1903 to 2003: A Century at All Souls Unitarian Church, Indianapolis.
The following historical account is excerpted from a pamphlet authored by the Rev. Dr. Bruce Clear, Minister Emeritus of All Souls, “The Church of All Souls – A Centennial Look at the Story of All Souls Unitarian Church of Indianapolis and its Ministers 1903-2003” Rev. Clear traced the history of All Souls through a series of sermons, each of which focused on the years in which one of the former ministers served. He then collected the sermons into a publication in honor of All Souls’ 100th year. Dr. Clear told the history of All Souls largely through biographical sketches of its ministers, but this device did not spring solely from his imagination. Indeed, All Souls long-time members talk about the past in terms of “The Wicks Years”, “The Backus Years”, and so forth. This brief synopsis also follows in a similar vein.
Although All Souls Unitarian Church marks its formal “birthdate” as sometime in 1903, the story of the establishment of a Unitarian church in Indianapolis starts several years earlier. From 1868 to about 1870, a Unitarian congregation held meetings at what was called the Morrison Opera Hall. However, when the minister, the Rev. Henry Blanchard, resigned to go somewhere else, they could not find anyone to fill the pulpit, and the congregation subsequently dissolved. The remnants of the congregation moved to a Congregationalist Church in town called “The Pilgrim Church”, which under the dynamic leadership of its liberal minister, Oscar McCullouch, became a thriving non-denominational church called, “the Church With the Open Door”. Unfortunately, with the untimely death of Rev McCullouch, the congregation was rudderless until the arrival in Indianapolis of a minister known to us only as Rev. Cantrell who started yet another church called the “Peoples Church”, attracting the former members of the “Pilgrim Church”.
A member named Horace McKay who had been active in both the Pilgrim Church and the Peoples Church became somewhat suspicious of the character of Rev. Cantrell, and was hoping that a Unitarian church could be established in Indianapolis. McKay, along with several other dissatisfied members of the Peoples Church asked the American Unitarian Association to help set up a Unitarian Church in Indianapolis, which they agreed to do and sent the Rev. Elmer E. Newbert as their minister to set up the church in 1903. Newbert came from All Souls Unitarian Church of Augusta, Maine, and it is probable that he brought that church name with him to Indianapolis.
In a few short months, Rev. Newbert, with the assistance of Horace McKay was able to find enough prospective members to set up regular meetings in a social room of the Hebrew Temple, the first of which was held on May 3, 1903. A week later, at a gathering at the home of a member, the decision to formally organize the church was made. It is this meeting date (May 11, 1903), where the By-laws and governing Board were established by a group of thirteen people called”the original thirteen”, that we formally assign the birth of All Souls Unitarian Church of Indianapolis. The name,”All Souls” was not automatically adopted, but was discussed, debated, and eventually accepted because it seemed to stand for what most of the founders had in mind: To include all who cared to come and work under the banner of Unitarian fellowship, regardless of personal belief or former affiliation, especially those who had no church home and were outside of church and religious influence.
The building that All Souls called”home” was a small wood-frame structure with the kitchen facilities under an outside lean-to, which had been the temporary home for a Presbyterian congregation while building a new permanent church. Horace McKay personally purchased the property, and held it until the church legally purchased it for $7,000 with money raised from members, other churches in the AUA, and from the AUA itself. The mortgage was paid off in January of 1905. In March of 1905, Rev. Newbert submitted his resignation, believing he had served his purpose in organizing the church. He returned to Maine where he left the ministry to pursue successful careers in real estate and as a local politician.
It is noteworthy that in 1903, the congregation adopted its covenant, an adaptation of a covenant attributed to James Vila Blake. It is this original covenant that is inscribed at the front of the current sanctuary and is recited aloud at every regular Sunday worship service, and at many regular meetings of church groups and committee meetings.
Love is the spirit of this church
And service is its law.
To dwell together in peace
To seek the truth in love
And to help one another.
This is our covenant.
Like most of the mainline churches, All Souls’ history is intimately connected to and shaped by world events over the last century. The rise and fall of influence and membership mirror that of society and the larger religious movement.
