History Vignette 19

By Victor Urbanowicz

Northern European Immigrants and Unitarian Humanism

This series focuses on the history of Unitarian Universalism in the Midwest, where immigrants often encountered American religious liberalism. The humanist-leaning immigrants were especially attracted to Unitarianism. I will start with a few remarks giving my understanding of humanism.

Humanism changed its character over the centuries, just like Unitarianism. Yet one trait seems consistent right from the beginning. Though Renaissance humanists were typically Christian and their pursuits were compatible with traditional religion, yet even then humanism somewhat displaced the Christian world view from the center of the big picture. After all, the beautiful literature and philosophy were mostly prechristian and had no connection with revelation and a supreme being.

Renaissance humanism also promoted critical scrutiny of scripture. The techniques used to authenticate texts in Classical literature were eventually applied to Bible texts—with results that sometimes conflicted with official doctrine.

As the centuries passed, other forms of critical thinking, i.e., Enlightenment thought and scientific inquiry, also challenged the religious view of reality.

John Dietrich

John Dietrich

By the twentieth century, humanism was mostly separate from religion but not quite. In a paper on the development of both John Dietrich’s thought and of religious humanism in general, Jay Atkinson notes that some German thinkers saw humanism as more respectful of faith than were hard-core rationalism and skepticism. In 1914 Dietrich said his purpose was to teach “a reasonable, sane conception of God, the universe and human destiny.” Dietrich cooled off regarding God in later years, but among UUs, humanism changed religion instead of replacing it.

What Immigrants Found in America

Northern European immigrants influenced Unitarian humanism in North America. They influenced and they also were influenced. They took part. Rather than dragging the Unitarians away from conventional Christianity, they found that among Unitarians much ground had been prepared for them. Of the various elements in liberal religion that had this effect, I will briefly describe three:

  • The Transcendentalist movement
  • The Free Religious Association
  • The humanist-leaning Midwestern churches.

The Transcendentalist movement, led by Emerson and Parker, had concluded that other religions and philosophies had great value, and Emerson also held that one could come to an intuition of the Creator without the Bible. Such views were not always popular on the Eastern seaboard, but Parker’s ideas were prominent at the seminary in Meadville in western Pennsylvania, which trained ministers for the Midwest and West, territory spurned by many Harvard-trained Unitarian clergy.

Felix Adler

Felix Adler

The Free Religious Association (FRA) was organized in 1867 to liberate religion from ancient dogmas. It opposed organized religion and supernaturalism, trusted individual conscience and reason, and affirmed the perfectibility of humanity, democratic faith in the worth of each individual, the importance of natural rights and the efficacy of reason. The first person to sign the membership book was one of the founders, Ralph Waldo Emerson, who was then in his 60s. Its first public gathering was attended by Progressive Quakers, liberal Jews, Unitarians, Universalists, agnostics, spiritualists, and scientific theists. One of its presidents, by the way, was a German immigrant named Felix Adler (right). For about 20 years it actively produced literature and sponsored lectures. Some loved it, some hated it.

Jenkin Lloyd Jones

Jenkin Lloyd Jones

Alan Egly found that long before the first Humanist Manifesto, the twentieth century’s great humanist teachers built on a foundation that had been laid in the previous century by Unitarian and Universalist congregations in the Midwest. The values stated in their founding documents were compatible with those of today’s secular humanists, including noncreedalism and freedom of thought, and their activities put those values into practice. Egly concludes, “The use of the word ‘god’ may have been customary. The setting for the church life may have been within the Christian tradition, but the emphasis in the congregations was on human values and human effort and the betterment of human life in the present age.”

Egly’s description characterizes the mindset of Jenkin Lloyd Jones, a professed theist and Christian who fellowshipped and labored with persons of good will regardless of their faith. He had no use for traditional creeds. Even when he preached on Gospel texts, his emphasis was on the ethical, not the supernatural. More on him shortly.

