Thursday, February 04, 2016


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 3 of 4)

Unitarian Universalists do not hold a monopoly on liberal religious thought and expression. Although our congregations may sometimes fancy themselves the most liberal spiritual communities in town, we often have competitors for that honour and therefore natural allies in our work. Here in Winnipeg, there was, during the first four decades of the 20th century, a great religious liberal who was a friend of both the Icelandic Unitarians and the English-speaking Unitarians who had organized their own congregation, All Souls Church, in 1904. An ordained Methodist minister who left that denomination for the short-lived Labour Church and left the ministry for politics, J.S. Woodsworth occasionally filled the pulpits in both of the city’s Unitarian churches when he wasn’t in Ottawa. Indeed, he was sometimes mistaken for being a Unitarian minister and he didn’t object when that happened, since the teachings and practices of the Labour Church were virtually identical to those of the Unitarians.

“We need trail-makers,” he said. “In the realm of the spirit, in the search after truth, in the field of social relationships, in economics, in politics, in international affairs, we need trail-makers — men [and women] who will seek new paths; make the rough places smooth; bridge the chasms that now prevent human progress; point the way to higher levels and loftier achievements.”

The qualities of trail-making and bridge-building have been embodied in this congregation from the very beginning. If trail-making is seen as seeking new paths and making them accessible to those who follow, then this congregation has laid down trails at every stage of its existence.

Youth Sunday 1946 at the First Federated Church
of Unitarians and Other Liberal Christians on
Banning Street in Winnipeg.
At a time when most churches were defined by creeds and dogmas, the audacity to establish a congregation on the basis of a simple covenant to unite for the service of God and humanity, in the spirit of Jesus, was an act of trail-making. And to then expand the circle of inclusion to include agnostics and atheists, and those who looked to figures other than Jesus for inspiration, was a bold act of trail-making and bridge-building, not to mention confidence and faith. One of the early ministers of All Souls Church, William A. Vrooman, maintained that, “the unity of a church should … depend not upon uniformity of belief, but upon that unity of the spirit which enables [women and] men who may differ in opinions still to love and serve one another.”

It was trail-making when the congregation became the first spiritual community in the city known to have opened its pulpit to a woman as its minister. Jennie McCaine Peterson effectively shared the ministry of this congregation with her husband Björn from the very beginning and she then succeeded him for a year following his death, notwithstanding the barriers of language and social convention. And it was a trail-making message she preached, telling her congregants that the “sciences tell us that instead of being created as perfect beings, humans have all these centuries been slowly and slowly evolving” and going on to say that “people are paying attention to other religions older than Christianity and comparing them” – favourably, I would add. At that time, there were few other places, if any, where one would have heard a preacher extolling evolution and comparative religion in this city.

It was trail-making when, after the congregation’s women’s society was formed in 1904, under the leadership of Margrét Bendictsson, the congregation amended its bylaws so that support for women’s suffrage was a requirement of membership. Indeed, I have found no other church, within our denomination or beyond it, that made such a demand upon its members.

And this pattern of trail-making carried on throughout the history of this congregation, because it was deeply embedded both in the Icelandic congregation and in the English-speaking All Souls Church, which was founded in 1904 under the leadership of Arthur Puttee, the first Labour member of Canada’s parliament, and Hope Ross. Although it’s the 125th anniversary of the founding of the First Icelandic Unitarian Society that we are commemorating today, the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Winnipeg is actually rooted in three liberal churches, the other two being the Winnipeg Tabernacle and All Souls Church. At All Souls, James Hart introduced humanism to Winnipeg’s Unitarians while decrying the oppression and exploitation of imperialism at a time when nice people didn’t talk about such things.

As the decades progressed, this city’s Unitarians found themselves, as trail-makers, on the leading edge of groundbreaking issues from law reform to public education. And it’s no accident that this country’s first same-sex marriage occurred under the auspices of this church, even if it took the law three decades to catch up.

It’s not that trail-making came without controversy, either within the congregation or between the church and the larger community – it’s that the congregation was prepared to follow its collective conscience into uncomfortable places.

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