- From First Church of Christ Congregationalist, Wethersfield CT; history 1740 George Whitefield when Joseph Curtis lived and attended there:
George Whitefield ? The Billy Graham of Colonial America
January 22, 2015
George Whitefield ? The Billy Graham of Colonial America by Thomas S. Kidd
This month [December] marks the tricentennial of the birth of the most famous man in America before the Revolution. George Whitefield, born on Dec. 16, 1714, was a Church of England minister who led the Great Awakening, a series of Christian revivals that swept through Britain and America in the mid-1700s. Whitefield drew enormous audiences wherever he went on both sides of the Atlantic, and his publications alone doubled the output of the American colonial presses be- tween 1739 and 1742. If there is a modem figure comparable to Whitefield, it is Billy Graham. But even Mr. Graham has followed a path first cut by Whitefield.
What made Whitefield and his gospel message so famous? First, he mastered the period?s new media. Cultivating a vast network of newspaper publicity, printers and letter-writing correspondents, Whitefield used all means available to get the word out.
Most important, he joined with Benjamin Franklin, who became Whitefield?s main printer in America, even though Franklin was no evangelical. Their business relationship transformed into a close friendship, although Whitefield routinely pressed Franklin, unsuccessfully, about his need for Jesus.
?As you have made a pretty considerable progress in the mysteries of electricity,? Whitefield wrote to Franklin in 1752, ?I would now humbly recommend to your diligent unprejudiced pursuit and study the mystery of the new-birth.?
Whitefield?s print campaign helped spread his message and his fame, but his preaching is what galvanized his followers. It?s too bad there was no YouTube in Whitefield?s day, but the testimonies of those who heard him are compelling. David Garrick, one of England?s most famous actors at the time, noted with what must have been a touch of envy that Whitefield could ?make men weep or tremble by his varied utterances of the word ?Mesopotamia.'?
The preacher had trained as an actor when he was young, and he adapted theater techniques for use in the pulpit. Taking on the character of biblical figures during his sermons, which were often delivered outdoors to accommodate the crowds, Whitefield would weave dramatic, emotional stories rather than recite dry doctrine from a written text. His voice would boom across the fields. Franklin estimated that as many as 30,000 people could hear Whitefield speaking at one time.
Whitefield?s talent for media and public performance has raised questions about his sincerity. Was he just an evangelical salesman, more concerned with his own fame and fortune than with bringing people to God? Whitefield confessed to his struggles with the ?fiery trial of popularity? and the temptations of arrogance and self-indulgence.
But he seems to have weathered that trial as well as any famous pastor has. He did not personally profit much from his ministry, and indeed Benjamin Franklin attested to his integrity. Most of the money that Whitefield got from donations went into his charitable projects, namely an orphanage in Georgia. The rest covered the costs of traveling throughout Britain and America.
His greatest personal failing was one shared by many prominent whites in America: The Englishman ? who was first sent overseas in 1738, to be a parish priest in Savannah, Ga. ? was a slave owner. He also criticized masters who abused slaves in the South, and believed that Christian masters should evangelize and educate enslaved people. Yet the idea of ?benevolent? enslavement strikes modern observers as an inexcusable contradiction. Whitefield, along with other slave-owners of the era, compounded the glaring incongruity of holding people in bondage while trumpeting the value of freedom.
Despite that moral blemish, Whitefield was a gospel minister of great seriousness. The Bible, he proclaimed, showed that people?s sins separated them from God, but that Jesus offered them forgiveness and freedom through his death on the cross, and his resurrection from the dead.
That message drove Whitefield to risk health and safety in his relentless schedule. It is impossible to know exactly how many sermons Whitefield delivered, but 18,000 is probably a safe estimate, as he routinely preached twice or more daily. He survived multiple assassination attempts by people who hated him and his fervent religious message, or who wanted to become famous themselves.
He not only traversed the length of the American colonies from Maine to Georgia, but he also made 13 trans-Atlantic voyages between Britain and America, at a time when such crossings were extremely treacherous. His strength finally ran out in 1770 on his last visit to America; he died, and was buried, in Newburyport, Mass.
