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Citizens of Milwaukee: Starting Over, Again


By Jim Marten, 175th Anniversary Team Member and Chair of Marquette University’s History Department

Megan Marshall began last month’s Morter Lecture with reflections on Margaret Fuller’s journey to the Great Lakes in 1843.  The West, including Milwaukee, inspired Fuller to think about herself in new ways, to better understand certain things about herself.  Perhaps it was the sight of the immigrants climbing onto the pier at the harbor, confident and hopeful that they would create productive new lives in their new home.  Perhaps it was the vast expanse of Lake Michigan, which may have represented a sort of limitlessness and even a separation from the tradition-bound east.  In any case, Fuller felt the energy of the new beginnings suggested by the raw frontier town in the same historic moment that Unitarians were establishing First Church.

At a reception for Megan the day before her lecture, Jennifer referred to our church’s 175th anniversary as “balanced between the past and the future.”  We’re celebrating our history while developing resources and ideas that will keep our congregation and our denomination healthy and relevant for decades to come.

In a way, Jennifer was hinting that it was time for us to “start over”–not literally, but figuratively, at least, to meet the demands on our faith and on our church.

“Starting over” is a daunting phrase, suggesting something has to change, that something is wrong, or that something was lacking in whatever came before.  But that’s thinking in an ahistorical, linear way, which doesn’t work for any kind of history, much less for our church.  First Church in particular, and the UU denomination in general, have “started over” countless times, physically, intellectually, politically, theologically.  Indeed, the first few decades of the First Unitarian Society in Milwaukee were a series of literal “do-overs,” as the church was founded, abandoned, rebuilt, suspended, and started yet again.  Sometimes the re-start involved a new church building.  The church founders bought or built new buildings three times in the first fifty years of the congregation (by contrast, we’ve been in the current building for 125 years!).  Most current members of the congregation have enjoyed the continuity of having one senior minister throughout their time at church, and even the oldest members of the congregation have really only had two different ministers for any length of time.  Yet a constant in the notes from annual meetings from the congregation’s first half century was the difficulty in getting and keeping ministers for more than a few years—some stayed for only two or three years.  Although the ministerial musical chairs pretty much ended in the twentieth century, the congregation started over in 2009 when they added an associate minister for the first time in its history.

The congregation has also started over in other ways.  Although long known for its philanthropy in the community, in 1908 the congregation purposefully made community engagement and charity part of their minister’s job. Perhaps more remarkably, by the 1960s, especially, members of the congregation and the church itself began to extend that engagement to causes that were not simply philanthropic, but also political.  These ranged from civil rights and equal housing to, more recently, clinic protection, marriage equality, and Black Lives Matter.  These were not accidents; in each of these cases, a choice was made that led to a new version of an old imperative.

Finally, our church has fairly regularly redefined its spiritual mission, although always within the umbrella of “liberal religion.”  For much of the nineteenth century, members of First Church considered themselves Christians, although not “regular” Christians.  The first effort to come up with a kind of spiritual mission statement in the 1880s and early 1890s resulted in the “Bond of Union,” which asked new members (who also pledged an annual contribution of $10) to agree to sign the following declaration: “In the Freedom of the Truth and in the Christian Spirit we Unite for the Worship of God and the Service of Man.”  That was revised to seem a little less “churchy” in 1920: “In the love of truth and in the spirit of Jesus we unite for the worship of God and the service of man.”  A 1942 newspaper article noted that “no creed has been adopted by the church,” and when the Unitarians and Universalists merged in 1961, it was easy for First Church to accept the absence of any formal creed.  Indeed, one of the first sermons I recall after joining the church in the early 1990s had a title along the lines of “We Will Not Fence the Spirit,” and Drew Kennedy regularly offered a class on “Building Your Own Theology.”

That First Unitarian Society has been forced or, more often, chosen to start over numerous times during its eight score and fifteen years of history does not make it unique; many denominations and congregations have done so. 

Perhaps the most unique, and most personal element of our church’s compulsion to “start over” is personal: almost everyone who finds a home at First Church is starting over, one way or another: leaving behind other churches, or the absence of a church in their lives; leaving a different city and hoping that First Church can help them find a community in Milwaukee; or getting outside their comfort zones to find new ways of interacting with other people, of expressing their spirituality, and engaging the issues facing our community and our world.

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 forth 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.

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