Carolyn Bartlett Crane

Carolyn Bartlett Crane (1858-1935)

Before I go on to the immigrants, I have to mention a Midwestern Unitarian minister who was a remarkable native-born humanist: Caroline Bartlett Crane of the Iowa Sisterhood, an energetic journalist, editor, minister, and social reformer who lived 1858-1935. She began to doubt traditional Protestantism at age 12, yet was drawn to ministry, and became a strong advocate of the “social gospel,” that is, social reform as a religious duty. As for the other contents of the Gospels, you can know her views by a couple of brief comments. What about the crucifixion of Jesus? “I never could see what good it did.” And his resurrection? “Impossible.” Personal immortality? “We have one life to live.” She may have been a little blunt for interfaith dialogue, but one knew where she stood.

Humanism among Northern European Immigrants

The humanist strain in Unitarianism developed largely[1] in the Midwest, which is also where persons of non-Yankee stock became Unitarians. I’ve mentioned Jenkin Lloyd Jones, born in Wales and brought to Wisconsin early in life. He became Secretary and Missionary of the Western Unitarian Conference in 1875. Over nine years, he increased the number of congregations in the Conference from 43 to 87 by proselytizing among not only transplanted New Englanders but also among “German, Norwegian, Danish and Dutch immigrant groups that had liberal religious leaders” (Buehrens). The AUA in Boston was reluctant to fund his work, but Jones for his part was not too interested in asking the AUA for money. Apparently he didn’t need it.

Jabez Sunderland

Jabez Sunderland

After Jones, the humanism of Midwestern Unitarianism seemed to be well established. Jabez Sunderland (left) followed Jones as head of the Western Unitarian Conference. Unhappy with the humanism he found in the Midwest, he tried to get the member congregations to identify themselves as followers of Christ, dedicated to loving God and humanity.

William Channing Gannett

William Channing Gannett

Instead, they adopted an 1886 statement by William Channing Gannett (right). That statement, titled “Things Commonly Believed Among Us,” can be described as nontheistic or at the most weakly theistic. As the humanist view spread eastward, this became a unifying document for the whole denomination.

So much for the inchoate Unitarian humanism which immigrants found in North America. As for the immigrants themselves, I will describe groups and individuals of five nationalities. I will start with the Dutch, because I first began investigating this topic on the suggestion of the president of the UU Church of Willmar, which was founded by Dutch immigrants and their descendants. And I’ll move on to the Germans, Finns, Icelanders, and Norwegians.

Harm Jan Huidekoper was the founder of the Unitarian seminary in Meadville, Pennsylvania

Harm Jan Huidekoper


Not only the Willmar Dutch but Dutch settlers in general came to America looking for more freedom of thought and worship. This at least was the case with those who came to Grand Rapids, Michigan, whom one scholar describes as quite eager to leave their conservative and ‘Calvinistic’ roots behind. That may be one reason why four of the churches founded in Grand Rapids between 1850 and 1890 were Unitarian or Universalist.

One particular Dutchman, while not himself a humanist, did much to advance humanism.

Harm Jan Huidekoper was the founder of the Unitarian seminary in Meadville, Pennsylvania. He came to the US from Holland in the late 1700s and converted to Unitarianism. Becoming a lay theologian and controversialist, he then founded and largely financed the Meadville seminary. As an agent of a land company, he himself acquired much land and wealth in Pennsylvania. That is probably one reason he became vice president of the board of the AUA. He did not favor Transcendentalism, but the faculty of the school he founded was soon filled by “Parker men.”

Joseph Priestley painting by Ellen Sharples

Joseph Priestley painting by Ellen Sharples

Unitarians in Pennsylvania were further along the way to humanism than most New Englanders. The Pennsylvanians were Socinians, following Joseph Priestley, who had settled and proselytized there. Unlike William Ellery Channing and others in New England, Priestley and his followers did not believe Jesus was a supernatural being. They saw him rather as a human being inspired by God. The new AUA held this view to be unacceptable and at first did not include the Pennsylvania churches in their first census of Unitarian congregations. By Huidekoper’s time, they had broadened their criteria for fellowship.