Whitefield didn?t live to see the Revolution, but historians credit the Great Awakening, and its defiance of the established church, with instilling in American colonists a sense of liberty?s revolutionary possibilities.
Mr. Kidd, a Professor of History at Baylor University, and Co-Director Program on Historical studies of Religion, is the author of ?George Whitefield: America?s Spiritual Founding Father? (Yale University Press, 2014). This article initially appeared in the Friday 4 December 2014 Wall Street Journal, p. A11.
Whitefield in Wethersfield ? by Rev. Thomas F. Walsh
I?d like to believe that George Whitefield preached from the same pulpit that I do. The pulpit that graces the meeting house of the First Church of Christ in Wethersfield was preserved from the second meetinghouse which served the church and community from the 1680?s until the 1760?s. However it?s unlikely that our meetinghouse is where Whitefield actually preached in late October of 1740. The space would hardly accommodate the crowds that the Great Awakening revivalist likely attracted when he visited here. Nathan Cole reports that that on the following day Mr. Whitefield preached in Middletown from a scaffold before ?some thousands? of people. It?s more likely that Whitefield preached outdoors as was his habit, perhaps on the Broad St. Green.
While we cannot know precisely where he preached we know something more important; we know what he preached! Rev. Daniel Wadsworth, the pastor of the First Church of Hartford records for us in his diary that he heard the revivalist preach twice that day, both in Hartford in the morning and here in Wethersfield in the afternoon. He specifically notes that the text of the afternoon sermon was from St. Paul?s second letter to the Corinthians:
Therefore if any man be in Christ, he is a new creature:
old things are passed away;
behold, all things are become new.
2 Corinthians 5:17
Whitefield spoke that day on spiritual regeneration and ?enacted the birthing of a new creature transformed by saving grace.? Wadsworth records being confounded by Whitefield. Despite the itinerant preacher?s overwhelming success and popularity among the people, many ministers didn?t quite know what to make of him.
I?m no historian. However I am a student of history and a thoughtful observer of our times. In this vein I stop and wonder about the man Whitefield. I?ve personally experienced that same profound spiritual awakening in Christ as Whitefield and therefore relate deeply to his message and method.
As we consider this historic figure and the undeniable, tectonic impact he made, might we pause and humbly consider whether there might be more to the story than personalities, trends, forces and circumstances. I?d like to suggest that we have a tendency to dismiss the spirituality of these figures as quaint and their ideas as passť. I think this is a mistake.
Whitefield?s accomplishments were staggering. However even a cursory look at his youth will reveal that the man was painfully ordinary, an unlikely candidate for the role he would eventually play. If there?s more to his life, and there certainly is, will we miss it if we stop once we simply satisfy our historical curiosity? How did this man awaken England and America? What power did he possess and where did he say that power came from? I?ll allow Whitefield the last word?
?When our Lord says,
we must be converted and become as little children,
I suppose he means also, that we must be sensible of our weakness,
comparatively speaking, as a little child.?
?God forbid that I should travel with anybody a quarter of an hour
without speaking of Christ to them.?
Rev. Thomas F. Walsh is Associate Minister, The First Church of Christ, Wethersfield, CT.
The Great Awakening Comes to Weathersfield, Connecticut: Nathan Cole?s Spiritual Travels
(published with permission from ?History Matters? created by the American Social History Project/Center for Media and Learning (Graduate Center, CUNY) and the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media (George Mason University) historymatters.gmu.edu)
In the 1730s and 1740s many rural folk rejected the enlightened and rational religion that came from the cosmopolitan pulpits and port cities of British North America. Instead, they were attracted to the evangelical religious movement that became known as the Great Awakening. The English Methodist George Whitefield and other itinerant ministers ignited this popular movement with their speaking tours of the colonies. In this account farmer Nathan Cole described hearing the news of Whitefield?s approach to his Connecticut town, as fields emptied and the populace converged: ?I saw no man at work in his field, but all seemed to be gone. ? Like many others during the Great Awakening, Cole achieved an eventual conversation by focusing not on intellectual issues but on emotional experience. Cole took away an egalitarian message about the spiritual equality of all before God, a message that confronted established authorities.
