First Congregational Church, United Church of Christ
How do you tell the story of Christian faith? How can you recall years past and honor those in a congregation whose legacy of love and justice have brought us this far by faith? Truly our history begins with the genesis of monotheistic faith as lived and recorded in Hebrew Scriptures, the Torah, and the prophets of Israel. In the fullness of time, our story gains strength and direction in the ministry of Jesus Christ, his death and resurrection, his ascension. In Jesus Christ, God’s Word became flesh and dwelled among us in power, truth, and grace. Our story was given new life through receiving the Holy Spirit on Pentecost nearly 2000 years ago and our birth as a church. Our history continues in the apostolic age by following the faith of disciples, martyrs, witnesses, and faithful, baptized believers down through the ages! In this, we are no different than any other Christian Church. What sets us apart are the seeds of faith planted by the 16th Century Protestant Reformation, carried to these American shores by Presbyterians and Congregationalists in the 17th Century and sustained in Columbus by the power of the Holy Spirit in the late 1840s. So it is in the 1840s that we begin the story of the First Congregational Church, United Church of Christ, Columbus, Ohio.
The early years – 1852-1882
Our congregation’s history begins in the hearts and minds of faithful dissent. By the late 1840s, a growing movement of Christian abolitionists was gaining strength in the struggle against slavery. These abolitionists could no longer abide in the union of Christian faith and a nation filled with slaves and slave-owners. In Columbus, in 1852, a cluster of such believers from Second Presbyterian Church decided that they were Congregational at heart and they parted amicably with Second Presbyterian to form the Third Presbyterian Church. With 42 people transferring membership on Friday, September 24, 1852, the members of Second Presbyterian Church sent them off with this benediction:
“In view of the importance of this occasion, we add our expression of sympathy with those who leave us and an earnest desire that the great Head of the Church may be with them and help them. May He make them a church of His own, to glorify Him and promote His Kingdom in the world! May those who remain and those who go, when toil is here finished, meet in heaven, and together form a part of the church triumphant there!”
With a $1,000 loan provided by their brethren from Second Presbyterian, the newly formed church purchased a lot on the northeast corner of Third Street and Lynn Alley. There a frame chapel was erected. A formal call was extended to The Rev. William H. Marble. Under The Rev. William Marble’s earnest and integral leadership, the chapel was dedicated on July 11 and the church first worshiped in their new chapel on Sunday, September 26, 1852, and officially signed the charter of organization on Wednesday, September 29, 1852. May we always remember they worshiped before they conducted the business of the church!
By 1856, the church was fittingly renamed The First Congregational Church, Columbus. With church membership steadily increasing, First Church was entertaining plans for a more spacious building. The church followed these words of admonition from Henry C. Bowen, a leading Congregationalist who said, “Buy a lot facing your State House and build a good building. The bravest policy is the best.” With the purchase of land directly across from the State House in 1856, members began to build under the leadership of their new pastor, The Rev. J.M. Steele. Only five months into his pastorate, the energetic Rev. Steele set out for New York City to raise $7000 for the Norman-style building. Tragically, he contracted smallpox during the pursuit and died shortly thereafter. Grieving their loss, the brave little church pressed ahead and on December 23, 1857 they dedicated their new building at 73 East Broad Street.
A succession of pastorates followed: Henry Elliot, from October 1858 until August 1860; Edwin Goodwin, from October 1860 until December 1867; George Phillips, from March 1868 until September 1871; and Robert Hutchins from August 1872 until May 1882.
The Rev. Elliot was said to be a deeply spiritual man, but a person whose theological and social conservatism was often presented for the purpose of convincing, rather than conciliating, his hearers.
The Rev. Dr. Goodwin arrived in Columbus within a month of the election of Abraham Lincoln. An active abolitionist, Dr. Goodwin preached with fire and purpose. It was said that whatever timidity there may have been in other pulpits, the pulpit of First Church gave forth no uncertain sound. Throughout the Civil War, you could find him in the camp and field hospitals caring for the soldiers. Under his guiding hand, the church grew continuously, even in the face of war. When President Lincoln’s body was moved from Washington, D.C., to Springfield, Ill., following his assassination, Dr. Goodwin was one of only two Ohio pastors to lead the service for almost 100,000 people on Capital Square in Columbus on April 29, 1865.
The Rev. George Phillips followed with his short, but an extremely effective and persuasive ministry.
