Key Moments in Our Heritage
Key Moments in Our Heritage
The Southern New England Conference, UCC, officially formed in January 2020. But the churches, associations, and historic conferences have a heritage that goes back nearly 400 years, forming a foundation upon which we in the present come together to find new ways of living the Love and Justice of Jesus.
written by Rev. John Van Epps, SNEUCC Archivist
The Separatist Pilgrims were the first to settle “Northern Virginia” in 1620 at Plymouth. They were inspired by their former leader John Robinson that “there is yet more truth and light to break forth from God’s Holy Word.” Ten years later there were Puritan settlements at Salem (1629) and Boston (1630). Within twenty years there were over forty churches established in Massachusetts Bay, as well as Connecticut, New Haven, and Rhode Island colonies, all following the Puritan ideal, in John Calvin’s words, that “the true church is wherever the Word is faithfully preached and the sacraments rightfully administered.”
The Connecticut River towns desired a more perfect union. Inspired by Thomas Hooker of Hartford, the Fundamental Orders of 1639 provided for the governance of the colony and is the first written English constitution in the colonies. Then in 1643 the Confederation of New England was formed to provide for the mutual defense of the colonies, and it continued until 1683. Then in 1665 Jared Eliot, a disciple of Thomas Hooker and pastor of several churches in Connecticut, wrote “The Communion of Churches”, urging churches to work together not just locally, but also provincially and nationally.
In 1636 Harvard was founded, the first college in the colonies. Involved in its founding were several members of the family of the poet Anne Bradstreet. In 1637 was the first Cambridge Synod, involving clergy around New England, including John Cotton of Boston, Thomas Hooker of Hartford, and John Davenport of New Haven. One of their acts was to convict Anne Hutchison of “antinomianism”. The Synod of 1648 devised the principles of the Cambridge Platform, providing for the voluntary association of churches.
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In 1701 Yale was founded as the second college in New England. In 1708 pastor Gurdon Saltonstall of New London was elected governor and called for a synod in Saybrook to strengthen the ties among the churches. This culminated in the Saybrook Platform, providing for county Association of Ministers, county Consociations (clergy and laity) for discipline and oversight of churches, and a state General Association of Ministers. This is often referred to as a presbygational polity. Some Consociations such as Hartford and New Haven were quite active in oversight. Others like Windham did not meet in over 30 years. The General Association met twice a year and eventually became quite active in publishing Isaac Watts hymnals, sermons, pamphlets and magazines.
Reform was coming. With other voices. In 1743 Eleazar Wheelock open the Moor’s Indian Charity School in Columbia CT, with the Mohegan Samuel Occum as his star pupil. In 1766 Occum went on a fund-raising tour in England and received a donation of 50 guineas from the Earl of Dartmouth. When he returned, Wheelock had decided to move the school to Hanover NH, where it became Dartmouth college. In 1770 Samuel Hopkins, pastor of First Church in Newport, preached an anti-slavery sermon calling for its abolition. This was significant since in the 1700s Newport was the center of the slave trade in New England. (New London was second.) Hopkins’ style became known as “Divine Benevolence”. Venture Smith (1729-1805) grew up in west Africa; he was kidnapped and sold into slavery. His ship ended up in Rhode Island in 1739. Eventually he was able to purchase his freedom, as well as for his wife and sons. He bought a farm near East Haddam, CT in 1775. Toward the end of the century he published his autobiography, one of the earliest examples from an African American. Lemuel Haynes (1757-1833) was the first black person to be ordained as a minister, in 1785. He served the Torrington CT church for three years. Then he was pastor of the West Rutland VT church for thirty years.
Revivals were sweeping the region. The most influential name was Jonathan Edwards, pastor of Northampton until 1749, whose classic “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” was preached in Enfield CT in 1741. He is considered the greatest theologian ever in America. This was also the time when the evangelist George Whitefield was active throughout New England. Joseph Bellamy (pastor in Bethlehem CT 1740-90 and follower of Edwards) became prominent for his more liberal New Light view, the New Divinity. He founded the school of the prophets, training more than fifty students for the ministry. Timothy Dwight, son-in-law of Jonathan Edwards Jr. and president of Yale 1795 -1817, was the proponent of the more moderate New Light view and was very influential over a whole generation of Yale students. At this time western MA and CT were generally under the influence of the New Lights, while eastern MA remained Old Light (or went Unitarian).
To promote the missionary movement to the West, the Missionary Society of Connecticut was founded in 1798 (the first such voluntary Congregational society in the US), followed within a few years by those in RI and MA. Over the next thirty years about 400 missionaries were sent out. Initially the focus was on the native American tribes, but this failed. They had their own rich spirituality. Within a few years the focus became the “white heathen” in these frontier settlements in VT, western NY, the “Western Reserve” of CT (in OH), and beyond. Some missionaries went for a few months, others for years. The General Association supplied them with thousands of Bibles, sermons, and devotional pamphlets and published the “CT Evangelical Magazine.” Within twenty years were founded the various state Bible Societies and the American Bible Society. New England settlers founded Oberlin College in 1834, which admitted black and white students. Lane Seminary in Cincinnati was founded in 1832 with two New England professors Lyman Beecher and his son-in-law Calvin Stowe. In 1839 the trustees passed a regulation forbidding the students from discussing slavery at all! This did not prevent Calvin’s wife Harriet Beecher Stowe from writing “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” (1852)!