Now it pleased God to send Mr. Whitefield into this land; and my hearing of his preaching at Philadelphia, like one of the Old apostles, and many thousands flocking to hear him preach the Gospel, and great numbers were converted to Christ; I felt the Spirit of God drawing me by conviction, longed to see and hear him, and wished he would come this way. And I soon heard he was come to New York and the Jerseys and great multitudes flocking after him under great concern for their Souls and many converted which brought on my concern more and more hoping soon to see him but next I heard he was at Long Island, then at Boston, and next at Northampton.
Then one morning all on a Sudden, about 8 or 9 o?clock there came a messenger and said Mr. Whitefield preached at Hartford and Weathersfield yesterday and is to preach at Middletown this morning [October 23, 1740] at ten of the Clock. I was in my field at Work. I dropt my tool that I had in my hand and ran home and run through my house and bade my wife get ready quick to go and hear Mr. Whitefield preach at Middletown, and run to my pasture for my horse with all my might fearing that I should be too late to hear him. I brought my horse home and soon mounted and took my wife up and went forward as fast as I thought the horse could bear, and when my horse began to be out of breath, I would get down and put my wife on the Saddle and bid her ride as fast as she could and not Stop or Slack for me except I bad her, and so I would run until I was much out of breath, and then mount my horse again, and so I did several times to favour my horse, we improved every moment to get along as if we were fleeing for our lives, all the while fearing we should be too late to hear the Sermon, for we had twelve miles to ride double in little more than an hour and we went round by the upper housen parish.
And when we came within about half a mile of the road that comes down from Hartford Weathersfield and Stepney to Middletown; on high land I saw before me a Cloud or fogg rising. I first thought it came from the great river [Connecticut River], but as I came nearer the Road, I heard a noise something like a low rumbling thunder and presently found it was the noise of horses feet coming down the road and this Cloud was a Cloud of dust made by the Horses feet. It arose some Rods into the air over the tops of the hills and trees and when I came within about 20 rods of the Road, I could see men and horses Sliping along in the Cloud like shadows, and as I drew nearer it seemed like a steady stream of horses and their riders, scarcely a horse more than his length behind another, all of a lather and foam with sweat, their breath rolling out of their nostrils in the cloud of dust every jump; every horse seemed to go with all his might to carry his rider to hear news from heaven for the saving of Souls. It made me tremble to see the Sight, how the world was in a Struggle, I found a vacance between two horses to Slip in my horse; and my wife said law our cloaths will be all spoiled see how they look, for they were so covered with dust, that they looked almost all of a colour coats, hats, and shirts and horses.
We went down in the Stream; I heard no man speak a word all the way three miles but every one pressing forward in great haste and when we got to the old meeting house there was a great multitude; it was said to be 3 or 4000 of people assembled together, we got off from our horses and shook off the dust, and the ministers were then coming to the meeting house. I turned and looked towards the great river and saw the ferry boats running swift forward and forward bringing over loads of people; the oars rowed nimble and quick, every thing men horses and boats seemed to be struggling for life; the land and banks over the river looked black with people and horses all along the 12 miles. I saw no man at work in his field, but all seemed to be gone.
When I saw Mr. Whitefield come upon the Scaffold he looked almost angelical, a young, slim slender youth before some thousands of people with a bold undaunted countenance, and my hearing how God was with him every where as he came along it solumnized my mind, and put me into a trembling fear before he began to preach; for he looked as if he was Cloathed with authority from the Great God, and a sweet solemn solemnity sat upon his brow. And my hearing him preach gave me a heart wound; by Gods blessing my old foundation was broken up, and I saw that my righteousness would not save me; then I was convinced of the doctrine of Election and went right to quarrelling with God about it, because all that I could do would not save me; and he had decreed from Eternity who should be saved and who not.
Source: George Leon Walker, Some Aspects of the Religious Life of New England (New York: Silver, Burnett, and Company, 1897), 89?92.
- Whitefield, Jonathan Edwards, new lights, Elisha Williams, Yale and Wethersfield ct
Reverend and Colonel Elisha Williams
October 14, 2011
Reverend and Colonel Elisha WilliamsElisha Williams-thumb-320x356-443.jpgThe following article, written by John C Willard, is from the archives of Wethersfield Historical Society.
