First Unitarian Church members and groups have been at the center of numerous social justice and religious freedom movements of the last 135 years.  Check out a video history of social justice at First Unitarian Church of Des Moines since our beginnings in 1877.  A more detailed timeline is below.


First Unitarian has had an active group supporting health care reform since early 2009. The church invited other organizations working for health care reform to form a coalition, the Iowa Health Care Reform Group, in which eech worked on their own strategies to promote health care reform and we all supported those efforts to gain maximum success.

May, 2009: We organized and hosted the Health Care Education and Reform Symposium. Seminars about various aspects of health care educated us on the current status of our health care system and possible remedies, The public was invited; it was well attended.

May, 2009: We hosted a visit by Howard Dean, Democracy for America, promoting health care reform. This event was open to the public; we had a full house.

August, 2009: We organized and hosted a multi-religious Prayer Vigil in Nolen Plaza for accessible health care for all. Twelve metro churches participated.

December 2009: We hosted a visit by Wendell Potter, Senior Fellow on Health Care, Center for Media and Democracy, Philadelphia. This event was open to the public.

July 2008: Gulf Coast Advocacy, A Unitarian Universalist Service Committee Campaign

Two youth and two adults decided to join the UUSC campaign for Gulf Coast Advocacy and offer their services for a week Post Katrina New Orleans. Shiloh Sorensen, Marian Whitaker, Mark Metz, and Theresa Miller met with other UU’s in New Orleans and learned about the issues they continue to address.

August 31st, 2007: Same-sex Marriage

The day following a district court ruling that declared the denial of marriage licenses to same-sex couples violated the state constitution, Reverend Mark Stringer officiated the first legally recognized same-sex wedding in the history of Iowa.

Spring 2007 “Drumbeat for Darfur”
A Unitarian Universalist Service Committee Justice Ritual

In March of 2007, our church participated in the UUSC (Unitarian Universalist Service Committee) Justice Sunday by focusing a service on the humanitarian crisis in the Darfur region of Sudan. A ritual of that service was to have a member beat a drum 40 times, each beat representing 10,000 lives of men, women and children who had been killed at that point in the genocide. Following the service, member Ned Miller suggested that our church organize a 24-hour drumming vigil at Nollen Plaza in downtown Des Moines. Several church members, led in large part by Darcie Vandegrift, carried forward the idea, involving many others in the greater community along the way. The 24-hour event began with a press conference, which featured local religious leaders, politicians, and Darfur crisis experts. By the end of the vigil, literally hundreds had participated, and many hundreds more had passed by the site and had their awareness raised.


In the spring of 2002, Rev. Mark Stringer was invited by AMOS, a local Industrial Areas Foundation (IAF) affiliated broad based organization seeking to build relational power in the Des Moines metro for the common good to attend a three-day IAF training. Impressed by what he learned, Rev. Stringer invited other interested church members to join him for various training events throughout the following year and, by the annual meeting of the church in June, 2003, First Unitarian joined as a full-dues paying member of AMOS, annually committing at least 1 percent of our operating funds. Since joining, our church members have played instrumental roles in the successes of AMOS (including its expansion into a more regional organization: A Mid-Iowa Organizing Strategy). Some of AMOS’s triumphs during First Unitarian’s membership include securing better charity care policies from both Iowa Health and Mercy Hospitals, bringing together native and immigrant populations to lobby for the right (and safety) of all to earn driver’s licenses, seeking funding for after-school programming for children and youth, and hosting forums to keep our regions’ citizens informed and engaged on topical issues of the day. Over two dozen church members have been trained in IAF organizing principles, with several attending regional and national trainings. Our relationship with AMOS has paid dividends for the church, as we have learned some important organizing skills. But, perhaps more importantly, AMOS has enabled us to build connections with other religious institutions in our region as we work together to improve our common lives.

1991: Equal Rights

In the spring of 1991, an ad hoc committee was formed to pursue the goal of our church being designated as a “Welcoming Congregation”, a relatively new LGBT support and advocacy program of the UUA. Over the next year, a number of activities geared toward this goal took place. These included a series of workshops, forums and church services about LGBT issues, meeting with other churches in the community to share ideas, and proposals for changes to the church by-laws to make them more inclusive. The committee was also instrumental in encouraging the UUA to incorporate LGBT materials in the About Your Sexuality program that was presented to UU youth. These activities culminated in a nearly unanimous congregational votein May of 1992 at which time we became one of the earliest congregations to receive the “Welcoming Congregation” designation. In November 1992, the board voted to change the “Welcoming Congregation” committee from an ad hoc committee to an official committee of the church. This committee continued to sponsor activities andevolved to become a”chapter” of Interweave, the current UUA organization of LGBT persons and their supporters.

In 1979: Assisting Vietnamese Refugees

When the Vietnamese refugee crisis was at its height, Iowa Governor Robert Ray decided Iowa could help; and a group of First Unitarian members responded. Dwight and Beth Saunders, Lloyd and Dottie Olund, Terry and Jane Swanson, Darlene Brown, and Ron and Eileen Bowerman agreed to sponsor a Vietnamese family consisting of 2 parents and 7 children. With the help of church member Bob Mickel, the group rented and rehabilitated a house for the family, and dealt with problems ranging from housing to dental care to jobs and school enrollment. Over the months, as the group agreed to sponsor more and more family members, the family grew to 28 members. Although the oldest 3 parents are now deceased, the remaining family members have developed, prospered and dispersed to the far corners of North America, including Toronto, Colorado and Southern California. Occupational and business interests of the family members now include marketing, a Des Moines Register press room employee, wholesale groceries, and a restaurant chain in Southern California.

