History Vignette 1: The Free Congregation of Sauk County
In 1852, German-speaking immigrant freethinkers founded the Freie Gemeinde von Sauk County in Sauk City, Wisconsin, about 20 miles northwest of Madison. Freie Gemeinde means free community or free congregation. The 80 founders included 15 or more women, who had full membership rights. As refugees from the Revolutions of 1848, the group sought freedom of thought unhindered by church or state. In 1884 they built Park Hall (known locally as Freethinkers Hall), a spacious, many-windowed wooden structure where the group continues meeting today.
In 1955 the congregation dealt with aging and decreasing membership by affiliating with the American Unitarian Association. This decision caused some members to depart and was not welcomed by the few other surviving Freie Gemeinde societies. Decline continued until the late 1980s and the arrival of a retired UU minister, Max Gaebler, who had worked with similar societies in Germany. Rev. Gaebler’s work, the beauty of the meeting place, and the UU connection spurred a revival. Today the Free Congregation is a vital if small community (57 members) in the Sac Prairie area, population about 7500. Sole survivor of the Freie Gemeinde movement, it has been served by both ordained ministers and lay leaders. The group’s earnest pursuit of ideas and culture is documented in a 71-page descriptive catalog of its books, periodicals, and printed music, completed in 2005.
In Free Congregation of Salk County’s online history, the reader will note affinities between the Freie Gemeinde movement and Western Conference Unitarianism, which flourished in the same region around the same time. It is not known whether the two movements interacted before 1955.
For more background and recent developments, see “Sauk City Freethinkers Change Things Up, Name 4 New Speakers” in the publication Voice of the River Valley (July 2013) [no longer available online].
The information here is taken from the sources cited above.
Performance in the congregation’s bandstand, September 2014. Photos are from the congregation’s Facebook page.
Interior photo by Kent Sweitzer. Exterior photo by Reece Donih.