This may seem like a strange title, but a Wethersfield resident was both a minister of the church and a military man, as well as being selected as Rector (President) of Yale College. At one time he had more than half the college students studying under him at his home in Wethersfield.
Elisha was born in Hatfield on the 24th of August, 1694, the son of Reverend William Williams, pastor of the Hatfield church for nearly 56 years, and Martha, daughter of Reverend Seaborn Cotton. He graduated from Harvard College in 1711, with a degree of Master of Arts in 1714. He studied divinity under his father and came to Wethersfield and in that same year married Eunice Chester, daughter of Thomas Chester. They had seven children, only two of whom survived their father. He took up the study of law thinking of applying himself to it. He was prevailed upon to undertake the voyage to Canso, the N E Cape of Nova Scotia, where he officiated as Chaplain to the fishermen. On his return home he again took up the study of law and served for several years as a representative and was clerk of the lower house of the Assembly. As a result of a disagreement among the Trustees of Yale College he tutored a number of students, which he performed ?to the great satisfaction of the Trustees and the Advantage of the Scholars.?
He was struck with a serious illness, but recovered and was Pastor of Newington church. In 1726 he was chosen as Rector (President) of Yale College. He was very successful in administering the college, but the college was in such a poor state financially that he was obliged to teach a class, sometimes two. With some preaching he again gave out physically and his eyes ?swelled to the bigness of an Egg,? and threatened him with the loss of both of them or his life. He sought release from his duties and returned to Wethersfield where with exercise and time he again regained his health. He was saddened by the untimely death of two sons and a daughter, but returned to the Assembly and was appointed one of the Judges of the Superior Court.
When the expedition against Cape Breton was set on foot, he was appointed by the General Assembly as Chaplain of the regiment sent by the Connecticut Colony. He was interested in bringing religion to the Army and wresting Canada from the French as a menace to New England. When a regiment of 1000 men was raised for another expedition he was again appointed by the General Assembly as Chief Colonel of the regiment. The regiment proceeded to New London where they awaited orders to embark, but none came that summer. Difficulties arising in the payment of the solders, Colonel Williams was sent to England in their behalf. There were many delays and it took him over two years to sail to England and return. His wife died after 36 years of happy marriage, so Colonel Williams came back from England with a new wife, the daughter of Reverend Thomas Scott. She was a very remarkable person, indeed. ?A lady of great reading and knowledge, extensive acquaintance, a good penetrating mind, and good judgment, of Abounding Charity, and unaffected Piety and devotion, adorned with every recommending Excellence, few liv?d more esteemed and Lov?d and died more Lamented.? So read her epitaph.
Colonel Williams lived only a few years after his return from England dying in 1755. Where he lived before going to Newington is a question. He owned land at the southeast end of Broad Street, but there is no record of a house there. On the other hand, the house now know as the Buttolph-Williams House was known for years as the ?Older Williams House? to distinguish it from that of his nephew Ezekiel Williams nearly opposite. In his later years his children built him a house just to the north of what is now Robbinswood Drive. One of the doorsteps of this house is said to have been used by Silas Robbins when he built his house (still standing). Elisha is also said to have planted a row of elms which grew to a giant size along Broad Street. They have long disappeared, but Mr. Robbins went to considerable expense to keep them standing for many years.
One account tells of how the famous Elizabeth Canning accompanied Elisha and his wife from England, but that is hardly possible. However she may have lived at the Buttolph-Williams house as Elisha kept a home here after going to Newington, and wrote her instruction there.
Few Wethersfield men attained such worthy commendation as Colonel and Reverend Elisha Williams, and that in spite of continual poor health and discouragements.
Photo credit ?Stories of Wethersfield? by Nora Howard
Supplementary Comments by WHS Member John Oblak
Williams was a ?New Light? minister, as those who supported the Great Awakening were called. When Williams led Yale in Wethersfield in 1720, Jonathan Edwards was his student. George Whitefield was a friend of Edwards and Williams. All spoke locally to foster the Great Awakening.
That movement upset the political structure of Connecticut, eventually allowing southeastern Connecticut to emerge as a power base, with the later election of Jonathan Trumbull as governor.