The years 1905-1938 mark the period of the second and longest-serving minister of All Souls, Dr. Frank C. Wicks. During his years, the congregation rapidly outgrew the original structure, and moved to an English Tudor building on Alabama Street that looked more like a large residence than a church. This was a deliberate design by the architectural firm of Kurt Vonnegut Sr. (father of All Souls member Kurt Vonnegut Jr.) that, according to Wicks, was”to foster the thought that it is a home and those who gather therein are members of one big family.” The”Alabama Street Church” was dedicated in January 1911, and would be the home of All Souls for the next 48 years.
Dr. Wicks was ideally suited for this fledgling congregation. He was a dynamic and well-loved minister, with a reputation for being a powerful speaker with a scholarly approach. He was flamboyant and outspoken, and espoused causes and positions that were not universally accepted in Indianapolis, and in the country at large. For example, he vigorously defended evolution during the Scopes trial, he started a city-wide debate among clergy when the paper reported on his sermon that Jesus didn’t intend to start the Christian church, he sponsored dances at the church and claimed that dancing can be an innocent and healthy activity and it hurts no one, and he advocated for Sunday baseball (which probably stemmed from being avid fan of the Boston Red Sox). Wicks also led the church to be involved in civic activities. During his years, a motto adopted by All Souls was,”A Religious Center With a Civic Circumference”. Church members were actively involved in establishing the Children’s Museum (a world-class institution today), the Herron Art Institute, the Symphony, and the City Park system. Later, Dr. Wicks would write,”All Souls has a reputation for civic and social usefulness. We were among the founders of the Playground Association, the Juvenile Court Probation Officers Association, the Children’s Aid Association, the Family Welfare Society, the Public Health Nursing Association. The first two presidents of the PHNA and the present president have been of our church. The president of Riley Hospital is one of our men. The minister is on the board of each of these organizations, as well as being a member of the Board of Coleman Home for Unwed Mothers and the Art Institute. Of course, such an attempt to butter himself all over the city means he is spread quite thin in places.”
Under Dr. Wicks’ leadership, All Souls distinguished itself as an organization that defended the right of free speech. Emma Goldman, a well-known communist organizer was defended in a sermon in which Wicks insisted she had a right to speak even though he disagreed with her politics. He also defended the free speech right of Eugene B. Debs, a notorious Hoosier socialist and labor organizer, and he defended a pro-German speaker even during the height of anti-German sentiment in Indianapolis during World War I.
Dr. Wicks’ tenure oversaw World War I, Prohibition, and the Great Depression. During this tumultuous time in our history, the church grew from 60-70 members to over 500. At the time of his retirement in 1938, the church was beginning to outgrow its facilities.
The third minister of All Souls was Dr. Edwin Burdette Backus, for whom the library is named. Dr. Backus served for 13 years, from 1938 to 1953, through some momentous years which included World War II, the Korean War, the beginning of the Soviet-American Cold War, the rise of McCarthyism, and the beginnings of the American Civil Rights movement. He came to All Souls at the age of 50, at the relative end of a long and successful career, but the church continued to grow under his leadership. Backus was also a scholarly and thoughtful orator, and his 15-minute radio broadcasts became very popular throughout the city and state. They were heard by many who had given up on churches and were pleasantly surprised to hear a minister speak with a reasoned and non-judgmental voice. These broadcasts were partly responsible for the rapid growth of Unitarianism throughout Indiana, as Unitarian groups sprang up in Bloomington, West Lafayette, Anderson, Evansville, and South Bend. Through Dr. Backus, All Souls provided support in their founding.
Rev. Backus also continued the tradition of civic involvement. For example, in the 1950’s, local governments developed a policy called”release time”, a designated time during the school day when children would be released from school to go to a chosen church to receive religious education. Much like the arguments of today, proponents argued that the policy was”fair” since the choice was in the hands of the child, not of the school, and that they were free to go to whichever church they wanted. Forgotten were the children who”chose” not to go anywhere and their anguish of being labeled as”different” or”unworthy”. All Souls, by virtue of its free pulpit made a stink about this situation through sermons by Dr. Backus on the importance of strict separation of church and state. Church members, along with Backus, were proud to support a lawsuit by an Illinois mother against this policy that eventually reached the Supreme Court, which ruled the policy unconstitutional.
