On October 9, 2017, our church turns 175 years old! We are proud to have been one of the first churches in Racine.
This is a sermon on the church’s history given by Dr. Reverend Tony Larsen in 2013.
On Sunday afternoon, October 2, 1842, at early candlelight in the house of Luman Parmelee, Amaziah Stebbins was chosen moderator and Jacob Ly Brand appointed secretary. The following named persons were present composing the meeting – Amaziah Stebbins, Asa Palmer, Luman Parmelee, Thomas J. Wisner, Ranson Chadwick, and Jacob Ly Brand. The moderator appointed Jacob Ly Brand, Thomas J. Wisner, and George Perkins a committee to investigate the law respecting the manner of forming religious societies. On October 9, 1842, the committee reported “that in their belief, there is nothing more necessary in the formation of a religious society of the Universalists in the village than a meeting of friends of such denomination.” (From the Journal-Times in 1912.)
And so began the Universalist Church of Racine. Five months after that historic meeting in 1842, the board of the church decided to publish its first public notice. The following appeared in the Milwaukee Sentinel on March 8, 1843: “We are requested to give notice that there will be a meeting in the court house in the village of Racine, on Saturday, the 25th of this month, of the Universalist Society of Racine, for the purpose of taking measures for the advancement of the cause of Zion in this part of the heritage. All persons friendly to the doctrine of a world redeemed are invited to attend and take part in the exercises. It is to be hoped that there will be a full attendance, as business of importance to the cause of impartial grace will be discussed.”
Our church was among the earliest churches in Racine. The very first church to be organized here was the First Presbyterian in 1839, and then First Baptist in 1840. Our church came along two years later, along with the Catholics and the Episcopalians. By 1845, the congregation had grown to 45 members, which was pretty good, considering that the total population of Racine was only 3,004 at that time.
The Universalist Church, or the Church of the Good Shepherd, as it was soon named, called its first minister in 1846. His name was Alfred Constantine Barry, and he was very active in the temperance movement. In fact, he was the editor of an official temperance newspaper called “The Old Oaken Bucket.” Rev. Barry was also appointed Racine’s first superintendent of schools. His salary from the church, by the way, was $400 a year.
At first the congregation met for services in people’s homes, then in “the frame school house,” and the Court House. But in 1851 they built their own building on Monument Square, which was called Market Square in those days, on the northeast corner of what is now 6th and Main Streets. It was at this time that Phineas Taylor Barnum, the famous American showman, entered the picture. Most people remember P. T. Barnum for the circus or for his famous saying, “There’s a sucker born every minute.” We prefer to remember him as the man who lent $500 to our church so that the property could be bought for our first building. Barnum was a loyal Universalist all his life, but he was also a thrifty Universalist. He charged 10% interest on the loan.
In 1854 the Rev. E. Case became the minister and was offered a salary of $500, plus a donation. He said, “I will live on it if I can.” Apparently a year was all he could manage, and the Rev. H. D. L. Webster followed him in 1856. At first he worked for the Sunday collection, which was about $6 a week. Then he was hired at a salary of $800. According to the records, Rev. Webster had much “get up and go.” I’ve read The Journal-Times newspaper article from 1912, describing the history of the church, and there I learned that Rev. Webster fell in love with Mary Skinner, the organ girl, and they were married. Mrs. Webster never lost her interest in her home church even after she and her husband moved. She donated the money to buy our pipe organ in 1903.
It was during Rev. Webster’s ministry here that several new members joined the church: J. I. Case and his wife, Gilbert Knapp and his wife, Nicholas D. Fratt and his wife, and Stephen Bull – all of whom have schools named in their honor – and Col. William Utley.
Jerome Increase Case, as you’ll recall, was the inventor, developer, and manufacturer of mechanized threshing machines and steam traction engines. He was also mayor of Racine in 1856 and 1858, a state senator, president of the Racine County Agriculture Society, and founder of the Wisconsin Academy of Science, Arts, and Letters.
Captain Gilbert Knapp is the person credited with founding Racine, for he was the first settler in this region and established Port Gilbert at the mouth of the Root River in 1834. In 1836 he represented southeastern Wisconsin in the Michigan Territory legislature, and he won election to the first legislature of the Wisconsin Territory. He was also the one responsible for getting two lighthouses built on Lake Michigan – one at Milwaukee and one at the Root River. He was responsible for making Racine a separate county from Milwaukee, too.
