History Vignette 12: Wanderer, Worshiper, Lover of Leaving
Herman Bisbee (1833-1879) was a well-traveled minister. Born in Vermont, he served churches in New York State, St. Paul and Minneapolis in Minnesota, London’s East End, and Boston. He studied at Harvard and in Nuremberg, Germany. It was during his seven years in the new state of Minnesota that Bisbee made his mark on Universalism, challenging his denomination to emulate the thought of the more forward-thinking among Unitarians. As a result, he became the only Universalist minister to be found guilty of heresy, and he changed his affiliation to the Unitarians.
Bisbee’s views were conventional when he arrived in Minnesota, but the early years there were difficult nonetheless. He had been invited in 1865 to come from New York State to serve a small new congregation in St. Paul, but on his arrival Captain Russell Blakely, a wealthy and influential member, told him the congregation was not ready for a minister and advised him to return with his family to New York State. Bisbee got the congregation to agree to a trial period and, as he put it, “all took hold heartily.” But antagonism persisted between him and Blakely, and the small congregation could not pay him very well. He invited Unitarians in St. Paul to form a joint congregation, but without success. He supplemented his income by writing for a newspaper until he was fired for a piece that advocated votes for women.
Things improved for him when he was called in late 1866 to serve the First Universalist Society of St. Anthony. This affluent congregation, which had built the most expensive church in the area, received the new pastor well, but after some months he began to feel burdened by the group’s lack of organization, and in 1868 he accepted a call from a church in Quincy, Massachusetts.
The Dictionary of Unitarian and Universalist Biography describes what happened shortly after Bisbee’s return.
In 1871 William Denton of the Free Religious Association lectured in Minneapolis on Charles Darwin's theory of evolution. [Denton had also lectured successfully in Minneapolis in 1869 on the age of the earth.] James Harvey Tuttle, minister of the Universalist church in Minneapolis, responded with sermons and lectures upholding a literal interpretation of the Bible. Bisbee and fellow Universalist minister William Haskell countered (and sometimes mocked) Tuttle's view in a popular series of addresses which became known as the “Minneapolis Radical Lectures.”
The lecture series was so named because the sponsoring organization was Bisbee’s and Haskell’s Radical Society. Bisbee questioned the Bible’s miracle stories and its veracity in other respects. Influenced by the Natural Religion movement, he also asserted that faith required evidence, that honest doubters were acceptable to God, and that illness was cured by science and not prayer. The Minnesota Universalist Convention found the lectures less entertaining than did the general public, and at its June 1872 meeting in Mankato, Minnesota, it made use of new denominational restrictions on doctrinal liberty by putting Bisbee on trial for uttering doctrines “subversive of Christianity and entirely contrary to the principles of Universalism,” and for “unbrotherly conduct.” The resolution to revoke his ministerial fellowship passed by a vote of 47 to 23. The Committee on Fellowship and Discipline, which executed the decision, had three members, one of whom was Russell Blakely, a founder of the state Convention and a powerful presence there. The strongest motive for this disciplinary action was probably “unbrotherly conduct,” meaning Bisbee’s criticism of Reverend James Harvey Tuttle (pictured at left) before large audiences in Minneapolis, regarded as Tuttle’s territory. Two facts suggest that the outcome was traumatic for the Universalists: the dissenting ministers wrote a letter of protest, and the official record of the meeting contains no mention of the trial and its outcome.
Bisbee appealed the decision at the Universalists’ national gathering in Cincinnati, but the General Convention—whose vice president was Russell Blakely (pictured at right)—upheld the Minnesota decision. The statement upholding the decision did acknowledge that it was difficult to decide what was heretical because Universalist beliefs were hard to determine!
After the trial, as they had done throughout it, Bisbee’s congregation stood firmly by him: they asked him to stay on as minister and left the Minnesota Universalist Convention, changing their name to The First Independent Universalist Church of Minneapolis (the town of St. Anthony had been absorbed). After a few months, however, Bisbee resigned, citing ill health. His real reasons were probably more complex. He was apparently not too frail to enroll at Harvard in order to qualify himself for the Unitarian ministry, but his wife had died the previous March and he had two children to care for. These he placed with their maternal grandparents in Vermont. His former congregation eventually disbanded, and some of its members joined the Church of the Redeemer, Tuttle’s Minneapolis congregation.
After studying at Harvard and receiving his credentials for Unitarian ministry, Bisbee pursued Biblical studies in Nuremberg, Germany. There he formed an attachment with Clara Maria Babcock, a Bostonian who had also studied at Harvard and wanted to be a Unitarian minister. Clara seemed a suitable companion. With her short hair and ankle-length skirts, she fit the image of a radical woman of the time. Her father, a Unitarian minister, had been dismissed by one congregation for tolling the church bell for the abolitionist John Brown. They married and founded a parish in Stepney, in the East End of London, because Clara was excluded from Unitarian ministry in the America, at least in the Eastern states. The venture failed and the couple returned to Boston, where Bisbee acquired a Unitarian parish. His career ran smoothly there, though the death of their infant son and Clara’s professional frustration put strains on the marriage. Bisbee died suddenly in 1879.
Some Universalists in Minnesota may have rejoiced in 1872 at Bisbee’s punishment and departure, but he has been vindicated by history. In 1899 the denomination dropped the restrictions on doctrinal liberty that had provided one pretext for his trial. By then most Universalists, like Bisbee, regarded themselves as followers of Christ who accepted Darwinism and Biblical higher criticism. This was even true of James Harvey Tuttle, who was always troubled by the harsh treatment of Bisbee. (Tuttle delivered the “occasional sermon” at the 1872 meeting in Mankato, but did not take part in the trial.) Universalists, then, had become more like Unitarians. The Bisbee episode points up this growing affinity. It also reminds us that changes of this kind often come at a cost to the individuals who advocate them.
Biography of Herman Bisbee, written by Charles A. Howe in the Dictionary of Unitarian and Universalist Biography, an on-line resource of the Unitarian Universalist History and Heritage Society.
Bogue, Mary F. "The Minneapolis Radical Lectures and the Excommunication of the Reverend Herman Bisbee," Journal of the Universalist Historical Society (1967-68). Mary F. Bogue was the granddaughter of Bisbee and his first wife, Mary Sias Phelps. I also drew information from her unpublished biography of Bisbee.
“Prof. Denton’s Lectures.” Letter, Minneapolis Tribune, Dec. 7, 1869, p. 4.
“Rev. Herman Bisbee on Miracles.” Minneapolis Tribune, Feb 6, 1872, p. 2.
“Six Lectures on Geology! A Word to the Public.” Minneapolis Tribune, Dec. 7, 1869, p.1.
The DVD Bringing Our History to Life: Unitarian Universalist Stories from the Midwest features the documentary Heritage of Heresy: Bisbee and Tuttle on the Universalist Frontier. It can be seen on YouTube. Each congregation in the former Prairie Star District was sent a copy of the DVD. Additional copies may be available.