Mission House Theological Seminary of Plymouth, WI and the School of Theology of Yankton College, Yankton, SD merged and relocated to become “the first seminary with an ecumenical charter in mainline Protestantism in the current era.” Both schools were founded by German immigrants rooted in the denominations that joined in the late 1950s to become the United Church of Christ. The ending of those two seminaries transformed into the beginning of United.
Jim Nelson was appointed as Associate Professor of Christian Ethics at United, and became a full professor in 1968. Nelson would be “among the first religious professionals–along with the Rev. Jim Siefkes–to engage in the University of Minnesota’s Program on Human Sexuality, beginning around 1972.” (https://lgbtqreligiousarchives.org/profiles/james-b-nelson)
The intersection of theology and the arts has been central to United since the beginning. Led by Professor Eugene C. Jaberg, United’s Religious Drama Program created summer theater productions from 1965 to 1972. The company took the name the Interfaith Players. Jaberg’s efforts laid the groundwork for United’s Religion and the Arts Program (now known as The Intersection).
United’s choral society toured the Upper Midwest for several years. Their 1967 tour included in its program a “Litany for America.” The choir sang a prayer for deliverance “from pride of race and prejudiced eyes, from slums and suburbs that split us apart.” The congregation responded, “Spirit of love deliver us.”
Though United students and faculty had already taken progressive action around racial justice and the war in Vietnam, women and LGBTQ students of the 1970s challenged United to more fully and thoughtfully include them in seminary life. At the urging of student leaders, the seminary’s leadership reflected on their own participation in sexism and heterosexism and moved to be more fully and thoughtfully inclusive of women and gay students.
Lou Bellamy founded the historic Penumbra Theatre in St. Paul to be a forum for African-American voices in the Twin Cities theater community.
United students Sue Ebbers, Ron Mattson, Terry Person, and Martha Winslow formed a group they called the Gay Caucus. They called the seminary to their vision of United as a place where “Gay people will be accepted with their unique gifts into the larger community.”
Jim Nelson publishes Embodiment: An Approach to Sexuality and Christian Theology which, “provoked new Christian attitudes and approaches to human sexuality and homosexuality” (https://lgbtqreligiousarchives.org/profiles/james-b-nelson)
United added to its repertoire courses in music and literature, continued choral tours, and three Art & Religion study trips to London and Cambridge. Professor Robert Bryant taught the first courses in religion and literature which were regularized and expanded by Professor Mary Bednarowski.
In November 1993 the Re-Imagining Conference gathered 2000 clergy, laypeople, and feminist theologians at the Minneapolis Convention Center. Speakers and organizers included United faculty Mary Bednarowski and Chris Smith as well as alumni Mary Kay Sauter, Kathi Austin Mahle, and Sue Swanson. Re-Imagining sparked a national debate on feminism and considerable backlash.
In addition to being unapologetically feminist, Re-Imagining embraced the arts and melded them into the experience of conference-goers. Drama, visual arts, song, liturgical poetry, dance, and giant puppets from In the Heart of the Beast helped make Re-Imagining a transformational experience for many of the participants. Artists Nancy Chinn and Rea Wynn gifted a series of pieces created during Re-Imagining to United’s permanent collection. Those pieces gifted to United include a painting of a bare-breasted woman—one of the many elements that made Re-Imagining notorious in conservative circles.
United’s exhibition program and a funded Religion and the Arts Program (thanks to a grant from the Luce Foundation) both came to United in 1992.
The Religion and the Arts Program (now known as The Intersection) brought nationally-renowned artists like Sandra Bowden and Nancy Chinn to United’s campus as artists-in-residence. Beloved United adjunct professor Pamela S. Wynn served as poet-in-residence before becoming a student and later a professor.
United’s Permanent Collection began growing in earnest as pieces were purchased or given as gifts to United after an artist’s exhibition here. Many graduating classes in the 1990s gave art as gifts to the seminary, reflecting the value they placed on the arts as part of their seminary experience. Some of these gifts included Sandra Bowden’s Israelite Tel Suite (gift of the class of 1989) and four prints by Ansgar Holmberg, CSJ (gifts from the class of 1993).
On September 11, 2001 United, like the rest of America, witnessed the devastation and experienced the grief that pulsated out from the East Coast across the country. The United community created three thousand paper cranes in remembrance of those who died. On the first anniversary of the attacks the cranes were assembled into a memorial sculpture by Martin Nussbaum and Joy Troyer.
On September 14, 2001, a grieving Congress passed an Authorization for Use of Military Force which President George W. Bush signed into law on September 18. This bill became the legal justification for the following wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. However, Islamophobia was often the dog-whistled and occasionally stated cultural justification for these wars.
On the March 20, 2003 invasion of Iraq by the United States, United’s galleries featured an exhibition titled “Look! This Is Love: Islam, A Cultural Experience.” Fawzia Reda, United’s spring 2003 artist-in-residence, curated the exhibition which included the work of renowned Muslim calligraphers from China, Syria, and the United States.
In December 2000, Mary Bigelow McMillan came to President Wilson Yates offering $1 million to help create a new chapel for United. After four years, Bigelow Chapel was completed. The complexity and thoughtfulness of United’s community as well as the artistic power of architects Joan Soranno and John Cook culminated in a beautiful, ecumenical, and theologically rich sacred space.