Church History Sunday: November 25, 2018
On the Sunday after Thanksgiving, First Church honored its rich history of faith in several ways.
The church thanked God for our veteran historians and aspiring historians. Ardienne Damicis, current Church Historian and Milford Living Treasure 2018, was celebrated, as well as other church members and friends who are devoted to learning and sharing the signficance of Milford and church history.
Kelsey DeCarlo taught the children some basic facts about our church's history, including when the three iterations of the meetinghouse were built.
Rev. Adam preached on the importance of history and tradition in faith, and how history often rhymes in ways that help us live today with faith and hope and humility.
Rev. Adam Eckhart's sermon, "Remember When"
Leading up to History Sunday, Rev. Adam published a list of significant events in the 379 year history of our congregation. See below for that list.
People who attended worship that morning were asked to fill out sheets listing important moments at church in their lives. Some of the answers included:
-Being blessed with wonderful worship, including music and sermons, which are "a deeply valuable part of my continuing walk with God."
-Mission trips during their children's high school years, which provided pivotal faith experiences for them
-The baptism of children
-witnessing the leadership of ministers and laypeople
-Getting married at the church and having renewal of vow services
-Witnessing and experiencing leadership of Music Ministers
-Candlelight Carol services
-First Church always being there for comfort, encouragement, joy, and spiritual growth
-Comfort in time of grief
-Support of people's sense of calling and ministry in the community
-Witnessing the outreach ministries and the impact they have on real people in the area
Ten Significant First Church Events
1. 1639: First Church is founded (and with it, the City of Milford!)
In 1637, King Charles I of England was making life difficult for those Englishpeople who disagreed with the way that the Church of England operated. Those persecuted Englishpeople, known as Puritans because they wanted to 'purify' the English church, included a group from Hertfordshire.
In June that year, many of them took a journey to the new world hoping for a better future. After a year in Boston, the Hertfordshire group, led by Rev. Peter Prudden, teamed up with a London group led by Rev. John Davenport and Theophilus Eaton to travel to the mouth of the Quinnipiack River. The result was the founding of New Haven in 1638.
But it became clear that the new town was not big enough for two preachers to both get to preach. Thomas Tibbals had previously seen another river and harbor west of New Haven while participating in the Pequot Wars, and helped connect the Hertfordshire/Prudden group with the Wepawaug Native Americans, who made an exchange for land in early 1639.
In August 1639 the new faith community was organized in New Haven before taking off in September for the Wepawaug, where the new church got right to work building houses and preparing for winter. The next year, the first meetinghouse was built, a 40' x 40' structure likely modeled after the meetinghouse in New Haven center.
A decade later, the settlers changed the town's name from Wepawaug to Milford. The city and the church are products of our faith ancestors!
2. 1663: First Church member helps hide two of the Regicide Judges
King Charles I was executed after a group of what became known as the "regicide judges" signed a death warrant for him due to his cruelty to the people (regicide means the killing of a monarch).
When after eleven years of more democratic rule, the late king's son, Charles II, took over power, some of the 59 regicide judges were executed. Three--Whalley, Dixwell, and Goffe--fled to New England. Whalley and Goffe hid out for months in a cave in what is now West Rock Park in New Haven, but then snuck into Milford and hid in the basement of Michael Tompkins' house, whom we believe was a member of First Church.
When the British military was closing in on their hiding place, Whalley and Goffe left Milford and returned to New Haven, eventually finding other locations in southern New England to blend in for the long term. But because New Haven Colony gave sanctuary to the three regicide judges, England revoked New Haven's charter and made it part of the Connecticut Colony.
3. 1701: A Commitment to Education
First Church has long been committed to education as part of its commitment to Christian conscience and democracy.
In the 1640s the church instituted the first sessions of public school in Milford.
By the turn of the 18th century, it became clear that there was interest in creating a new college in the Connecticut Colony that was closer than Harvard and less controversial in its teachings (at the time, some Harvard professors were espousing Arminianism, the idea that God would save all people).