The Rev. Dr. Robert Hutchins uplifted the church for almost ten years. During his tenure, the church continued its growth, prosperity, and constant peace. Under Dr. Hutchins ten years in ministry, over 390 new members had joined First Church. Many say it was Dr. Hutchins who truly empowered the growth of First Church and started us on the path of the social gospel. After the church’s 30 years in Columbus, over 1,000 had signed the rolls of membership for The First Congregational Church.
The Gladden legacy – 1882-1918
In December 1882, the Rev. Dr. Washington Gladden followed in the footsteps of his Williams College classmate, Robert Hutchins, and came to First Church. Our seventh pastor presided over one of the most remarkable pastorates in the history of the American church. Throughout his 36-year tenure, the witness and program of First Church solidified and the building was expanded. Under Dr. Gladden’s leadership, the ministry of First Church assumed the proportions that it has since come to enjoy.
Dr. Gladden drew throngs of hearers. For years his entire sermon was reprinted the following Monday upon the front page of the leading newspaper. Over time Dr. Gladden’s reputation grew across the country. Eventually, a national magazine survey identified Dr. Gladden among a most distinguished circle (with the likes of Edison) who had done the most good for America. He was something of a national hero.
What was so singular and extraordinary about the Rev. Dr. Washington Gladden? He grasped something that was only dimly sensed until his day: the Gospel is not intended merely for the salvation of individuals but also for the transformation of society. No discussion of what has come to be known as the Social Gospel can be complete without the mention of Washington Gladden. Jacob Dorn, Dr. Gladden’s biographer, has stated that for Washington Gladden “the personal and the social were in symbiotic relationship. One could not separate one’s own salvation from that of the world.” On Sunday mornings Dr. Gladden preached remarkable devotional sermons on prayer, the Bible, evangelism, and missions. On Sunday evenings a different congregation gathered as he spoke on themes such as collective bargaining, house inspection, pure milk, elections, coal miner and streetcar worker strikes, the treatment of Blacks, questions of war and peace.
Washington Gladden would have become president of The Ohio State University except for the grudges that some nursed against him for his prophetic stands defending Roman Catholics from demagogic assault and attacking Congregationalism’s use of John D. Rockefeller’s (Standard Oil) “tainted money.”
Perhaps the greatest impact Dr. Gladden had on Christendom was his deep and abiding development of liberal theology. Since the Great Awakening in the 1740s, Congregationalism had divided into distinct factions. “New Light supporters of the revival reaffirmed the central importance of conversion, emphasizing the effective and experiential dimensions of the Christian life, while Old Light opponents stressed rational and developmental aspects.” With the departure of the Unitarians from Congregationalism in 1825, the rift between liberals and orthodox concerning the Trinity, the nature of humankind, and the doctrine of grace became pronounced. By the late 1880s Dr. Gladden and Horace Bushnell led a major movement in Congregationalism which embraced liberal approaches to biblical scholarship and the Social Gospel. Under Dr. Gladden’s gentle but firm hand, Congregationalism sought to mold and effect no less than the development of all American Christian life.
This development happened primarily while Dr. Gladden was pastor of First Church. During the 1902 Golden Jubilee Gala Celebration, Dr. Gladden spoke with love and thanksgiving of First Church and this pulpit:
…you have given me an absolutely free pulpit. In times of theological transition, in times of social upheaval, when the air has been full of clashing opinions, I have never had any sense of limitations here. I have always spoken as freely as I desired to speak. You have not always agreed with me; you could not; but when my words, and sometimes my conduct were opposed to your thoughts and interests, you never tried to muzzle me, you have believed in my sincerity and faithful efforts, and the bonds of friendship have not been broken.
Author of music, poetry, and over 39 books, a friend of U.S. Presidents and paupers, a man who crossed racial, capital, and labor divides, called by many “Columbus’ First Citizen,”- an internationally-known preacher, the inspirational founder of at least six churches in the Columbus area, including Dublin Community Church, and our pastor and teacher for 36 years, the Rev. Dr. Washington Gladden died on the evening of July 2, 1918, with this, his favorite poem, on his lips:
Tonight I lay the burdens by, As one who rests beside the road,
And for his wearied back unbinds the `whelming load.
I kneel beside hidden pools of prayer, still waters fraught with healing power, In God’s green pasture I abide this longed-for hour.
I know that day must bid my face courageously my task again,
Serving with steady hand and heart my fellow men.