All Souls also continued to grow in membership, and by the end of Rev. Backus’ time, the church building at 14th and Alabama was beginning to be utilized at near capacity. During the baby boom of the 1950’s, bathrooms had to be used for the church school nursery. There was no parking lot, and people had to walk for blocks to get from their cars to the church. It became increasingly clear that a move was not too distant in the future.
Burdette Backus was a vocal advocate of racial justice and spoke courageously about the need for accepting blacks as equal members of society. Dr. Backus and Dr. Risk, a prominent member of All Souls, were instrumental in founding the Indiana chapter of the ACLU.
This period of our history would not be complete without the relating of the first of several painful episodes in our past. This particular one occurred around 1950, and was probably the result of multiple factors, but among them was a disagreement about the church becoming involved in social action. Even though it is evident that the church had had a long and distinguished history of supporting its members’ and ministers’ involvement in civic affairs and civil rights, the Board at that time was fearful of the church being perceived as a den of radicals, and voted not to support a formal action which was being proposed. A large proportion of the congregation disagreed with that position and petitioned for a vote to replace the board with an alternate slate, which passed. The losing faction, a group of about fifty members, left the church and formed a new one called the”North Unitarian Church”, which lasted only a few years. Among the complaints of the dissident group was the complaint that Backus was attracting too many blacks to the church. Shockingly, when the new church was formed, it expressly prohibited membership of blacks. With this sort of sentiment, it is little wonder that the spinoff church died out after a few years. However, the episode also serves to demonstrate the integrity of the values not only of Dr. Backus, but of the remaining members of All Souls, as the church earned a reputation for championing the cause of justice, freedom, and civil rights for all.
It is a little surprising that Bruce Clear’s research did not turn up any significant activity from church related to combating the rampant McCarthyism and paranoia surrounding so-called subversive communist activity in the U.S. Perhaps we may speculate that even though the excesses of Joe McCarthy were in the news, there was still the emerging presence of the Soviet Union as a real threat to world peace and security, and that reality could have weighed more heavily on the minds of All Souls and other Unitarian churches across the land.
Many members were convinced that the controversy surrounding the split and the North Unitarian Church took a heavy toll on Backus’ health, and in 1953 at 67 years of age, he resigned after facing some serious health issues. Backus died only two years after leaving All Souls.
In both the ministries of Wicks and Backus, the predominant theology of All Souls could be described as religious humanism. Both ministers were original signers of the Humanist Manifesto. For much of Rev. Backus’ time at All Souls, he and Dr. Wicks formed a sort of partnership, as Wicks stayed around as Minister Emeritus, and continued to help out with pastoral duties and occasional pulpit duties. Together, they oversaw the most significant growth in All Souls history, and led the congregation through some of the most difficult periods in our Country’s history (the Great Depression, two World Wars, the Korean Conflict, and the beginnings of the Cold War). Yet, there were additional times of difficulty to come, both in the life of the church and society at large.
The fourth minister of All Souls, Jack Mendelsohn, began in 1954. It is fair to say that this time in our history was one of competing stereotypes. On the one hand, in the white community, this was a time of post-war boom and rapid upward mobility. On the other hand, a large number of our population, particularly African Americans, were systematically excluded from being able to participate in the American Dream, and their plight was quietly swept under the rug.
Mendelsohn came to All Souls relatively early in his career as a Unitarian minister, leaving after only five years to accept the prestigious position of Senior Minister of Arlington Street Unitarian Church in Boston. During his tenure in Indianapolis, the white flight to the suburbs from the inner cities was at its peak, and this trend was probably a factor in the choice of the location of the new church, way out in the Northeast suburbs. The deterioration of the inner city, together with the inadequacy of the downtown facility to meet the needs of the still growing congregation made it imperative to make a move, and a new location with adequate land for parking, expansion, and green space was found at 5805 East 56th Street.
