History of the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Dubuque, Iowa

Thirty years ago in 1984, David and Lisa Fryxell, who were living in Minneapolis,  decided they wanted to raise their young children in a different religious denomination than the one they were both raised in. They borrowed a book from the library by Leo Rosten, Religions of America and liked what they saw in Unitarian Universalism (UU). They then found a UU church for their daughter and themselves.  Not long after they moved to Dubuque where they were both employed by the Telegraph-Herald. Not finding a Unitarian Universalist church here they organized one. Today, there are about 45 members in the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship which is located at 17th and Iowa Street.

The Unitarian Universalist Fellowship is unlike any church in the area in that it is not only creedless with congregational governance but it also does its own Sunday morning programming.  Once a month, Rev. Dr. Kent Mayfield gives what we consider erudite and inspiring sermons. However, the rest of the services and sermons/talks are given by members, friends or invited persons in the Tri-states.

The Unitarians and Universalists both began in this country as liberal Christian denominations in the late 1700s in Massachusetts. In the 1820s there was a split in what was called the Standing Order in Massachusetts over concept of the Trinity (three Gods in one) versus Unity (one). In other words the orthodox position was that God as the Father, his Son Jesus, and Holy Spirit were the three parts of God. They said this was not explainable but was a paradox. The Unitarians greatly revered Jesus, and He was even seen as supernatural yet He was not considered to be on quite the same plane as God. In addition, the Unitarians were against the orthodox emphasis on the depravity of Man. Both the Unitarian thinkers and the Trinitarians were heavy influenced by John Calvin’s writing but the Unitarians eschewed the negativity of sermons dwelling on damnation and sin.

The Universalists, on the other hand, got their name for believing in “the Larger Hope” – that the Nature of God was that He would not send people to Hell but to Heaven. They were ostracized for this because the concern was that if people did fear God then this would result in immorality and chaos. One local example was that the Universalists children were not allowed to march with other children in a county–wide church parade in Manchester (Delaware County) early in the 20th Century.

After giving up the requirement of adopting a creed a century ago the denomination has evolved to become even more humanistic. In fact, the majority of those who organized the formal Humanist movement in the United States in 1933 were Unitarian ministers. Still, the denomination retains its pride in its Christian heritage, with many UUs today identifying as Christian and living by Christian values. The Fellowship has been about evenly split between those raised in Protestant and Catholic homes.  Ironically, only a few were raised in Unitarian Universalist homes.

The Unitarians and the Universalists denominations combined in 1961. The denomination is always open to insights found in cultural and religious diversity while it maintains a central tradition of respect for reason and freethinking. The appreciation of the offerings of science and education has always been a primary value of the denomination.

The UUs in Dubuque continue their historical emphasis of “deeds not creeds.” The Fellowship participates or even organizes public events in Dubuque that promote the social justice and human welfare. The UUFD organized or hosted 1) the first Martin King Holiday public event in January 1986 after his birthday was declared a national holiday, 2) the first public presentation of the president of Planned Parenthood in Iowa, and 3) the Nuns on the Bus. The UUFD president spoke at the first local Gay Rights rally (in which he was egged) in 1986. The Fellowship became the first welcoming church congregation for gays, lesbians and transgender persons in Dubuque. The last few years we have had a major social project of providing a home-like meeting place for parents and their children who have been removed from homes by the court.

The Dubuque UUs look forward as a community for those who want to promote the welfare of people and the protection of the planet.

The flame of a liberal faith in the Tri-States still burns brightly in Dubuque with more than 60 members.


Frank Potter
UUFD Archivist and charter member

This article was originally published in the Telegraph Herald in 2015. Updated by the author in January 2018.

Further history of our fellowship is available at the Encyclopedia Dubuque.