Professor Max Carl Otto

Professor Max Carl Otto (1876-1978), First Unitarian Society, Madison WI


I’ve already mentioned Felix Adler, president of the Free Religious Association and founder of the Ethical Culture Society. Another interesting case was Professor Max Carl Otto, born in Saxony in 1876 and brought to America by his Lutheran parents at age five. He became a professor of philosophy at the U of Wisconsin-Madison in 1921. He was a pragmatist, a friend of John Dewey. His view of the universe was materialistic and he thought it important to develop a nontheistic religion based on science and reason. Since there are always people who believe that a professor at a public university should never advance ideas that taxpayers might not like, Otto’s ungodly views created a kerfuffle, but the University stood by him. He described himself as a humanist, but he would not sign the Humanist Manifesto in 1933, considering it an empty gesture. Otto was a lifelong member of the First Unitarian Society at Madison. Charles Lyttle suggests he had a share in bending that society toward humanism.

There were humanist groups as well as individuals among German immigrants. One German group welcomed by Jenkin Lloyd Jones was the Protestantische Verein, or Protestant Union: 50 German-speaking congregations “who accepted no creed save the Gospels as interpreted by reason, scholarship, and the Christian conscience.” The pastors expressed progressive views on political and economic matters when attending sessions of the Western Unitarian Conference.

There was also a secular network of German freethinkers’ groups called the Freie Gemeinde or Free Community group. The failures of the Revolutions of 1848 had made things hot for them in Europe, and many of them immigrated to the United States in the later nineteenth century.

exterior of building, Free Congregation of Sauk County

Free Congregation of Sauk County today

And that is the origin of the Free Congregation of Sauk County, not far from Madison, Wisconsin, which is described at more length in Vignette 1. It was founded in 1852 as a German immigrant Freie Gemeinde society, and its meeting place is still locally known as Freethinkers’ Hall. It was one of several dozen such groups in the Northeast and Upper Midwest. In 1955 the congregation dealt with aging and decreasing membership by affiliating with the American Unitarian Association. Some members objected and left. The other surviving Freie Gemeinde societies were not pleased either. But it was apparently the right step to take. Today the Free Congregation is a vital community of 57 members in a sparsely populated area. The other Freie Gemeinde societies are no longer there to disapprove.


Stefan Jonasson tells us that “Although numerically the smallest of the three Nordic missions, the Finnish Unitarians’ influence extended from urban enclaves in Massachusetts and New York to the mining communities of Montana.”

And many Finnish immigrants leaned humanist. Carol Hepokoski, a UU minister of Finnish heritage, tells us that Finnish Unitarians described themselves as a ‘free thinking’ people. They honored the Bible and Christian tradition, but they were left free to define their own religious views independently of dogma. This was too radical for the Lutheran Finns but a welcome idea for others who liked the idea of harmonizing religion with contemporary philosophy and socialist thought. And many of the Finns who farmed and worked on the Iron Range were nonreligious socialists. My research benefited, by the way, not only from Carol Hepokoski’s writings but also from advice from Gloria Korsman, a librarian at Harvard Divinity School and also a UU of Finnish heritage.

One case of humanist Unitarianism among Finnish immigrants is that of the Reverends Risto and Milma Lappala, who were based in the Minnesota Iron Range city of Virginia.

Reverends Risto and Milma Lappala of Virginia, Minnesota

Reverends Risto and Milma Lappala

Risto Lappala first affiliated with the Congregationalists when he came to the United States in 1904, where he met and married Milma. Both were getting uneasy with Congregationalism when that denomination simplified the problem by expelling Risto for heresy. The couple found refuge in the AUA, which by then was supporting the founding of Scandinavian churches. Risto could have started a church in Duluth, but he thought it would end up a social club for the educated upper classes. He was more concerned with farmers and miners, so he went to the Range. He also worked in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, northern Wisconsin, and Montana. In Virginia, Minnesota, he reached out to both the “socialist Finns” and the “church Finns” with some success. Calling his message “the Gospel of Liberalism” attracted some socialists, who also wanted to stay connected with Finnish culture.

