Another of the many communities Husbands went to visit was Bismarck, North Dakota, where a fellowship was formed with fifteen or so members in 1952. Betty Mills, one of two surviving founders, explains that Husbands visited in 1951 after another of the pioneers had written to Boston for information about lay-led Unitarian groups. But Bismarck’s course differed from Boulder’s in several respects. Unlike Boulder—the site of a state university and within Denver’s orbit of growth—Bismarck remains small and isolated. Except during a brief 1950s oil boom, there was never a large pool of the young professionals and academics who formed the core of many new fellowships. Today membership stands at forty-eight, and the group remains lay-led.
One helpful experience the two communities shared is that they received critical support from settled ministers in other cities. The Rev. Dr. Rudolph Gilbert of the First Unitarian Church of Denver—the same person who had suggested to Stewart that she start her own Sunday school— drove once a month to lead the Sunday service and meet with the leadership in Boulder. (The other Sundays, as remains the pattern in many fellowships, worship featured either one of the members or a guest lecturer.) These were the days of Senator Joseph McCarthy’s red hunt, and Dr. Gilbert’s outspoken attacks on the threats to freedom made the fellowship a beacon of liberalism. The Rev. Catharine Harris, who serves Boulder’s second fellowship, has written that the Unitarians “provided the only anti-McCarthy platform in the greater Denver area.”
Supporting the Bismarck group was the Rev. Arthur Foote II of St. Paul, Minnesota, who would undertake the seven-hour drive to perform weddings and memorial services and, while he was there, give professional help and guidance. “The Twin City ministers helped us to survive,” says Betty Mills. “Once we knew a minister was coming, we would schedule children’s dedications, as well as workshops and conferences.”
As they began to grow, they stopped meeting in each others’ homes, first acquiring an existing building for all of $35,000, and then building their own in 1959. From 1983 to 1986, Bismarck shared an extension minister, the Rev. Lucy Hitchcock, with a fellowship in Fargo. (Extension ministers were paid by headquarters to help new and struggling groups get better established.) In
1989 they were able to afford a full-time minister, but that lasted only two years, and the reaction of the members is illustrative of the ambivalence many fellowships felt (and some still feel) about giving up their adventure in self-sufficiency.
Those in favor of calling a minister, Mills recalls, welcomed the presence of someone trained to help them cope with death and other crises, to provide pastoral counseling, and to raise the visibility of the congregation, especially in relation to other ministers. “Also,” she mentions, “visitors would be unnerved by not seeing a minister in the pulpit, and often not come back.”
Those who resisted the change, on the other hand, were concerned that they might lose the sense of being a tight-knit community. “Everyone knew everyone, and we developed personal relationships that not only enriched our lives but that enabled us to be highly effective in social
action,” she says. Also, they liked the variety of having members and guests take turns leading the Sunday services. And finally, as in most fellowships, there was a great sense of pride and achievement that they feared would be diluted by reliance on a paid professional. In any case, when the minister left, she was not replaced. Today, the Bismarck fellowship continues to fulfill the religious needs of its members using its own resources, with such help as UUA headquarters and the Prairie Star District are able to provide. A proud moment came in 2001 when the fellowship won the UUA Bennett Award for social justice work.