Unitarians: Earliest Winnetka Leaders

Gazette Article by: Steve Vincent
Appeared in the Gazette: Spring 2001

The Lake Shore Unitarian Society, which meets Sundays at the Winnetka Community House, has proud roots in Winnetka’s past. Many of our earliest community leaders were Unitarians including Charles Peck, named “the founder of Winnetka.” He invited many of his Unitarian friends, including James Willson, two-term Village President, to come to the newly platted village around 1855 to purchase land from him. When Peck donated the land for the Village Green in 1869, his gift stipulated that no building sit on the land and that it remains open in perpetuity. The Unitarians bought the School District #2 building that stood on the Village Green and moved it to the southeast corner of Cherry and Maple Streets (near the Willson’s house).

In 1867, Unitarians combined with the Universalists to form the Liberal Christian Association, the first Protestant church in Winnetka. At this point Unitarianism was a relatively new religion having splintered off from New England Congregationalism in the generations immediately following the American Revolution. Unitarians were distinguished by their rejection of the Trinity and adherence to the more “rational” aspects of Christian belief. The group tended to attract well-educated, progressive individuals, including many of America’s leading reformers and intellectuals.

In Winnetka, the early Unitarian congregation enjoyed only limited success. Despite having the town’s first Protestant church building and supporting three successive ministers, including the Rev. Jenkin Lloyd Jones, skilled orator and uncle of Frank Lloyd Wright, the group faltered and then disbanded in the 1870’s. Its members were apparently absorbed into the local Congregationalist church that also emerged in the late 1860s. In part, the former group’s failure may have been a reflection of the small village’s inability to sustain two churches of broadly similar character and sensibilities.

The present Lake Shore Unitarian Society dates from 1963 and is an offshoot of the Unitarian Church of Evanston. The group initially met in Wilmette, then moved in the early 1980s to its present location at the Community House. Three ministers have served the congregation since its founding, including the Rev. Homer Jack, a distinguished social activist. Currently, the society is lay led. Sunday services center on outside speakers drawn from the ranks of Unitarian ministers, other religious leaders, and academics with religious interests.

Since 1998, Lake Shore Unitarian has committed itself to renewal and further growth. The congregation has reestablished its religious education program and has undertaken an ongoing campaign to attract new members. At present, Lake Shore is the religious home to more than 80 adult members and nearly 30 children; approximately half of the total number has joined in the past three years. Modern Unitarianism is a creedless religion that is based on, but not restricted to the teachings of the Judeo-Christian tradition; it is also committed to social service. Visitors are always welcome.

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