History of First Unitarian Church of Omaha
The Articles of Incorporation of First Unitarian Church of Omaha were signed on August 22, 1869, by twenty-six men and women prominently identified with the early life of Omaha. Its first settled minister was the Reverend Henry E. Bond. A small brick chapel was built at 17th and Cass and dedicated in 1871 (pictured at the left). The Reverend Newton M. Mann was called in the fall of 1889. Mann was the first American minister to promote the philosophy of evolution.
In 1916 the Reverend Robert F. Leavens (author of Great Companions) was called. The present building at 31st and Harney was built and dedicated in the fall of 1918. The church's early years were marked by moves on both the theological and physical levels. Theodore Parker's philosophy, the use of reason and common sense, had been brought to the Midwest by Unitarian ministers, notably the Reverend W.E. Copeland and Newton Mann.
In 1929 the Reverend Laurence R. Plank began a seven-year ministry. Church attendance was high, a not unusual development during times of economic depression, and Plank spoke to an overflowing audience each Sunday morning and for a successful series of evening lectures. In 1931 Omaha's beautiful Joslyn Museum opened its doors to the public, a gift of Sarah Joslyn in memory of her husband. Both were members of First Unitarian Church of Omaha. Mrs. Joslyn also gave the church its Aeolian-Skinner pipe organ.
The Reverend Charles W. Phillips was minister from 1956 to 1960. Sponsored by the American Christian-Palestine Association and Omaha friends, Phillips made a three-week study tour of Israel and Arab countries. A collection of his sermons, No Graven Image, was published by a member of the congregation.
During the eleven-year ministry of Vester L. "Van" Vanstrom, the church's 100th year was observed. A committee on social justice was active and, with other Unitarian ministers, Vanstrom took part in the memorial march in Selma, Alabama, for the Unitarian civil rights martyr Reverend James Reeb. First Unitarian Church purchased property and a building at 3012 South 119th Street, which was dedicated as Second Unitarian Church on January 12, 1974.
From 1976 to 1996 the pulpit was held by the Reverend Ronald Knapp. Highlights of Reverend Knapp's ministry include , major renovations, several Sunday morning television broadcasts, the organization of Nebraska Advocates for Nursing Home Residents, and the church's attainment of National Landmark designation. The 75th anniversary of our building, an historic example of Georgian Revival architecture, was observed. Ron Knapp, now retired, continues to serve First Unitarian Church of Omaha as Minister Emeritus.
Excerpts from the flyer "Historical Sketch; First Unitarian Church of Omaha from 1869 through 1999" prepared by Marie Helms, long-time member of the congregation.