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.
The 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.
(First Meeting House)
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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 need.
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