EARLY UNITARIANS IN MONTANA

Religious institutions — which is the main aspect most people think of when they think of “religion” — come and go through time, forming to answer the needs of a particular demographic and its circumstances, and then fading away when the people and their questions disperse. I want to mention three examples, all Unitarian in Montana.

Bond School came back to consciousness through the efforts of Margery Pease, whose husband Ben was Crow.

https://www.uua.org/racial-justice/dod/acting-locally/bonds-mission-montana Her book is on Amazon: “A worthy work in a needy time: The Montana Industrial School for Indians (Bond’s Mission), 1886–1897” The school only existed briefly. The Crow had a privileged status because of providing scouts for the military. Unitarians in the time of the founder, Rev. Bond, (as well as now) had very little consciousness of the reputation of residential Indian schools as oppressors who destroyed families. They were happy to discover and celebrate their effort to do good.

Rev. Milma Lappala

The Red Lodge group served by Milma Lappala was responding the needs of Finnish miners caught in the resource exploitation days that attracted immigrants. It never quite separated from the main Lutheran church and met in the same building in the evening until the Lutherans turned against it and put a padlock on the door. Milma’s husband at the time was the pastor and when the minors wanted to simply pry the padlock off, he counseled them to add their own padlock and ask for discussion. The situation never cooled down and he was eventually set upon by a mob and badly beaten. Some say, sensationally and not reliably, that he was castrated. He died and Milma continued the ministry, later locating in Iron Range, Minnesota, and coming by railroad occasionally to catch up marriages and baptisms. Rev. Carol Hepokowski has kept Milma’s name and work alive, though there is no Unitarian presence in Red Lodge anymore. Neither are there mines.

https://www.midamericauua.net/psd-heritage/bring/part1/1b_hepokoski.html

Rev. Lewis Duncan

Butte’s Rev Lewis Duncan was also attacked, stabbed three times by an irate Finn miner, because of acts attributed to Duncan as the twice-elected mayor of the town. He managed to shoot dead his attacker. Impeached twice, a handsome man, he wore bowties with a life of their own. No present UU has stepped forward to bring his story back, maybe because these days“socialism” is a fighting word.

https://www.hsqac.org/quincy-native-became-a-socialist-montana-mayor

Butte’s mining was so drastic that now it is a huge open pit filled with poison water. Before the pumps were turned off, the hole was consuming the town. A certain kind of person is in love with the whole tragic story, including the violence and drunkenness which is particularly famous on St. Patrick’s Day. No one celebrates the Copper Kings, who had often been Unitarians in Boston, but rather the rough miner immigrants from all over Europe.

To make this personal, Duncan was impeached the year Bob Scriver was born in Browning, 1914. It was not all that long ago. Duncan made the kind of progressive improvements to health, sanitation and the lives of children typical of humanist mid-western Unitarians. His attacker was seen as hired by the big Copper companies, the same ones that paid to build the Helena church that became the Grandstreet Theatre and constructed mansions nearby.

In Butte as mayor, Duncan battled police corruption and improved the streets. Some things never change. His obituary reveals a rather checkered intimate life. The widow remained in Butte, while he himself left. An adjacent story on this linked clip is about a major Montana snowstorm, just like this winter. https://www.newspapers.com/clip/37643818/obituary-for-lewis-j-duncan-aged-79/ He didn’t continue in the ministry or return to practicing law, but taught for a living. I don’t know why there isn’t a major novelization of his life.

The Great Falls fellowship that was included in the UUMM was finally ended in part, indirectly, by shrinking forces of resource development that closed the mines. When parts of the railroad and all of the refinery closed down, the city lost much of its economic base and converted to more dependence on Malmstrom Air Force Base, which brought in blacks with a different conviction base as well as taking focus from military planes to underground missile silos. The Golden Triangle of wheat farmers was changed when family farms became corporate industry.

Religious institutions are part of civic life, more determined and controlled by socioeconomic and ethnic forces than by any convictions about God or heaven. However, they often focus on morality, the conviction that their views about how things are run are ideal so they must be kept in place. Any threat to change is seen as an attack on their very identity. This has never been so clear as right now in the United States.

In the time of my entry into UU ministry, the pressure was on to make churches grow and to expand fellowships into churches. Ministers were urged to do this and the people were assured it would work. This was both because the UUA was fading, as were many mainstream and liberal groups, and partly because so many people were wanting to be ministers. Some cruel jokesters predicted that eventually each UU church would have 9 people in the pulpit, 5 people in the pews, and a building maintained by a trust fund created by their great-grandparents.

It was assumed that the principles of the denomination were universal and eternal. It never occurred to anyone that they were derived from the demographic of educated, science-aware, progressive citizens of modern nations. Presently, this is the population that seems under attack in this country. They have not become aroused to propose a new vision, but rather speak of “love” and sell t-shirts.

A few go back to renew the interest Black forces had in the UUA during the early Seventies, but those people have their own groups now. Feminists have been included, even dominant, though they tend to be part-time in small parishes. It’s possible that if the Biden administration does well, energy for classic Unitarianism and Universalism will return. At the moment they are learning how to be a group via computer.

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Mary Strachan Scriver

Born in Portland when all was calm just before WWII. Educated formally at NU and U of Chicago Div School. Clergy for ten years. Always happy on high prairie.