By Jim Marten, 175th Anniversary Team Member and Chair of Marquette University’s History Department
Milwaukie Courier, August 18, 1841: “Those citizens of Milwaukie friendly to the organization of a Unitarian congregation . . .”
August 1841. A group of liberally-minded Milwaukeeans decide to call together other like-minded folks to discuss the possibility of forming a Unitarian congregation. They take out a small ad in the Milwaukie Courier inviting “Those citizens of Milwaukie friendly to the organization of a Unitarian congregation” to meet in Roger’s Building at West Water and Spring Street—now the corner of North Plankinton and West Wisconsin (there’s a Subway restaurant there now; the Riverside Theater is just down the street).
The meeting time: “at early candlelight.” On August 26, the day of the meeting, sunset would have been around 7:30 p.m., which is about when it would become dark enough to need a candle. The men and women attending the meeting would have walked through the gathering dusk, to a commercial building often used for church meetings and services. No one lived far away; the town’s population was around 3,000, scattered through settlements on the east, west, and, after it bent toward the Lake, south sides of the Milwaukee River. The streets were unpaved; the buildings were mostly wood. We have no idea what was said at the meeting. The only proof we have that it was held at all is that a congregation actually formed about nine months later.
But from nearly the beginning these early Unitarians sought to make their church integral to the little city, to truly be “Citizens of Milwaukee.” Perhaps the most remarkable thread in our church’s long history is this imperative to devote our moral and material resources to the improvement of our city and the welfare of our fellow residents. From the anti-slavery crusade of the 1850s to the child welfare reforms of the early 1900s to the post-war Civil Rights movement and the more recent fight for reproductive freedom, members of First Church have taken their roles as citizens seriously and with purpose. Hence the name of this blog.
…But let’s go back to “early candlelight.” This impossibly quaint phrase stretches back to an era without electricity, when clock-time meant less than how much usable sunlight was left in the day. In 1906, a Congregationalist minister reflected on this ancient term, which, he wrote, had long been used to set the starting times of prayer meetings, school programs, deacons’ meetings. It was the moment when “the sun had set, and darkness had sealed up the labor of the day. The cattle were stabled or driven afield for the night; the frugal meal had been eaten; the women . . . broke away from their imperative task as far as possible, and were surest of all to go, for they most needed rest from today and strength for tomorrow.”
The handful of Unitarians who gathered in the dim candlelight on that August night 175 years ago needed all the strength they had. They and their successors at First Church would face enormous challenges over the next seven score and ten years.
Some of those stories will appear on this blog over the next nine months. Others will be told at the August indoor picnic; at the October Morter Lecture by Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer of Margaret Fuller, Megan Marshall; at the special music and history service in February; and at the forward-looking celebration (with cake!) in April. Still others will be told in other events that emerge during the church year.
Keep watching Facebook, the website and the Chanticleer for more news about the commemoration of 175 years of Unitarian Universalism in Milwaukee!
This is the first 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.