Encyclopedia of the Great Plains

David J. Wishart, Editor


The Unitarian movement originated in sixteenth-century Europe among radical Christians who affirmed the undivided unity of God and promoted a form of religion in which human unity would be based upon individual freedom and reliance upon reason and conscience. In New England the movement emerged early in the nineteenth century, but it was slow in spreading westward, being predominant among the middle class and well educated, and therefore ill adapted to frontier conditions. The same was not true of a parallel movement, the Universalists, but by the time they reached the Great Plains in the 1860s, they had already lost much of their momentum. In 1961 the Unitarians and Universalists merged to form the Unitarian Universalist Association, though most individual congregations retained their single name.

Early Unitarian attempts at extension into the Great Plains bore fruit only in the major cities, all of which had congregations by the end of the nineteenth century. The first was at Omaha in 1869; the largest, that in Tulsa, was exceptional in not having been founded until 1921. Fellowships that now exist in smaller communities have all been established or reestablished since 1950. The congregation in Sioux Falls may serve as an example. It mushroomed in 1887, erecting a fine stone church, but was forced by the economic depression to disband ten years later, bequeathing its building to the city as a public library. The present congregation dates from 1961. The inclusion of both Unitarians and Universalists in the original Sioux Falls congregation was typical for the Great Plains but unusual elsewhere. So also was the fact that it was founded and led by women ministers at a time when these constituted no more than a tiny fraction of the active ministry in either denomination as a whole.

A third characteristic shared by all congregations in the Plains was that they were from the outset much more theologically radical than their coreligionists on the East Coast, who continued to maintain a more or less exclusively Christian emphasis. Thus, the new "Bond of Union" adopted by the Omaha congregation in 1890 simply affirmed moral and religious purpose rather than making any specific statement of belief. Such openness paved the way for the strong emergence of nontheistic humanism in the congregations of the Great Plains during the twentieth century.

Unitarians have typically worked in projects for the betterment of the entire community. An outstanding leader in this field was Arthur L. Westerly, a minister in Lincoln, Nebraska (1908–19 and 1929–42), who was active in a wide variety of civic projects and social reforms. The Joslyn family in Omaha likewise contributed heavily to the artistic and musical life of the community.

The congregations have been composed chiefly of persons coming from other parts of North America rather than from overseas. The only exceptions were small-scale movements among Scandinavian immigrants and a much more substantial one among the Icelanders who settled in North Dakota and the Prairie Provinces of Canada. The Icelandic Unitarian Church in Winnipeg was founded in 1891, and until the 1920s most Unitarians in Manitoba and Saskatchewan attended services conducted in Icelandic.

Unitarians have been large in influence but not in numbers, and this has been markedly true in the Great Plains. Figures from 1998 show between 8,000 and 9,000 congregational members, of whom about 750 are in Canada.

Philip Hewett Unitarian Church of Vancouver, British Columbia

Gudmundson, V. Emil. The Icelandic Unitarian Connection. Winnipeg: Wheatfield Press, 1984.

Lyttle, Charles H. Freedom Moves West. Boston: Beacon Press, 1952.

Tucker, Cynthia Grant. Prophetic Sisterhood. Boston: Beacon Press, 1990.

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