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CONGREGATIONALISM IN SPRINGFIELD.
By JOHN H. PIPER. The most casual inquiry into the history of Congregationalism in Illinois would be misleading that did not credit its foundation to the inspiration of the Home Missionary Society of Connecticut, which carried on most of the work in this State prior to the formation of the American Home Missionary Society in 1826.
As early as 1801 the Societies of New England and New York had agreed upon a "Plan of Union" under which missionary work should be done, with the understanding that each local church should be free to adopt its own form of organization. Conforming to this Plan of Union many ministers trained in New England congregationalism, worked most of their lives as pastors of Presbyterian churches and Congregational laymen, moving into new settlements, allied themselves with Presbyterian Churches, so that from its inception in 1826 to its abrogation in 1852, during the formative years of Illinois, the work of these two denominations is so interwoven that it is now impossible to separate the results or to ascribe them to either body as a definite source.
Prior to the foundation of the American Home Missionary Society, most of the missionaries sent out had been itinerants but thereafter men were appointed to definite places and a more stable work.
In the years immediately following, Solomon Hardy of Andover, was assigned to Shoal Creek, John Matthews to Kaskaskia; Cyrus Watson of Connecticut, to Edwardsville; Aratus Kent, also of Connecticut, to Galena and in 1830 J. G. Bergen of New Jersey, to Springfield.
He had come as an itinerant in November, 1828, and found here a hamlet of about thirty-five log cabins and two or three small frame houses, with no place of worship other than a log school house which had just been built at the intersection
of Adams and Second streets. It was built "in the street"-(he said) “because the town authorities and the owners of lots were too penurious to donate the land.”'
A Presbyterian church had been organized January 30, 1828, by the Rev. John M. Ellis, a missionary from the Southern part of the State. Of this Mr. Bergen took charge and on the second sabbath after his arrival, at the service held in the little log school house, he gave notice to the church and to the people generally that he had come to Springfield "not to make an experiment, but to live, labor and die on the field with his armor on” and then he said “Come, let us rise up and build a house of God.” The result of his appeal was a substantial brick church which was built on the east side of Third Street between Washington and Adams, the first in central Illinois for any protestant denomination. He preached here as stated supply until 1835, when he received a formal call and was installed November 15th. He resigned in 1848 and thereafter devoted much time to writing for the religious and secular press over the signature "Old Man of the Prairies.”
When he came to Springfield there were but eight Presbyterian ministers in the State. At the time of his demise, January 17, 1872, including both branches of the church, Presbyterian and Congregational, there were six hundred ministers and eight hundred churches, among them the First Congregational Church of Springfield, Illinois, organized in 1867, which had grown out of this mission.
His letters, especially those written shortly after his arrival, are vivid and illuminating word-pictures of primitive conditions in Illinois as well as convincing evidence of his wonderful vision, of his knowledge of human nature and of the zeal with which he labored in the cause of education and religion. Witness the following, written in the latter part of 1829: “It has appeared to me after a year's observation of climate, soil production, great water privileges
and the inexhaustible mines,
that here are held out the brightest and richest prospects of abundance, usefulness and comfort to thousands in the eastern and middle states a thorough conviction on these points
together with a full belief that our population in the West was outgrowing the institutions of religion, science, and common learning, in
duced me with my little family to lay down our many endearments in the East and to take up our stand here."
Again he writes “One never beheld a fairer or more inviting region * to which a tide of emigration rolls with unexampled rapidity”, “We must have pious laymen. Let such consider well and they will find the appeal is strong to their interest and duty, for the present and the future, for themselves and for the generations which are to come".
A vision of the promised land, flowing with milk and honey, an appeal to self-interest, if you will, but a clear call to duty, to the present and to future generations.
They are to sow and reap rich harvests, they are to work the inexhaustible mines, they are to use for such purposes as they will, the great water ways but they also are to establish the institutions of common learning and of religion. Enterprise is to be the result as well as the harbinger of religion.
On the eleventh day of December, 1866, a meeting was held “of those favorable to the formation of a Congregational Church in this city".