By the way, when Racine County was first created, it included what is now Kenosha County, Rock County, and Walworth County. At its first election, 193 votes were cast, and 37 officers were elected. So 20% of the voting population was elected to office!
Nicholas D. Fratt was an early Racine banker who served as president of the First National Bank for 50 years. His wife Elsie is honored in one of our stained glass windows. Stephen Bull was one of J. I. Case’s partners in the Case Threshing Machine Company, and Col. William Utley organized Wisconsin’s first state troops when the Civil War broke out. He was Wisconsin’s adjutant general and also a newspaperman and politician – in fact, he was one of the few representatives to be elected for more than one term to the Wisconsin Assembly.
Next time you walk by Monument Square, I think you just may be able to have a spiritual experience. You can look out at the northeast corner of 6th and Main and envision our old church standing there. On the Square itself you’ll see a plaque honoring Gilbert Knapp and one honoring J. I. Case. When you look at the monument in the center, dedicated to the men who fought in the Civil War, you can think of Col. Utley mobilizing Wisconsin’s first troops and you can hear Rev. Barry’s voice in the wind, preaching to the young men of the first company of Racine’s volunteer soldiers.
J. I. Case, Gilbert Knapp, William Utley, Stephen Bull, N. D. Fratt, Elisha Raymond, Simeon Clough, John Osgood – all of these became members of the Universalist Church under Rev. Webster’s pastorate. So you can see how, in those days, it was very “in” to be a Universalist. Mr. Webster served here for only two years, followed by Alfred Constantine Barry again (the first minister), then R. G. Hamilton and E. Fitzgerald, and then Constantine Barry for a third time. Most of these ministers stayed only a year or so, but Barry ministered here for 14 years, if you add his three separate stints together.
Following him for about a year apiece were J. S. Fall, A. C. Fish (who was a lay preacher), S. W. Sutton, and then, in 1878, the Rev. Olympia Brown. I’d like to conclude this first “Invitation to Thought” with the words of one of the clerks of the church from those early times – David McDonald. He wrote this letter to the congregation in 1858: “My sincere prayer is to bless the people who worship in this House. May they prove faithful in all things and take care of this edifice, and when they have a pastor, pay him. Don’t let one of their number suffer. Cultivate the feeling of brotherly love. Visit the sick. Bury the dead. Look after the best interests of widows and orphans, and then go on and be happy for all time to come.”
Olympia Brown’s ministry at this church was near the turn of the century – 1878-1887 – and interesting things were happening here in Racine at that time. For example, a few years before Rev. Brown came, the pastor of First Methodist Church, J. W. Carhart, built a steam-powered car. That was in 1873 and he was later hailed as the father of the automobile. Right here in Racine! Another important invention at that time was the telephone, and the first place this new-fangled device was demonstrated in this city was the parsonage of the Universalist Church.
The Universalists were also among the first churches to stop using wine in their communion service. They had a long history in the temperance cause, so in 1876 they began substituting water for wine at communion. Most other churches so inclined substituted grape juice, but the Universalists went all the way. It was a bit ironic in view of the fact that the Bible says Jesus changed water into wine at the Cana marriage feast – the Universalists did him one better and changed the wine back into water!
Two years later the church called Olympia Brown to be their pastor. Olympia Brown had started her feminist career at the age of fourteen. She had become a member of a “literary society” in grade school, but while boys in the group were allowed to debate, the girls could only read assigned selections. So at 14 years old, Olympia protested by getting signatures to a petition for equal rights. Unfortunately, the teachers didn’t go for the idea. (Her grandfather, by the way, was the great-grandfather of President Calvin Coolidge.)
Olympia Brown attended Mt. Holyoke Female Seminary – one of the few colleges open to women. She then went to Antioch College in Ohio, and was reluctantly admitted to the Universalist Theological School of St. Lawrence in New York. She was ordained in 1863. Ten years earlier, Antoinette Brown had been ordained to the Congregational ministry, but it was without the full authority of the Congregational General Conference, which protested the action. So Olympia Brown was the first officially recognized woman minister in the United States. (By the way, Antoinette Brown was a Congregationalist minister for only a year or so. She found their doctrine too strict and joined the Unitarians.)
