Congregational History: Two Great Examples
Why take the trouble to write a congregational history?
- It is a very helpful source of information when you’re preparing a packet to give to ministry candidates, or describing yourself to agencies that can provide grant money, or writing a brochure for prospective members.
- It gives both young and old members a sense of where their Sunday meeting place came from, how it evolved, and how it is connected to the nation’s history. Such knowledge deepens pride in membership.
These are some reasons why the UU History and Heritage Society and the History and Heritage Committee of the MidAmerica Region are encouraging congregations to write their histories. Our goal is to develop a database of congregational histories, so that every society’s history is available to all the others. You’ll hear more about that in the near future.
So how does one go about producing such a history? First of all, go to the Web site of the UU History and Heritage Society and click on “Congregational History Project.”
It’s also a big help to look at some good examples—of which two have recently fallen into my hands, each of them occasioned by an approaching sesquicentennial. I’ll describe them in the order I received them.
All Souls UU Church, Kansas City, Missouri
Tending the Flame is enlightening in several respects. The account of the congregation’s early days, for example, should quell any notions of Unitarians as effete Boston Brahmins ill-suited for life in a raw frontier town like the Kansas City of 1868. To be sure, the charter members of All Souls came from the more comfortable strata of society, but they were made of tough stuff, being mostly “Union Army veterans and abolitionists” seeking opportunity in a fast-growing town founded only fifteen years earlier, where numerous gamblers strolled the downtown sidewalks and most men carried firearms.
In reality, the church’s early years little resembled Wild West film scripts, but its challenges were substantial all the same. The congregation had to navigate the nineteenth-century Unitarian identity crisis known as the humanist-theist controversy. It struggled to attain stability despite financial difficulties and ministers who departed after only a few years. The reader whose congregation is currently struggling can find encouragement in how today’s strong and stable All Souls repeatedly survived times of plummeting membership numbers and the threat of dissolution in its earlier years.
Tending the Flame is readable and well planned, giving the reader a many-sided view of the All Souls community as it was and has become. It begins with a one-page timeline followed by “Our Story,” a 36-page chronological narrative broken into twelve periods. Additional chapters cover religious education, the Sunday Forum that has been meeting since 1943, the role of music, and how the congregation builds and sustains community. A bibliography and an index are usefully included.
Readers planning their own congregational histories will find that some of the most useful tips in the opening pages of Tending the Flame. The title page names retired journalist Kay Jarvis Jones as writer and researcher, Jim Grebe as editor and researcher, and Andrea Jonson as graphic designer. These three served on the 150th Anniversary Committee—along with nineteen others. Many pairs of hands and eyes help speed the work along and ensure quality.
Jim Grebe serves on the MidAmerica History and Heritage Committee and is the author of Vignette 3, “The Preacher and the Novelist,” which draws from his book Democracy’s Defender. (Its subject, Leon Milton Birkhead, was a humanist minister who served All Souls in the early twentieth century.) Jim recalls that the production team for Tending the Flame began in June 2016, met regularly, worked steadily, and met its deadline of December 2017 without undue stress. He looks back on the project as a pleasant experience.
Skillful writing and editing and abundant illustrations, many in color, make the volume pleasant to page through as well as interesting to read. Tending the Flame shows in detail what the congregation’s minister, Reverend Kendyl Gibbons, says of All Souls in the Foreword: “All Souls has represented religious freedom, hospitality, and a commitment to reason throughout its 150 years of existence. The congregation has been fractious at times, insolvent at times, disappointed at times, and yet it has always persevered, knowing that greater days were on the horizon. At its best, it has been a leader of thought and action for a more humane city.”
To order Tending the Flame, email Kay Jones: jones [dot] kayc [at] gmail [dot] com. The price is $15.00 plus postage.
First Unitarian Church, Omaha, Nebraska
Pillars & Dreams repeats the lesson of Tending the Flame: a substantial number of people should be involved in the production of an extensive congregational history. The back cover pictures only the author and his advisory team of three, but the Acknowledgements section covers nearly three full pages.
It is a handsome volume, is bound in hard covers that feature a painting by Allan Tubach giving various views of the congregation’s century-old meeting place.
Introductory material is abundant. The first Foreword, by Reverend Ron Knapp, who served from 1976 to 1996, touches on some of his memories as minister and also on his predecessors. These include Newton Mann, whose tenure spanned the 19th and 20th centuries and who was the first clergyman on the continent to accept Darwinian theory. Charles Lyttle, who served two years at Omaha, is best known for Freedom Moves West, his masterly 1956 history of the Western Unitarian Conference. A briefer Foreword by Reverend Frank Rivas (served 2012 to 2018) speaks generously of the open and accepting spirit of the congregation.
The Preface by author Dave Richardson notes dominant themes: “financial concerns, the critical role of women in our history, the ability of the church to attract and retain remarkably talented ministers and finally, a strong ongoing commitment to social justice endeavors.” Three chapters are in fact devoted to women: one to the Women’s Alliance and one each to Rowena Morse Mann and Sarah Joslyn. In the years before World War I, the Women’s Alliance held the congregation together against fractiousness and financial trouble that were imperiling its existence. Sarah Joslyn, wife of a local newspaper magnate, merits a chapter because of the time, attention, and labor she devoted to First Unitarian and to education and culture in Omaha, as well as her monetary generosity.
One striking chapter is “Rowena Morse Mann (1870-1958): From Local Unitarian to International Scholar and Theologian.” Mann’s career has already been noted by Catharine Hitchings and Cynthia Grant Tucker. While a high school science teacher in Omaha, Rowena Morse joined First Unitarian and gave a lay sermon that moved Newton Mann (whom she later married) to encourage her to become a minister. After rejection by Harvard and the University of Berlin, she was admitted as a test case to the University of Jena. There she passed her oral examination summa cum laude, opening the door to other women seeking degrees. She earned a Ph.D. in 1904. The University erected a plaque commemorating her achievement. While AUA president Cornish continued to resist admitting women to Unitarian pulpits, several large Midwestern congregations were willing to call her, and in 1921 she preached at Harvard Divinity School.
Pillars & Dreams contains several such portraits of members, including one of Whitney Young of the Urban League. Other sections link the church’s history with the social and political issues of the times. These elements and the abundant illustrations enrich the book.
To order a copy of Pillars & Dreams, mail a check for $25.00 to
First Unitarian Church of Omaha
3114 Harney St.
Omaha NE 68131
Indicate that you are ordering a copy of the book and include your mailing address. There is no postage charge for destinations within the US. For further information, email admin [at] firstuuomaha [dot] org or phone 402-345-3039 ext. 101.
If you are planning to write a history of your congregation and you wonder which of these fine examples to acquire, I recommend getting both.