PHOTO: Worshiping in the Victorian interior (1882-1971) of our 1761 Meetinghouse
A Brief Historical Overview
First Church gathered originally in 1635, making it one of the oldest churches in America. Wethersfield’s initial settlers, known as the “ten adventurers,” had arrived here a year earlier. Most of them came from Watertown, Massachusetts, and, at first, they called their new settlement Watertown as well. They were one of three groups of Englishmen, known as Puritans, who established three adjacent settlements in the Connecticut River Valley—Wethersfield, Hartford, and Windsor.
For a few years, these three communities were the only English settlements in what became Great Britain’s Connecticut Colony. To govern themselves, representatives from the three settlements met to create the Fundamental Orders—a written constitution that was a forerunner of the United States Constitution.
Begun as a frontier settlement in what the early English colonists called the “remote wilderness,” Wethersfield soon became a gateway for migrating to even more remote places. At its founding, Wethersfield covered a large area, the distant parts of which later became separate towns. First Church members in these spin-off towns formed new churches or became members of other churches. But in the modern era (especially since the 1980s), the advent of automobiles and highways have allowed people from outlying communities to become active members of First Church in Wethersfield—including some from southern Massachusetts. It’s gone from exodus to influx.
Today, histories of the Puritans often focus on the witch trials held in New England towns, including Wethersfield, during the latter part of the 17th century. Today’s accounts of New England’s witch trials (which were not in accord with Christ’s teaching) frequently distort facts and lack perspective.
The early settlers’ first crude buildings are long gone, but the picturesque area called “Old Wethersfield,” where First Church is located, still has many genuine colonial structures, some of them open to the public. This section of Wethersfield is located less than a half mile from exit 26 on route I-91. The church’s present primary sanctuary, or Meetinghouse, is a handsome, Georgian-style colonial building that dates from 1761. It is an Old Wethersfield landmark.
In time, the many local New England churches established by the Puritans came to be known as Congregational churches, which continues to be First Church’s tradition. For two centuries, these Puritans, or Congregationalists, were the dominant group in most of New England and generally shared a consistent set of beliefs and attitudes. Serious dissent from the shared beliefs was not readily tolerated, and, in Connecticut and Massachusetts, Congregationalism was the state religion.
Traditionally, each Congregational church owns its own property and selects its own clergy. In practice, these churches have worked closely together. Even before 1818 and the disestablishment of Congregationalism as Connecticut’s state religion, denominational organization as we know it today was preceded by such associations as the missionary societies of Connecticut and of Hartford.
First Church was part of the original formal Congregational denomination from its founding in 1871 until 1957, when it merged with the Evangelical and Reformed Church to form the United Church of Christ. First Church joined that new denomination in 1961, withdrew from it in 2004, and is now considered an independent congregational church.
In essence, a church is not its building or its denomination. It is people brought together by God, to love and praise Him, to love all others, and to spread to others the good news of God’s grace. When we focus on our own personal relationship with God, we find ourselves effective in loving and helping others. Church becomes a place where, as we at First Church like to put it, “the Spirit is alive and miracles happen.” To the extent that we succeed in any of this, the credit belongs to God.
First Church is over 375 years old, so there have been a great number of pastors, church leaders and parishioners who have worshiped and served God here. Many are chronicled in the book A Pleasant Land—A Goodly Heritage, by Lois M. Wieder, for the period 1635 to 1985. Here are a few well-known Christians who have had a connection with this church.
Jonathan Edwards has been described by British historian Paul Johnson as “a man of outstanding intellect and sensibility, the first major thinker in American history.” From 1716 to 1718, Edwards attended classes at what became Yale University. The classes were held in Wethersfield. The students and their teacher, Elisha Williams, worshiped at First Church.
A serious Christian whose theological writings are still read today, Edwards had a role in the Great Awakenings of the 18th century. However, he was removed as pastor of the Congregational Church in Northampton, Massachusetts, because he insisted that the measure of a true Christian was a life-transforming relationship with God, and most in the congregation found that too demanding.
Because Wethersfield was a center of patriot activity, both George Washington and John Adams were here separately and visited the present Meetinghouse during the American Revolutionary War, years before they became our nation’s first and second Presidents. Christianity had an important influence on them and on almost all of our nation’s other founders.
These are but three in the long line of distinguished people who have some connection with First Church. A more recent example is Ravi Zacharias, a renowned Christian thinker who, in 2010, spoke at First Church on two different evenings to overflow audiences.
Each of these distinguished individuals benefited by being a committed Christian and holding a Christian worldview. What matters ultimately about them or about anyone else is not their fame or lack of it. The real issue for each of us is: Have I stepped out in faith to accept in my heart God’s forgiveness and grace intended for me?For over 375 years, First Church has been fortunate to be the spiritual home for a great variety of people who have accepted Christ, each of whom was, or is, enormously blessed—for themselves and to bless others—by coming to know God.