Olympia Brown’s first pastorate was in Weymouth, Massachusetts, where Ralph Waldo Emerson was invited to preach one Sunday, and at a gathering after the service he asked Rev. Brown what her views on women getting the vote. He told her. “Of course I am not adverse to women’s suffrage. But there is one thing that never ceases to puzzle me. Women whose intelligence I deeply respect seem to be unanimously against it. Would you be good enough to give your views on the subject?” Olympia did. She said, “I wouldn’t respect the opinion of any woman who was opposed to women’s suffrage.” And that ended that conversation.
Olympia later served the Universalist Church in Bridgeport, Connecticut, and that is also where she married John Henry Willis in 1873. In 1878 they moved to Racine, where he became chief manager of the Daily Times (now the Journal-Times) and she became the pastor of this church. But listen to her own words from her autobiography: “Hearing that the church of Racine, Wisconsin, was without a pastor, I resolved to go there if my services would be acceptable. I opened a correspondence with a Mr. A. C. Fish, the clerk of the Racine Society, and asked to be given a hearing. Mr. Fish’s reply was discouraging, or would have been so to a minister who expected only prosperous conditions and an easy pastoral routine. Racine, as Bridgeport had been when I went there, was a parish in a rundown and unfortunate condition, adrift, in debt, and hopeless. Such was the tenor of Mr. Fish’s letters; but I replied that I was sent to just such places and I asked to hear what the Spirit says to the churches. His reply expressed the parish’s willingness that I should try what I could do.
“Those who may read this will think it strange that I could only find a field in run-down or comatose churches, but they must remember that the pulpits of all the prosperous churches were already occupied by men, and were looked forward to as the goal of all the young men coming into the ministry. All I could do was to take some place that had been abandoned by others and make something of it, and this I was only too glad to do.
“I went about calling upon the members of the church or ex-members, as many of them might be called. With the help of several loyal friends we gathered good audiences for two Sundays in our little ‘Church of the Good Shepherd,’ and at the close of the second Sunday’s service a meeting was called at which a vote was taken to call me as a settled pastor. It had been a hard two weeks work; it was in the month of February, the rain fell steadily, no pavements had been dreamed of, sidewalks were few, and the mud was the deepest I had ever seen. Racine, situated as it is upon the banks of the winding Root River, is dependent upon its bridges and these were then out of commission. A temporary and unstable ‘bridge of boats’ was the only means of communication with the western part of the town where lived many of those whom I needed to visit.”
But they called her, and she came. Under her leadership, the church began to grow and prosper again. During her ministry the church was renovated, and J. I. Case contributed $1750 to the project, provided his donation could be matched by the other members of the congregation. We have his signature as well as the signatures of the other contributors. Again, to quote from Olympia Brown: “The best known and wealthiest man in the church was J. I. Case and his influence in the early years of my pastorate was all in behalf of the church, and while not known for generosity along most lines, he did his part towards its financial support.”
Olympia continued her work in the women’s suffrage movement and in 1882 was elected president of the Wisconsin Women’s Suffrage Association, a post she held for 30 years. But in 1887 she resigned as minister and devoted herself full-time to the cause of suffrage. Her ministry was followed by two brief ones – R. G. Spafford and J. F. Schindler. In 1891 the church sold its building to the Hotel Racine and built the one we’re in now. You’ll notice that we still have the old cornerstone, though, which you can see on your way in. It says “Church of the Good Shepherd, 1851.”
A. C. Grier served from 1894 to 1908; then John Wesley Carter, who is quoted in the 1912 issue of the Journal Times that I read, followed by Arthur McDavitt, Luther Robinson, Lawrence Abbott, Alexander Winston, J.W. McKnight, and William Arms. I don’t know a whole lot about these men, but Robert Tipton, who came in 1941, was active and well-known in the community. He was followed by several short ministries and then by John Wolf.
I’ve met John Wolf, because he was on the board of Meadville/Lombard Theological School when I was a student there. I understand he was minister to the Kenosha Unitarian Fellowship and the Racine Universalist Church from 1952-1955. He was the first minister to actually be ordained in this building, and he was the first Unitarian minister to be ordained by a Universalist congregation. (Remember, this was before the merger.) Olympia Brown’s daughter, Gwendolyn Willis, presided at the Act of Ordination. The president of the Universalist Church of America and the regional director of the Western Unitarian Conference were both here for this momentous occasion. (It wasn’t until 1961 that our two denominations actually merged. At that time the Kenosha fellowship merged with the Church of the Good Shepherd and became known as the Unitarian Universalist Church of Racine and Kenosha.)
