History of the Southwestern Unitarian Universalist Conference

The history of the Southwest District reflects the size and diversity of the area.

The first lonely band of Unitarians began in New Orleans in 1833, and another congregation began in Memphis in 1894. By 1899, there were six, widely-spaced congregations struggling to spread the word of liberal religion in a area broader than the distance between Boston and Washington: New Orleans and Memphis had added Tulsa, Oklahoma City, Dallas, and Houston to the rolls.

The first annual meeting of the Conference was held in Dallas on January 29, 1939 and a set of by-laws was enacted. "It was moved and seconded that the name of this Conference shall be known as the Southwest Regional Conference of Unitarian Churches."

There have been two changes in the name since then, the latest was in 1962 to conform with the by-laws of the newly united denomination: THE SOUTHWESTERN UNITARIAN UNIVERSALIST CONFERENCE.

Stories of the early years of the Conference reflect that the Summer Institute was the bonding force in the area. Begun in 1940, at the Lake Murray State Park, south of Ardmore, Oklahoma, it was the "brain child" of Dr. John Petrie, then minister of the First Unitarian Church of Memphis, the Institute (or "Ardmore" as it was known for many years) flourished under the direction of Reverend A.E. von Stilli of Oklahoma City.

During the time of the Second World War and gas rationing, the Institute became an opportunity for Unitarians throughout the District to meet at a central point. The stated purpose of the Institute was: "to provide instruction by outstanding personalities for church school teachers and young people; to provide a common meeting ground for religious liberals of all ages, and to bring the widely separated churches of the Conference together in the spirit of fellowship and unity; and, to provide an ideal and an inexpensive outing for the entire family combining rustic comfort, excellent food, complete relaxation and relief from the monotony of routine life."

The cabin settings at Ardmore were, indeed, "rustic" since there was no electricity in the cabins in the early days and plumbing was widely dispersed and primitive. The "excellent" food was provided by a member of the Tulsa church, Jack Sherwood, who bought, transported, and cooked all meals for the 160+ persons who came to Ardmore. Singing over the meals and at Sunset Talks by the lake was led by the Rev. Chris Moore (of Chicago Children's Choir fame) who made even Unitarians sound professional!

Marge Ackley tells the story of a night when a late night discussion on the lawn was being led by James Luther Adams on "The Meaning of Grace". Suddenly, someone appeared out of the darkness, and stepped, fully clothed, into the water. The Rev. Horace Westwood from Houston had arrived and introduced himself - with a splash.

During the 1950's, Unitarianism was growing throughout the district, led by the inspiration of Revs. Robert Raible of Dallas, Frank Holmes in Oklahoma City, Richard Gibbs, and Horace Westwood. Lay leaders also contributed their times and talents to the development of the organization: Ken and Claire White in Dallas, Frank Faux in Memphis, Lou and Roy Pope in San Antonio. Every person who held office in the district, or who helped at the Institute during the summer has added his or her thread to this rich tapestry which makes up the Southwest. By 1947, increased attendance at the Summer Institute meant looking for a larger site, and a move was made to Petit Jean Park in Arkansas. The Institute stayed in Arkansas for three years, but left because persons of color were not permitted to use their state parks. The Institute moved back to Lake Murray using the Lodge, with some new cabins (and the old ones that had been improved), and a camp ground for the hardy. An experiment with having two sessions was made during the early 70's.

Each session had a different emphasis, one week with a semi-structured "Program" and the other "Family" oriented . These were not popular because they failed to provide the fellowship, the reunion and/or community spirit, that made SWUUSI such a happy experience.

In 1978, a committee was appointed by the SWUUC President, Bob Deininger, to find a larger facility that would allow more people to meet together in a single session and preserve the variety of outdoor activities as an important element of the whole "Institute". Upon their recommendation, in 1979,the Summer Institute moved to Lake Texoma State Park. Every year, in the first week of August, four to six hundred UU's of all ages, from allover the District, come to learn, teach, share, relax and play together. The programming of the Summer Institute has continued to increase over the years for both adults and children. Each year, a Theme speaker, someone who is well noted in Unitarian Universalist circles, is chosen by the Program Director of the Institute. SWUUSI has been privileged to hear James Luther Adams, Clarke D. Wells, Forrester Church, Kenneth Pat ton, Leon Hopper, Paul Carnes, Roy Phillips, Judith Walker Riggs, David Rankin, Terry Sweetser, Carl Schofield, Dan Aldridge, and many others.

The theme of the Institute is carried out in morning and afternoon workshops which vary from the intellectual to the experiential, puzzling, practical, and pure pleasure. In addition to the workshops, there worship services each morning, and at the sunset talks on the lawn, a ministers panel, women's meetings, a choir, social activities throughout the week, special programs and activities for teen-age and young adult groups and a week long, full program of activities for the younger children. In addition to the spirit of fellowship engendered by the Summer Institute, the Southwest Conference has been blessed with the guidance of excellent District Executives.

