by Naomi Estes-Tullo
The year was 1966. To give you a little idea of what was going on that year:
That’s by no means ALL of what was going on, but it’s enough to show you that it was a busy and complicated time, providing a compelling context for our beginnings.
On February 3rd 1966 an ad appeared in the Northfield paper:
Bold headline: Do you want a religion that speaks in human terms? -- that asks, "what is life for?" "What can we do about it?" Followed by the questions: Do you find the traditional answers inadequate and want to join others in the search for a rational, progressive and humane religious philosophy? If so, request more information about Unitarian-Universalism from: a mailing address in Boston was listed.
The following week on February 10th a different ad appeared in the Northfield paper:
Bold headline: Do you believe-- followed by: that the purposes of religion are better served when reason and an open mind are held superior to blind faith? That what you believe must pass the test of your own conscience? If so, reserve 8:00 p.m. Sunday, February 20, for a meeting in the Northwestern State Bank building, to explore the possibilities of a Unitarian-Universalist Fellowship in Northfield. A phone number to call was printed for more information.
February 17th an article was printed in the Northfield paper in the section where information about local church services was printed:
Bold headline: Unitarians to Consider Forming Local Fellowship. It listed the time and location of the meeting place to explore the possibilities and level of interest in the Northfield community for organizing a fellowship. Fred Keip, a professor at St. Olaf, who created the previous two ads, was quoted as saying, "We welcome all who are curious." The article went on to say: A Unitarian fellowship provides a liberal religious program, usually lay-led by the members of the group itself, for people who find themselves unable to accept orthodox religious creeds and doctrines. Each individual is expected to develop his own exacting, enriching creed according to the dictates of his own mind and conscience. Fred Kelp was also quoted as saying : "The values of a fellowship are the dynamic opportunity to join forces in this search and the chance to provide a religious program for children which stirs up their own minds -- rather than stamping them with ours."
13 people attended that first meeting. They agreed to go ahead and begin a fellowship. March 6th at 10:30 a.m. they held their first service at the Dilley Convalescent Center Auditorium, 800 West 2nd Street. Toyo Masa Fuse, an assistant professor of sociology and anthropology at Carleton College, was the guest speaker discussing the functions and limitations of reason in religion. At this first service they began the consideration of bylaws, established a nominating committee for officers, and distributed an interest questionnaire.
The second service held the next week, March 13th, was a discussion on “The Face Behind Freedom” where they looked at “agreeing to disagree is no basis for a church” and then explored “what holds Unitarians together?” At this service they drafted a statement of purpose and held an election of officers.
March 20th the service topic was “God – person, force or phantom?” Out of seven possible answers to this question, the highest rated answer from those attending was: “God is all of reality without moral consciousness”; the lowest was, “God is a person: infinite, loving, all wise and all powerful”. At this service they introduced the elected officers and the first thirteen members signed the Membership Book.
That’s a lot to accomplish in about two months. These thirteen founding members were a very diverse group. Some were professors at St. Olaf and Carleton others were professionals in various fields – clearly from the topics and programs they were a well educated, highly motivated group of seekers, looking together for answers to questions they shared. They came from diverse religious backgrounds as well – raised with no particular religion, Lutheran, Episcopalian, and Jewish are a few we know about. Only one member was identified as raised a Unitarian. Most shared a sense of not identifying with their early exposure to religion, not liking to memorize and say together words that didn’t necessarily mean anything to them personally. A number remembered early church experiences as attending because it was expected of them, and never feeling any real value from those forced encounters.
Many of those early members talked about seeing themselves as humanists – that the problems of humanity must be solved by people, men and women, using their own rational powers, and using empirical evidence and human and mental capacities to figure out the ultimate meaning (if there is any) of life. They came together and stayed together because it was a chance to meet with people who saw themselves as free thinkers. They didn’t want any doctrine or set of beliefs to subscribe to – together they wanted to examine the issues of their lives and the problems of the world without boundaries or rules forced upon them. It was important to them to create a place that would grow and change with them. They talked a lot about Emerson and the Transcendentalists and the feeling of a bigger something maybe inside everyone, but also a bigger feeling of the Universe and nature. Nature was a common passion and they walked and talked about what they saw and felt around them.
I’m so grateful to these people who responded to those ads and made the commitment to form a Unitarian-Universalist Fellowship in Northfield. I’m so grateful to have a place to explore other religions and practices and listen to the thoughts and feelings of others and have our own sacred space based on how we choose to create it. I love the diversity of our backgrounds, ideas and interests and the alchemy that allows us to create and build together. And I hope that you will find what we have been discovering or perhaps re-discovering about how happy we are to be Unitarian-Universalists through this year of celebrating 50 years of love and light.