History and Heritage

Bertha TainterVictor UrbanowitzThis section of our web site honors the history of Unitarians and Universalists in the MidAmerica Region.

Here you will find a series of History Vignettes written by members of the History and Heritage Committee and other contributors. New vignettes will appear several times a year.

If you have a story to suggest, please contact Victor Urbanowicz at

How First Unitarian of South Bend Rose from the Ashes

Editor’s Note: The First Unitarian Church of South Bend, Indiana, began as a fellowship in 1949 and was accepted as a member congregation of tFirst Unitarian South Bend 1he American Unitarian Association in 1952. Member Dale Gibson wrote the following account of what happened when the congregation suffered retaliation for publicly opposing the Vietnam war. Suggestion for discussion groups: when your congregation takes a principled stand, what are the risks and what are the benefits?

When Rev. Joseph Schneiders was called to the ministry of the First Unitarian Church of South Bend in the spring of 1965, his record as a progressive had already been established in other UU churches. Upon his arrival in South Bend, his social justice work immediately resumed. He began by aligning himself with striking teachers and then followed Dr. King’s call for clergymen of all faiths to come to Selma.

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Mary and Austin Adams: 19th Century Radicals of the West (Dubuque, Iowa)

Austin Adams Mary AdamsMary Newbury Adams (1837-1901) became one of the major leaders of the women’s movement in the last half of the 19th century through her efforts of establishing women’s clubs. Women’s clubs were the only place then where women “could hear their own voices.”

In 1853, when she was 16 years of age she came with her family from Michigan to Dubuque, Iowa. A year later she met her future husband, Austin Adams (1826-1890) soon after her arrived from Vermont. Both sets of their parents came from New England Calvinist families, his were Baptists and her father was a Presbyterian minister. Austin said hearing the fiery sermons prevented him from completely enjoying his childhood.

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A Dynamo in the Dakotas

Rev Helen Grace PutnamA woman played piano nightly in a saloon in Jamestown, North Dakota, in 1890. She was a minister and drew some of her repertoire from the Unitarian hymnal.

The same woman visited remote communities and families on the Dakota plains. She brought spiritual comfort, tended the sick, and if a piano was available she might play a Beethoven sonata.

She was Helen Grace Putnam (1840-1895), the third child and only daughter of progressive Boston-area parents who gave her a good education. A capable and diligent student, she mastered several languages and became a skilled pianist. In Boston she taught music, edited a liberal Christian magazine, and helped poor children by placing them in farm homes.

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Rev Leon BirkheadIt was instant chemistry between a Kansas City Unitarian minister and a famous novelist from Minnesota.

In early 1926 Sinclair Lewis, a future Nobel laureate, came to Kansas City to gather material for his “preacher novel,” which became Elmer Gantry. He met local clergy including Leon Birkhead, minister at All Souls Unitarian Church. They hit it off and Lewis asked Birkhead to assist him in his research. He described him as “a Unitarian and generally disillusioned preacher who was for ten years a Methodist preacher, whom I’ll use as cyclopedia for data about church organization and the like.”[1]

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