First Universalist prepares for sesquicentennial year


First Universalist Church, 3400 Dupont Avenue, launched a year-long series of programs on October 25 that will culminate in their 150th Anniversary in 2009.

The history of First Universalist and the city of Minneapolis are inseparable. From the start the church was clearly committed to playing an active role within the community. From its founding in 1859 many leaders of the community were impacted by the call of their minister that to whom much is given, much is expected.

Rev. J.H. Tuttle arrived in 1866 and served First Universalist until 1891. He came from Rochester, New York where he was friends with and often shared a pulpit with two historical giants, Susan B. Anthony and Frederick Douglas. It was to them he attributed his strongly held belief that the church has an active role to play in society, a legacy lasting to this very day. Reverend Tuttle turned often to his congregation to reach out beyond the walls of the church.
The founders and early members of the church sound like a who’s who of Minneapolis history – people like Dorilius Morrison who began as State Senator then served two terms as Mayor and was also the first editor of the Star Tribune and W.D. Washburn who was a member of the Board of Trustees for the first 50 years, served in the U. S. Congress and Senate and worked for his brother Cadwaller for the Minneapolis Milling Company, the precursor to General Mills. Then there were the Northrup’s, the Lowry’s, Crosby’s and King’s. When the National Women’s Suffrage movement met in Minneapolis in 1885, they came to First Universalist Church.
Institutions in Minneapolis founded by church members include the Minneapolis Club, the Minneapolis Foundation, Lakewood Cemetery, Washburn Orphanage (now the Washburn Clinic), The Minneapolis Institute of Art, The Minnesota Symphony Orchestra and the Pillsbury and General Mills companies.

Church pastor Dr. Marion Shutter was responsible for the creation of Unity Settlement House in 1897 that was later led by member Caroline Macomber Crosby. Under her leadership Unity Settlement House developed free kindergarten, a mother’s club, sewing school, library, gymnasium and a probation office working with the juvenile court to oversee 81 boys and 7 girls. Unity Settlement House worked in cooperation with other churches until it was sold to the city in 1984. Money from that sale was used to establish First Universalist Foundation, a contributor today to a host of progressive concerns.

For its entire history First Universalist has been committed to social justice and progressive values. During the sixties Reverend John Cummins, now First Universalist Minister Emeritus, counseled over 500 men about becoming conscientious objectors. Rev. Cummins also joined many other UU ministers with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. for the famous march on Selma, AL after a UU minister, Reverend James Reeb, had been killed there. During the eighties First Universalist was a sanctuary church and during the eighties and nineties began a number of programs for HIV as well as support for gay and lesbian members. A group of gay parents and their families meeting at First Universalist provided the genesis for the subsequent founding of Rainbow Families organization.

They have come a long way, first meeting at a house on Washington Avenue, moving to the site of today’s St. Olaf Catholic Church in downtown Minneapolis, then to 50th Street and Girard Avenue South and finally to the current location on Dupont. It has been a grand journey laying the groundwork for the next 150 years.

John Cummins said it well back in 1981:

“The flame of the liberal spirit in religion shines most brightly when elsewhere it is dark. That is as it should be. To exalt the human spirit, to widen human liberty, to promote and defend exercise of the individual mind and conscience, to uplift the dignity and hope of every human being is the unique mission of Universalism.”

Saturday, October 25, was the beginning program featuring a prominent theologian, educator and historian.

The first speaker was Rev. Dr. Paul Rasor, director of the Center for the Study of Religious Freedom and Professor of Interdisciplinary Studies at Virginia Wesleyan College. He spoke on “Circumscribing Universalism: Navigating some Universalist Shoals” as well as delivering the sermon the next day.

Rev. Dr. Elizabeth Strong, Minister of Religious Education for 25 years, spoke on “Universalism’s Long and Proud History: the People, Theologies, Scholarship, and Just Plain Quirkiness.” In addition the next day she presented a luncheon program entitled “The Rev. Dr. Marion Shutter and His Work and Influence: Evolutionary Theory and Universalist Theology.”

Finally John Hurley, Director of Communications for the Unitarian Universalist Association spoke on “Memory and Justice: Reflections on Universalist History.” He is also archivist and denominational historian for the UUA.

First Universalist’s sesquicentennial programs will continue throughout the year. For information on these programs as well as regular church activities go to or call 612.825.1701. All are welcome.

Jessi Wicks is a member of First Universalist Church.