator whose fundraising extended the life of the church, but he could not reverse the decline that began in the 1930s. As founders’ children typically chose other denominations, the nearby street railway terminal made the neighborhood unsightly, and the city’s population shifted south, membership dwindled to an elderly few. Under Rev. Carl Harold Olson (1939 to 1963), the building was sold to the Catholic archdiocese. Olson increased membership, but wartime shortages delayed the erection of a new building. In 1949 the congregation moved to a new red brick building at 50th Street and Girard Avenue South. By 1963 membership had grown to 450 adults and 600 children.
Olson retired and was succeeded by Rev. Dr. John Cummins, son of Rev. Robert Cummins, a denominational leader and a key figure in the 1961 merger with the Unitarians.
Serving from 1963 to 1986, Cummins developed a more inclusive lay leadership and actively promoted civil rights and social justice. He marched in Selma with Martin Luther King, counseled conscientious objectors during the Vietnam War, and provided sanctuary to Central American refugees. And he engaged in controversy: early in his tenure he learned that a high school civics club had been forbidden to hear a local professor speak on “the virtues and vices of communism.” Cummins invited the students, their parents, and the professor to have the lecture at First Universalist, and it took place. Cummins served two terms as president of the United Nations Association of Minnesota and was invited to the White House Conference on International Cooperation by President Lyndon Johnson.
Under Drusilla Cummins, an effective activist in her own right, the Unitarian Universalist Women’s Federation made gains for equal participation by women in the UUA. The Cummins Room at First Universalist commemorates the work of this couple.
Not surprisingly, the Cumminses were succeeded by a husband-wife team, Reverends Terry Sweetser and Susan Milnor. Under their guidance, the congregation grew rapidly and moved into a large former synagogue, its present home. The church hired a full-time social justice coordinator who in 1993 initiated the Unity Summer Program, which gave teens jobs in social justice programs. The program shifted its emphasis to creating social change and continues now as the Unity Leadership Institute. The Minnesota UU Social Justice Alliance (MUUSJA) took root at First Universalist.
In 2004 the AUW funded campaigns for reproductive justice for women and voting rights, campaigns which became working groups for MUUSJA. The First Universalist Foundation has given grants to local nonprofit agencies and, more recently, has paid the salary of the church’s Social Justice Coordinator.
In October 2009, the congregation turned 150 years old, the oldest continuing Unitarian Universalist congregation in Minnesota and one of the largest in the United States. In that year its current senior minister, Rev. Justin Schroeder, was ordained and installed. Today its members actively address issues like homelessness, marriage equality, sustainable agriculture, and voting rights. Reverend Schroeder’s words describe how the congregation unites spiritual growth with the pursuit of social justice:
Here, in the Universalist Spirit of love and hope, we are called to give, receive, and grow into Love's people. As Love's people, we welcome, affirm, and protect the light in each human heart; we act outside our walls for justice and equality; and we listen with our whole being to where Love is calling us next.
Adapted from Twin Cities Unitarian Universalist Congregations, edited by Shelley Butler, Pauline Eichten, and Victor Urbanowicz and published in 2013 by the History and Heritage Committee of the MidAmerica Region, Unitarian Universalist Association. For a book-length history, see First Universalist Church of Minneapolis: the First 150 Years, ©2009 First Universalist Church of Minneapolis. To order, write the church at 3400 DuPont Avenue South, Minneapolis, MN 55408; telephone 612-825-1701; or email to firstname.lastname@example.org.