In 1709, Wethersfield?s West Division (Newington) petitioned the town for separate parish privileges and were granted permission to worship among themselves for four months of the year (November ? February) and excused from one-third of their tax. In 1712, West Division again petitioned for separate parish privileges and permission was granted. In 1713, they incorporated as the Second Society of Wethersfield. Many problems arose however, and a minister, Rev. Elisha Williams, was not settled until 1720.
As Willard says, Williams left for New Haven after four years in 1726 to become the fourth president of Yale.
Reverend and Colonel Elisha Williams8d46535a41c0a782ecab0ee8e6b336ef-thumb-320x179-445.jpgWilliams had ministered at Canso, Nova Scotia. Canso is on the northeast coast of the Nova Scotia peninsula across from Cape Breton Island. The settlement of Queen Ann?s War, by the Treaty of Utrecht in 1713, had France cede lower Nova Scotia to the United Kingdom while France retained control of Cape Breton Island. King Louis XIV proceeded to spend the French treasury to build a massive fort at Louisbourg on Cape Breton.
Louisbourg was thought to be impregnable. The New Englanders stunned even the British when they took Louisbourg during King George?s War (1744-1748). The Willard article highlights how influential Williams was in this effor
King George?s War ceded Cape Breton back to France. The quid pro quo was that the French, who had seized British holdings in India, would return Madras to Great Britain. New Englanders were outraged. Prescient leaders here recognized that there would be another war with France; and the difficult task of taking Louisbourg would have to be accomplished again.
The French and Indian War (1753-1760) required the conquest of Louisbourg again. What Willard doesn?t say is that Elisha Williams was called back by New England to reprise his King George?s War role, in part, during the French and Indian War.
Unfortunately, Williams? health was now frail and he died while doing this.
Read more about Rev. Elisha Williams in Houses of Worship.
Go the ?About the Author: John C. Willard?
- Wetherfield Church history:
The First Church of Christ
December 1, 2012
by Henry von Wodtke
The English men and women who founded the Town of Wethersfield and this church were endeavoring, as they saw it, ?to maintain and preserve the liberty and purity of the Gospel of our Lord Jesus.? These words come from the preamble to the Fundamental Orders adopted in 1639 by voters in each of Connecticut?s three settlements?Wethersfield, Hartford, and Windsor.
It was the world?s first written constitution used to found a government. Its then radical idea that liberty comes from God and not from some sovereign or other power was later a basis for both the Declaration of Independence and the United States Constitution. Our founders were a people focused on faithfully following the Lord Jesus, Who is the Way, the Truth and the Life. In so doing, they affected world history.
Twentieth-Century Wethersfield_300px-First_Church_of_Christ,_Wethersfield,_CT_-_4-thumb-320x426-714.jpgThe present Meetinghouse was built in 1761, in the Georgian style which was then popular in England and its American colonies. Its primary exterior feature is its spectacular steeple, inspired by the steeples on ?Old North? Church in Boston, Massachusetts, Trinity Church in Newport, Rhode Island, and steeples on
similar churches being built in England.
For this congregation, first ?gathered? in 1635, this was the third Meetinghouse. When new, like its two predecessors, this Meetinghouse had the largest public interior space in Wethersfield. It served not only as a place of worship, but also as the assembly hall for town meetings and other public events.
1st Meetinghouse drawing.jpg
(First Meeting House)
1686 2nd mthse.jpg (Second Meeting House circa 1686)
General George Washington worshiped here on May 20, 1781, while he was in Wethersfield for meetings with French General Comte de Rochambeau to work on the strategy that led to the American victory at Yorktown. Seven years earlier, John Adams, who was here visiting Silas Deane, wrote that ?We went up the steeple of the Wethersfield Meetinghouse from whence is the most grand and beautiful prospect in the world, at least, that I ever saw.?
For over a century, the interior of the Meetinghouse looked much as it does today.
Meetinghouse interior 2.jpgThen, from the 1880s until 1971, as the result of a series of changes, the building had a somewhat Gothic appearance with dark wood and stained glass, popular in the Victorian era. A major restoration, completed in 1973, brought back the high, central pulpit, the clear glass windows, the chandeliers, the
long slip pews, and the box pews, essentially as they were before 1880.
