FROM OUR FIRST CHURCH HISTORIAN
As most of us know, First Church of Christ, is the oldest church in New Britain and was founded in 1758. The location of the first building was “at the northwest corner of Smalley, Stanley and Elm Streets”, a site no longer there due to Route 72 passing through that area. There was a marker stone that was first placed at the site of our first building on the 150th anniversary of First Church in 1908. The rock was moved twice; once in 1972 to the Smalley School by a local trucking company and in 1984 by the City of New Britain to its present site in the large parking lot near Fellowship Hall.
The church is blessed with ample parking with our two large lots. However, people use the lots as a shortcut from Wightman Road to Corbin Avenue. Before the island was built near the Bell Tower, it was a direct line down the back driveway to the driveway near the Chapel and cars sped by at a good rate of speed. When the Cooperative Nursery School was here, we had 3 and 4 year-olds walking in the parking lots with their parents. After complaints were lodged, the island was built. Also put there were two Dogwood trees and our several-ton rock, all of which are great deterrents to fast driving!
Take a moment or two to admire the plaque placed on the rock that celebrated our 150th birthday. See if you can notice something on the ground nearby that was once “out of this world”?!
A BRIEF HISTORY OF FIRST CHURCH, CONGREGATIONAL, NEW BRITAIN
The church that our church came from was the Farmington Congregational Church, our Grand Mother church. New Britain was not even a village back in the 1600’s, but was known as the Great Swamp. There were inhabitants that lived there and attended the Farmington church, about eight miles away. The journey was through very rough forests and used little-used trails with hostile Native Americans and wild animals. Men in those times carried weapons with them to ensure the well being of the church attendees. In 1705, after years of this tough, weekly journey, the residents petitioned the colony government in New Haven to form their own Ecclesiastical Society:
“We, the subscribers hereunto, do humbly request this Hon. Assembly to grant unto your humble petitioners a settlement and confirmation of a Society at a place called the ‘Great Swamp’ within Farmington bounds, having obtained a Liberty from said Farmington for that.” *
The assembly granted the request and the Great Swamp Society was born. In 1712, the first meetinghouse was built on the corners of Deming Road and Christian Lane in Berlin. This Society later became the Kensington Ecclesiastical Society and the church would be known as the Kensington Congregational Church, the Mother church of New Britain’s First Congregational Church.
New Britain grew larger due to its industry and the New Britain First Society was incorporated in May of 1754. Upon incorporation as a city, the First Ecclesiastical Society of New Britain was formed in May of 1850 and was formed to oversee the management of the new church. Its purposes were to own and hold title to all church property, manage the invested funds, budget, expenses and staff of the church and to maintain and oversee operations all church buildings, grounds, furnishings and equipment, much like our Church Council of today does.
Churches or Meetinghouses
The first meetinghouse of First Church was near Stanley Street and Elm Street, which was part of the Route 9/72/I-84 reconstruction. The second and larger meetinghouse was at the corner of Main Street and East Main Street. The third building was at the corner of Main Street and Church Street and was razed at it was deemed too small and had little parking. The fourth and present church is at 830 Corbin Avenue.
At various times in its history, First Church has had several names, due to its location in the town or the church’s standing in the community. It has been known as Third Church in Farmington, Second Church in Berlin, and the North Church and Center Church in New Britain. The name First Church of Christ, Congregational, was legally adopted in 1899. Twenty-five Ministers have guided First Church in its 258 years, the longest serving being its first Minister- Rev. John Smalley, D.D., – from 1758 to his death in 1820 – an amazing 60+ years!
In 1875 this church admitted women to equal suffrage with men in all matters of ecclesiastical procedure and policy, 45 years before the 19th Amendment of the Constitution allowing women to vote.
Mission work has been a long-standing tradition in our history, following the Revolutionary war. In the early 1800’s, First Church, being the oldest church in New Britain, had the first benevolent society, the Female Charitable Society, in the city. They initially met in member’s houses and would have sewing meetings and would pack barrels to send to those in need. By the mid-1800’s, they would meet in church parlors and Presidents of the Society were the pastor’s wives. Although the initial work was to send missionary barrels and then boxes, garments were made for Sunday school children and work was done for sick or “over-worked” mothers. By the late 1800’s, they were constantly asked by the Pastors for “aid in everything that would help to build up the church socially and well as spiritually”. They held festivals and rummage sales to raise money for church improvements. They became the Ladies’ Benevolent Society and then the Woman’s Home Missionary Society. More recently, they were known as the Women’s Fellowship.