In many respects, Jack Mendelsohn’s ministry was a continuation of the ministry of Wicks and Backus. He was a scholarly speaker in the tradition of his predecessors and he had a passion for social Justice, involving himself and the church in both local and global activities. Of course, as far as the history or All Souls is concerned, the main activity during Mendelsohn’s time in Indianapolis was the planning, funding, and building of the present facility on 56th Street, which needed to accommodate a congregation of 700 members. Prominent members of the church, notably, Dr. Robert Arnold and Robert Mohlman, chaired committees to design and finance the undertaking. Groundbreaking occurred in December of 1957, and the new facility was completed in January of 1959 at a cost of $500,000. It is not hard to imagine that the move was accompanied by both excitement about a brand new building yet sadness at leaving the beloved and familiar structure where so many passages of life had been celebrated and noted. Shortly before the completion of the new building, Mendelsohn announced to the congregation that he had accepted the Senior Minister position in Boston, so the move was also symbolic of a transition in ministry. On February 8, 1959, Mendelsohn held the last service on Alabama Street, and at the end the congregation traveled en masse to the new location, carrying with them such items as the Membership Book, the Child Dedication Font, the Offering Plates, and each member carrying a hymnal. The Dedication Font and the Offering Plates are still in use today. A coal was carried from the fireplace at Alabama Street to light the fireplace at 56th Street, and a piece of earth was carried from the old grounds and placed on the new site. Later, furniture such as the Membership Desk and Library chairs were brought to the new site, along with the massive wooden carved Covenant, which now hangs permanently in the general purpose room on the second level called the Beattie Room.
One legacy of Jack Mendelsohn’s ministry was the institution of the”Frontiers of Knowledge” series. This program was supported and financed by the leadership of church members, and featured prominent speakers on cutting-edge ideas in science, the humanities, and society. During Mendelsohn’s ministry and subsequent ones, this program was widely supported and was hugely popular. There are church members today who still yearn for All Souls to reinstitute this activity.
In a sense, the five years that All Souls and the ministerial career of Jack Mendelsohn crossed paths could be described as a mutually beneficial relationship, in that this congregation was instrumental in the fine-tuning of a great minister, and the minister was instrumental in further growth and maturity of the congregation.
The fifth minister of All Souls, John MacKinnon had been called before the move to 56th Street, and he began his ministry in the Fall of 1959. It is safe to say that the decade of the 60’s was”one hell of a ride” for those who lived through it. There were the assassinations of John and Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr. There was growing civil unrest with race riots in some major cities. The threat of nuclear annihilation was real and ever-present. The young”hippie’s” dissatisfaction with the current generation’s leadership led to an ever widening gap between the young and old. The increasing involvement of our country in Vietnam was leading to stark divisions within our society, the scars of which are still not fully healed for those who lived through those times.
Yet, for all the”troubles” of society, John MacKinnon oversaw a relatively peaceful time in the history of All Souls, although some cracks were beginning to form just below the surface. Like his predecessors, MacKinnon continued the radio broadcasts and social activism. He did not shy away from controversial subjects, such as abortion and civil rights. The”Frontiers of Knowledge” series was continued, and John MacKinnon himself delivered provocative sermons from the pulpit of All Souls. It was during this time that the membership of All Souls peaked at 846 members, and it was necessary to hold two services on Sunday morning. It was the golden days for church membership in general and for All Souls in particular. Toward the end of the 60’s decade, however, things began to change radically, and the church and John MacKinnon were greatly distressed by the events unfolding. Camelot was dead, and our Country’s standing in the world was perhaps at the lowest point it has ever been. Deep divisions in our society were breaking us apart, and civil discourse took a nosedive. There were divisions in the congregation also, but John MacKinnon’s reasoned approach to these controversial issues won the admiration of even those who disagreed with him.