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The “Haystack meeting” was held in 1808, when several Williams students pledged their lives to wider missions. This led to the formation of the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions, which was organized in Bradford MA in June,1810 and whose first meeting was held in Farmington CT in September, with nine commissioners from the two states. The first missionaries were sent out in February 1812 to India. There were also missions to the native American tribes in the South. Within thirty years there were 700 missionaries to many countries, notably Hawaii (1819), China (1829), Turkey (1823), Japan (1869). Within fifty years there were over 1200 missionaries, over 2000 by the end of the century. Although the Hawaiian mission was marred by blind spots and cultural insensitivities (like trying to foist Victorian manners on the native population), the legacy of those hundreds of Congregational churches is still honored in Hawaii today. Another missionary enterprise was the Cornwall (CT) Mission School in its brief history 1810s-1820s. One of most famous students was Henry Opukahaia, who died before he could return to Hawaii. One of the reasons for its demise was the fraternization between local whites and native Americans. When it closed, several whites went south with the native Americans. There they became involved in the “successful” defense before the Supreme Court of the tribes’ rights to remain on their lands. However, this decision was ignored by President Jackson, and the tribes were expelled (along with their white supporters) on the “Trail of Tears” to western reservations.
The new missions were also true for the home front. In 1815 pastor Lyman Beecher of Litchfield CT issued the challenge to “raise up the waste places of CT.” This resulted in the formation of the Domestic Missionary Society in 1816, which by 1826 was absorbed into the American Home Missions Society. In the following decades over a hundred churches received financial assistance to support their mission. Other home missions efforts included the Boston Home Missionary Society, also in 1816, the oldest in New England. The Hartford Missionary Society (now the Christian Activities Council) followed in 1851.
In 1839 the Amistad event unfolded. A group of enslaved Africans from Cuba landed in New London. They were put on trial in New Haven, claimed as property by Spain. The Amistad Committee was formed. Their lawyer was Roger Sherman, an attorney, former state representative from New Haven, and member of First Church. He argued that the US abolished the slave trade in 1808. These captives were taken illegally from west Africa; therefore Singbe and the other Africans should be free. They won, but the case was appealed to the Supreme Court. There in 1841 former President John Quincy Adams successfully argued that these Africans were free. This is considered the first civil rights case in the US. Then the Africans were moved to Farmington CT, for passage to be procured for their return to Africa. James Pennington, newly arrived as pastor of Talcott Street Church in Hartford (now Faith Congregational) was very active in support for the Africans and their eventual passage back to Africa. The 1840s marked the rise of anti-slavery and abolitionist efforts among white pastors. Two pastors in Guilford were fired in the early 1840s for their views. Many got involved in the Underground Railroad, helping the enslaved to escape through MA to Canada.
In the early 1840s there was a concern for a mission to the blacks, primarily in the south, outside of the ABCFM, since it received financial support from slaveholders. The first organization was the Union Missionary Society, founded in Hartford in 1842 by Pennington and others. (Amos Beman, pastor of Temple Street, now Dixwell Ave, Church in New Haven, was secretary.) This absorbed the Amistad Committee and in 1846 became the American Missionary Association. This became very active after the Civil War, founding in the south hundreds of schools and several colleges, several of which still exist. In the 1870s the AMA received a donation of over a million dollars (later increased to 2 million) from Daniel Hand of Guilford/Madison CT. This fund is specified for providing financial assistance for blacks for higher education, and these funds are still being used.
In 1852 in Albany, NY was the first national gathering of Congregational churches since the Cambridge Synod in 1648. Almost 500 pastors and delegates attended. One of its first acts was to abandon the Plan of Union with the Presbyterians. It urged further cooperation between the East and West sections of the church, emphasized its opposition to slavery, and set forth a plan for the building of new churches. A Yearbook of statistics was begun in 1854. The Congregational Library in Boston was revitalized, for the preservation of Congregational literature and as a home for the Congregational missionary societies in Boston. Another effort resulted in the founding of Chicago Theological Seminary in 1858 to especially serve the churches out “West”.
This denominational consolidation resulted in the National Council in Boston in 1865, with representatives from the various associations and conferences around the country. Over 500 delegates attended. Discussions were held about a Declaration of Faith and a Statement of Polity, for which committees were formed. The work of the American Missionary Association was greatly expanded to provide colleges, schools, and churches for the newly freed Blacks in the south. There was also the impetus for a permanent National Council. Several gatherings were held in 1870, resulting in the first National Council in 1871 in Oberlin OH, with gatherings to be held every three years.
Reflecting this move toward consolidation, the state conferences in RI, CT, and MA were formed in the mid-1860s.
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The Congregational and Christian Churches came together in a merger in 1931. In a move to coordinate the activities of the various mission agencies, the proposal was to have a unified mission giving (OCWM) with a third going each to world missions, homeland missions, and the conferences. In 1934 those proportions were reduced slightly to 32% to allow for 4% to the new Council for Social Action. In 1934 the German Reformed Church and Evangelical Synod united to form the Evangelical and Reformed Church.
Reflecting the ecumenical spirit of the age, almost immediately there were movements to unite these two new denominations. This resulted in an extended legal battle in the courts which wasn’t resolved until the mid-1950s. Leaders in this opposition were Cadman Memorial Church in Brooklyn and South Church in Hartford, led by its pastor Henry David Gray. The United Church of Christ was formed at the Uniting Synod in Cleveland in 1957. The Statement of Faith was approved in 1959 and the Congregational Churches were encouraged to vote on the merger at their meetings in 1961 and following.
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By the 2010s the state conferences in MA, CT, and RI were exploring ways to share in their common ministries, especially in the areas of Faith Formation and justice ministries. This resulted in a move to create a new conference encompassing all three former conferences. This was approved in 2019 and consummated in 2020 with the birth of the Southern New England Conference, UCC.
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