By Jim Marten, 175th Anniversary Team Member and Chair of Marquette University’s History Department
“Does not the past speak to our condition today? Is it not our duty to apply ourselves with increased zeal to our immediate task in a stricken world?”
This inspirational quote appeared in a letter from a former minister, William G. Eliot, Jr., on the occasion of First Church’s Centennial Celebration in 1942. Eliot had been minister of First Church for a few years at the turn of the century. He was writing late in 1942, when the Second World War had cast a pall over the United States and the world.
Although his call to arms spoke to a particular time and place, it also speaks to our own time and place. Indeed, members of First Church have sought ways to aid the stricken in their community, nation and world from nearly the beginning.
This commitment to being fully engaged “citizens of Milwaukee” led to the creation of . . .
- a “soup house” in the 1850s run by the church for the poor of Milwaukee.
- the 1860s fundraising by the Sunday School children to help Civil War soldiers’ families and freed slaves in the South.
- the 1870s “Flower Mission,” which provided flowers and books for housebound or hospitalized members of the congregation.
By the late 1800s, the church had formed a “Women’s Alliance” to deal with gender issues, and individual members of the church had taken the lead in forming the Wisconsin Humane Society, the Protestant Orphan Asylum, and any number of other social service agencies, many of which still serve Milwaukeeans.
This blend of spirituality and “social mindedness,” as a newspaper reporter called it in 1942, led us to adopt the following “mission statement” for the 175th Anniversary, which “provides an opportunity to explore the values and imperatives that animate our church through the lens of history. Locating our church and our denomination in the spiritual, moral and political currents of American society, the commemoration will examine our shared past in order to help us better understand the ‘wild and precious life’ of being a Universalist-Unitarian in modern America.”
Our commemoration will focus on the “issues that for most of our history have been central to our congregation’s sense of purpose:
1) Economic justice: from organized labor and social welfare to the living wage and corporate responsibility.
2) Racial equality: from abolitionism and civil rights to integration and Black Lives Matter.
3) Gender and sexuality: from women’s suffrage and equal pay for equal work to women’s reproductive health and LGBTQ issues.
4) Community responsibility: from education and children’s rights to clinic protection and MICAH.
5) Spiritual liberty: from liberal Christianity to church without dogma, from freedom of religion to choosing your own theology.”
My Sunday Forum presentation on September 25, “Serving Milwaukee and the World: 175 Years of the First Unitarian Society,” will sample a few of those themes. I will also offer a few stories and bits of history that I’ve found interesting, and provide a preview of some of the other major events that we’re organizing for the coming year. These events, and those organized by other groups in the church, will allow all church members — whatever their particular interest or point of view — to find a place for themselves in our church’s long history.
This is the second in a series of blog posts that will be running throughout our 175th anniversary year! Stay tuned for more.
First Unitarian Society of Milwaukee is a home for spiritual community, social justice, and intellectual freedom, active in Milwaukee since 1842. Unitarian Universalism is an inclusive denomination; core principles include recognition of the worth and dignity of every person; respect for the interdependent web of existence; and the goal of world peace, liberty and justice.