MacKinnon came to All Souls at the mature age of 55, so his years were to be necessarily numbered, and in 1968, nearing the age of retirement, he submitted his resignation but continued until January of 1969.
Paul Beattie was the sixth minister of All Souls, and was probably the most scholarly of all the previous scholarly ministers. He served from 1969 to 1982 during a time of turmoil in society and in the church. There is no doubt that Beattie was a gifted orator and a brilliant thinker. His sermons were exquisitely crafted and well thought-out. He was not afraid to broach controversial subjects, with sermon titles such as,”Should Society Practice Eugenics?”, Jesus or Socrates: Why I prefer Socrates”, or,”Is the Bible Fit for Children?”. He vocally defended a woman’s right to legal abortion long before the 1972 Roe vs Wade Supreme Court decision. Beattie was also known as a leading voice for the humanist movement.
Paul Beattie also was at the center of another painful episode in All Souls history. It seems that many of the congregation were dissatisfied with his perceived lack of attention to pastoral duties, and that he was”too involved” in denominational issues. There was also the undercurrent of which side of the Vietnam War Controversy members had supported, left over from the late 60’s and early 70’s. In any case, Beattie’s ministry was called into question, and a vote on his tenure was scheduled. Out of 470 votes cast, 40% voted for his dismissal, and 60% voted for him to remain. This split was not a strong endorsement, but Beattie decided to work with the Board and the Ministerial Advisory Committee to try to make changes that might satisfy the dissidents, and chose to stay on for a while. However, the 100 or so dissenting members became determined to leave and form a new congregation, currently called the Unitarian Universalist Church of Indianapolis. At the time and for many years afterward, this period was remembered with great pain and anguish by members who witnessed this sharp split. The intervening years have shown that Indianapolis really did benefit from another UU church, and the anger and grief of the split have long since been forgotten. Most members of both churches don’t even know or care about it.
Paul Beattie stayed on for another three years after the split, but felt his effectiveness was diminished by the episode, even though he was admired and respected by hundreds of people. He actually went on to a highly successful ministry at the First Unitarian Church of Pittsburg, cut short by complications from open heart surgery in 1989 at age 52.
The seventh minister of All Souls was W. Edward Harris, or just plain “Ed”, as he was affectionately known. Ed came to All Souls in 1984 following a two-year interim ministry by Fred Campbell, during which hurt feelings and raw emotions were calmed. Ed was called from Urbana, Illinois, where he had served for twelve years. Ed Harris was the right person at the right place at the right time, and his ministry can be seen as one of healing, which was sorely needed at that time. Ed’s style was quite different from all his predecessors. He preached what he liked to call a”practical religion”, which emphasized common sense, everyday insights into life. He talked about living with integrity and meaning. His was a”person-centered” philosophy, exploring issues of personal growth and how to cope with life. Ed was the consummate pastoral care minister, which was greatly appreciated by a membership that had felt a lack of attention to this aspect of ministry in previous years. Ed’s sermons also drew heavily from his activist days in the civil rights movement in the South, which were a significant part of his life and a significant contribution to the movement. At the start of his ministry, Ed had visions of growth in membership and attendance in All Souls, but in spite of his efforts and intentions, the tide was against him, and he oversaw a slow decline in membership. Of course, the tide was washing over all mainline churches, and All Souls was not going to escape the trend, which actually continues to this day in all the established churches and in the Unitarian Universalist Association. Although the history of All Souls during Ed’s tenure was one of relative peace and tranquility, it was also a period of quiet transition from church leadership concentrated in the hands of a few influential members to leadership more widely shared and accompanied by better leadership development. One example of this was the transition of the pledge campaign away from the use of an expensive professional fund-raiser to the leadership of church members, which was a confidence-building moment for the church.
The eighth settled minister was the Rev. Dr. Bruce Clear, who was called in 1992 after having served the Servetus Unitarian Fellowship in Vancouver, Washington for nine years after his Doctorate in 1983. Bruce was originally from Anderson, Indiana, and often remarked how happy he was to return to the land of his roots.
Copyright 2012 by All Souls