By Jim Marten
In 1868, when a number of First Church members left the congregation, the annual meeting notes referred to a “serious loss of members who have gone after strange gods.” This happened at one of the low points in church history, but I don’t know where these folks were going or what “strange gods” they were worshipping. This tiny comment is one of the little bits of history tucked away in the First Church collection at the UWM archives in the Golda Meir Library.
The collection includes thirty-nine acid-free, “PAT approved” (meaning they are safe for storing photographs) cardboard boxes, each holding as many as thirty different folders of documents. They are organized into fourteen different categories, ranging from “history” to “buildings and property,” from “administration” to “conferences,” from “ministry” to “financial.” The records also include twelve volumes, one oversize folder, 120 audio reels, thirteen audio cassettes, and fifty-four safety film negatives. You can consult the finding aid for the collection here.
In writing the blog for this year’s 175th anniversary, I’ve focused mainly on the 30 folders in Box 1, which is labeled “History and Historical Documents, 1841-2014.” It’s the best place to get the big picture view of First Church History, and I suggest that anyone interested in the church’s past spend a morning in the fourth floor archives room.
But in the meantime, I want to share a few “odds and ends” from Box 1—interesting (to me, at least) factoids, curious events, and items from the past that might resonate with modern members of First Church.
We’re currently in the midst of pledging for 2017-2018, but the church used to require a minimum amount of contribution. The report from the first annual meeting in 1861 indicated that pew rents cost between $4 and $28. In 1875, church caused a minor scandal when its young folks raised money to eliminate a budget deficit with card parties and dances, where apparently a dance called the “Brown dip” was all the rage. By 1891, there were no pew rents, but members had to agree to pay $10 annually and to abide by the new “Bond of Union,” which went “In the Freedom of the Truth and in the Christian Spirit we Unite for the Worship of God and the Service of Man.” Thirty years later there was no mention of a specific amount of donation, but the bond had been changed to “In the love of truth and in the spirit of Jesus we unite for the worship of God and the service of man.”
In 1861, women from the congregation “adopted” a Civil War company—about 100 men—that before the war had been known as “Hibbard’s Zouaves,” and was one of hundreds of private militia companies who took part in drill competitions around the country in the 1850s. It became Company B of the 5th Wisconsin, and fought in most of the major battles in Virginia. Seventy years later, the congregation had a different attitude about war, apparently: in 1932, the annual meeting passed a resolution urging disarmament—this at a time when a convention of world powers was meeting in Geneva to create a structure that might prevent future wars.
One of the least Unitarian-sounding names for a member belonged to John F. Potter, a Civil War-era Congressman who had once been challenged to a duel by a pro-slavery Virginian. Potter declared he wanted to use “bowie knives”—hence the nickname (the duel was apparently never fought).
We rightly honor the Metcalf family for all they did for the church, especially in the building of the current structure. But another heroine to our congregation is Fannie Wells Norris, daughter of Congressman and railroad tycoon Daniel Wells, Jr. (of Wells Street). Fannie helped fund the Norris Farm for Boys (now the Norris Adolescent Center) and in her will (she died in 1937), she left $5000 to build the current framework for the organ, new organ pipes, and the marble steps. This was also the time when the fireplace at the front of the church was removed.
Music is one of the most important features of the First Church experience these days, but it only rarely appears in the annual meeting notes. In 1865, the minister asked “What shall we do about our singing?” Two years later a choir was added, but in 1897 they were running over budget (apparently at least some of them were paid) and were trying to raise money. A Mrs. A. P. Smith was hired to direct the choir for $5 a Sunday in 1905, but a belt-tightening campaign in 1917 led the board to lay off the choir director and organist. (Those same financial exigencies led the congregation to hold services in the parlor to save on heating expenses). Music isn’t mentioned for several decades, until in 1962, the annual meeting notes includes a plea for more men (a familiar refrain for the choir ever since)!
Throughout its history, the congregation has developed the social as well as the spiritual side of its members (see the reference to the “Boston Dip” above), and over the years it has been home to a number of social groups—the 40s & 50s UU Network, YANKS, and SWANS—but they actually go back 125 years, when the “Social Life Club” reported 77 members. Two generations later, in 1940, the 16-30 club started up.
For several years in the mid-1950s, the “junior church,” or Sunday School, used a box of marionettes found in a box above the stage in the chapel (now Max Otto Hall) to recreate Old Testament stories as well as plays written by the children.
There are tons of other interesting vignettes in the First Church archives, but I’ll end with the one I found most charming, because it indicates the hold that this church can exert. Robert Loring, an emeritus minister who had served the congregation for sixteen years in the 1920s and 1930s, wrote his congratulatory letter to the congregation on its 100th anniversary in 1942. In it, he revealed that even though he had left Milwaukee a number of years earlier, he still carried his old church key on his watch chain.