For 23 years, the Rev. Russell Lockwood served the Southwest District (and, at times, the Mountain Desert District as well). He routinely visited over the vast area encouraging growth, soothing "troubled waters'. in times of crisis, and acting as a conduit of information between Boston and the Southwest. Rev. Lockwood made it clear to new ministers in the district that they were expected to participate actively in District Conferences and the Summer Institute. As a result, we have a close bond between the clergy and the laity in this District that is not true in other parts of the continent.

Upon the retirement of Rev. Lockwood, the Southwestern Conference was honored to have the Rev. Dwight Brown return as District Executive in 1988. He had previously served as minister of the First Unitarian Church in Dallas, TX. Under Rev. Brown the district established its first Leadership Experience, a training program for lay leaders. He also encouraged all societies to engage in long-range planning.

While he was District Executive, SWUUC finally established a District Office and hired secretarial help for the District Executive.

Following Rev. Brown's resignation in 1992, Dr. James Brown was selected as District Executive, the first lay person to hold that position. (Ed. note: Jim Brown retired in 2000 and was succeeded by Bob Hill.)

The growth of the District has not been achieved only with an emphasis on activities for adults. In an area which has experienced a boom in population growth in the 1970's and 1980's, the Unitarian Universalist churches have felt the greatest "growing pains" in the area of Church School attendance. And, because of the training and help of the early leaders in the field of religious education in this area, our churches have been able to respond with programming and teacher training.

By 1954, all of the Unitarian Churches in the Southwest had established church schools, but there was not much assistance from the American Unitarian Association. There were only two national religious educators who traveled around the United States, The Rev. Edna Bruner, and Frances Wood . They came bringing with them the current curriculum materials developed by the Unitarian Association, mostly the works of Sophia Lyon Fahs. Ruth Clark, the first paid religious educator in the district, would alert all surrounding churches that the trainers were coming, and weekend conferences would result. Ruth herself, traveled to churches and fellowships upon request, giving workshops and training teachers.

Ruth was employed by First Church, Dallas. All Souls Unitarian Church in Tulsa, OK, soon hired Sally Campbell as Director of Religious Education there and the two remained the only paid religious educators for many years. In an effort to increase communication between the lay persons who were involved with church schools, Ruth Clark approached the Rev. Clifton Hoffman, who was at that time the Southern Unitarian Conference Executive, for money to hold a conference for training and instruction of teachers.

This was in the year 1954. The conference was held in February at Camp Carter, a YMCA camp in Fort Worth, Texas. Over the years the conference has evolved into more than merely a time for instruction and communication among those adults involved with religious education; the conference now has added the dimension of training teenagers in skills of leadership development.

In 1993 the District Board approved the hiring of a part-time Religious Education Program Consultant which has greatly aided the paid religious educators in the various churches and the volunteers who handle programs in the smaller congregation. The Consultant conducts workshops at all District meetings, for groups of churches, and makes herself available to RE teachers at all times. She also circulates the extensive library of curricula owned by the District when needed by local societies.

The 1990's have seen rapid growth of the established congregations in the Southwest and also the rise of many new societies as the bigger cities expand into the suburbs. The District Board has wisely encouraged the emphasis on growth through the Extension Committee, setting aside monies to aid new congregations, and establishing a Chalice Lighter Fund which allows UUs from allover 'the Southwest to help a society build or buy a building or call its first minister.

From the modest beginning of 6 churches of some 690 members in 1899, the Southwest now encompasses over 70 societies with over 8000 members. The district is recognized by the Unitarian Universalist Association as one of the most vital and growing areas of the continent.

In the 1980's, the largest UU congregation was All Souls Unitarian Church of Tulsa, OK under the leadership of the Rev. John B. Wolf. The Rev. John Buehrens, former minister of First Unitarian of Dallas, TX became President of the Unitarian Universalist Association in 1993. General Assemblies have been held in Dallas and Fr. Worth, TX and in Little Rock, AR. As the energy of the Southwest increases, more of its members are becoming active on the continental level within the UUA organization.

The Southwest District recognizes that the Principles and purposes of the Unitarian Universalist movement have great relevance to society today, and it is committed to promote and to encourage the development of its liberating, inclusive societies.

A Note about the origin of this History

For many years the records of the Southwest District were housed with the District Executive, then they were sent to Texas Tech University in Lubbock, TX for permanent storage. By 1993, it was recognized that little was known of the past history of the District. Two slim pages of notes were found in a file containing some information about the early years of the District, but these pages ended abruptly in the mid-60's.

Thanks to the excellent memories of Jan Mattinson, Polly Holway, Doe Lockwood and Marge Ackley, all of Oklahoma, the early years of the Southwest Summer Institute were recalled. The Institute had been the bonding influence for the District prior to the Annual Meetings.

And special thanks to Ruth Clark, first paid Director of Religious Education in the District (at First Unitarian Church in Dallas, TX) whose invaluable notes of her early years in the service of religious education are the basis for many of the comments about that important aspect of the growth of this vital, prospering District.

Completed in 1996 by Marty Robinson  Scanned for the internet by Dwight Brown in 2000.