“George Washington Slept Here” was a popular marketing technique for lodges throughout New England. First Church in Wethersfield, Connecticut could advertise “George Washington Worshiped Here,” and it has the added benefit of being true. The present meeting house was built in 1761. General Washington visited the area in May of 1781 when he met with the French to plan the battle of Yorktown, but the strategizing didn’t keep him from worship.
There are a number of people who visit First Church because of the history. Frankly, it’s a big reason why we came. I was impressed to learn that Jonathan Edwards, the great theologian, studied and worshiped at the church from 1716 to 1718, when he was a teenager (different building, though). We also came because we heard from a family friend of Mindy’s that it was a very good church.
When we arrived at the church, I met a man named Jon who, years ago, first visited the church because of its history. Because renovation work was going on, a bulldozer was a prominent part of the decor, but what kept him there was the church’s fidelity to the Bible and teaching about salvation through Jesus. He told me that since then, the church has left the United Church of Christ, because the denomination was no longer committed to Biblical teaching.
A number of churches with a noble history back in the day no longer exist, or are now only historical attractions. When we went to 16th Street Baptist in Birmingham, Alabama, we loved worshiping at a place that not only played a pivotal role in the Civil Rights Movement, but continues to minister in a vital way to the community. The congregation of Wethersfield first “gathered” in 1635, and nearing four hundred years later, God still seems to be working in the place.
The architecture outside of the church is beautiful, and it is lovely inside as well. But a strange feature in the meetinghouse is the box pews around three of the four interior walls in the meeting house. I was concerned that the boxes (we kept calling them booths) might symbolize exclusion, some congregants walled off as separated and superior to others, but we were seated in a pew and a couple in a booth invited us to sit with them. (Their last name is the same as ours and they asked us to join them in “The Anderson Box” as cousins.) No exclusivity there, officially or casually.
The pulpit is also quite different than one you’d see in a more modern sanctuary. For the first (traditional) Sunday worship service, the pulpit is used and the minister towers high above the congregation as he preaches. That pulpit isn’t used in the contemporary service. We were told that the pulpit had been relegated to basement storage before the meeting house was restored to its eighteenth-century self.
The traditional and the contemporary service differ in a number of ways. Not only is there different music in the two services, but the traditional service uses responsive readings and the contemporary service does not. One of the few elements the two services have in common is the sermon, which is essentially the same in both services...although it’s not preached from the pulpit during the “Wind” (contemporary) service.
The church hasn’t remained stuck in its history. I was impressed by their web address, firstchurch.org, which suggests they were early adopters. Wifi for guests is available with the password found in the bulletin (a number of churches we’ve visited supposedly have WiFi for guests but don’t provide a password).
The Senior Minister, Deryk Richenburg, preached a sermon on listening to a sermon. It was part of a summer series studying the biblical book of James, focussing on being doers of the Word and not merely hearers. Richenburg noted that we live in a generation of “information overload,” and we need to be constantly filtering what we take in, but we must be attentive to God’s Word.
After the second service I had an opportunity to talk to Pastor Richenburg. I asked him what he thought were the greatest strengths of First Church. He said he appreciated the multi-generational nature of the congregation, allowing the older generation to pass on the heritage of the church to the young. Obviously, being a nearly four-hundred-year old local church that has been able to maintain a focus on the gospel of Jesus Christ is a unique thing. He said the church has also had a number of gifted teachers, not just on staff but also among the laity.
Between services I talked to an elderly gentleman named Charles with the title “Deacon Emeritus” on his nametag. He said, “I had thought I was done with church.” He had been a deacon at First Church years before, but then attended another church for a number of years. He said that though that other church described itself as Christ honoring, it proved to be judgmental and abusive. He was drawn back to First Church because “it was welcoming and brought healing.” First Church, he said, presented “Christ as loving and transformative.”
People were very friendly and we enjoyed chatting with folks before and after the services. The official greeters did their jobs well, but a number of people introduced themselves on more of a freelance basis.
We asked if we could see the “Jonathan Edwards” room in one of the other buildings. Roger, the church sexton, offered to unlock Morgan House, a separate church building. Morgan House was purchased by the church chiefly to obtain space for parking, but the building has history of its own, as a former funeral home for the community. The building now contains classrooms and meeting spaces, in addition to the Edwards Room -- a small place set aside to honor one of America’s most famous and illustrative preachers. The room’s most notable feature is a replica of Jonathan Edward’s desk.