To hold my sorrow in the dark, to fight my fear, to hide my pain,
And never for one hour to dream the toil vain —
This be tomorrow, now tonight, Great pitying Father, I would be
Forgiven, uplifted, loved, renewed, Alone with Thee.
He is buried in Greenlawn Cemetery in Columbus, where a simple stone marks his grave. However, the Gladden legacy is alive. It lives and breathes in the mission, the ministry, and the ever-developing liberal theological tradition to which Dr. Gladden dedicated his life.
From Gladden to Lichliter – From Capital Square to Gothic Cathedral, 1918-1942
In 1911, the Rev. Carl Patton came from Ann Arbor, Michigan., to serve as an associate minister on the staff of First Church. He served under Dr. Gladden until 1914 when Gladden became our first minister emeritus. The Rev. Patton was a man of common sense, cordiality, wit, and good humor. Doubtless, the burden of following so long and so distinguished a pastorate contributed to Mr. Patton’s decision to accept a call to serve First Congregational in Los Angeles in 1917.
The Rev. Irving Maurer followed in 1918. A friendly and genial man, and a gifted orator, he carried on Dr. Gladden’s mantle of social responsibility, though it was only six months after his arrival that Dr. Gladden died. After First Church, the Rev. Maurer went on to become president of Beloit College. While pastor, he also served as president of the Columbus Urban League.
In 1924 The Rev. Dr. McIlyar H. Lichliter, a modest man, and superb preacher, became our minister and began a string of three long pastorates. With no choir, Dr. Lichliter’s services were almost entirely built around preaching. Serving until 1942, it was under Dr.Lichliter’s inspired leadership that plans began to take shape for the Neo-Gothic cathedral that we now occupy. Our church building was built in memory of Dr. Gladden and dedicated on December 6, 1931, in the heart of the Great Depression. Costing over a million dollars in the heart of the Great Depression, this cathedral was designed by the eminent architect, John Russell Pope. The architecture was intended to cut across miles and centuries with timeless forms that would represent the universality of the Gospel’s appeal. There is great openness and clarity in the style of this structure. Some have called it a “Cathedral of Grace” while others refer to this church as “our Gothic Beauty.” Nevertheless, austere simplicity being the Congregational tradition, no little controversy was stirred among the members by this soaring and majestic plan. If Dr. Lichliter honored antiquity in architecture, he was very much a liberal theologically. From a theological standpoint, he followed the tradition of Dr. Gladden, but he believed that Sunday morning preaching should deal with broad general principles and not specific public issues. His legacy is our Gothic cathedral. For this, we are forever indebted to Dr. Lichliter.
The Merrill and Coe Years, 1943-1983
In 1943, a popular lecturer and preacher, The Rev. Dr. Boynton Merrill followed as our minister. Dr. Merrill was the editor of the worship material in the back of the 1934 Pilgrim Hymnal. He also wrote the booklet of prayers for soldiers fighting in WWII. Most who remember Boynton Merrill remember his passion for aesthetics, especially poetry. He brought music to life in this church’s history. Under Dr. Merrill’s leadership, the debt on our building was retired and our commitment to the fullness of worship in music and preaching was deepened. During his first week here (March 1943), he wrote a letter to the congregation: “I tell you, you have a beautiful church. We must conspire together to set that beauty free. For when beauty’s wings are spread and beauty’s face is seen, men may not call it God, but in their hearts, they know that it is.” In his closing words in The First Church News penned September 27, 1959, Dr. Merrill wrote: “Only as we know the Church will we love her and only as we love her will we serve her. And, as we serve her we will serve Him to whom this Church really belongs and for the sake of whose Kingdom of Love and Righteousness she exists.”
In late December 1959, First Church voted to call the Rev. Dr. Chalmers Coe from his post in homiletics at Hartford Seminary. To become the minister at First Church meant foregoing his appointment to become dean of the seminary. From a family of great preachers, Dr. Coe didn’t disappoint. A man of formidable intellect, he was also noted for a profound understanding and abiding love of the church. As the 1960’s call to civil rights was sounded, Dr. Coe unequivocally responded, a prophet for social justice in the First Church tradition dating back to the Reverend Edwin Goodwin a century before him. Also, during his tenure, The First Congregational Church of Columbus voted to join the United Church of Christ. Falling some years after the merger in 1957 of the German Evangelical and Reformed Church and the Congregational-Christian Churches, this action was undertaken despite some real and painful differences throughout First Church. During his tenure the Christian Education wing was added in 1964, the Beckerath organ was built in 1972 and “The Days of Creation” Clerestory windows were added between 1976-1983. Following his distinguished ministry in 1983, the congregation voted to honor Dr. Coe as Minister Emeritus and so he joined Dr. Merrill, Dr. Lichliter and Dr. Washington Gladden with that title.