“It was found, upon a comparison of views that there was a unanimity of conviction that the present is the opportune time to move for the formation of a church in this city, based on the gospel principal of the brotherhood of its members”. “That such a movement, begun and carried on in the Christian spirit, will succeed” and “that so far from weakening the bond of christian union so happily existing here, or impairing the power for good of any existing church, it would both strengthen that bond of union and enlarge the sphere of christian usfulness''.
The foregoing is quoted from the minutes of the meeting held on the day named, and the record continues. "In order that a larger number of those known to be in sympathy with us may be brought together for consultation" the meeting adjourned to the evening of December, eighteenth. At this and subsequent meetings in December and January, committees were appointed “to procure pledges of money, to secure a minister, to obtain a suitable meeting place and to prepare a formula for the perfected organization".
The action of these committees was so instant, so definite and so conclusive that on January, the twenty-eighth, 1867, an informal organization was effected, a constitution, articles of faith and a covenant were adopted and a committee appointed to arrange for the convening of an ecclesiastical council “to assist in completing the organization of the church”.
Immediately following the transaction of this purely routine business, the first official act of the church, was the appointment of a "committee on text books, course of study and government of the Sunday school", in other words, a committee on religious education and, at a meeting held shortly thereafter, "It was voted that money to the amount of one dollar per scholar be expended for the benefit of the Sunday school”.
Is it not significant that the first ideal enunciated by the church should have been that of the brotherhood of man and its first recognized duty, the religious education of its children.
Early in January, letters missive had been sent to the First Congregational Churches of Beardstown, Galesburg and Jacksonville, to the church at Normal and to Trinity Congregational Church of St. Louis, Mo., inviting them by pastor and delegate, to sit in ecclesiastical council to complete the organization of the church. The Rev. Julian Sturtevant, D.D., the Rev. E. Jenny, the Rev. J. E. Roy and the Rev. T. T. Waterman were also invited.
The council met February 6, 1867, "all invited being present", the Rev. Dr. Edward Beecher, of the Galesburg church was chosen moderator; the constitution, articles of faith and covenant presented, were approved and the Council unanimously advised the completion of the organization of the church.
In the evening the following dedicatory service was held:
Rev. T. T. Waterman, D. D.
Address to Church-President Sturtevant, D. D., of Illinois College.
Fellowship offered by the Churches—Rev. W. A. Chamberlain.
Fellowship accepted by the Church-Rev. William M. Baker.
In a sermon delivered on the occasion of the twentieth anniversary of the church, the Rev. Roswell 0. Post, then its minister, referring to the above service, said: “Thus was our Church christened and never had other ecclesiastical infant mobler sponsors. The books of five of the seven, stand on the library shelves of two continents, and all, whether known or unknown to fame, were alike loving and lovable”.
The Church formally organized with a membership of seventy-five, fifty-five of whom brought letters from the Second Presbyterian Church of this city. These were not malcontent Presbyterians, seceeding from a church with which they had become dissatisfied, but Congregationalists, who had affiliated with the Presbyterian church because there was none here of their own denomination.
But the old church had outgrown its habitation and its well beloved pastor, the Rev. Albert Hale, was about to leave its active charge, so “the time seeming opportune", true to their Pilgrim heritage, these went forth to form a new church, which should be based upon what they conceived to be the scriptural ideal, having only love for the fellowship left behind and receiving from them only fraternal farewells and benedictions. In evidence of this, stands the significant fact that "Father Hale” (as he was affectionately and universally called) not only sat as a member of the council but offered the dedicatory prayer at the installation of the first minister, and, two years later, when its house of worship had been completed, offered the prayer of dedication.
The church was organized and its first meetings were held at Bryant, Stratton and Bell's Business College, in Capitol Hall over Bunn's Bank, which was then situated at the southwest corner of Fifth and Adams streets, the present site of the First National Bank, but shortly thereafter the use of the House of Representatives in the old Capitol building, now the Circuit Court room in the County Court House, was obtained and the church worshiped there from May 16, 1867 until it took possession of its present home December, tenth, 1868.