Parts of the pulpit and many of the floorboards used today were here in 1761. Also, by the connectors to the east of the Meetinghouse, the extension of the
Meetinghouse with its stairs to the gallery is original, although its doors have been rearranged to meet the requirements of the modern fire code.
Contemporary features include modern lighting, heating, air conditioning, sound system, an inconspicuous built-in TV camera system, and an Austin pipe organ in the orchestral style of Virgil Fox. There are even motors to raise and lower the reproduction colonial chandeliers, so they can be lighted for Christmas Eve services.
With its both old and new elements, this Meetinghouse is the primary place of worship for what is, in terms of its membership, one of New England?s largest and most active Congregational churches. Although large, First Church focuses on the individual. It is the church ?where the Spirit is alive and miracles happen.?
1686 Cornerstone.jpgOther Buildings
The glass-walled Dunham Connector, completed in 1973, joins the Meetinghouse with the building to the south, the John Marsh Memorial, which faces Marsh Street. This neocolonial building was constructed in 1950. Both the building and the street it faces are named for The Reverend Marsh, who was senior pastor here from 1774 until 1821, this congregation?s longest-serving minister.
To the north, the Dunham Connector now opens into the Wells Fellowship Area. This reception area was constructed as part of a two million dollar expansion of the Cadwell Building in 1992-93. The Cadwell Building, with its entrance from the parking area, was built in 1963 as a one-story, neocolonial structure. The expansion, completed in 1993, added the second floor to which the offices were moved and increased in number. The former office area on the first floor was put to new uses, including space for a reception area and elevator.
The Dunham Connector, the Wells Area, and the Cadwell Building were each named by or for a church member whose generosity made the structure possible. They and others are remembered with wall plaques.
To the north of the Meetinghouse, along Main Street, is a brick Greek Revival structure named for the Reverend Donald W. Morgan, who was the senior minister from 1978 until 1996. The Morgan House was built in 1832 for the John Williams family. The congregation purchased it in 1954 for use as a parsonage. It was renovated in 1998 and 1999 and now provides additional space for various gatherings.
Because these are all red-brick buildings of similar styles, they fit well together. The classical architectural features of the Greek Revival Morgan House, including its south-facing porch, go well with the classical features of the Georgian Meetinghouse and the two neocolonial buildings which are joined to it. Neocolonial architecture echoes Georgian architecture, with its classical elements, popular in the colonial period.
The cemetery behind the Meetinghouse dates from the 1600s. Like other old New England cemeteries, it was called the Burying Ground until well into the
nineteenth century. All three of this church?s Meetinghouses have stood adjacent to this Burying Ground, although not at the site of the present Meetinghouse. Despite the traditional close proximity of the church to the Burying Ground, early Congregationalists did not consider the Burying Ground to be specially sacred soil.
This cemetery has some famous graves, including that of Lieutenant Jonathan Church (1763-1804), the first United States Marine from Connecticut. His headstone is in a row of headstones directly by the glass-walled connector that were turned to face east when connector was built, so that they could be easily seen by those in the cemetery. Otherwise, headstones, which are located at the head of the grave, face west, away from the grave. Lieutenant Church?s stone is toward the north end of the row, to the left just beyond the connector windows.
Another famous grave is that of Elisha Williams (1694-1755) who, from 1716 to 1718, taught in Wethersfield 14 students from what would become Yale. Thereafter, Williams was ordained pastor of the Newington church. He later relocated to New Haven where for 13 years he was rector (chaplain) of Yale. Williams, however, preferred living in Wethersfield and returned here in 1739 to become a legislator, then a judge, and later chaplain to the Connecticut troops during King George?s War. His grave, marked by a table-top monument, is located on top of the small hill that begins by the Connector. Some New England graves from the 1600s and 1700s have what look like stone table-tops built over them.
Most of the gravestones that you see from the glass-walled connectors are from the 1700s and 1800s. Headstones from the 1700s have scalloped tops and are often made of brownstone. They are usually decorated with death heads. Headstones from the 1800s are usually flat or arched across the top and are decorated with symbols of mourning, like weeping willows, urns, and shrouds. Unfortunately, the inscriptions on some of the brownstone markers have flaked away, but you usually can determine their approximate age by their shape.
