2. Congregation Histories : Missouri
All Souls Unitarian Church of Kansas City
On June 2, 1868, a charter membership of eight people organized this congregation, at first meeting in rented halls. Enthusiasm and growth led to the congregation constructing and moving into the first building in 1871. A period of decline followed, with the church almost closing in 1877. The ministry of David Utter brought new life, and a trade of the old lot and building for a new much larger lot on which a new brick church was built. During construction the congregation met in the Music Hall.
Then the cyclone struck, literally. The Great Cyclone of 1885 destroyed most of the city, and though the new brick church survived, all records of the church were destroyed. A later oral history project enabled many memories to be collected. They are all the history that remains of the earliest period.
In 1885 (before or after the storm?), the congregation changed its name from the First Unitarian Society of Kansas City to All Souls Unitarian Church. A split occurred in 1897 when the minister Mr. Roberts left All Souls and the Unitarian denomination and moved across the street to the Schubert Theater to form the “Church of This World” (still active in 1927). The church itself also became steadily more humanist, in 1925 removing the sentence, “We take the Bible to be a sufficient rule of faith and practice” from its Constitution.
In 1903, the brick church was sold and a new stone church built which housed the congregation until January 1951 when it was destroyed by fire. The church increasingly became a center for liberal thought, indeed, during the ministry of Dr. L. M. Birkhead, 1917–1931, it was known as “The Liberal Center” (though All Souls remained its official name). Dr. Birkhead became an early, prestigious, and controversial voice in opposition to Hitler Germany.
Dr. Lester Mondale, minister from 1939–1952 and Dr. Raymond Bragg, minister from 1952–1972 continued the strong humanist, liberal tradition in their preaching and comprehensive community activities.
After the fires, in the fall of 1952, the congregation purchased the “Old Velie House” at 4500 Warwick, and used, in addition, various rooms in the nearby Art Institute and Conservatory of Music. The old house was torn down, and by 1960 the congregation moved into the first portion of the new church built on the site.
In recent years, the Rev. Rich Meyers and Donald Vaughan served the church as settled ministers, and the Revs. Paul Bicknell and Ward Knights served as interims. In January 1986, the Rev. Judith Walker-Riggs began her ministry here.
A recent addition to church property is the Simpson House, a stately mansion purchased after the death of the last member of the Simpson family who had lived there since construction in 1909. After much repair and renovation, the ground floor is used for church events, prestigious social events of city residents, and public events co-sponsored by the church, and the third floor is the caretaker’s apartment.
The congregation supports a full church program, with a thriving Religious Education section with a full time director, a well-known Public Forum on Sunday mornings at 10 a.m. preceding the service, and a variety of adult programs, social events, etc.
We regret that histories written to date seem to concentrate on names of ministers and buildings. The history of the activity and meaning of the church in the community remains to be written. But the liberal reputation of the church in the community is a solid and well-known one, and the humanist tradition, while changing its points of emphasis somewhat in more recent years, remains strong. The congregation has, in recent years, become much more involved in district and denominational activities, including summer conferences.
There is a sense of excitement at All Souls in 1986. We hope that future historians, when they look back on the next few years, will have a lot to write about!