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

Mabel Tainter Center for the ArtsThe Lumber Baron, the Feminist, and the Agnostic Minister

The Mabel Tainter Center for the Arts stands on East Main Street in Menomonie, Wisconsin. Built in 1889 to house a humanist Unitarian congregation, to provide a performance space for theater and music, and to serve the community in other ways, it is now a historic site that serves similar purposes.

It is also a monument to the vitality of the Western Unitarian Conference and to the three people in Menomonie who were responsible for its creation.

The Lumber Baron

Andrew Tainter (1823-1899) was an unlikely Unitarian. Known socially as Captain Tainter because of a few years when he ran steamboats on the Red Cedar River, he was mainly a lumber man. Muscular and adventurous, he made his fortune by felling thousands of acres of Wisconsin white pine and floating the logs to market on the river.

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Reverend Eleanor Gordon Comes into Her Own

Eleanor GordonOn a Sunday in April 2008, I attended the service at the First Unitarian Church of Orlando, Florida, wondering if this was the congregation founded in 1912 by Eleanor Gordon (1852-1942), co-leader with Mary Safford of the Iowa Sisterhood. I did not wonder long. In a chronological display of portraits of the congregation’s ministers, Eleanor Gordon’s was the first.

The portrait could easily have been Mary Safford’s. In 1912 both women were in Orlando, not planning to start new churches at their stage of life, when friends who had moved there from Iowa asked Gordon to organize a church in town. Gordon suggested Safford as the minister, but Safford declined, being occupied with her retirement project of growing citrus, and yielded the field to Gordon.

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first univ minneapolisA Light on the Prairie: First Universalist Church of Minneapolis

By 1860, the vigorous growth of Universalist churches in the Midwest was slowing; congregations in the region experienced stability at best, decline at worst. Over the next century this did not improve, and the 1961 merger was sometimes seen as a matter of thriving Unitarians offering shelter to faltering Universalists.

One congregation did not follow that pattern. Today, of the eleven Unitarian Universalist congregations of the Minneapolis-St. Paul area, First Universalist is the largest, with 951 members. From its founding meeting in October 1859, chaired by flour milling magnate William Drew Washburn, First Universalist has been for most of its existence a robust congregation and an effective force for progressive social values.

Like Washburn, other early members guided development of the region and helped found Minneapolis institutions such as the public library and school systems, the parks, the fire department, the Institute of Arts, Lakewood Cemetery, and the first settlement house. Thomas Lowry created the city’s street railway system. Dorilus Morrison was first mayor of Minneapolis, first editor of the Tribune, developer of St. Anthony Falls for water power and transportation, and a lumber and flour mill magnate. Flour mill entrepreneurs like the Crosbys and Pillsburys were also early members.

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Editor’s note: After I posted the piece by Patrick Murfin, Judy Thornber, who had first told me about Preston Bradley, thought that another perspective was needed. Why have two entries on Bradley? One of the few ministers in our tradition who drew a mass following, he warrants more research for that reason alone. In the Dictionary of UU Biography, the entry on Bradley is empty and has not been assigned. Perhaps this second vignette will prod someone to fill that entry.

Another View of Preston Bradley

Judy Thornber

mural by Louis Grell
Mural by Louis Grell in the sanctuary of Peoples Church

As a true admirer who heard Preston Bradley on the radio and in person at his church, I saw no sign of megachurch techniques. Bradley did not “orate.” He spoke in a personal, conversational way, revealing his own feelings and thoughts and his high aspirations for what people could do. He acknowledged that times were difficult and many people had enormous problems. It was, after all, the Depression. He did his best to provide hope to his following, without mention of God or Jesus, and to engage in citywide social action with various civic organizations. This man was not an Elmer Gantry type egoist. He was passionate about empathy and support for those with troubles, but not in a "theatrical" way. His true genius was that he simply talked directly to his congregation, both on the radio and in the church, as if they were intelligent people who wanted to lead good lives. He tried to encourage them and keep their hope alive.

Since few of today’s UU ministers can grow membership the way Bradley did, we should seriously study his sermons to understand why they spoke so clearly to people and were so well received by the public. When Bradley spoke, you felt he was speaking to you one on one. He shared himself. He did not pretend to have all the answers. He did preach that hope could be nurtured by persevering and by focusing on leading a good life according to our own best lights.

Where present and past UU preachers have appealed most effectively to the educated and affluent, Bradley uniquely touched the hearts of rich and poor, schooled and unschooled alike. Most of his radio audience and much of the church audience were ordinary folks. The church in its heyday also included many of the rich and notable in Chicago. I was there one morning when Clement Stone, owner of a major insurance company, drove to the church alone in his Cadillac to meet with Bradley on the stage with a special program featuring the Boys Clubs of Chicago, one of Stone's favorite personal charities.

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