The tallest stones near the connectors mark family plots. They generally date from the mid to late 1800s. The small markers that you see are footstones, except for two granite blocks marking a family plot. During the 1700s, the foot of a grave was often marked by a footstone.
To make maintenance easier in the age of lawn mowing machines, most footstones have been moved next to headstones or the retaining wall. Their original placement was not a problem, because grass in the cemetery was kept down by grazing animals. In 1757, however, the Town began trying to limit this grazing by employing Stephen Wright to keep cattle out of the Burying Ground and to toll the bell announcing deaths and burials.
The hallmark of a Congregational church is its Protestant, Christian theology and its ultimate governance by vote of the members of the congregation, instead of by some outside association or hierarchy of clergy. Congregational churches in America trace their origins to the few Pilgrims, who first arrived at Plymouth, Massachusetts, in December 1620, and to the many Puritans, who began coming to New England in the 1630s.
Both groups were English Calvinists, who formed independent churches in each community they settled. These became known as Congregational churches. Early Congregationalists saw themselves as bringing a Bible-based, new, Christian Israel to America?the Biblical ?city on a hill.? Their strong religious faith contributed to their success as settlers.
The Great Awakenings
A strong religious faith is not static. It needs nourishment and sometimes renewal. Ideally, for individuals, a church provides spiritual nourishment and renewal. But even churches themselves occasionally need renewal. Historically, for many individuals and churches, effective renewal came from two so-called Great Awakenings that swept America, the first reaching its full strength in the 1740s, and the second, during the 1820s.
220px-Jonathan_Edwards.jpgThe primary intellectual leader of the first Great Awakening was Jonathan Edwards, a Congregational minister, whom British historian Paul Johnson describes as ?a man of outstanding intellect and sensibility, the first major thinker in
American history.? As a teenager, Edwards attended what became Yale at the time when classes were being conducted by Elisha Williams in Wethersfield. So from 1716 to 1718, Edwards was one of the 14 college students who, along with their
teacher, worshiped in First Church?s second Meetinghouse.
In 1727, after two earlier pastorates, Edwards succeeded his grandfather as minister of the Congregational Church in Northampton, Massachusetts. By the 1740s, Edwards began to base his message not so much on fear, as early
Congregational preachers tended to do, as on joy, although he never neglected what he called ?salutary terror.? Edwards saw God as radiating His own goodness and beauty into the souls of humans so that they could become part of Him, ?a
kind of participation in God,? as Edwards put it.
Insights like these swept across America, affecting Christians from all denominations. However, by 1748, many in the Northampton congregation became uncomfortable with Edward?s call for personal commitment to God. Controversy resulted and, in 1750, the Northampton congregation dismissed Edwards.
There followed for Edwards a period of productive exile while he ministered to the Housatonnoc Indians in the frontier town of Stock-bridge, Massachusetts, and continued his extensive writing. In 1757, Edwards became president of the College of New Jersey, now called Princeton. During his first year there, to
promote science by his example, he submitted to what turned out to be a fatal smallpox inoculation and died at age 50. Edwards left a legacy of over 1,400
sermons, notes and books.
Intellectual inspiration for the Second Great Awakening came from Timothy Dwight, the President of Yale, who was Jonathan Edward?s grandson. As a young man, Dwight was a Yale tutor during the American Revolution when, because of the danger of British raids on coastal New Haven, classes were conducted in Wethersfield and other inland towns. Dwight taught classes in Wethersfield and, at that time, attended First Church.
Like many early college presidents, Dwight was an ordained minister. He did much to help establish Yale?s reputation for excellent scholarship. He also wrote words for hymns. One that is still popular begins this way:
I love Thy Kingdom, Lord? The house of Thine abode,
The Church our blest Redeemer saved? With His own precious blood.
The Second Great Awakening came to this congregation largely through the efforts of the Reverend Caleb Tenney, who began his ministry here as an assistant to the Reverend John Marsh. Tenney started this congregation?s first Sunday School, and in 1821, succeeded Marsh as senior pastor. Tenney held revivals, the hallmark of the Second Great Awakening that resulted in a significant increase in church participation and membership.
