Some of Our History
The Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Duluth has a short history in comparison with Unitarianism and Universalism in the United States and with Unitarianism in Europe. However, in its principles and practices, it reflects this long and distinguished heritage. European Unitarianism began in the 1550’s and flourishes to this day. Unitarianism and Universalism surfaced separately in the American colonies before the Revolution. Along with the political and economic situation, a number of American colonists became increasingly dissatisfied with orthodox Christianity and its harsh Calvinist doctrines. Liberal thinking was heard from many pulpits espousing both Universalist and Unitarian religious views, and this continued after the Revolution. The Universalists emphasized the “Universal Fatherhood of God and the example of leadership of Jesus.” The Unitarians, who rejected the Trinitarian position, emphasized reason, rational thought, and diversity of religious experience.
Liberal religious beliefs increased and became the basis for organized churches as the new nation developed. In 1785 the Universalists organized in Oxford, Massachusetts. In 1825, the Unitarians organized in Boston, Massachusetts. As early as the 1850’s there were discussions of a merger of the two denominations as they maintained close ties.
The young United States expanded west, and Unitarian churches were built in such cities as Cincinnati, Louisville, Buffalo, New Orleans, St. Louis, Chicago, Mobile and Syracuse. By 1852 the Western Unitarian Conference was formed. Many smaller cities and towns did not have Unitarian churches until later in the 19th and 20th centuries. It was the Universalists who organized in the rural areas. At the end of the 19th century, the Missouri State Convention of Universalist Churches introduced a resolution of merger with the Unitarians, but it failed to pass. Not until May, 1961 did the Unitarians and the Universalists join together and become the Unitarian Universalist Association of Churches and Fellowships of North America (UUA) with its headquarters in Boston.
Duluth Unitarian Society
The Unitarian Society of Duluth was formed on May 18, 1877, when articles of incorporation were signed by 15 men and 9 women. The original mission statement in that document stated:
“To form an association where people, without regard to theological differences, may unite for mutual helpfulness, intellectual, moral and religious culture and humane work by meetings and other educational, social and charitable movements as shall be agreed upon.”
In the first few years of the organization, a Ladies Aid Society, a Sunday School and the Young Peoples Social Union were established. There also was a Unity Club for study and discussion of a wide range of social, moral, and intellectual topics. In 1890 a membership register (known as "The Book") was begun and is still used today. Over this period of time, approximately 1300 people have signed this membership registry.
Late in 1887, James West, arrived in Duluth to serve as the first minister of the congregation. Church leadership not being his strength, he remained only one year. He was followed by T. J. Valentine who served for one stormy year of quarrels with the congregation over religious and administrative matters. He found the members too liberal.
The church began to flourish following the arrival in 1892 of Franklin Chester Southworth. Membership increased to about 150 members, ancillary programs flourished, and there was a solid core of members and sound programs for each of its several groups. Two of the leading church and community members of this time were Judge Ozora Stearns and his wife Sarah Roger Stearns. Judge Stearns, Judge of the 11th Minnesota Judicial District since 1872, was elected as the first board chair of the Unitarian Society. Mrs. Stearns was a strong advocate of equal rights for women and served as President of the Minnesota State Suffrage Association. In 1882 she was the first woman elected to the Duluth Board of Education. In 1883 she founded the Ladies Relief Society that assisted in caring for infants of working mothers, and in 1885 she, along with others, founded the Women’s and Children’s Home Society that exists today as Northwood Children’s Home.
The Rev. Southworth left Duluth in 1898 and for the next half century the Society functioned under a variety of ministers, some serving relatively short terms. It was during this period that construction of the church building was done, and services began at 1802 East First Street in September of 1911.
There were four intervals between pastorates from 1918 to 1929, and this was a time of membership decline. The Depression and World War II and the resultant wave of conservatism also negatively affected church membership. Also, because of the stagnant economy, the population of Duluth was declining. By 1948 the number of active Unitarians in Duluth dropped to about 30 adults and there was a possibility of closing the church. However, a small group, mainly women, kept the society afloat. In 1950, with financial assistance from the Unitarian Association, the Rev. Kenneth Jackson Smith arrived to assume ministerial duties. Known for his sound sermons and wide intellectual interests, the Rev. Smith’s tenure began a period of slow but steady growth. During the 1970s and 80s, membership grew again, thanks in part to Reverend Karen Johnson Gustafson, who became Minister on June 1, 1986. Under her guidance, membership grew to 220, a rate exceeding the flourishing days of Reverend Southworth over one hundred years ago. Our history has not been a smooth one; yet, in its bleakest hour, the flaming chalice, symbol of our faith, was not extinguished and we look to the future of continuing to grow Unitarian Universalism in our community, or region and our world.