Rev. Wolf was followed by Paul Henniges, who was also active in the community; then Roy Phillips, followed by Henry Smith; and I joined you in 1975.
As of this writing (April of 2013), I have been here almost 38 years (and will reach my 40th anniversary on July 1, 2015). Since the time I began here, the congregation has gone through a number of transitions. For one thing, I came out as gay in 1977 or 1978, and although we lost a few members at that time, most of the congregation remained and new members joined. Perhaps more importantly, we started a Kenosha branch of our church in 1979, and in 1987, with a part-time acting minister, it became its own independent UU congregation: Mary D. Bradford Community Church (Unitarian Universalist) – named after the first woman school superintendent in Wisconsin (and member of the old Kenosha Unitarian Church). Bradford Church now has its own full-time minister and the original church building (which earlier Kenosha Unitarians had owned before they disbanded in 1926).
Once the Kenosha church became independent, we decided our old name, Unitarian Universalist Church of Racine and Kenosha was no longer adequate and renamed ourselves after the Rev. Olympia Brown, in 1987.
We now hold two Sunday services and Sunday school sessions (at 9 and 11 a.m.) during the fall, winter, and spring; and one service (10 a.m.) in the summer. (This is different from when I arrived, in 1975. At that time, we had one service every Sunday in the fall, winter, and spring – and no service during the summer months, which was common for most UU congregations at that time. One of the accepted jokes was that UUs were the only group God trusted to be out of her sight for three months.) We are well known in the community today for our focus on comparative religion and interfaith dialogue, as well as for our progressive stands on socialjustice issues (e.g. gay rights, women’s rights, anti-racism, etc.)
Notes from Charlotte and Bill Cote (1992)
When we first came into the church on a Sunday morning in 1961, there were only about twenty-five people present in the congregation. It seemed very small. We came in with our four children and sat down in the back so that we could slip out when the service was over, for we didn’t know if we would like the church or not. We never had a chance. As soon as the service was over, members of the congregation descended upon us with warm welcomes. We were asked our names, invited to enroll the children in the Sunday School, invited downstairs for the coffee hour, invited to come to their annual fall bazaar, and invited to come back the following Sunday. We were overwhelmed with the interest and the warmth of the people. They embraced us wholeheartedly and soon had us working for the church, and we have been here ever since. It was an experience I’ll never forget.
We were originally attracted to the church by newspaper articles about a series of programs on evolution, sponsored by the church. We asked ourselves, “What kind of church would sponsor such a program?” and it didn’t take us long to find out what an open-minded and liberal group of people made up the congregation.
Notes from Joan Rohan (1992)
In our UU church we have quite a number of old-timers, but I think that of this group, I am probably the most ancient of the old-timers.
In June 1916 I suspect that the name Joan Harvey was added to the Cradle Roll which hung in the Sunday school. Probably not too long after that I was christened, I believe by Dr. Carter. When I was old enough, probably about five, I began attending Sunday school where my brothers Tom and Dick had preceded me. On Sunday morning we all sat together in the big room with a row or two of chairs for each class accompanied by our teachers. There were little chairs in front and bigger ones in back all neatly lined up on a sort of checkered brown and tan linoleum floor. There was a placard up in front which indicated the attendance and the amount of the collection each week compared with that of the previous week. There was also a wooden birthday box on a table on the front platform. Here one dropped in a penny for each year, on the Sunday nearest one’s birthday.
We had a short worship service presided over by the superintendent during which we had an inspirational talk and sang some hymns. Some of the favorites were “Brighten the Corner Where You Are,” “This Is My Father’s World,” “In the Garden,” “Onward Christian Soldiers,” and “I Would Be True.” We may also have had a short responsive reading and we probably repeated the Universalist Creed:
I believe in –
The Universal Fatherhood of God,
The spiritual authority and leadership of his son Jesus Christ,
The trustworthiness of the Bible as containing a revelation from God,
The certainty of just retribution for sin,
And the final harmony of all souls with God.