1960’s: Vietnam War Era

During the time of the Vietnam War, a group of middle and high school students offered a protest by wearing black armbands to school in memory of all the individuals who had died in the war. Some daughters and sons of members of this congregation participated in this. Chris Eckhart, whose mother Maggie Eckhart was a member of the church, and some Quaker children brought suit against the school system for depriving them of their rights of free speech, and this case was carried (thanks in large part to the Iowa Civil Liberties Union) to the U.S Supreme Court, which ruled for the youngsters with the dicta that “the right to free speech does not stop at the schoolhouse door.”

1948: Civil Rights Movement

In 1948, the same year that Martin Luther King Jr. was ordained a minister, Edna Griffin, a black member of this congregation, ordered a sandwich and a soda at a Des Moines lunch counter where she knew she wouldn’t be served because of the color of her skin. Soon after, Griffin filed suit against the lunch counter for violating Iowa’s Civil Rights law, and the case was heard all the way to the Supreme Court. Meanwhile, Griffin and her friends (many from this church) picketed the lunch counter every Saturday for six weeks. The lunch counter was found guilty, and in 1949, Edna and her supporters walked into the lunch counter and were served. Because of this slight but not at all mild woman, Iowa’s public accommodations were integrated. Edna ordered her sandwich seven years before Rosa Parks refused to move her tired feet to the back of the bus in Birmingham.

1934: Iowa Civil Liberty Union

In 1934, First Unitarian acquired as its pastor a young man named Aaron Gilmartin. Gilmartin was a former social worker who was also a member of the Socialist Party USA, and as a socialist, he quickly became involved in supporting labor unions and even lectured a joint session of the Iowa Legislature, urging them to enact programs of governmental assistance and payments to unemployed citizens. Gilmartin and a Quaker math professor at Iowa State University worked together to create the Iowa Civil Liberty Union, with Gilmartin serving as its first leader.

1920’s -1940’s: Unity Circle and the Unitarian Service Committee

During the period following World War I, and again following World War II, the ladies of Unity Circle sought to make the lives of the victims of war easier. They collected clothing and non-perishable food and sent tons of it to relief agencies in Europe. Unity Circle was notified that Fort Des Moines had thousands of overcoats left over from WWI, and Unity Circle could have them. However, there was a small problem: all the brass buttons with U.S. Army insignia had to be removed. Unity Circle accepted the overcoats and the challenge of replacing the banned buttons. The ladies notified the newspaper of the problem and of the need for buttons for the overcoats. The newspaper spread the word, and soon the mail began to bring packages of buttons some from as far away as Alabama. Women from all around Central Iowa showed up to remove and replace buttons, and the job got done. From the Des Moines Unity Circle, almost 8,000 overcoats were sent to the Unitarian Service Committee for distribution in Europe.

1915: Building A Better World

Curtis Reese, who served as minister of this church from 1915-1919, delivered a sermon in Des Moines in 1916 entitled “A Democratic View of Religion,” in which he proposed that an emphasis on God was a distraction from the “chief end of… [humanity]” which he saw as the necessity to do all we can to “live in the ‘eternal now,’ for the ‘eternal tomorrow’ never is.” Reese preached that liberal religion should, in fact, remain open to the idea of God. However, he was in pursuit of a religion “that would not be shaken even if the very thought of God were to pass away.” At a 1917 meeting of the Western Unitarian Conference, held here in Des Moines, Reese and a minister from Minneapolis, John Dietrich, discovered they shared a humanistic approach to religion, and thus began, in earnest, the movement known today as American Religious Humanism.

1877 to 1919: Rights Of Women

The first minister of the church was Reverend J.R. Effinger. His wife quickly aligned herself with the women’s suffrage group in Des Moines, and soon became the editor of a weekly newspaper the suffragists were publishing. The emphasis by this church’s members upon the right of women to full membership in society resulted in an early tradition of choosing women as ministers. The third full-time minister was the Rev. Ida C. Hulting, who came from Algona in October 1886. Another early minister was Mary Augusta Safford who served between 1899 and 1910, along with her assistant Eleanor Gordon. The Rev. Safford was very active not only in church affairs, but also in the wider community. Her leadership was particularly noted in helping a women’s group Unity Circle to become an important cultural group in the city. Unity Circle presented plays, organized lectures and musical events, and raised funds for needed community improvements. The public was invited to attend these events and did so. At the time, Unity Circle, as the most active women’s group in the city, was the strongest force working for legalizing the suffrage for women. It was a group that had its base in the Unitarian Church, but membership in each was independent. Possibly the most outstanding point of Unity Circle’s involvement in the suffrage movement was 1908, when Rev. Eleanor Gordon was president of the Iowa Equal Suffrage Association and Mary Jane Coggeshall, a Unity Circle member and called the mother of the Iowa suffrage movement by Carrie Chapman Catt, was honorary president. Gordon, supported by Unity Circle members, inspired what became possibly the first suffrage parade in the nation at the suffrage association’s annual convention in Boone of that year. In the struggle for women’s rights, First Unitarian was there.

1877: Creating a Liberal Religious Church in Des Moines, Iowa

A small number of Des Moines citizens, unhappy with the pattern of conservative evangelism being preached in the churches in Des Moines, a community of some 16,000 persons, invited Reverend J.R. Effinger, a representative of the Iowa Unitarian Association to come to Des Moines, to explore the possibility of the establishment of a Unitarian church. One of the members of the group who invited him was Benjamin Gue. Gue is also given credit for helping to develop the Republican Party in Iowa and for successfully passing legislation that established the State Agricultural College and Farm which is now Iowa State University. On August 7, 1877, nine persons signed an agreement to form the First Unitarian Church of Des Moines. At the next meeting two weeks later, some ten others signed the agreement, and so the church began, holding its meetings in an upstairs meeting hall on Locust Street in downtown Des Moines. A liberal religious church was sought and created in Des Moines.