Churches have a history. Churches have a lifespan. It’s no small feat that our congregation continues to gather for worship 175 years after initial articles of covenant were signed! Fifteen individuals signed a parchment on February 17, 1847, even before the Civil War, to commit to living together as a Body of Christ in the town originally named Laphamville. Our village was less than one decade old. This town has gone through great transformation while our congregation served from the corner of Fremont and Bridge Streets. Rockford and First Congregational Church have grown up together!
Churches have layers to their history. One congregation in Mt. Carmel, Indiana first met in a house that was also a blacksmith shop. Over the years it changed from being a Baptist Church to a Gospel Kingdom Church and then a Lutheran parish. Presently that site is the location for Thompson and Pettyjohn Mini-storage! What allows a church to serve a community for nearly two centuries?
In an article published in The Church in the Mirror, the author suggests, “The Worship service has become increasingly a time of entertainment. Make your services so exciting no one wants to leave…” Is that what has kept our congregation going for nearly two centuries? Have we entertained through our music and our children’s programs; through adding a screen and streaming our services? Is this considered entertaining? Or is there something deeper that has enabled us to stay the course since 1847?
The Wabash Presbyterian Church was established because of an inconvenient delay in travel. A minister was journeying through the area with a horse as his transportation. He stopped in Wabash for the night and his horse was injured at the stable. This held him up for awhile, not unlike our transmission going out in a remote area. While waiting for the horse to heal enough to continue their journey, the minister got to know some townsfolk who learned of his convictions. In a movement that would be described as providential, the Wabash Presbyterian Church was organized. We live with holy intentionality trusting that God will build a church through the most unlikely encounters!
What sustains a congregation over the course of decades and even centuries? A passage from Matthew 22 gives us an answer: love. The Greek word Jesus used in this passage is agape. This is a self-sacrificial love that is not based on feelings or sentimentality. It is a loyal, beneficent love that is witnessed through a commitment to action. The second part of Jesus’ command is of equal importance and cannot be separated from the first: we are to love our neighbor as we love ourselves. Is love what carries us through the ups and downs of local history and generations of families?
The passage from Matthew is a controversy story. The Jewish leaders gathered to confront Jesus. A “lawyer” from the cadre of Pharisees stepped forward to interrogate Him. Jesus knew the leaders didn’t care about the answer but simply wanted to test Him. In spite of their mal-intent, Jesus’ answer to their question has shaped our Christian faith: love of God and of neighbor defines who we are as Church. Jesus turned the tables on them, as He was prone to do. He posed a question that could only make sense if they embraced Jesus as the Messiah, both human and divine. These Jewish lawmakers could not see Jesus for who He was. People have been clever for ages about rebuking Christ yet none have silenced Him or His followers—in 2000 years! Who looks foolish now? Does intellect prevail or is sacrificial love at the root of a relationship to God?
Our church began as a mission to our community. The preparation of the site began in the winter of 1873 when families would not be needed in the field. This was just eight years after the conclusion of the Civil War. As the nation searched for healing, our forebears built a sanctuary. Imagine clearing land and collecting stones in freezing temperatures and snow-covered fields to lay a foundation! For the first 26 years of our congregation’s existence, we met in the home of the local doctor. Sacrifice was required of him and sacrifice was required of the parishioners when they raised the money for their own building. The First Congregational Church was dedicated on December 29, 1874, free and clear of any debt. In 1954 an addition was built that added a couple of classrooms, an office and the fellowship hall. In 1995 the congregation raised money to purchase an old home directly south of the sanctuary. For awhile this housed classes and offices before the city allowed us to tear it down to make a swing-through driveway. In 2012, 138 years after the initial structure was christened, we dedicated a half-million dollar Christian Education Wing without a mortgage. Each generation at First Congregational Church, United Church of Christ, embraced a sense of purpose that stems from gratitude for what God has done and is doing in our midst.
The imprint of this congregation on our town has been significant. In 1871 the pastor of our church, Rev. William Caldwell, founded the first public library in the village. Later, the Krause family, longtime church members, built a beautiful library that is still central to the life of our community.
I find it interesting to look back to how Christians gathered at the time our parish was newly established. In the 1800’s camp meetings were very popular in the summer when people could travel freely. These gatherings of believers lasted much of the Sabbath day. Folks traveled long distances so that they could be together in a place of worship. They packed their noon meals and looked forward to an extended time of Christian fellowship before beginning another demanding week.