Risto and Milma were open to many theological perspectives, including atheism, and they did not disapprove of people who were active at the Socialist Opera Hall, normally not considered a suitable place for church people. Milma was more sympathetic to socialists than Risto was. For all these reasons, some locals called their church communist. However, Milma really wasn’t far enough left for the socialists, and some of them called her capitalist.

Risto and Milma had doubts regarding personal immortality, so they made a pact to test the doctrine empirically: they agreed that whoever died first would, if possible, come back and visit the surviving spouse to confirm the reality of the afterlife. Risto died first, and he never showed up. Possibly for that as well as other reasons, Milma placed less emphasis on immortality as she grew older. And that was probably why some socialists turned to her for funeral services. Local law then required graveside services at all burials, even for nonbelievers, and Milma performed these for departed socialists. Some of the mourners were pleasantly surprised and would ask her afterwards, “Can this be religion?” But at other graveside services her eulogy was immediately followed by a rebuttal from a hard-liner.

Over the years, Milma’s Christianity focused increasingly on this world, not the next. “She encouraged people to lead a good life, suggesting that heaven and hell were conditions encountered here on earth” (Hepokoski). She regarded the development of American industry as part of the religious mission, though I don’t think she had a five-year plan.

Milma regarded religion as “a mysterious and mystic impulse working within us” to improve ourselves and the world. The kingdom of God was something we must create on earth, and it was this pursuit and not a creed that makes a person religious. The family was the most important religious institution, even more so than the church. Her writings show she was less concerned about immortality of the soul than about progressing toward the social transformation evoked by the image of the Kingdom of God.

A mural painted for the Virginia church is compatible with such a view. It is called The Pilgrimage of Life. Even the indistinct, shining citadel that the pilgrims are walking toward sits on the ground. On a hill to be sure, but decidedly an earthly one.

The Pilgrimage of Life mural at church in Virginia Minnesota

The Pilgrimage of Life

Triptych comissioned by church in Alango township

Milma also served a church in Alango township, where the congregation commissioned a triptych in 1938. The left panel shows a young boy in the foreground, the pit mines where he might work when he is older, and a church in the background. The middle panel shows a young Finnish-American couple looking over a landscape. And the right panel shows an adolescent girl with her school in the background.

The religious community created by Risto and Milma Lappala is now called the Mesabi UU Church, and it continues to operate today in their spirit. It is and has been the spiritual home of many political and environmental activists.

Emil Gudmundson

Emil Gudmundson


This article owes much to Stefan Jonasson’s article “Nordic Strands of Our Living Tradition.” The author’s Unitarian humanism, his Icelandic descent, and his residence in Winnipeg are not coincidences. Every Unitarian congregation in the Province of Manitoba was founded by Icelandic immigrants, as is the one in Blaine, Washington. Icelandic immigrants were far less numerous than other Scandinavian groups, but they founded 25 Unitarian congregations in North America. Emil Gudmundson (left) recalled knowing during his boyhood of eight Unitarian congregations, with buildings, in Manitoba and Saskatchewan.

Lutheran circuit rider Magnus Skaptasson

Lutheran circuit rider Magnus Skaptasson

How did this happen? Like the Dutch and other immigrant groups, the Icelanders saw the United States as an opportunity for greater religious as well as political freedom and economic opportunity. Many were not happy with Lutheranism.

For instance, during the Easter season of 1892, Lutheran circuit rider Magnus Skaptasson (right) delivered a sermon to seven of the Winnipeg area’s Interlake Lutheran churches rejecting the doctrine of eternal damnation and proposing a more humane approach to salvation. Five of the seven churches turned Unitarian.

