First Congregational Church of West Brattleboro
An Open and Affirming Congregation of the United Church of Christ
Congregationalism came to this country with the Puritans. Inspired by an ideal of religious freedom, we founded the first public schools and universities, and printed the country’s first book on its first printing press, in 1640.
Our church was the first in Brattleboro's settlement. For our oldest records, much is surmise rather than fact. It was customary for a new township to set aside five acres on a central hill for a worship building, a burying place, a militia training ground, a minister's pasture, and other public services. A granite marker in the cemetery still there indicates the building was erected by the town in 1768. It is believed to have been a crude wooden structure meant for temporary use, because no cellar hole has been found. Covenanters, most of whom were Congregationalists, were the original worshippers, but it was not considered a church until we secured a pastor in 1770. The Rev. Abner Reeve served both Brattleboro and neighboring Guilford.
Within the national Congregationalist movement at this time, Phyllis Wheatley became the first African-American poet published, and the Rev. Lemuel Haynes became the first African-American minister ordained by a historically white tradition.
Back in Brattleboro, in 1785 we built a more permanent structure in a more central location. As there was no longer a threat from Indian attacks, we were able to place it on the County Road to Marlboro, near the Whetstone Brook, so the new church was built near to our present location. It took 15 years to complete.
Our second pastor, Rev. Wm. Wells, served until 1814. When he left, he became the first pastor of the new Centre Church on Main St., the area in which the town was now expanding and thus more convenient for some. Our membership split, and 27 members transferred to this 'more orthodox' church.
In 1839, Congregationalist John Quincy Adams argued before the Supreme Court for the freedom of the Amistad captives –Africans who mutinied aboard the schooner Amistad after having been kidnapped and illegally sold into slavery. This was the first human rights case that was successfully argued before the US Supreme Court. Congregationalists also led the effort to form the Amistad Committee to educate and care for the captives – a committee that later evolved into the American Missionary Association. After the Civil War, the AMA worked with freed African-Americans to found hundreds of schools and churches all over the south to educate freed slaves and their children. These became the first inter-racial schools in the country, as white New Englanders traveled to the south to teach in the schools attended by both the children of freed slaves and the teachers' own children.
Congregationalist Antoinette Brown was ordained in 1853, the first American woman to be so recognized in Christian ministry.
Continuing a more localized tradition of troublemaking, a controversy developed here in Brattleboro. Some of the pew holders - who owned their pews, the land below and the air above to heaven - decided they had the right to demand their own pastors, too. One Sunday they forced their way in and started their own service. When the rest of the congregation disagreed, they brought in one speaker after another, like a Senate filibuster, so the rest of the church went over to a nearby school. Finally, the dissenters, many of whom were Unitarian-Universalists, agreed to sell their pews, and built in turn the brick church up the street. In 1839 the minister was dismissed after more discord, when two rival choirs decided to sing independently.
In 1845 the church burned to the ground.
The next 100 years ran a bit more smoothly. They saw the development of women's associations, mission work, Sunday School, Christian Endeavor (a global youth organization), and music ministries.
The most extensive renovations in the 20th Century were completed and dedicated in 1954. We excavated the cellar at that time. Most of the work was done by the men of the church. We have pictures of them hauling out carts of dirt they dug by hand. This provided us with a large meeting place where we host events such as the Sugar Supper, and with Sunday school rooms, a kitchen, and a stage. Some of the folks and families who worked on this long project are still members. One of God's coincidences is that a stranger named Everett Sheldon happened to be walking by, saw them working and was interested in what they were doing. He became our next pastor.
In 1957, the Congregationalist church merged with the Evangelical and Reformed church to create the United Church of Christ. Our congregation joined the UCC in 1961. In 1967 we discussed a merger with First United Methodist Church, but the Methodist Troy Conference ordered a halt. We frequently share projects and services with them and our other sister churches: Centre Church, First Baptist, Guilford and Dummerston.
The United Church of Christ became the first denomination in the United States to ordain an openly gay minister, Bill Johnson, in 1972. Our congregation voted unanimously to become Open and Affirming in 2013.