Worshiping in five different meetinghouses, First Church of Christ has stood at the center of community life in West Hartford for 300 years. Beginning in 1713 as the “established church” of the West Division of Hartford, the congregation helped to shape the religious, political, and educational life of the town.
The roots of First Church grew out of the Puritan Movement that began in England as an effort to reform the Church of England and was brought to the New World by the Pilgrims of Plymouth and the Puritans of Massachusetts Bay Colony. Puritan theologian, Thomas Hooker, citing religious and political differences with the leaders of Newtown (Cambridge, MA) led his followers to settle along the Connecticut River, establishing Hartford in 1636. The original borders of Hartford stretched from Bolton on the east to Farmington on the west, with the land that would become West Hartford known as the “West Division.”
Though the lands of the West Division were subdivided in l674, it was not until five years later, once the uprisings of Chieftain Metacomet were quelled (King Philip Indian Wars), that families began to settle in the West Division. By 1710, with the population of the West Division comprised of 27 families numbering “164 souls,” the settlers petitioned the General Assembly of the Colony for the formation of a new parish. At the time, Hartford residents supported three congregations – First Church, Second Church (now South Church), formed after the original congregation split over irreconcilable differences, and Third Church (now First Church of East Hartford). The petitioners cited the poor condition of the roads, the distance they had to travel, and the “uncomfortableness overhead,” a euphemism for the harsh New England climate, as reasons necessitating the addition of a new parish. Over the objection of the other churches, the General Assembly voted on May 17, 1711, to approve the formation of a new parish in the West Division. Though many of the earliest records of the Ecclesiastical Society have not survived, the Society formed circa 1712, called Benjamin Colton, a recent graduate of Yale College, as their minister and ordained him on February 24, 1713.
The newly established Ecclesiastical Society recorded 29 original members; nineteen men are listed by name and twelve women listed as “wife of.” The first meetinghouse of the Fourth Church of Hartford, built circa 1712, was a simple unadorned, and unheated wooden structure with a steep pyramidal roof. Constructed on the northwest corner of what is now Farmington Avenue and Main Street, the original meetinghouse served the parish until 1742 when the expanding congregation voted to replace the building.
In early Connecticut, the ecclesiastical society exercised the function of town government in caring for public interests, as well as administering the affairs of the church. In addition to calling the pastor and disciplining members, parish meetings levied taxes, fixed the minister’s salary, and appointed tax collectors. Parish responsibilities included the construction of schools and the hiring of teachers to serve the residents of the parish as well as the maintenance of highways. Until 1818, all freemen were required to pay taxes to support the local Congregational parish regardless of their own religious orientation.
Construction of the second meetinghouse began in 1742 but was not completed until 1744, due to a lack of funding and the reluctance of the Ecclesiastical Society to incur debt. Three separate taxes were levied during the time of the building’s construction. The second meetinghouse was a two-story building measuring 54′ long by 40’wide with a gable roof and attached steeple tower. The building was unheated; churchgoers brought portable “footstoves” containing hot coals to provide some heat during the long winter services. Sunday worship began in the morning, recessed for lunch, and resumed in the afternoon.
At the completion of construction, a committee convened to “seat the congregation.” Members received assigned seats according to their social standing and rank in the community. In 1754, the seats were reconfigured into box pews, high rectangular enclosures with a door and seating on three sides.
Rev. Benjamin Colton served as minister for 44 years, from 1713 to 1757. His pastorate was followed by that of Nathanael Hooker, the grandson of Thomas Hooker. A scholarly, but frail man, Hooker led the congregation from 1757 until 1770 when he died of tuberculosis.
The earliest extant records of the Ecclesiastical Society date from 1736 and include a list of the members of the School Committee. In 1746, the Society “voted that there should be three schools built (in) the parish at the cost of the Society.” The records of the Society show that in 1760 five public schools were located along Main Street and three others were maintained on Mountain Road, West Lane, and Prospect Hill.
In 1747, Timothy Goodman donated to the Ecclesiastical Society a parcel of land to the south of the church property to be used as a “parade ground” or park. The common, known as Goodman Green, was used as an assembly ground for the local militia, and later as a park for picnics, Fourth-of-July celebrations, and other civic events. In 1924, the church leased Goodman Green to the Town of West Hartford for a period of fifty years and renewed the lease in 1974.
Serving from the time of the Revolution through the period of the “Second Awakening,” Nathan Perkins was one of the church’s most prolific preachers and influential ministers. In his later years, he summarized his career as follows: “I have lived eighty- five years preached the Gospel of Christ sixty-three years, trained for the holy ministry thirty-five young men, fitted one hundred for college, preached four thousand written sermons and three thousand extemporaneous sermons, been blessed with nine revivals of religion, and have kept the Church and society under God united and in peace.” (He also introduced “Sabbath School” to the congregation in 1819.)