We were blessed to have a living guardian of our history for more than 80 years. Stephen Paull began serving our congregation as the pastor in 1924. His son, Bill, was a teenager when the family moved here. He remained a member the rest of his life, living into his 90’s. He and his wife, Coyla, became the music team for many years. Bill used his gift for music in a number of ways. We have on display for this anniversary year his saw in a useful carrying bag. There is no sawdust clinging to it because he used it as an instrument! We had a fundraiser concert over twenty years ago and Bill contributed a musical piece, using this unlikely instrument. Often he sang at funerals and, many times, the deceased was a decade or two younger than Bill. In 1936, with a flourishing music program, First Park Church donated their choir robes to us as they updated their own. They came with hats which choir members wore proudly—I think! Bill told us that, when his father began his ministry here, there was a heating grate down the center aisle. When women started wearing dress shoes with pointy heels, they needed to replace that. One of the jobs for Bill and his older brother was to come over on Saturday and load some coal into the furnace so that the church would be warm the next morning.
Our bell was added a few years after the completion of the building. The date forged onto the bell is 1878. This would have been the means of summoning villagers to worship. Before churches had bells and folks had clocks, a cow horn was often used to let people know it was time to take off the work dungarees and head to church!
Churches became advocates for good education. Adults and children studied together in Sunday School classes, many times held in homes of church members. Our congregation had strong convictions about caring for the youngest residents in Rockford so the Heritage Tuttle Preschool was established. For the children whose parents were unable to get to the church, a volunteer offered door-to-door service! Giving a strong foundation of learning to children was highly valued. The cost was 50 cents per child per week. The preschool was open for more than 50 years, closing when families were looking for full-time childcare rather than a morning program. One community member sent us this message: “I can remember going to the Heritage-Tuttle preschool there. My brother and I both attended and our mother was the nurse. This would have been in the 1940’s. I have 3 children and all attended there. My mother eventually went on to be Dr. DeMaagd’s nurse for many years. Congratulations on your 175th anniversary!”
Raising funds for worthy causes has been central to the life of the Church since the Apostle Paul collected donations for the Jerusalem poor! First Congregational Church had Christmas bazaars with meals and crafts. The Women’s Fellowship held an annual rummage sale that took several weeks to collect, organize and price before opening the doors to the community. When I began my tenure as pastor we had lots of children’s chairs built of wooden seats on metal frames. Since we were getting new chairs for the Sunday School children, artistic members took the old chairs home and painted them. We sold them at the Rockford Famer’s Market and raised over $1000—and got good coverage from the local newspaper! Looking back to the challenges of the Second World War, our church was cited for being the most generous per capita congregation in the state for helping the war effort. They served soup suppers for neighbors so that they wouldn’t have to use their precious rations. When financial needs arose, the church responded generously and creatively.
So what enables a congregation to minister within a community for 175 years? The story behind the hymn, Abide with Me, helps to answer that. The lyricist, Henry Lyte, was the pastor in Brixham, England. His health declined due to tuberculosis. Shortly before his farewell Sunday, he was reading the story of the two disciples who met up with Jesus on the Emmaus road after his resurrection. Lyte was struck with the burning desire in the hearts of those two men to know Jesus more fully after walking with Him. Knowing his own life was nearing an end, the Spirit gave Pastor Lyte the words to this hymn that we still sing today: “Abide with me, fast falls the eventide. The darkness deepens—Lord, with me abide; when other helpers fail and comforts flee, help of the helpless, O abide with me!” He died that same year—1847, the year our church was founded. He lived out the motto that is attributed to him: It is better to wear out than to rust out.” Amen, brother Henry!
I rejoice that generations of believers have gathered in our sanctuary on a busy corner of the small town of Rockford. We have sought to love God with all our hearts and love our neighbor as we love ourselves. We have sacrificed for the good of the larger community and walked through the joys and sorrows of each other’s lives. We have studied the scriptures and found that they continue to speak to us 2000 years after the Emmaus Road experience. When facing our mortality we have found peace knowing that we are in the embrace of Christ’s people who have called this congregation “home.” To have comfort in the fullness of life and peace when facing the end, that is a life of blessing. How beautiful that our church has shared a love for God and neighbor over the course of 175 years!