A History of Service
All Souls Unitarian Universalist Church has served Kansas City’s liberal religious community for more than 150 years, since 1868. The city then was little more than a frontier town awaiting its first boom, which was to come with the expansion of the railroad a just few years later.
The fledgling congregation took the name Unitarian Society of the City of Kansas in Missouri. It was the creation of a small group of settlers: many of them from New England; most of them Union Army veterans and abolitionists.
During its 150-plus years, All Souls has had four church buildings and 23 settled ministers. The first minister was the Rev. Walter E. Copeland who oversaw the building of the first church, a small wooden structure in what is now downtown, between 10th and 11th on Baltimore. The church did not take the name All Souls until 1885, the same year that it began construction on its second and larger building, a brick structure that stood at 413 10th Street.
By this time the By this time the small founding group had grown, with a Sunday School and a calendar that included social and intellectual events for both the church membership and the community at large.
The ministers and congregations of All Souls have been a force in the larger community throughout its history. Some took high profile public stands, like that of the Rev. Leon Birkhead, pastor from 1917 to 1939. He did a great deal to focus American attention on the fascist threat that was growing in Europe in the decades leading up to World War II. He also spoke out on the national stage against those who would ban the teaching of evolution. He and his wife Agnes traveled to Tennessee in 1925 to lend their aid and support in the “Scopes Monkey Trial.”
Over the years, All Souls has established a strong commitment to social justice locally as well, working on Kansas City’s school desegregation efforts, speaking out for civil rights and gender equality, and fighting homelessness and hunger. In recent years the church has taken a leadership role in the interdenominational MORE2, Metropolitan Organization for Racial and Economic Equity and supported reStart, which serves families and individuals who are homeless.
The Rev. Raymond B. Bragg, pastor from 1952 to 1973, was a founder of the Kansas City chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union and its first president. He and the congregation also were involved in mental health issues, the liberalization of abortion laws, in civil rights and voter registration.
In the 1970s, the church became involved in joint ventures in our neighborhood with the Westport Cooperative Mission and, when no one else would do so, rented space to the Metropolitan Community Church for its gay and lesbian programs. All Souls formalized its outreach to the gay and lesbian community by becoming an official Welcoming Congregation within the Unitarian Universalist Association in 1992.
The still-popular All Souls Forum programs have served to inform and invigorate conversation on important issues since 1943. The Forum was established to offer a platform for the discussion of significant issues, especially those that involve ethical values in the contemporary world. Held Sunday mornings September through May before the weekly service, the Forums are presented by activists and experts in their fields on topics of interest both locally and world-wide.
All Souls has continued to grow through the years, with a strong historical connection to the humanist tradition. Bragg was an author of the 1933 Humanist Manifesto. Also, signatories were Birkhead and the Rev. Lester Mondale, minister from 1939 to 1951. The current minister, the Rev. Dr. Kendyl Gibbons signed the third version of the Manifesto in 2003.
As the congregation has grown, new accommodations have had to be found. The church followed the city’s population south from the in the 1000 block of Baltimore, to the building on west 10th Street, and then in 1906 to a new building at 3425 Baltimore. The charming, timbered stone building would be home to All Souls for 45 years, until 1951 when it was destroyed by fire on a cold January night.
Very little could be salvaged and the congregation started fresh in a very large house that was known as the Veile family mansion at 45th Street and Walnut. Located in the cultural heart of the city, the site is just north of the Country Club Plaza and across the street from the Art Institute of Kansas City on the east and from the Kemper Gallery of Contemporary Art on the north. It is within walking distance of the Nelson Atkins Gallery of Art and only a matter of blocks from the University of Missouri Kansas City.
The house was eventually demolished and in 1960 a new church building was dedicated on the 1 ½ – acre site, one that has served All Souls to this day. It was a period of rapid growth for All Souls and the congregation quickly outgrew its facilities. In 1969 some 85 All Souls families who lived in Johnson County, Kansas, established a new congregation, the Shawnee Mission Unitarian Universalist Church. All Souls also facilitated the formation of the now-independent Gaia Community earth-centered congregation in 1997.
And, when the Simpson mansion, just to the south of All Souls, became available in 1984, the church bought it to provide valuable space for additional programming. It has become a favorite location for weddings and parties.
In 2012, the Rev. Dr. Kendyl Gibbons was called as the congregation’s 23rd settled senior minister and the congregation adopted a new mission statement committing itself to “build a respectful, caring community; inspire personal and spiritual growth, and create a just and compassionate society.”