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

By Stefan Jonasson (first published in The Icelandic Post)

From the editor:

Emil GudmundsonMost UUs know that Spaniards, Italians, Transylvanians, French, Poles, and other groups had a hand in shaping our tradition. Here in North America we should also look at the Icelanders and their descendants. Emil Gudmundson, a Canadian, had crucial roles in both tracing the Icelandic influence and in organizing Unitarian Universalism in the Midwest. I never met him, but did find a typewritten letter of his in the archives of the Prairie Star District. It was in Icelandic, so I have no idea what it said.

From the author’s preface to the Facebook version of this piece:

Emil was one of the people who encouraged me to study for the Unitarian Universalist ministry. He taught me that ministry was, first and foremost, about presence – simply being with people in times of joy and in times of sadness – and that ideas were important, but not more important than relationships. And Emil reassured me that the love of things Icelandic might be rare, but it wasn't odd.

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A Sometimes Shadowy Figure

leona handler light(Updated May 2018)

Leona Handler Light (1915-1992 [1]) is an impressive and puzzling figure in the history of twentieth-century Unitarian Universalism. She capably served the Western Unitarian Conference in Chicago from the mid-1930s to the early 1940s and then did hazardous duty in Hungary and Transylvania before and during the outbreak of World War II. In Lawrence, Kansas, she revitalized the historic Unitarian society. She then abruptly dropped out of sight for over two decades and apparently re-emerged to take a prominent role in the Black Empowerment Controversy in the late 1960s.

And with raised eyebrow you ask, “Apparently re-emerged?” Reverend Jon Jasper Coffee is almost certain that the “Leona H. Light” of the 1960s was the Leona Handler active in the 1930s and 1940s, but recognizes that more digging needs to be done. All the same, he has uncovered enough information, most of it from primary sources, to sketch a fascinating portrait of someone who served liberal religion capably and at times with great physical courage. The following condenses his findings.

Origins and Early Work

Probably born to a Baltimore family, Leona Handler studied at Tufts College, Tufts Theological School, Boston University, Northwestern University, and the Unitarian Collegium in Kolozsvar, Transylvania. Before becoming office secretary for the Western Conference of the American Unitarian Association (AUA) in Chicago, she worked as an assistant in Massachusetts congregations.

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Unitarian Universalist Society of Geneva
102-112 South Second St.
Geneva, IL 60134

This church was a transplant of the staunchly liberal Christianity from New England Unitarianism. Their first minister, Augustus Conant, served from the very beginning in 1842 until 1857. He, his wife Betsy, and nineteen others wrote the church covenant in 1842, which is still used at every morning service:

“Being desirous of promoting practical goodness in the world, and of aiding each other in our moral and religious improvement, we have associated ourselves together - not in agreeing in opinion, not as having attained universal truth in belief or perfection in character, but as seekers after truth and goodness.”

Conant was followed by fourteen more ministers, including four women, between 1857 and 1926. During these years, the congregation experienced conflict when movements like Transcendentalism and later humanism caused some Unitarians to change their beliefs—and others to resist change. By and large the members honored their original covenant, but doing so at times required an effort. An example is in the ministry of Dr. Charles Lyttle, a humanist who was called in 1926 and remained minister until 1964. He wrote the song and Doxology, still used, to unite the theists and the Humanists among the members. [1]

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BisbeeHerman Bisbee (1833-1879) was a well-traveled minister. Born in Vermont, he served churches in New York State, St. Paul and Minneapolis in Minnesota, London’s East End, and Boston. He studied at Harvard and in Nuremberg, Germany. It was during his seven years in the new state of Minnesota that Bisbee made his mark on Universalism, challenging his denomination to emulate the thought of the more forward-thinking among Unitarians. As a result, he became the only Universalist minister to be found guilty of heresy, and he changed his affiliation to the Unitarians.

Bisbee’s views were conventional when he arrived in Minnesota, but the early years there were difficult nonetheless. He had been invited in 1865 to come from New York State to serve a small new congregation in St. Paul, but on his arrival Captain Russell Blakely, a wealthy and influential member, told him the congregation was not ready for a minister and advised him to return with his family to New York State. Bisbee got the congregation to agree to a trial period and, as he put it, “all took hold heartily.” But antagonism persisted between him and Blakely, and the small congregation could not pay him very well. He invited Unitarians in St. Paul to form a joint congregation, but without success. He supplemented his income by writing for a newspaper until he was fired for a piece that advocated votes for women.

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