Wednesday, February 03, 2016

Planting Unitarianism Among the Icelanders of Winnipeg

Remarks from the celebration of the 125th anniversary of the founding of the First Icelandic Unitarian Society of Winnipeg delivered at the commemorative service held at First Unitarian Universalist Church of Winnipeg on Sunday, January 31, 2016. (Part 1 of 4)

Looking over the memorabilia from past anniversaries, I discovered that there were eight sermons or addresses – the Icelandic word ræða can mean either – delivered at the congregation’s 25th anniversary celebration, which may explain why the event lasted for three hours; there were four sermons at the 50th anniversary, two sermons at the 75th anniversary, and one sermon shared by two preachers at the 100th anniversary. And today, there will be one sermon in two movements. If my projections are correct and, should you happen to be around for the sesquicentennial – the 150th anniversary – it is my prediction that either there will be one sermon in four parts or else no sermon at all. You heard it here first.

When this congregation marked its 50th anniversary in 1941, our young minister at the time, Philip Petursson, said, “Nobody knows – or can remotely guess – what the world may be like a year from today or five years from now. Even the oldest landmarks may vanish. The ideas and customs and traditions and institutions that now seem to us most stable may be overturned and destroyed and forgotten. It sometimes seems as though the one certain thing about life is that it is uncertain, the one safe prophecy that tomorrow will be so unlike the present that it cannot possibly be foretold. The one safeguard in such a world,” he continued, “is a strong, positive religious faith – a deep-rooted conviction that this universe is more than the battleground of blind, dark, ruthless forces, where the only thing that counts is brute force and the only arbiter of human destiny is sheer accident. Over and against any such pitiless view of life,” he said, the liberal religious person “sets [a] daring affirmation that reason is potentially stronger than chaos, the human dream of an ideal world as real and powerful as the law of gravitation, that justice is not an idle and pathetic illusion, truth no mere will-o’-the-wisp, the ultimate victory of love over hatred, of goodwill over selfish and cruel impulses, of the divine over the brute within the soul … is as certain as that tomorrow’s sun will rise or that two and two make four.”

The second building of the First Icelandic Unitarian
Church of Winnipeg, dedicated in 1905.
The anniversary celebration was held in June of that year, after the regular church year had come to a close. These words were especially powerful when you remember that the world was at war and the conflict wasn’t going particularly well. The congregation’s leaders weren’t entirely certain that it was even appropriate to hold a celebration, given everything that was going on. So the tone of the anniversary was more solemn than celebratory. But the anniversary was marked.

Philip spoke of paying tribute to the pioneers who had “labored and sacrificed” to plant and maintain Unitarianism in this city, encouraging freedom of thought, so that the fruits of our faith would be embodied in lives of character and purpose. And they really had sacrificed because identifying as a Unitarian in those days was not without consequences – especially if you happened to be an immigrant.

The thirty-six people who gathered on February 1st, 1891 to establish the First Icelandic Unitarian Society of Winnipeg under the leadership of Björn Pétursson and Jennie McCaine Peterson were indeed pioneers. In defining their purpose as a congregation, their bond of union affirmed: “In truth and in the spirit of Jesus of Nazareth, we unite for the service of God and men.” While those words might raise eyebrows among some Unitarian Universalists today, they were, in the context of their time, a radically simple and inclusive affirmation. Notwithstanding their invocation of Jesus, few outside the congregation considered them to be Christians and, in a time when such things mattered, this meant that their “otherness” was on display for all to see. A couple of dozen others joined the initial 36 as charter members.

Together, they laboured on in following a new pathway in religion while striving to build bridges to their neighbours. The built a small wooden chapel at the corner of Sherbrook Street and Pacific Avenue, which they dubbed “Unity Hall,” and it became a gathering place not only for Unitarians, but also for other groups that had trouble finding a place to meet, such as the Winnipeg Secular Association.

During its first decade, the congregation’s membership fluctuated between 60 and 80, although attendance was always much greater – sometimes reaching a few hundred – and they persevered, attracting the interest of some bright, young individuals who aimed to make a difference in the world. 

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