Stephan G. Stephansson, early 20th century Humanist

Stephan G. Stephansson, early 20th century Humanist

An earlier and more humanistic example was Stephan G. Stephansson (right), who settled in the US and eventually split with the Lutherans over scriptural interpretation, freedom of belief generally, and women’s rights. He was a struggling farmer, not formally educated, with a family to support, and who was three times a pioneer. He also habitually stayed up late to read and write and so became a celebrated poet in the Icelandic language. In 1888, while farming in North Dakota, he and other Icelandic immigrants formed the Icelandic Cultural Society. This group was very similar to the Free Religious Association, of which Stephansson was a member. One Lutheran clergyman accurately accused the Cultural Society of being a freethinkers’ group. By the time the Cultural Society disbanded in 1893, its debates with the Lutheran establishment had appeared in publications that most Icelanders read, and one of its supporters organized Unitarian congregations in North Dakota and in Manitoba. Stephansson approved the ideas of Felix Adler and Robert Ingersoll. He stands squarely in the ranks of 20th century humanists.

Is the Icelandic influence significant for today’s Unitarian Universalists? I mentioned Emil Gudmundson, and I am drawing from The Icelandic Unitarian Connection, his book about Icelandic Unitarians in North America, which makes a good case for an affirmative answer. He was also the first Prairie Star District Executive.

Kristofer Janson, poet laureate of Norway, first missionary to Scandinavian immigrant community sponsored by the AUA

Kristofer Janson, poet laureate of Norway


When speaking of Norwegian Unitarians, one has to start with Kristofer Janson, who was poet laureate of Norway, a novelist, and a leader in language reform, gaining acceptance for the so-called peasant language of Norway. He was the first missionary to the Scandinavian immigrant community sponsored by the AUA and was mentored by Jenkin Lloyd Jones. He founded a handful of congregations, and the ones in Hanska and Underwood, Minnesota, continue meeting today. He courageously broke with his social class in promoting language reform and offended the Lutheran establishment in Norway by rejecting many of its teachings, such as the subjection of women. The immigrant Lutheran leaders in the USA were hostile to his fairly conventional Christian Unitarianism, and his biographer Nina Draxten says they could have crushed his missionary efforts—had they not been too busy arguing theology among themselves!

Amandus Norman (1867-1931) Unitarian minister

Amandus Norman (1867-1931)

Janson did not venture far into humanism. The best thing he did in that regard was to nurture his successor at the Hanska congregation. This was Amandus Norman (1867-1931), who received his Doctor of Divinity degree from Meadville and then studied at Harvard. Norman (right) stood decidedly in the Transcendentalist-humanist camp. Janson died in 1917, and Norman eulogized him then and again in 1931, on the fiftieth anniversary of the founding of the Nora Free Christian Church.

The 1931 eulogy was published in the journal of the Unitarian History Society, with a foreword by Frederick May Eliot, who called Norman “one of the most courageous and statesmanlike of Unitarian ministers.” Eliot was of old New England stock and at the time was minister at Unity Church in St. Paul, which some today regard as old-guard Christian Unitarian. But in 1931 its minister had only unreserved praise for Amandus Norman and his humanist sentiments.

Norman delivered the eulogy only a few months before his own death. He begins with this statement:

I regard the Unitarian movement as one of the most significant efforts to liberate the human mind and thus to prepare our people for the New Freedom which is slowly emerging in the world.

He goes on to compare his rural Norwegian-American parishioners to the Viking sea rovers:

We are deep-sea Unitarians. As such, we are not overly concerned about the eddies and cross-currents to the right or to the left of us on the surface of the mighty stream of liberal thought. But let there be no misapprehension as to our essential position. We cherish no undue reverence for the mythologies of old, whether Norse, Greek, Hebrew or Christian. We accept them, not as special revelations of ultimate truth, but rather as the disclosures of the best that the men of old could embody in words after pondering the problem of existence. And if their findings no longer serve to feed our souls, . . . let us like resolute and resourceful men and women dive deeper, soar higher, and formulate the findings of our explorations in the world of space, time, and mind into nobler and more soul-satisfying concepts to sustain the loftier race that is to be.