I asked Roger how long he’d been part of the church, and he said he’d been there his whole life. In fact, his ancestors had been a part of the church since the 1660’s. We thanked him for showing us the room, and he said he was always happy to accommodate people who had an interest in the church. He then asked if we’d like to climb the steeple to see the belfry.
I answered “Yes” only a little less quickly than I would have if I had been offered free pizza for a lifetime. We went back to the meetinghouse, and Roger made sure there wasn’t anyone else around that would be interested in making the climb. The stairway is narrow and just doesn’t allow for many visitors.
Mindy was going to kick off her shoes, but Roger told her that wasn’t a good idea. “This is an old church.” The rough, splintered floorboards on the ascent later revealed the wisdom of that choice.
Throughout the climb there were a number of points of interest. We saw the clockworks, the pendulums and gears that kept the community on time ages before wristwatches, let alone mobile phones. The church had long been a source of pride for the community, and the current building (the third for the congregation) had built with local taxes (primarily from the sale of red onions, the local cash crop). We saw the bell itself. The bell was attached to a rope, and the clanger was attached to a rope, allowing the bell to be rung two different ways.
But the great treat, what truly makes the climb worth all the stairs, the ducking of the head and the twisting of the body, is the view at the top. In 1774, John Adams climbed that very same steeple and said, “We went up the steeple of Wethersfield meeting-house, from whence is the most grand and beautiful prospect in the world, at least, that I ever saw.” It was a beautiful clear day, and we could see miles and miles of countryside along with a gorgeous view of the city of Hartford.
When Jesus was asked about the Resurrection of the dead, He cited Exodus saying, “‘Have you not read what God said to you, I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob’? He is not the God of the dead but of the living.”
Learned and godly believers argue about whether America is, or ever has been, a Christian nation, but we certainly are a nation with a history of great men and women leaders who sought God and served Him. It is important to cherish the “Faith of Our Fathers” (and Mothers). At First Church, It was a joy to worship the God of Edwards, Washington, and Adams.
Sermon length: 32 minutes
Service length: 1 hour 4 minutes
Visitor treatment: We arrived before the greeters, but there were plenty of people we could follow to the proper entrance (Mindy had noticed that the church website listed a particular entrance and also suggested that visitors who’d like a personal greeter contact the church office during the week to set that up.) We found our way to the glass hallway leading to the meeting house, where a woman at the information desk made sure we got nametags and an information packet. Her husband handed us our bulletins at the door to the meetinghouse and introduced us to other members of the congregation. As we looked for seats, several people introduced themselves to us, and the Andersons invited us to join them in their box pew. We had already filled out a visitor card, and we also signed the friendship pad in the pew. There was also a greeting time during the worship service.
Follow up by Tuesday morning: none
Our rough count: 125
Probable Ushers’ count: 140
Snacks: ice water, lemonade, and cookies
Musicians: organ (woman)
Songs: “Trinity Ring” (of the church bell)
“Jesus, Thy Boundless Love to me” (violin and organ)
“Immortal, Invisible, God Only Wise”
“Grant us Wisdom” (chorus from “Guide me, O, Thou Great Jehovah”)
“If Thou art Near” (violin and organ)
“Lord, I was Blind”
“May the Mind of Christ my Savior”
“In Thee is Gladness” (organ postlude)
Distance to church: 24 miles
Sermon length: 33 minutes
Service length: 1 hour 7 minutes
Visitor treatment: There was a greeting time during the worship service, in which many people greeted us (and everyone seemed to be greeting a number of people whether or not they knew each other). Again, we filled out the friendship pad in the pew.
Our rough count: 88
Probable Ushers’ count: 100
Snacks: ice water, lemonade, and cookies (between the two services)
Musicians: electric guitar (man)
singers (2 women)
acoustic guitar (man, leader)
Songs: “Good, Good Father”
“One True God”
“You are my King”
“Hosanna in the Highest”
Distance to church: 24 miles
Miles from start: 32,969
Total 2016 miles: 32,673
Church website: http://firstchurch.org/