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
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.
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.
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.
(First Meeting House)
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.”
over a century, the interior of the Meetinghouse looked much as it does today.
Then, 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.
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.”
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
love Thy Kingdom, Lord… The house of Thine abode,
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
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.
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.”
1998, the congregation voted overwhelmingly to adopt the following vision
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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