First Church's pastor, Samuel Andrew, was a Harvard graduate and tutor who spent most of his time studying and teaching, and was opposed to Harvard's new theology. So he was among the ten pastors who founded the Collegiate School, which first held classes in the towns of Saybrook and Branford.
In 1707, however, the first rector of the school, Abraham Pierson, died suddenly, and Samuel Andrew was tapped to take his place while a successor was found. Andrew though served as both Collegiate School rector and First Milford pastor for twelve years.
During Andrew's tenure, the school received a generous donation of books and decided to rename the school in honor of the donor, Elihu Yale. For several years, Yale seniors studied in MIlford with Andrew, but eventually the permanent location of Yale was fixed in New Haven. 300 years later Yale University is a premiere research institution and presitgious school that educates community and world leaders, thanks in part to the ministry of our church.
4. 1724, 1823: Meetinghouses #2 and #3
The church may most truly be its people but it helps to have a place to worship and minister together. Our church has had a relatively fixed location for worship over its 379 years: The first meetinghouse may have been situated a few dozen yards south of our current spot, closer to the duck pond.
The second meetinghouse we know occupied the same site as we do today. It was built because the first sanctuary was been outgrown and worn down from eighty plus years of use.
When the second meetinghouse was built, the Congregational church was the town-sponsored church, which meant that taxes paid for much of the church's upkeep. There were also fewer religious options besides First Church. And slavery was still an insittution in New England. These factors combined to make the second meetinghouse bigger than the third would be, with two balconies (the second for slaves).
It is universally agreed in Milford history books that the second meetinghouse would shift in the wind, so that visiting preachers tended to get anxious during worship and depart immediate following. It is also speculated that the second meetinghouse was not white, at least not for its full history.
In the early 1820s, First Church decided that the second meetinghouse needed to be town down and replaced. This may have been due to church and state being separated in CT in the years prior, which meant that local churches could to make decisions about their structures apart from the town. Whatever the context, Milford's third meetinghouse was built in the style of the time with one balcony yet continuing the tradition of simplicity handed down from our Puritan ancestors. The pews were numbered to distguish where people sat according to the annual pew taxes they paid. Later came the pipe organs, the cross above the pulpit, and other changes to the meetinghouse.
5. 1741/1926: The Church Splits...and Reunites 185 Years Later
The Great Awakening was a movement that stirred the spirits of many New Englanders who had lost faith or the vibrancy of their faith in the early 18th century. Preachers like Jonathan Edwards and George Whitfield went from town to town spreading the spirit of emotionally-based Christianity that would often lead to conversion experiences among its fans.
This however led to strife within churches where some people were caught up in the new emotional piety ("New Lights") while others preferred the intellectual and inclusive faith that had developed over the previous decades ("Old Lights").
In the last years of Rev. Samuel Andrew's life (see "A Commitment to Education" above), the church hired Samuel Whittelsey as his assistant. Upon Andrew's death, most presumed there would be a smooth transition for Whittelsey to be the pastor. But with the Great Awakening bringing emotional fervor to some people's faith, opposition arose against Whittelsey's quiet and intellectual preaching and demeanor. After three years of compromise and passive aggression, many New Lights gave up on First Church and started their own church, Second or Plymouth Church. The town and First Church made the early years of Second/Plymouth's life difficult, arresting guest preachers, putting obstacles in the way of Second Church ereting its own church building. But eventually Second Church became recognized as an official church (although not supported by town taxes).
By the 19th century, the two churches played more nicely with each other. It has recently been rediscovered that the two churches likely shared a pastor during the Civil War. On other occasions, the two churches collaborated on mission work or let the other congregation worship in their space while renovations were going on.
By the early 20th century, the religious landscape had shifted. Although the population of Milford was booming between 1910 and 1920, more religious traditions were present, including a rapidly growing Catholic population. In addition, First Church was searching for a new pastor in the mid-1920s and Plymouth Church had a beloved pastor, Rev. Charles Atkins. The two churches agreed to share the pastor and reunite in 1926, burying the hatchet from 185 years earlier.
