On August 22, 1639, The First Church of Christ in Milford, now the First United Church of Christ (Congregational), was organized in New Haven by the Reverend Peter Prudden and a company of fifteen families.
The Non-Conformists or Puritans had arrived in Boston in 1637, from England (mostly Hertfordshire). A year later they had heard through some of their members who had participated in the Pequot War about an area where they might be able to settle. They sailed to the mouth of the Quinnipiac River, what is now New Haven, and held their first religious service under an oak tree on Sunday, April 25, 1638, with the founding settlers of that community, which was led by Rev. Davenport.
Desiring a church and a colony of their own, the Prudden group purchased land for this purpose from Wepawaug Native Americans in February 1639, but they made no attempt to settle the land that winter. Their church was organized before moving to Wepawaug, which is now Milford.
Originally, the government of the town was a Theocracy - a small republic independent of all outside authority. God was their only King and the Bible their only law book. Only Church members were permitted the right to vote and hold office.
In the early 1660s, members of the church and town helped hide two English judges who had signed the writ that had King Charles I beheaded. The English unsuccessfully looked for the regicide judges in New Haven and MIlford, but as payback, England made New Haven Colony merge into Connecticut Colony in 1665. At that time the law was changed and ownership of property became the basis of citizenship in place of church membership.
Second Meetinghouse (circa 1727)
The early pastors of the Milford Church were well educated, numbering among them graduates of Cambridge, England; Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Amherst, Dartmouth, and Oberlin.
One notable pastor was the Rev. Samuel Andrew, the first of two pastors who served in Milford for over half a century. Andrew and nine other pastors in 1701 founded the Collegiate School to give Connecticut a college to train ministers and other leaders closer to home than Harvard. In 1707, when the first rector of the college died suddenly, Rev. Andrew was enlisted to serve as interim rector. For 12 years Andrew led the institution, including the time when the school secured a donation from an English merchant and renamed the school after the donor, Elihu Yale.
In 1738, Andrew died and his assistant, Samuel Whittelsey, was presumed to take his place. But the movement called the Great Awakening was gaining momentum around New England, with preachers like Jonathan Edwards and George Whitefield encouraging people to open their hearts to experience God's grace in a tangible way. Disagreement over whether to experience faith intellectually or emotionally split many churches between the "Old Lights" and the "New Lights." The New Lights in Milford did not want Whittelsey, an Old Light, to be the pastor. The Milford Church split in 1741, with some of the New Lights founding the Second Church, or Plymouth Church. The first pastor of the new church was Job Prudden, great grandson of Peter Prudden, founder and first pastor of the First Church.
Left: Third (Present) Meetinghouse - Right: Plymouth Church (circa 1823)
They built Second Church (Plymouth Church) across the river on the location of our present Plymouth Building.
After the Revolutionary War, the two churches played roles in the visits of President George Washington and Vice President Aaron Burr at Clarks' Tavern. Sarah Lockwood, wife of First Church's Rev. William Lockwood, supplied Washington with a pewter spoon to eat his milk and bread at the tavern in 1790. Around 1802, Plymouth Church's tithingman, Samuel Higby, stopped a carriage on the sabbath and forced Burr to wait at Clark's Tavern until the sabbath was over at sundown. Only then could they continue traveling on his government business.
Rev. Bezaleel Pinneo actively served First Church for 43 years mostly in the first half of the 19th century. A tall man and the first non-English pastor (he was descended from the French Huguenots), Pinneo was greatly admired in the region. During Pinneo's tenure, First Church built its third (and current) meetinghouse. WIth four columns on its front exterior, First Church's new meetinghouse was joined by Plymouth's new meetinghouse across the river with six columns (sibling rivarly?).
Later in the 19th century, First Church may have given support to its New Haven sister churches as they helped advocate for the former slaves from the Amistad ship, as well as likely participated in the abolitionist movement of the time. In the late 19th century, First Church began its first youth groups.
By the early 20th century, the causes of the First-Plymouth division had been forgotten. Under the leadership of the Reverend Charles Atkins of The Plymouth Church, and due to spiritual and financial concerns, the two churches became one again in 1926. The name of the one new church became The Church of Christ, Congregational. In 1951 the Plymouth Church was torn down so that a new Plymouth Building could be built, including its Woodruff Chapel and two Sunday school wings (for young Baby Boomers).
In 1943, First Church hired its first Associate Pastor. In the 1950s and 60s the church expanded its music ministry and purchased the then new Holtkamp organ that is still used today in our Sanctuary balcony. Ground under the Sanctuary was dug out to build more Sunday School rooms. In the 1960s the church began its Emma Davis Medical Equipment Ministry in memory of Ms. Davis' work to help unite people and items they needed.
On January 25, 1961, the church membership ratified the constitution and accepted membership in the newly-formed denomination, The United Church of Christ. At that time our name was changed to its present name: The First United Church of Christ (Congregational).
In the 1970s and 1980s the church helped found Milford's homeless shelter--Beth El Center--and our own transitional apartment ministry, Sojourners Haven. The Christian Education ministry remained strong, helped in large part to involved laypeople and a tradition of active Directors and Ministers of Christian Education. In 2000, the high school youth group went on its first mission trip (to Virginia) and has served in disaster zones and regions in need for a week almost every summer since. Also in 2000, major repairs were made to our historic Meetinghouse steeple.
In 2002 the church sold its historic communion and baptism silver, which paid for the 65-space church parking lot across the street from the main church.
Between 1945 and 2013, the church had only three settled Senior Pastors: Irv Thursby (1945-1977), Bill Soper (1977-1996), and Jim Tudesco (1999-2013). Our long-time Associate Pastor, the Rev. Adam E. Eckhart, was called to be our new Senior Pastor in December 2014. All our staff have been hired or called since then, including Rev. Ashley Grant (Associate Pastor), Daniel Brownell (Music Minister), Kelsey DeCarlo (Minister of Faith Formation), Mark Byers (Sexton), and Nicole Moore (Office Administrator).
Volunteers, however, remain the driving force of our church's mission, with over 125 people volunteering each week at church during the school year, in addition to the committee members and chairs, officers and other representatives who are formed in faith and support each other in mutual ministry here.
First Church's commitment to God's love for all people has given birth to new ministries in recent years, including Milford Food 2 Kids, an outreach ministry that feeds over 160 food insecure Milford schoolchildren every weekend during the school year. On Pentecost 2019, the church vote overwhelmingly to adopt an Open and Affirming covenant, declaring to the world our faith that God through Christ calls us to include all people in our ministry.
Today: 380 Years and Beyond
Our music, outreach, Christian formation and youth ministries keep us engaged with God's call, praising and serving God every week and every day. We are proud of our sacred, engaging and joyful worship, which brings our generations together to worship God with praise and love. Starting in March 2020, we have been faced with adapting to the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic: creating online worship and other content, feeding people in a time of greater resource need, and seeking to connect spiritually while remaining physically distant.
We continue to actively invite people to join us in our faith and community. We pray that God has more light and truth to reveal to us and more opportunities to serve and build each other up in faith community into the future.
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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