History and Heritage

Bertha TainterVictor UrbanowitzThis section of our web site honors the history of Unitarians and Universalists in the MidAmerica Region.

Here you will find a series of History Vignettes written by members of the History and Heritage Committee and other contributors. New vignettes will appear several times a year.

If you have a story to suggest, please contact Victor Urbanowicz at

Editor’s note: After learning a little about Preston Bradley, I decided he was a good subject for a vignette. Then I saw the following piece by Patrick Murfin on the Harvard Square Library website. I found it substantial and readable, and reproduce it here with the author’s permission.

Dr. Preston Bradley

By Patrick Murfin

Vintage postcardVintage postcard of Preston Bradley and The Peoples Church of Chicago. Image courtesy of CRCC collection.

No mid-twentieth-century Unitarian minister, save perhaps A. Powell Davies, reached more hearts and minds than did Preston Bradley (1888-1983). Among our contemporaries only Forrest Church — albeit in a more scholarly way — comes even close. Yet outside of Chicago, Bradley has been largely forgotten when he is not scorned.

Years ago, when the list was being compiled for eventual inclusion in the Dictionary of Unitarian Universalist Biography, I noted his name was omitted. Some of our leading scholars — concentrating mostly on either New England-centered Unitarianism or on Universalism — only dimly recognized the name.

Some that are aware of him hardly hold him in high regard. They reflect a deep disdain felt by many of his contemporaries, particularly in the East. Bradley was regarded as something of a huckster, charlatan and egotist — sort of a Unitarian Elmer Gantry. And I suppose it's true as far as it goes. A man of supreme self-confidence with a showman's flair, Bradley took everything he learned at Moody Bible Institute, threw away the conservative dogma, and applied the techniques to liberal religion. Some regard his Peoples Church as the first true megachurch — drawing from a wide geographic area, centered on a charismatic preacher, rich in programming, and availing itself of every modern tool of mass communication available to it. Nothing could have been more shocking to the learned, rational, and subdued ministers back East who presided over cozy white churches on the village green.

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How First Unitarian of South Bend Rose from the Ashes

Editor’s Note: The First Unitarian Church of South Bend, Indiana, began as a fellowship in 1949 and was accepted as a member congregation of tFirst Unitarian South Bend 1he American Unitarian Association in 1952. Member Dale Gibson wrote the following account of what happened when the congregation suffered retaliation for publicly opposing the Vietnam war. Suggestion for discussion groups: when your congregation takes a principled stand, what are the risks and what are the benefits?

When Rev. Joseph Schneiders was called to the ministry of the First Unitarian Church of South Bend in the spring of 1965, his record as a progressive had already been established in other UU churches. Upon his arrival in South Bend, his social justice work immediately resumed. He began by aligning himself with striking teachers and then followed Dr. King’s call for clergymen of all faiths to come to Selma.

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Mary and Austin Adams: 19th Century Radicals of the West (Dubuque, Iowa)

Austin Adams Mary AdamsMary Newbury Adams (1837-1901) became one of the major leaders of the women’s movement in the last half of the 19th century through her efforts of establishing women’s clubs. Women’s clubs were the only place then where women “could hear their own voices.”

In 1853, when she was 16 years of age she came with her family from Michigan to Dubuque, Iowa. A year later she met her future husband, Austin Adams (1826-1890) soon after her arrived from Vermont. Both sets of their parents came from New England Calvinist families, his were Baptists and her father was a Presbyterian minister. Austin said hearing the fiery sermons prevented him from completely enjoying his childhood.

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A Dynamo in the Dakotas

Rev Helen Grace PutnamA woman played piano nightly in a saloon in Jamestown, North Dakota, in 1890. She was a minister and drew some of her repertoire from the Unitarian hymnal.

The same woman visited remote communities and families on the Dakota plains. She brought spiritual comfort, tended the sick, and if a piano was available she might play a Beethoven sonata.

She was Helen Grace Putnam (1840-1895), the third child and only daughter of progressive Boston-area parents who gave her a good education. A capable and diligent student, she mastered several languages and became a skilled pianist. In Boston she taught music, edited a liberal Christian magazine, and helped poor children by placing them in farm homes.

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