Then we went to our classes at our designated tables – kindergarten in the fireplace room, one table in the kitchen, and others spaced around the room at convenient spots. Here we read our lesson in little booklets provided to each child, talked about the lesson, and I also remember coloring short religious mottoes with crayons. Some of my teachers were Frances Kister, Elizabeth Fratt, and Mrs. Smith (Mrs. Walker’s sister).
The superintendent that I remember first was Roy Kelly who was an amiable, gentle soul, but not much of a disciplinarian. He was apt to say “boys will be boys” when things got out of hand. My father, Richard Harvey, who taught the high school class at that time, did not approve. Later my father became superintendent and I think he ran a somewhat tighter ship. I know that at this time I learned the books of the Bible, the Twenty-third Psalm, and the Universalist Creed, and I assume the other kids did also. We also behaved with somewhat more decorum in the church.
When Sunday school was dismissed we each got a Sunday school paper with nice wholesome stories, poems, puzzles, etc. which were handy to have if you stayed for church and the sermon got a little tedious. One had to be careful when reading not to rattle the paper too much. I must have started going to church when quite young as I can recall my mother’s entertaining me by drawing pictures and encouraging me to do likewise.
Each year we had a program at Christmas time and for Children’s Day, which was the second Sunday in June. For these affairs we spoke “pieces” or sang songs or perhaps played a musical selection on an instrument of our choice. In my family it was important not to render a poem in singsong fashion and to be sure to speak clearly with emphasis at the right places so people in the back of the church could hear and understand.
One of my early memories concerns a little girl somewhat younger than I who recited the poem “A Fair Little Girl Sat under a Tree Swing as Long as Her Eyes Could See.” She was new in Sunday school. Her name was Beverly Meyer (now Becker). My father and mother were both very much impressed with the quality of her performance and I think I may have been a little bit jealous.
After the program at Christmas time there was a party and, to the tune of jingling sleigh bells, Santa Claus always came to the party and handed out a box of hard candy to everyone as well as the little presents under the tree from one’s teacher or to one’s teacher.
I became a member of the church when I was eleven years old. As soon as I could, after receiving the right hand of fellowship and putting my carnation in the dictionary to be pressed, I assumed my financial responsibility and pledged five cents a Sunday. My father gave me ten cents each week for Sunday school, but I paid my church pledge from my fifty-cent allowance.
Among the people I remember were Olympia Brown, who often wore a black shawl and a little flat black bonnet that tied under her chin. She sat in the third pew in the right section – no one sat in front of her. Sometimes her daughter, Gwendolen Willis, home from her teaching, would accompany her mother to church.
Mr. Kilbourn was principal of McKinley Junior High School. He had beautiful white hair and wore it rather longer than was the style at the time. Grandpa Van Ornum, a Civil War veteran, always sat way in the back, as did Mr. Marshall, who preferred to skip the introductory part of the service and always came just in time for the sermon. My father and mother and I sat in the center section – fourth pew from the front. Mr. and Mrs. Louis Munroe sat just across the aisle from us in the right hand section. It was Mr. Munroe who called our Church of the Good Shepherd the “Church of the Holy Buttonhook,” referring to the shepherd’s crook on the steeple. Among the ministers I recall were Dr. Carter and Mr. Grier, who came to call at our house one time and refused a glass of apple cider because it might have an alcoholic content, and Mr. McDavitt and Dr. Luther Riley Robinson. Dr. Robinson had a beautiful bass voice and he sometimes sang “Faith of Our Fathers” with an enthusiasm that made the whole church vibrate. Generally we had a quartet who sang at Sunday services. Some of the members of those quartets were Fred Flegel, Mr. and Mrs. Donald Evans, and Mrs. Nelson.
My mother, Minnie Rickman Harvey, was a member and officer of both women’s organizations – the Willing Workers and the Good Shepherd Guild. I sometimes went with her to the meetings. The only thing I remember from these occasions was some discussions about the starving Armenians whom they were planning to help. The organizations sometimes put on church dinners as money-making events. The menu was almost invariable ham and scalloped potatoes.
Altogether it was kind of fun growing up a Universalist even though most of my friends were Catholics, Presbyterians, Episcopalians, or Methodists. Although I didn’t have the pat answers that they seemed to have when we discussed religious matters, I had the heady feeling of being a little different, not worried about the scary business of hell, and having a certain freedom to think my own thoughts, though these were often not too well-defined.