By John Marschall
In nineteenth century America, the Unitarians and their close spiritual siblings, the Universalists, were outspoken leaders on such social issues as working to end slavery and to extend political and civil rights to women and people of color, promoting education, and trying to abolish capital punishment. In addition, American religious freedom allowed both denominations to foster more liberal interpretations of scripture and to promote inclusive doctrines. The shared humanistic goals of the denominations led them to unite and form the Unitarian Universalist Association in 1961.
Modern Unitarianism dates historically from the non-Trinitarian movement (a belief in a unified deity rather than the Holy Trinity) during the European Reformation. The first recognized Unitarian church in the United States was the formerly Anglican King’s Chapel in Boston, Massachusetts, which adopted the Unitarian ideas and principles in June of 1785. As the country developed, so did the denomination, embracing the Enlightenment’s focus on rational thought and Transcendentalism’s concern with the individual’s relationship with God.
The Universalist denomination was dedicated to the principle of universal salvation. A Universalist would argue that no loving God would demand eternal damnation, but instead would allow for the eventual reconciliation of God and sinner. Unitarians and Universalists gradually eschewed theology or liturgy as a focus of their identity. Instead they regarded themselves as groups with common values focusing on personal growth and the building of a just and whole society. Both groups maintained virtually identical organizational structures, and even adopted the same hymnal in 1937. The Universalist and Unitarian membership overwhelmingly supported the eventual merger of the two denominations, which promised a renewed strength in unity.
Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Northern Nevada
By James W. Hulse
The Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Northern Nevada, which celebrated its fiftieth anniversary in 2008–09, descends from the Unitarian Fellowship of Reno, founded in the spring of 1959. It belongs to a liberal religious denomination, the Unitarian Universalist (UU) Association. The Northern Nevada congregation, whose members often describe themselves as “UUs,” has no formal creed to which members are expected to subscribe.
Unitarianism made its first appearances in Nevada in 1860 and again in 1863, when Thomas Starr King, minister of the San Francisco Unitarian Church, preached in Virginia City. For a few years during the 1890s, the Rev. Mila Tupper Maynard maintained a small congregation in Reno. Attempts to establish a permanent congregation in Nevada did not succeed until the 1950s.
Late in 1958, an outreach planner from Boston, Monroe Husbands, identified dozens of individuals affiliated with the Church of the Larger Fellowship (a “church-by-mail” congregation). He visited Reno and the Unitarian Fellowship of Reno was founded in 1959. For the first twenty-five years, fellowship members met in private homes or rented quarters, such as the YWCA on Valley Road and the interfaith Center for Religion and Life adjacent to the University of Nevada campus. The fellowship mostly relied upon lay leadership for spiritual help and social-justice work. It also maintained a vigorous religious education curriculum for children through the early years. Shortly after the Unitarians merged with the Universalists at the national level, the Reno fellowship changed its name to Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Northern Nevada (UUFNN).
The small congregation in Reno made its mark by its presence in social-justice activities. Jean Ford, an assemblywoman and state senator from Clark County, moved to Carson City and became a leader and president of the congregation. She promoted women’s rights, environmental activities, and public libraries throughout Nevada. She established the Women’s Study Program at the University of Nevada–Reno (UNR) and the statewide Women’s History Project. Elmer Rusco, long-time political science professor at UNR, was another UUFNN leader who wrote and worked for the rights of minority groups. His books and articles on African-Americans and Native Americans in Nevada reflected the UU emphasis on diversity and human rights.
In the meantime, the congregation accumulated a building fund (named for Esther and Earl Nicholson of Carson City) and purchased land in south Reno. After erecting a small building in the late 1980s, members provided a meeting hall meant to accommodate community events as well as worship. In 2001, they opened a second, larger meeting hall on the same land.
In recent years, the fellowship has regularly offered its facilities to Interfaith Hospitality Network (or Family Promise) to assist homeless people. Its members have been engaged in such causes as opposition to the wars in Vietnam and Iraq. Criticism of the death penalty, defense of the rights of gay people, and environmental concerns have also been high on the fellowship’s agenda.
For its first forty years, UUFNN functioned mostly without a professional minister, relying on lay leadership. Using the principle of democratic church governance, it sought ministers from California churches for occasional Sunday services or week-long ministries.
The fellowship called its first full-time minister in 2003. Although historically rooted in the Judeo-Christian experience, UUFNN experiments with worship services that are based on diverse religious traditions. It is affiliated with other groups in California and Hawaii in the UU Central Pacific District and currently numbers 184 certified members.
Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Southern Nevada
By Mark Hall-Patton
Elmo Bruner gathered a group of like-minded friends from Las Vegas and Clark County, and on May 1, 1952, they formed the seventy-fifth fellowship of the American Unitarian Association—later, the Unitarian Universalist Association. The early founders included the Breeze family and Emil Kolben, who was the first fellowship president. Bruner served on the board intermittently until his death in 1973. Dean Breeze, a local lawyer, served as legal counsel for the church until his death in 1997.
In 1959, the association called its first minister, Rev. Francis Schlater, who died after only six months in that role. The church acquired its first home at Tamarus Street and Tropicana Avenue in 1960, although property payments proved a continual challenge. Mortgage payments eventually became too burdensome, and the property was sold in 1967.
For almost thirty years the association had no permanent home and was led by part-time ministers or lay persons. In 1969, the church gathered in a hall which was a part of the First Congregational Church on North Eastern Avenue. A decade later they moved their activities to the ecumenical Center for Religion and Life adjacent to the UNLV campus. In 1992, they relocated to the Las Vegas Masonic Hall.
The group became a formal congregation, the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Las Vegas, in 1993, and purchased property for a future home on the corner of O’Bannon Drive and Lindell Road. During this time, the church underwent rapid growth. Membership climbed to over one hundred, enabling the group to afford a full-time minister. Rev. Suzanne Dougherty began her three-year tenure with the church in 1994, weathering a difficult transition from a lay-led to a minister-led congregation.
The congregation purchased the North Las Vegas Moose Hall on East Lake Mead Boulevard in 1996, which has since been the church’s home. The acquisition led to further growth for the congregation but also occasioned the departure of fifteen members who started another UU fellowship in the valley, the Unitarian Universalist Community of Southern Nevada, which later disbanded. UU President John Buehrens helped to celebrate the dedication of the new church in February 1997. The following September, the church became a “welcoming congregation,” receiving gay, lesbian, and transgendered members. Interim ministers served the congregation over the next ten years.
The last of the church’s mortgages was burned in 2002, leading to the hiring of the group’s first director of lifespan faith development. Rev. Gail Collins-Ranadive, who had served earlier as an interim minister, became the congregation’s settled minister in 2007. Over the past half-century, the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Las Vegas has been a social activist force in the area. It currently numbers 140 and includes members from northern Arizona and southwestern Utah. It is affiliated with the Unitarian Universalist Association’s Pacific Southwest District.