And so concludes, with those ringing words, this anecdotal survey of Northern European humanists among the Unitarians.

When you look at the names of New England founders of Midwestern congregations, familiar names keep appearing: Adams, Eliot, Ballou, Emerson. The immigrants added diversity to Unitarian congregations and probably reduced clannishness. They increased the ranks of Unitarians and also swelled the stream of free and humanistic thought flowing through Unitarian and other liberal groups.

It has been said that the Unitarian movement was revitalized, even saved, by the open, humanistic spirit of the Western Conference, a spirit molded by hardy and adventurous people like Civil War veterans, pioneers, and immigrants. I am inclined to agree.


Atkinson, Jay. Dietrich in Spokane: A paper prepared for the Malibu Study Group of UU Ministers meeting at St. Dorothy’s Rest, Occidental, California, 6-8 March 2018.

Bowers, J.D. Joseph Priestley and English Unitarianism in America. The Pennsylvania State University Press, ©2000.

Buehrens, John A. Universalists and Unitarians in America: A People’s History. Boston: Skinner House, © 2011 by John A. Buehrens.

Curtiss, Elz. Communication on UU History and Heritage chat group, June 4, 2019.

Draxten, Nina. Kristofer Janson in America. Boston: Published for the Norwegian-American Historical Association by Twayne Publishers, a Division of G. K. Hall & Co., 1976.

Egly, Alan. “Humanism on the Plains,” in Knapp, Ronald, ed., Bring, O Past, Your Honor: Unitarian Universalism and the Area That Is Now Prairie Star District, a Project by Prairie Star District Unitarian Universalist Professional Leaders Retreat, April 1986. https://www.midamericauua.net/psd-archives/heritage

Emerson and Religion: The Living Legacy of Ralph Waldo Emerson. Harvard Square Library: A Digital Library of Unitarian Universalist Biographies, History, Books, and Media. https://www.harvardsquarelibrary.org/biographies/emerson-and-religion/

Gudmundson, V. Emil. The Icelandic Unitarian Connection: Beginnings of Icelandic Unitarianism in North America, 1885-1900. Winnipeg: Wheatfield Press, 1984.

Hepokoski, Carol Ann. Finnish-American Unitarianism: A Study of Religion and Place: A Dissertation. Berkeley, CA: Graduate Theological Union, 1998.

Jonasson, Stefan. Nordic strands of our living tradition: the story of Icelandic, Norwegian, and Finnish Unitarians in North America. UU World, 2/21/2011.

Lyttle, Charles H. Freedom Moves West: A History of the Western Unitarian Conference, revised edition. Providence, Rhode Island: Blackstone Editions © 2006. First published 1952 by Beacon Press.

Sunderland, Jabez Thomas. Entry in webuus.com: excerpt from David Robinson, The Unitarians and the Universalists (325).

Tauscher, Kathy and Peter Hughes “Jenkin Lloyd Jones,” in the Dictionary of Unitarian and Universalist Biography, an on-line resource of the Unitarian Universalist History & Heritage Society.

Thomas, Richard Harlan. Jenkin Lloyd Jones, Lincoln’s Soldier of Civic Righteousness. Doctoral Thesis, Rutgers University, 1967.

Tucker, Cynthia Grant. Prophetic Sisterhood: Liberal Women Ministers of the Frontier, 1880-1930. iUniverse, 2000 (first published April 1990).

Winston, Margaret Carleton. This Circle of Earth: The Story of John H. Dietrich. New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1942.

[1] And elsewhere, of course. Reverend Elz Curtiss of Burlington, VT, mentions “a huge German humanist movement here at the turn of the twentieth century.” (Correspondence 4 June 2019)