Ephraim Nute, free-state minister

Ephraim Nute, free-state minister

New England Unitarians and other abolitionists helped found Lawrence, Kansas.


Kansas became a state 143 years ago, so a 150th anniversary there is big news. This fall [1994] Lawrence, Kansas, celebrates the sesquicentennial of its founding—a date of note for Unitarians, who played key parts in the state's violent early history. In fact, the site for the city was selected by a Unitarian, Charles Robinson.

Robinson and two other men were sent by the Massachusetts Emigrant Aid Society as the vanguard of a wave of Northern abolitionists who moved to the Kansas Territory to ensure that it would not enter the union as a slave state. Their other goal was to found a “Free-State Capitol” for Kansas, and after a lot of strife and heartache they succeeded. Kansas did indeed enter the Union free with Charles Robinson as its first governor, and Lawrence is an island of liberalism in a sea of conservatism to this day.

Many New England Unitarian ministers were fervent opponents of slavery, and their energetic sermons inspired many Unitarians to join the settlers of Lawrence.

The first Unitarian minister arrived in Kansas a year after Robinson and was instrumental in completing the first Unitarian church in Kansas and the first church of any kind in Lawrence.

Ephraim Nute Jr., a Boston native, was ordained a Unitarian minister in 1845. He ministered in several Massachusetts communities but soon felt he was stagnating. It was 1854, the year Congress passed the infamous Kansas-Nebraska Act. The new law left it up to the settlers of each territory to decide whether they would legalize slavery, a sure-fire recipe for conflict. Passage of the act inspired the founding of the Emigrant Aid Society to encourage slavery opponents to move there. Nute enthusiastically volunteered to start a ministry in Kansas, but was taken aback by the realities of frontier living.

Nute wrote home that Easterners might think it romantic to reside in a sod hut with a dirt floor, but “the enchantment of such a view requires a magnificent distance, and gains nothing on acquaintance.” Nute soon held his first service—outdoors—and set about raising money from religious and abolitionist organizations. Church construction was begun in 1855 as the territory entered the “Bleeding Kansas” era that lasted through the Civil War.

When the first territorial election was held, thousands of pro-slavery Missourians invaded Kansas, seized voting stations by force, and illegally voted a pro-slavery legislature into existence. As slave-staters and free-staters battled for control, the partly completed church was sometimes used as a fort. Nute took to writing fiery letters to Massachusetts that helped stir opposition to the pro-slavery forces. “For a time,” Nute wrote in one letter, “it seemed probable that the foundation-stones for the church would be wet by the blood of the martyrs for liberty.”

Nute's own brother-in-law was murdered and scalped by a drunken pro-slavery man. Nute formed a party to recover the victim's body but was instead imprisoned by pro-slavery men in Leavenworth. A Boston Evening Transcript headline announced: “Rev. Ephraim Nute a Prisoner!” It took 200 soldiers to free him and other captives. Slave-staters warned Nute to leave the territory but he indignantly refused. The incident was much publicized by eastern newspapers to raise support for the free-state movement.

The church was dedicated in July 1859, the year the free-state leaders of Lawrence were able to elect a legislature and write slavery out of the state constitution. Nute left town that year, exhausted, impoverished, and in poor health. At the start of the Civil War in 1861, he became the chaplain of the First Regiment, Kansas Volunteers, but he never returned to Lawrence to live or preach.

Sadly, the Lawrence Unitarian Church, having struggled through so much turmoil in its early years, was unable to weather the Great Depression and faded from existence in the 1940s. It was revived in 1957 as the Unitarian Fellowship of Lawrence, now 134 members and growing.

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