6. 1951: Renews Its Christian Education Commitment
First Church's education ministry has been a primary commitment for its entire 379 years (see moment #3). With the post-World War II Baby Boom, however, that commitment had to be renewed and literally rebuilt.
By the mid-20th century, New England Christian families were less biblically fluent and there were a lot of kids being born, so something had to give. First Church had previously dug under the Sanctuary to create more space for Sunday School rooms, but they needed more space, so they tore down the old Plymouth Church and put up a new building almost entirely devoted to teaching the faith to children.
The Plymouth Building, erected in 1951, consists of the Woodruff Chapel, which was used by children in conjunction with Sunday school classes in the West and East Wings.
There are many long-time members today who remember Sunday School and children's church at the Plymouth Building. It was there that they became acquainted with Bible stories and the saints of the church who made it their minstry to nurture faith in young people.
In recent years, the Christian Education ministry has continued to raise our young people in faith. Our Sunday School classes, mostly held in the Main Church, and nursery care, are our way of fulfilling our promise to love, support, and care to all who live and grow in Christ.
Our youth ministry draws dozens of middle school (JPF, meets Sundays, 6:30-8:00 PM in Fellowship Hall) and high school students (Senior PF, meets Sundays, 6:30-8:00 PM in the West Wing of the Plymouth Buliding) on most Sundays.
We continue to emphasize that Christian education and faith formation are lifelong endeavors. Over the years we have held countless discussion sessions, Bible studies, book groups, Women's Fellowship and other group events for adults to be formed in faith.
Current Minister of Christian Education, Kelsey DeCarlo, brings a passion for education, spirituality, and fellowship to the ministry as she partners with the Christian Education Ministry.
7. 1961: Joins the United Church of Christ
The history of the worldwide church has mostly included divisions over time. Very few churches, let alone traditions, have reunited as our two churches did in 1926.
But some Protestant leaders in the early decades of the 20th century sowed the seeds for a major reunion.
The first seeds were sown when two smaller unions took place in the 1930s. Two German traditions, the Evangelical Church and the German Reformed Church, united in the 1930s to form the Evangelical & Reformed Church ("E & R"). The historical tradition of our church, the Congregationalists, combined with a part of the Christian Church (a non-denominational tradition before the term was coined) to form the Congregational Christian Church around the same time.
Leaders of the two "new" denominations both took part in a Bible study in St. Louis, MIssouri, and came up with the idea of further uniting. In 1957, a vote was taken by the two traditions to potentially join together to form an even newer tradition: The United Church of Christ.
There were a couple of bumps in the road. For one thing, the E & R churches decided that each church would vote on whether to join the UCC or not, and the majority would win for ALL the churches. A large majority voted in favor and the merger was on.
The Congregational-Christian churches set the merger up differently on their side. Each church would get to decide on its own whether it would join or not. Congregational Churches in New England generally took a while to decide.
In 1961, the First United Church of MIlford voted, like most but not all Congregational churches, to join the United Church of Christ. Ever since, we have been a member of the New Haven Association of the Connecticut Conference of the U.C.C. Members of our church have served as delegates to many of the General Synods where direction is given to the national setting of the U.C.C.
8. 1960-2: Music Ministry Scores Its Centerpiece Instrument
The music ministry at First Church Milford has both been a constant force but also an evolving one for our faith community. The church began its history without any instruments at all.
Like most early Congregational New England churches, our ancestors simply sang psalms with a music leader pounding a rod into the floor to keep the rhythm. Later there was likely an upright bass to carry the tune.
By the mid-19th century, the hymns being sung had become more complicated and melodious, and technology had helped make advancements in the contraptions we know as pipe organs, so First Church installed one in the Sanctuary.
In the 1950s, the church made a strong commitment to its music ministry by hiring Frank Mulheron as its first full-time Music Director. First Church has become Milford's center for sacred music and performance, and Mulheron was by many accounts a dynamic and inspirational musician and teacher.