To support the worship and work of the church, First Church was reorganized in 2007 into the Church Council, which oversees the work of four “Working Groups”; Diaconate and Worship, Financial and Business Concerns, Christian Education and Missions and Congregational Life. These groups became part of the ever-changing life of First Church. Many people serve on these working groups and the groups they create provide us with meaningful worship services, opportunities for spiritual growth and education, fellowship gatherings, mission and life in the church. Our church wouldn’t be as vital and vibrant a part of member’s lives without our members’ involvement. New members are welcome and encouraged to join these groups and become part of the life of the church. An Annual Meeting, followed by a luncheon, is held on the last week of January. This is a time when we can reflect on the past year and vote on our annual budget.
* From “Memorial. Genealogy and Ecclesiastical History of First Ecclesiastical Society of New Britain”. Alfred Andrews, 1867. Published by A. H. Andrews (available on Google E-books).
Parts of this article were from First Church records and/or knowledge of the writer.
First Church of Christ, Congregational
Roll of Pastors
(Senior Permanent Pastors are numbered)
Name Dates Served
- Rev. John Smalley, D.D. Apr. 1758 to Jun. 1820
- Rev. Newton Skinner Feb. 1810 to Mar. 1825*
- Rev. Henry Jones Oct. 1825 to Dec. 1827
INTERIM Dec. 1827 to Apr. 1829
- Rev. Jonathan Gogswell, D.D. Apr. 1829 to Feb. 1836
INTERIM Apr. 1934 to Feb. 1836
- Rev. Dwight M. Seward, D.D. Feb. 1836 to Jun. 1842
INTERIM Jun. 1842 to Feb. 1843
- Rev. Chester S. Lyman Feb. 1843 to Apr. 1845
- Rev. Charles S. Sherman Jul. 1845 to Sep. 1849
INTERIM Sep. 1849 to Jun. 1850
- Rev. Ebenezer B. Andrews Jun. 1850 to Nov. 1851
INTERIM Nov. 1851 to Dec. 1852
- Rev. Horace Winslow Dec. 1852 to Dec. 1857
- Rev. Lavelette Perrin, D.D. Feb. 1858 to May 1870
- Rev. John H. Denison, D.D. Feb. 1871 to Sep. 1878
INTERIM Sep. 1878 to Jan. 1879
- Rev. Elias H. Richardson, D.D. Jan. 1879 to Jun. 1883
INTERIM Jun. 1883 to Feb. 1884
- Rev. George S. Burroughs, L.L.D. Feb. 1884 to Jan. 1887
INTERIM Jan. 1887 to Feb. 1888
- Rev. William Burnet Wright, D.D. Feb. 1888 to Feb. 1891
INTERIM Feb. 1891 to Feb. 1892
- Rev. George H. Sandwell Feb. 1892 to Jun. 1897
INTERIM Jun. 1897 to Dec. 1897
- Rev. Russell T. Hall, D.D. Jun. 1897 to Aug. 1905
- Rev. Henry William Maier Apr. 1907 to Nov. 1924
- Rev. Theodore A. Greene Jan. 1925 to Jun. 1951
INTERIM- Rev. Edward C. Boynton Sep. 1951 to May 1952
- Rev. Edward Curtis Dahl May 1952 to Aug. 1962
- Rev. Benjamin R. Andrews Jr. Jan. 1963 to Apr. 1972
INTERIM- Rev. Clifford Simpson May 1972 to Feb. 1973
- Rev. Alexander L. Harper Mar. 1973 to Oct. 1975
- Rev. Orin W. Whitaker Oct. 1975 to Dec. 1982
- Rev. James A. Simpson Jan. 1983 to Jul. 1998
INTERIM- Rev. David Simpson Aug 1998 to Aug 1999
INTERIM- Laura Westby Sep. 1999 to Sep. 2000
- Rev. Steven J. Crabtree Oct. 2000 to Oct. 2005
INTERIM- Pam Vollinger Nov. 2005 to Dec. 2005
INTERIM- Rev. Susan Prichard Jan. 2006 to Jan. 2008
- Rev. Jack D. Cook, D.D. Jan. 2008 to Nov. 2014
INTERIM- Rev. Kendrick L. Norris, D.D. Dec. 2014 to Aug. 2017
26. Rev. Margret Hofmeister Aug. 2017 to present
* Rev. Skinner was Associate Pastor for Rev. Smalley and was believed to fill in for him due to Rev. Smalley’s declining health. After his death, Rev. Skinner became the Senior Pastor.
Several gaps in service are listed and it is assumed that either interim pastors served or pro-tem ministers filled in. First Church has had several Associate Pastors, student ministers and interns and they are not listed.