As the name implies, the First Congregational Church is a church of firsts.
It traces its roots to the first established denomination in the United States, with the Pilgrims in Plymouth, Mass., 370 years ago. It was the first non-LDS church built in the Utah territory, and opened its doors 125 years ago.Church members will celebrate their anniversary with a slate of activities around the theme "Pilgrims West," from Nov. 10-18.
The church, at 2150 Foothill Dr., traces its beginnings to 1865, when the Rev. Norman McLeod arrived on the overland stage under the auspices of the Home Mission Society from Denver.
Through 125 years and three different homes, the Rev. Robert B. Coates, associate minister, said the church still continues its independent spirit, reminiscent of its Separatist forerunners who came to America on the Mayflower.
Like other Congregational bodies, the church opposes any form of church hierarchy. Members of the congregation have absolute control over all matters of faith. Officials of each church are elected rather than appointed.
In its early years, the church fostered and directed an extensive school system in Utah. Today the congregation takes on solutions for more modern problems with similar enthusiasm - the food pantry at the Crossroads Urban Center, supporting a missionary in New Guinea or helping senior citizens and handicapped through joint sponsorship of housing at Friendship Manor, 1320 E. 500 South.
The Utah church began after Edward Patrick Conner, a Roman Catholic who was commander at Camp Douglas, arranged with the Home Mission Society to have the minister sent to serve as chaplain at the camp.
McLeod preached his first sermon in January 1865 in a rented hall on Salt Lake City's Main Street.
Before the end of the first year property was purchased on the south side of Third South, just west Main Street, for $2,500. Independence Hall, an adobe building, was erected on the site.
The first Sunday worship service was conducted in the hall by the Rev. McLeod on Nov. 18, 1865. That event will be commemorated this year on Sunday, Nov. 18, with a worship service and tree planting.
The fledgling church suffered through some hard times in the early years. At the end of the Civil War, cuts in troops were made at Fort Douglas and outside funds from missionary societies dried up.
The Rev. McLeod, who had gone East seeking funds, decided not to return when he heard that the first church's first Sunday School superintendent and ex-army surgeon, Dr. King Robinson, had been murdered. He was killed at night while on a medical errand near Independence Hall. The murder was never solved.
While Independence Hall remained open, Congregationalism lapsed for several years.
Sustained Congregational activity resumed in 1874 and in 1880, an independent group, The New West Education Commission, which functioned within the framework of the Congregational Church, took over most of the schools church had already established, and proceeded to establish more of its own.
By 1889, 28 free schools and 48 teachers were serving the missionary effort. Many LDS students attended the schools. Utah's tax-supported schools were started in 1890.
About 15 congregations had been established with 10 pastors in 1893. Today, the First Congregational Church, with about 300 members, is the only Congregational church in Utah. Most other Congregational bodies changed their name during mergers, becoming affiliated with the United Church of Christ.
During its history, the church has had nine ministers, who have seen many changes, including a move to a modified Romanesque sandstone building at 100 South and 400 East, first occupied in May 1892. The building eventually was furnished with an ornate organ and stained glass window, "The Road to Emmaus." Both were moved to the church's new building in 1965 when the old building was found too costly to repair.
Church celebrates 125th anniversary
Several events are being held in celebration of the First Congregational Church's 125th anniversary. All activities will be held at the church, 2150 S. Foothill Drive:
- Saturday, Nov. 10 at 8 p.m., concert by organist Parley Belnap and other members of the Brigham Young University Music Department. The event will kick off the Virginia Freber Memorial Organ Restoration Fund. Admission is a can of food, which will be donated to a local food pantry.
- Sunday, Nov. 11 at noon, special worship service followed by an all-church family Pilgrim dinner. Performances by the Sanctuary Choir and Sunday Morning Children's Chapel Singers and a historic tableau will be presented. Door prizes will be awarded.
- Friday, Nov. 16, 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. and Saturday, Nov. 17, 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. - Mayflower Marketplace including crafts and baked goods sale and entertainment.
- Sunday, Nov. 18 at 10:30 a.m., Heritage Sunday worship service to commemorate the church's first service in Independence Hall. A tree planting is planned.