Beginning in rental halls only 16 years after Europeans in Minneapolis built the first house, a small group met at the Cataract House on the corner of what is now Washington and Portland Avenues to create the First Universalist Society of Minneapolis on October 24, 1859. Rev. Joseph Willard Keyes (left) was the first settled minister. Minneapolis was a new frontier town in a one-year-old state. It was officially a state but in many respects it was still a wild, untamed place. It was not the first Universalist church to be formed in the new territory, but it was the only one that survived 150 years. When the church celebrated its sesquicentennial on October 25, 2009 it was not only the oldest continuous UU congregation in Minnesota but also the largest Universalist church in the U.S.
The men and women who founded that early Universalist church, were among the best educated and civic-minded of the early groups to settle west of the Mississippi River and became inextricably connected to the region’s growth and development. They came for the rich farmland, for business opportunities and for the climate, always described as promoting health.
The propaganda was convincing. First Universalist’s second settled minister, the Reverend James Harvey Tuttle and his wife Harriet came to Mpls in 1866 for her health. As it turned out, her physical well-being did not improve in the “exhilarating” climate but their ministry had a lasting effect on the growth of Universalism in the new state and in the formation of the city of Minneapolis. The early ministers were household names throughout the city. Later ministers were activists. The early ministers were also very influential in establishing key programs and institutions in the city. In the 150-year history of the church all the ministers were eloquent, well-educated and grounded in Universalist history – and they were also men and women of their time.
Tuttle had a powerful speaking voice and the heart of a poet. (You can read some of his wonderful sermons collected in his “The Field and the Fruit” book here.) While he was initially on the wrong side of the Darwin evolution theory in a debate with Rev. Herman Bisbee, minister of the First Universalist Society of St Anthony across the river, it was clear from his sermons that he spoke from the heart. During his term he oversaw the creation of a Women’s Association, the forerunner of the Association of Universalist Women (AUW). These women were active in social reform, social service and the move for women’s suffrage. The voting rights and reproductive choice work of the AUW in the twenty-first century had its genesis in the social reform work of the Women’s Association of the twentieth century. In 1965, after 106 years since the church began, the first woman, Myrna Hansen, was elected president of the Board of Trustees.
In 1866 as Keyes health deteriorated forcing his resignation and under Tuttle’s leadership the first building was built at 5th Street and 4th Avenue South where the Hennepin County Government ramp now stands. It was a wooden structure built in the Gothic style and included the city’s first pipe organ, made of black walnut. It seated 400. Local jokesters knew it as “the church with cushions in the pews and no hell.”
The congregation and the city grew swiftly and eight years later the building was sold to the German Methodists. In 1876 a stone building of native blue limestone was built downtown at 8th Street and Second Avenue South. It seated 1,000 and had a spire whose tip soared more than 200 feet above the sidewalk. The congregation raised $40,000 and it was dedicated on July 10, 1876 as the Church of the Redeemer, a name Tuttle chose from a church he had seen in Chicago. (The name of the church was never legally changed.)
On a cold January day in 1888 (Jan. 15, 1888) the Church of the Redeemer was swept by fire. Services were held for a while in the Grand Opera House. The church’s 212-foot bell tower survived the fire, as did some of the wall that formed the framework for the rebuilt larger building that was dedicated on November 24, 1889. The restored Church of the Redeemer featured an $11,000 organ with richly hand-carved wood paneling of vines, flowers and choirboys, designed by Pelzer, sculptor for the first Kaiser Wilhelm, a gift from William D. Washburn. The church cost more than $70,000 and featured damask pew cushions. Large memorial windows created by Tiffany and Herter Brothers commemorated members of early families. In 1903 the windows were destroyed by a tornado. Later the windows were restored and the church was expanded to provide three additional rooms including a church office. Two long-term members provided much of the $7,000 in funds.
In 1891 after a 25-year ministry, Tuttle retired. Through Tuttle’s efforts a second Universalist church in the community was revitalized in St. Paul. After his retirement he also spearheaded efforts and focused his energy to create a satellite church, a third Universalist church at 27th Street and Blaisdell Avenue South, formally known as the Third Universalist Society of Minneapolis. The downtown Church of the Redeemer included some of the city’s wealthiest families, but Tuttle wanted to minister also to the less prosperous. Following his death it was called the Tuttle Memorial Universalist Church, or also the Tuttle Church. It opened in 1894 with a separate congregation and minister and disbanded in the early 1930s, a victim of the Great Depression. Tuttle’s involvement was based on his view that it was important to enlarge the efforts of liberal religion in the new city.
~ Excerpted from First Universalist Church of Minneapolis: The First 150 Years, October 2009.