BLOG: Who We Are and Who We Have Been (2015)

On February 15, 2015, Rev. Dr. David Breeden delivered a talk at First Unitarian Society of Minneapolis about our roots and shoots as a congregation titled “An Accident Called Intelligence: Global Climate Change and Stewardship.” Here are some of the highlights.

Our Roots

“It’s easy to feel hopeless. But this congregation over the years has faced a lot of hopeless situations and often done the impossible.”

  • This congregation grew directly out of the Minneapolis Chapter of an organization called the Liberal League, dedicated to the separation of church of state and freedom of religion. It opposed in 1873 the Comstock Law, passed by the U.S. Congress, to ban from the U.S. mail contraceptives, erotica, sex toys and information about these things. It had previously been a large market, developed during the Civil War. The Liberal League thought the government should not be deciding what was moral and what was not. But it lost that case.
  • The Minneapolis Liberal League spent a great deal of their time reading and discussing Charles Darwin. They invited a Unitarian minister from Madison, Wisconsin to speak on Darwin and after hearing what a convincing speaker he was concerning natural selection, they decided they had to keep him. “Sure,” Henry Simmons said, “I’ll stay, but you’ve got to be a Unitarian church because I’m a Unitarian minister.” So, the Liberal League chapter became a Unitarian congregation in 1881. [Learn more about Unitarian roots here.]

CONGREGATION SIDENOTE: Noted author/journalist Brenda Ueland (1891-1985) was a member of the FUS congregation. She wrote of Dr. Simmons that he was “a wonderfully sweet-natured man and a remarkable scholar, whose sermons were about evolution, history, Matthew Arnold, Emerson and such things.” Brenda’s mother was the first president of the Minnesota League of Women Voters. Brenda is said to have lived by two rules: To tell the truth, and to not do anything she didn’t want to. She set an international swimming record for people over 80 years old.

  • It was the Comstock Law that was used to suppress the birth control activist Margaret Sanger. That’s why it was at one point illegal for Sanger to speak publicly anywhere but Unitarian churches. So it was that when Sanger was run out of St Paul by an angry mob, she was invited by our Women’s Alliance to speak at First Unitarian Society.
  • In the 1920s there was a kerfuffle over whether or not the Theory of Natural Selection could be taught in Minneapolis Public Schools. This congregation was the leader in getting Darwin into public schools.
  • Women from our Women’s Alliance (guys can join now too) transitioned the Minnesota Woman Suffrage Association into the Minnesota League of Women’s Voters after women got the vote.
  • At a time 100 years ago when Vivekananda of the Hindu community could not appear on many segregated train platforms, this congregation asked him to speak. He was a key figure in the introduction of the Indian philosophies of Vedanta and Yoga to the Western world and is credited with raising interfaith awareness, bringing Hinduism to the status of a major world religion during the late 19th century.
  • When Pete Seeger was banned from public performance in the U.S. because he was a Communist—he performed here.
  • In the 1960s in Minnesota it was illegal for gay people to congregate. This congregation had a gay mens support group.
  • Transgender couples support group? The only one in the state meets here.
  • We house MUUSJA—Minnesota UU Social Justice Alliance—free. We have office space of Religious Coalition for Reproductive Justice—free. We house the worldwide movement called Sunday Assembly, the so-called “atheist church.” They meet here on Sunday afternoons once a month. Free.
  • Opposing the US invasion of the Philippines back in 1899? OPPOSING the First World War? Being a conscientious objector during the Second World War? Saying there’s no god during the McCarthy Era? (Or any time for that matter.) Refusing to eat Freedom Fries? Believing in single-payer health care?


It’s been a long fight just to be human in this nation if you are in any way “different” . . . and then there’s the fight to be a thinking person. The fact that some of the things we stand for are still a bit dicey . . . that just indicates what it means to be out on the edge.


CONGREGATION SIDENOTE: We were early proponents of marriage equality and transgender rights. In 2016, one of the currently less-than-centric positions taken at FUS is about Compassion & Choices — allowing those facing end-of-life decisions to die with dignity at their choosing.


You remember The Matrix: “You take the blue pill, the story ends. You wake up in your bed and believe whatever you want to believe. You take the red pill, you stay in wonderland, and I show you how deep the rabbit hole goes.”

The people who have made up this congregation have not “believe(d) whatever you want to believe.” They’ve always taken the red pill.

What’s real. What’s true. What’s right . . . matters here. That’s what it’s about.

Our Today

We human beings are still very much tribal animals. National allegiance; political affiliation; sports teams; race; religion; which generation you are; which popular or unpopular singer you listen to; which computer company you buy from . . . there’s an endless list.

… Fifty million Americans have no religious affiliation. Fifteen million of those identify as atheist or agnostic. One third of Americans under thirty have no religious affiliation.

… One advantage we have is that First Unitarian Society declared itself explicitly humanist and post-religious . . . [in 1916]. We have been doing child dedications and weddings and memorial services without invoking any of the gods for nearly a century, if not more.

… My suspicion is that the “butts in pews” measure of congregational success is fast approaching its end. Saving that model is not the point, any more than saving a building has a point other than as a place for people to gather into a tribe dedicated to purposes other than consumerism and identity politics.

The question I ask myself is: What do we offer the world?


Here’s what I hope we offer and I’m going to continue working at it until we do offer it: a post-religious, post-Eurocentric, post-colonial ethics that provides meaning and purpose to individuals, humanity, and the world we live in. People gathering in support of each other. People thinking about the way we act in the world and what we do on this planet. That’s what matters.


“Living the now. Building the future.”

A lot has happened in this congregation. And a lot remains to be seen . . .


QUESTION: One advantage of brick-and-mortar community around ideas is finding inspiration and like-minded energy to recharge each week. Where do you find community around your passions or ‘the impossible’?

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