But the organ at the time was older and was situated behind the pulpit, with the choir singing in the chancel area. The music leaders decided that they could fit a larger organ at the other end of the Sanctuary, above the narthex (lobby) in the balcony, with the choir tucked in where they would not be constantly on display.
In 1960, the music ministry agreed to hire the Holtkamp Company to design, build, and install a new organ. Walter Holtkamp, Sr., had become a major figure in the organ industry, and our organ was one of the last we designed before his death.
Ever since then, First Church Milford has relied on the Holtkamp organ to supply the foundation for our hymn singing and choral accompaniment. The Meetinghouse Chorale concerts and Christmas Candlelight Carol events continue to let us share the beauty of sacred music with the community, and showcase the talents of our Music Ministers, including our current music minister, Dan Brownell.
9. 1981: Co-Founds Combined Parishes Action Committee (Beth El Center)
There could be a whole other list of significant social outreach ministries that First Church has helped create or establish:
-In the late 1960s, after member Emma Davis died, her ministry of connecting people with items they needed inspired the deacons to create the Emma Davis Medical Equipment Ministry, which now is led by a devoted group of volunteers.
-Our food closet, born in the 20th century, offers groceries and toiletries to over 20 families or individuals each month, staffed most weeks by our very own Barbara Trowbridge.
-In the 1980s, what was the Boy Scout meeting room was transformed into Sojourners Haven, an apartment to help local individuals and familes get their financial footing back (the apartment has also been used for refugee resettlement work). For many years, Caryl Schofield and the late Sally Van Hise volunteered almost full-time to help Sojourners Haven residents.
-Starting in 2000, First Church Milford's high school youth group has gone on 18 mission trips Connecticut, Maine, Virgnia, Kentucky, Long Island, New Jersey, New Orleans, and Texas. A majority of the trips have been disaster recovery-related (post Katrina, Sandy, Harvey, etc.).
-Rev. Ashley Grant and Michele Steinlauf had a conversation in 2015 that led them to create Milford Food 2 Kids, which relies on dozens of volunteers, some from church and others from throughout the community, and which supplies food for over 160 local students who are food insecure each weekend.
But perhaps the most lasting impact has been the establishment, along with four other local churches, of a soup kitchen in 1981 and a shelter in 1986. It became clear that the food and shelter ministires provided in Bridgeport and New Haven, while robust, were not enough to help everyone in the region and to help take care of people in chronic need of food and housing. It was not just the job of cities to address poverty.
Beth El continues to serve thousands of meals each year and has approximately 36 beds for families and individuals (with a certain number reserved for veterans), as well as an emergency no-freeze shelter space for eight additional people when the temperatures dip lowest in the winter.
In recent years, First Church's own Marilyn Cormack served as President of Beth El's board of directors, and multiple members have volunteered in other ways. First Church continues to financially support Beth El and to serve lunch on a Saturday there every three months.
10. 2018: Makes Disciples in Southern CT Today
First Church's present day faith community and ministries are themselves a significant moment in our history.
With all the moments above and so much more as the history and traditions we have inherited or adapted, and with our faith on God giving us hope and inspiring us to love, there is so much promise for First Church Milford!
We invite you to help make God's history at First Church today!
Honorable Mention Events:
-Emma Davis Medical Equipment Ministry adopted by church (1960s, see above)
-Captain Stephen Stowe cares for the American soldiers (POWs) left by the British on MIlford's shores in early 1777; he contracts smallpox and dies, becoming known as "the Martyr of Milford"
-Sarah Lockwood, wife of First Church Pastor, supplies George Washington with a silver spoon for his breakfast at Clark's Tavern (1790)
-Church sells historic silver and uses proceeds to build a 68-space parking lot across the street of the main building (2002-3)
-North Milford parishioners create new Congregational church and town, renaming the area Orange (1792-1805)
First United Church of Christ
34 West Main Street
Milford, CT 06460
All are welcome at First Church! As an inclusive community of God's children, we affirm the radical welcome and hospitality of the United Church of Christ; No matter who you are, or where you are on life's journey, you are welcome here!
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