Leadership from Young Senior Ministers – 1985-Present
The youngest to be called in this distinguished tradition of ministers was the Rev. Dale Rosenberger at age 30. It was during his tenure that the title was changed to Senior Minister. He served from April 1985 until December 1992. His was a constant call to the church to respond to the awkward tests of modernity that challenge the church in a post-Christian world. This young and vibrant pastor oversaw mission and membership growth. Bethlehem on Broad Street was started during his ministry and through his efforts, we became deeply involved in Habitat for Humanity. His will be remembered as a ministry of heart and mind – compassion bound by theological integrity.
The Rev. Robert Tschannen-Moran followed and served from November 1993 until February 1998. He came to First Church from a significant street ministry which he founded and directed in Chicago, Ill. Rev. Tschannen-Moran brought organizational skill, a missional vision and zeal for evangelical faith to the pulpit of First Church. During his tenure, a much-needed capital campaign “aspired to new heights,” raising more than $1.5 million. Through this campaign, the sanctuary roof was replaced and the interior was completely restored. Air conditioning, a new sound system, and other improvements also were added. His passion for the poor, his compassion for gay and lesbian Christians, and his ability to welcome all people engaged Columbus in exciting and meaningful ways.
Our current senior minister, the Rev. Timothy C. Ahrens, was called to First Church in January 2000. Rev. Ahrens is the fifth consecutive senior minister from Yale Divinity School and has been a lifelong member of the United Church of Christ. In his first 2 ½ years, First Church has added over 180 adult members and 70 children to our membership rolls. We have adopted a long-range plan entitled “Forward in Faith,” improved stewardship giving by 60%, increased worship attendance by 80%, nurtured our growth in ministries to membership, and on September 8, 2002, overwhelmingly adopted our new Open and Affirming statement, extending our welcome to all persons of faith. In addition, he has developed meaningful relationships within the arts campus community, those working for workplace justice, abolition of the death penalty, and as co-convener of the clergy caucus of our church-based community organization, BREAD, he has assisted in furthering regional concern for education, fair housing, and reform in health care. Rev. Ahrens hopes to continue the legacy of working for gospel justice, preaching, and teaching that has shaped our first 150 years of life together in Christ.
How Shall We Be Remembered?
Our legacy and history extend far beyond the ministries of our senior ministers. We have been blessed by devoted and gifted associate ministers, organists and choral directors, Christian educators, and active support staff. Beyond all of these disciples of Christ, ours is truly a legacy of lay people who have committed themselves to love the Lord their God with all their hearts, minds, souls, and strength. It is through their love and commitment that we have seen the establishment and success of many ministries in and out of the church through 150 years of service in Christ.
These ministries have fostered community and mission action at First Church for generations: Women’s Guild; Men’s Guild; Gladden Community House; Godman Guild; Neighborhood Nursery; Downtown PlaySchool; Bethlehem on Broad Street; Good Samaritan Fund; Deep Griha Society; Pretiola Shop; CATALYST; Habitat for Humanity; Congregational Concert Series; Youth in Faithful Service. Mixed with these have been the ongoing mission of the church to preach and teach the love of Jesus Christ in and out of the seasons of life. From birth to death; from baptism to holy communion; from pulpit to table; from entering to worship to departing to serve, we have followed “the great Head of the Church and sought to glorify Him and promote His kingdom in all the earth.” Our call to do so continues.
In the Washington Gladden Windows in our sanctuary’s west transept, the figures of Justice and Charity stand as witnesses to our legacy and our call to future greatness in Christ’s name. We will be inspired by the aesthetic beauty of our Cathedral of Grace, but we will not idolize it. We will take to the streets of distress, the avenues of need and greed, and advance the Kingdom of God in all ways possible through the years that are opening before us. We will embrace Justice and Charity in our resolute desire to live lives of contemplation and action; of worship and service; and in the words of Micah which close our new open and affirming declaration, “we will do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with our God” (Micah 6:8).
Prepared by the Rev. Dr. Timothy C. Ahrens, Senior Minister