In 1871, the National Council of Congregational Churches in the United States came into being as a formal denomination in which this church participated. In 1957, that denomination merged with the Evangelical and Reformed Church, a German Lutheran denomination, to become the United Church of Christ (U.C.C.). By a Congregational vote in 1961, this church joined the U.C.C.
In the last decades of the 20th century, this became a larger, more active, regional church. As the mission statement adopted in 1987 puts it,
?We are called by the Lord Christ to be a model for our time of the finest, most creative in Church life, worship, nurture and outreach; proclaiming a positive, affirming, need-filling faith message; energizing and transforming lives by the power of the Holy Spirit; and steadily enlarging the body of believers.?
In 1998, the congregation voted overwhelmingly to adopt the following vision statement: To be the serving body of Jesus Christ, reflecting His light and love, so that all may personally know Him: the Way, the Truth, and the Life.
By the early 2000s, this congregation?s focus on living a Christian life, as shown by its mission and vision statements, was at odds with what had become the
U.C.C.?s focus. At a congregational meeting in 2004, almost 90% of those present (well over the required two-thirds) voted to disassociate from the U.C.C., terminating that denominational tie.
This congregation continues to have special relationships with other churches and religious groups such as One In Christ, a group of five large Hartford-area
churches that periodically worship together, and Vision New England, an organization uniting Christians for evangelism, discipleship, and celebration. As has been true for most of its history, First Church now is not joined with any organized denomination, but it has a committee considering possible denominational ties.
Successful churches periodically revitalize themselves ? as they did during the Great Awakenings. The most recent revitalization of this church began during the 35-year ministry here of the Reverend Keith M. Jones, when there was a crucial enlargement of the church property?the Marsh Building and the Cadwell Building were constructed, the Morgan House was purchased and, from 1971 to 1973, the Meetinghouse was restored and the connectors were built.
Under the subsequent leadership of the Reverend Donald W. Morgan, this became a regional congregation where church membership and activities increased
significantly, and congregants came from many area communities, instead of overwhelmingly from one town. The Christian focus, activity, and regional
character continue under the leadership of the Reverend Dr. J. Jey Deifell, Jr., who became Senior Minister in 1996.
First Church also works on national and international levels. In 1984, for instance, CBS did a live national telecast of First Church?s Christmas Eve Service. Each October since 1999, First Church holds an Edwards Conference (named for Jonathan Edwards), bringing together national leaders to explore current moral and social issues at a weekend symposium.
Periodically, First Church hosts, often as guest preachers, speakers of national repute, including Lloyd J. Ogilvie, former chaplain of the United States Senate; Robert H. Schuller of the Crystal Cathedral; Cliff Barrows, Billy Graham?s assistant; Raymond Lindquist, former pastor of the Hollywood Presbyterian Church; Charles Colson, founder of the Prison Ministry Fellowship; Millard Fuller, founder of Habitat for Humanity; Harry Stout, Yale historian; Philip Yancey, renowned Christian author; and Lyle Schaller, a foremost church consultant.
On the international level, since 1990 this church has been playing a key role in the formation and operation of Churches Uniting in Global Mission, which draws together for mutual enrichment churches from all Christian traditions?Protestant, Catholic, Orthodox, Evangelical and Charismatic. Also, this congregation helps support many Christian missionaries who work in various places around the world, often bringing medical and other help to those in
But for all of its outreach, the main focus for this church is ministering to those who come here to worship. This is the primary task of not only the ministers, but also of the staff and congregation. Our goal is to be the serving body of Jesus Christ here in Wethersfield.
For a history of this congregation see A Pleasant Land?A Goodly Heritage by Lois M. Wieder, published by First Church in 1986, covering the history of this congregation from 1635 to 1985. Information about the recent history can be found in Share The Dream / Build The Team by the Reverend Donald W. Morgan. A book about effective church leadership based mostly on experiences at this church, it includes insights about First Church and its recent past.
These books can be borrowed from the First Church library, which is located in the Marsh Building, on the right as you enter from the Connector.
Reprinted with the permission of the author, and the First Church of Christ
About the Author: Henry von Wodtke