Our Church History (Sermon)

by Rev. Tony Larsen
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.”

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