Although Arkansas’s church-going population can be generally characterized as religiously conservative, the state is nevertheless represented on the liberal end of the religious spectrum by a relatively small group of Unitarian Universalists with churches and fellowships in six communities. The largest is the Unitarian Universalist Church of Little Rock, which began as a Unitarian Fellowship in 1950.
Two struggling religious denominations in the United States, the Unitarians and the Universalists, merged in 1961. Each had developed independently, but a shared liberal perspective that values free will and resists dogma provided common ground. The religious ideas at the core of each date to the beginning of the Christian church in Europe and fueled long histories of dissent from established teachings. These ideas—the Unitarian belief in the unity of God as opposed to the orthodox doctrine of the Trinity, and Universalism’s central tenet that salvation was universal instead of being restricted to those John Calvin described as God’s “elect”—gravitated to the United States in the eighteenth century. Under the leadership of Harvard Professor of Divinity William Ellery Channing, the Unitarians organized and formed the American Unitarian Association in 1825. The Universalist Church of America, which marked its beginning with its founder John Murray’s arrival from England in 1770, officially came together with the adoption of the “Winchester Profession of Faith” in 1803.
Arkansas, located in the Southern Bible Belt where conservative Protestant beliefs predominated, was not fertile ground for either the Unitarians or the Universalists. Their unorthodox views on the nature of God, the nature of man, salvation, original sin, and hell were viewed as heretical and often dangerous. Nevertheless, at the end of the nineteenth century, Universalism gained a foothold because of the efforts of the denomination’s most successful missionary, Quillen Hamilton Shinn of Boston, Massachusetts. By 1903, Shinn had established churches in two small towns—Driggs, about seven miles south of Paris (Logan County), and Fouke (Miller County), about thirteen miles south of Texarkana—and in Little Rock (Pulaski County). The Driggs and Fouke congregations erected church buildings where they continued to meet into the late 1920s.
Two other small churches emerged independently of Shinn’s influence. The earliest Universalist congregation in the state was in Siloam Springs (Benton County) in northwest Arkansas. It operated from 1887 to 1893 with a lay preacher. Several Universalist families that had moved to Mount Ida from Avon, Illinois, organized a church in Mount Ida (Montgomery County) in 1909.
Shinn had his greatest success in Little Rock, where he began with a series of services in 1895 that resulted in the organization of a Universalist Ladies Aid Society, which began a building fund and set up a Sunday school. In 1901, the Little Rock Universalist congregation became a mission church of the Young People’s Christian Union, a Universalist organization of teens and young adults, and received funding for a minister. Over the next fifteen years, the church was served by four ministers, the second of whom (1904–1908) was Athalia L. J. Irwin. Irwin, a native Arkansan, was the first female ordained minister in Arkansas of any denomination and the first Southern female minister for the Universalists. Under her leadership, the Little Rock congregation constructed its own church building at 13th and Center streets. As Irwin’s work earned respect in the community, her sermons began to be excerpted in the local newspapers along with those from the larger, mainstream churches, gaining a place for her church and its ideas in the religiously conservative city. But, by the end of World War I, the Little Rock Universalist Church lost its denominational funding and began to decline, as did Universalism nationally. Its building was sold in 1920.
By 1930, Universalism had become dormant in Arkansas. The Unitarians investigated a move into the state but were stopped by the competing liberal presence of the Second Presbyterian Church in Little Rock under the powerful leadership of Dr. Hay Watson Smith. Not until after World War II was another serious effort made, leading to the establishment of Unitarian fellowships in Little Rock in 1950 and in Fayetteville (Washington County) in 1951.
Unitarian Universalists in Little Rock
In September 1950, the American Unitarian Association placed ads on the religion pages of the Little Rock newspapers to solicit interest in organizing a lay-led Unitarian group or fellowship. The response was promising, and on Sunday, October 15, 1950, the Unitarian Fellowship of Little Rock held its first meeting. Gathering at temporary locations, the group grew slowly and in June 1955 began meeting at the American Legion Hall at 2401 Wolfe Street, its rented home for the next ten years.
In September 1959, the fellowship called its first minister, Richard W. Kelley, and by 1961 the fellowship had met the denomination’s goal of sixty-five families necessary to qualify for church status under the rules of the newly merged Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA). At the UUA’s first national meeting in May 1961, the Unitarian Universalist Church of Little Rock was officially recognized. Also that year, the congregation bought a 2.5-acre wooded site on Reservoir Road, which at the time was a rutted, gravel road outside the Little Rock city limits; in January 1965, it moved into its newly constructed church. In 1986, the octagonal sanctuary and education building were enlarged and a fellowship hall added, just in time for the church to host the 2,000 Unitarian Universalists who came to the UUA General Assembly in Little Rock in 1987. In keeping with the denomination’s long history of women in the pulpit, two of the church’s six settled ministers have been women.
The denomination’s evolving religious views that emphasize searching for religious truth and living with respect and compassion for others have historically been accompanied by a liberal social outlook. In 1954, the Unitarians helped sponsor a forum in Little Rock on the impact in Arkansas of Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas, the 1954 U.S. Supreme Court decision declaring segregation unconstitutional. In 1958 and 1959, twenty-five women associated with the small Little Rock fellowship joined the Women’s Emergency Committee to Open Our Schools (WEC) during the desegregation of Little Rock Central High School and worked to quash the strident voices of segregation. In succeeding years, Unitarian Universalists continued to take positions that put them at odds with the more conservative views of many Arkansans on other issues such as the Vietnam War, the Equal Rights Amendment, abortion, and the civil rights of homosexuals, including most recently marriage.
Unitarian Universalists around the State
Organized in 1951 as a lay-led fellowship, Unitarian Universalists in Fayetteville built a church building in 1964 and called their first full-time minister, Janet Newman, in 1983. Other Unitarian-Universalist congregations include a fellowship in Jonesboro (Craighead County) founded in 1962, a fellowship in Eureka Springs (Carroll County) that began in the early 1980s, and two small congregations in the Hot Springs (Garland County) area.
Despite being few in number, with about 500 members comprising only a fraction of the state’s religious population, Unitarian Universalists in Arkansas maintain a vocal presence representing the liberal perspective on religious and related social issues. Transcending its Christian roots, the denomination now includes members from many religious backgrounds and encompasses a wide range of theological beliefs and observances.
For additional information:
Chism, Kitty. “Unitarian Universalist Church, celebrating 50 years.” The (North Little Rock) Times. October 19, 2000, p. 8B.
Miller, Russell. The Larger Hope: The Second Century of the Universalist Church in America, 1870–1970. Boston: Unitarian Universalist Association, 1985.
Rimmer, Martha Williamson. “The Left Lane on the Road to Salvation: Universalism Comes to Arkansas.” Pulaski County Historical Review 49 (Summer 2001): 26–38.
———. “A Southern Woman’s Place in the Pulpit: Athalia Johnson Irwin Hears the Call of Universalism.” The Journal of Unitarian Universalist History 30 (2005): 71–104.
Robinson, David. The Unitarians and the Universalists. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1985.
Unitarian Universalist Association. http://www.uua.org (accessed July 28, 2023).
Unitarian Universalist Church of Little Rock (UUCLR). http://www.uuclr.org (accessed July 28, 2023).
UU Fellowship of Fayetteville. http://www.uufayetteville.org/ (accessed July 28, 2023).
UU Fellowship of Jonesboro. https://jonesborouu.org/ (accessed July 28, 2023).
Martha Williamson Rimmer
Little Rock, Arkansas
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