By Jim Marten
In 1843, the radical Unitarian reformer, activist, and writer Margaret Fuller took a summer vacation to the Great Lakes. This was unusual in and of itself—Wisconsin was not yet a state, the first generation of pioneers had not yet pushed all of the Native Americans out of southeastern Wisconsin, and travel to what was then called the “Northwest” was often grueling—but for a woman of that time to undertake such a trip alone, and then to write a book about it, made Fuller even more unusual. A year later she published Summer on the Lakes in 1843 (Boston, 1844), a combination travelogue/philosophical reflections/commentary on the state of women in American society.
Starting in Niagara, New York, Fuller endured a rainy steamship voyage all the way to Chicago. She explored Illinois and Michigan, traveling by stage, foot, ferry (sometimes rowing herself across narrow rivers) and train. She stayed in hotels and log cabins and encountered people from many walks of life.
Fuller came to Milwaukee just two years after the small band of like-minded Unitarians were forming First Church. Although she spent several weeks in the area, she doesn’t mention encountering any fellow Unitarians. Instead, she focused on a trip inland, where she encountered a small group of Native Americans (remnants of the large communities who had lived near Milwaukee just a decade or two earlier); on the scenery, especially the view of Lake Michigan from the city’s new lighthouse, which would have stood more or less at the eastern end of present-day Wisconsin Avenue; and on the ethnic diversity and work ethic of the migrants flowing into the frontier town.
Fuller has no direct relationship to First Church—despite the tiny room used by RE staff in the southeast corner of the basement named for Fuller—although she will play an important role in our 175th anniversary commemoration when her Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer, Megan Marshall, delivers the 2016 Morter Lecture (October 9, 1:00 PM, in the sanctuary). The topic: “Fuller’s Fullness of Being: Margaret Fuller and Transcendental “Self-Dependence.”
The Fuller that emerges from Marshall’s biography forms the center of a group of women intellectuals and radicals when neither was an adjective normally used for women. Yet Fuller transcended myriad gender expectations, forming friendships with prominent Unitarians and leaders of what has come to be called the “American Renaissance” like Emerson, Thoreau, and Bronson Alcott (Louisa May’s father). If you’ve seen or listened to the cast recording of the hit musical Hamilton, you’ll know what I mean when I say that Fuller spent her life “looking for a mind at work!” She supported herself as a writer and editor, promoting women’s rights, African American suffrage, prison reform, and equitable marriage laws. Her writings and opinions sparked controversy and even outrage, but the equally radical reformer and editor Horace Greeley sent her to Europe on assignment in 1846. She drowned four years later, when the ship bringing her home wrecked off Fire Island—a short sail from New York harbor.
Although present-day Unitarians are extraordinarily progressive when it comes to gender issues, in the nineteenth century they were only slightly more progressive than other protestant organizations when it came to their thinking about women. The first woman to be ordained as a Unitarian minister, as many of you might know, was Celia Burleigh—in 1871. Universalists had ordained their first woman minister, Olympia Brown, eight years earlier. In 1977, only 5 percent of UU ministers were women, but a major demographic shift began in the 1980s and by the turn of the twenty-first century, women made up a slight majority of the UU pastorate. Here at First Church, although Rev. Gertrude Magill preached part-time at the church in the early 1890s, it was only in 2009 that the congregation called its first woman minister, Rev. Dena McPhetres.
Yet women have played an important role in the church throughout its history, particularly in the charitable work for which the church became famous. A “Women’s Alliance” was created in the late 1890s; its primary purpose was to bring order to the many philanthropic activities of the congregation, from working for the Red Cross during the First World War to helping with the soup kitchen, improving the treatment of juvenile delinquents, and working for better schools. Social activism and community engagement of First Church has become far less gender-segregated over the last two or three generations, but the congregation draws much of its legacy of social consciousness from the work of Unitarian women during the last half of the nineteenth and first half of the twentieth centuries.
Despite Fuller’s place in the pantheon of Unitarian heroes, it’s doubtful that most of the pioneer Unitarians who built this congregation would have agreed with all of Fuller’s radical ideas. But most, if not all, fit naturally into the values of early twenty-first century Unitarians. And her description of the “pleasant people” of “Milwaukie . . . drawn together from all parts of the world,” with “dissimilar histories and topics,” also seems to fit us. She was writing, of course, about the Germans and Irish and Scandinavians, the Yankee entrepreneurs and businessmen, and working men and women who flocked to the west in the 1840s. But her words can describe the varying histories of First Church members who continue to “build a land,” as the hymn says, in the church a few minutes’ walk from that lake view Fuller loved so much. We have all come to First Church for our own reasons, taking our own paths to this place and time. And that is just one reason to celebrate our church’s shared history.
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.