Dr. Perkins was instrumental in the founding of the Connecticut Missionary Society. In 1789 he undertook a seven-week mission trip through the hinterlands of Vermont to survey the state of religion. His journal reveals the distressing conditions he found, “Scarcely any politeness in ye State – scarcely any sensible preaching – about one-tenth part of ye State Quakers & Anabaptists – Episcopalians and universalists.”The journal he kept of his trip was subsequently published and is noted as one of the earliest travel books written in America.
During the pastorate of Dr. Perkins, the polities of the Congregational and Presbyterian Churches, recognizing the commonality of doctrine, began to hold their annual conventions together. In 1799 the members of the Hartford North Association of Congregational Churches adopted the name Presbyterian and throughout the early nineteenth century, Dr. Perkins referred to the Fourth Church of Hartford as Third Presbyterian Church. Though the name and boundaries of the Ecclesiastical Society were not specifically defined by the original legislation a legislative act of 1808 pronounced its official name as “The Society of West Hartford.”
In 1833, the Ecclesiastical Society built the “vestry” or lecture hall on the southwest corner of Farmington and Main Streets. When West Hartford incorporated as a town in l854, the vestry was the site of the first Town Meeting. The incorporation had great significance for the Ecclesiastical Society, removing from the society its function as a civic body. However, it continued to serve as an integral part of the congregation. In l863, the Town purchased the vestry for use as the Town Hall. The vestry also housed the town subscription library. In 1880, the ecclesiastical society proposed a plan to erect a new church building on the southwest corner, exchanging property with the town for the vestry and the land upon which it stood. At the completion of the new church construction, the Town of West Hartford purchased the third meetinghouse, removed part of the bell tower, and used it as Town Hall until 1936. The building stood in the Center until it was razed in 1957.
In December 1874, a proposal to give female church members the right to vote on all matters was brought before the church. Though the matter was initially tabled, the measure passed on February 5, 1875. Further proposals to make women eligible for any church office were tabled.
Though there was reluctance to abandon “the old site which for 170 years had been hallowed to the succeeding generation by its sacred associations,” the society approved the construction of the new church in March 1880. The original plans were rendered by Hartford architect, George E. Potter in a Gothic Revival style, popular during the Victorian period. With the donation of $5,000 by James Talcott and Charles Boswell, the building was constructed of Monson granite instead of wood The new church was characterized by two large stained glass rose windows and a tall steeple. Its interior featured a semi-elliptical seating plan with the floor sloping down towards the chancel. The organ and bell were transferred from the old church and the communion table was from the North Church in Hartford. The Greystone Church built in 1882 Built at a cost of $33,000, the Greystone Church was dedicated on June 6, 1882. The Talcott Room, the bowfront room on the south end of the church, served as the town free library until the opening of the Noah Webster Memorial Library in 1917. The books donated by the church became the nucleus of the Public Library collection.
During the first half of the 20th century, First Church experienced rapid growth in membership reflecting the accelerated rate of population growth in West Hartford and the dynamic ministry of Elden Mills. Rev. Mills, a minister with a Quaker background, was noted for his compelling sermons, dramatic preaching style, and personal charisma. Under his leadership, church membership grew to an all-time high of approximately 2,000 members. Sunday School attracted over 700 pupils and was taught by a staff of 70 teachers. First Church was also known for its music program, under the direction of Gordon Stearns, which included two adult choirs, a high school choir of 160 voices, a 120 voice junior high, and a children’s choir.
As the church was once again outgrowing its existing building, plans were drawn up for a new sanctuary, parish house, and chapel designed in the Georgian Revival-style popular at that time. Construction of the parish house/educational building began in 1940 and was completed the following year. With the destruction of the Greystone Church in a dramatic fire on January 3, 1942, construction of the new meetinghouse became imperative.
During construction, the congregation accepted the invitation of Rabbi Abraham Feldman to worship at Temple Beth Israel rent-free. The congregation worshiped at Beth Israel for 22 months, forging a friendship between the two congregations which is often celebrated at a combined Thanksgiving service along with the congregation of St. Johns Episcopal Church (who worshipped at Beth Israel after a fire in 1992).
Construction of the new meetinghouse began in 1942 with the basement floors completed by November 1943. Because of material shortages during the war, construction was delayed and the congregation worshiped in the lower level of the church. The cornerstone of the sanctuary was laid in June of 1946 and completed by September. The chapel was added in 1956.
First Church gained a national profile when it was featured in articles appearing in Life Magazine and Christian Century. As the cover story of the April 7, 1947 issue, Life examined the progressive and vital Sunday School education taking place at First Church. In 1950, First Church appeared in the March 22nd issue of Christian Century magazine featuring the “twelve most successful churches in America”. A poll conducted of 100,000 American Protestant ministers named First Church as the successful church representing the New England region. Writing about the ecumenical spirit, the Christian Century article states, “It will be a long time before West Hartford forgets the days when the Congregational Church with a Quaker pastor was worshipping in a Jewish temple while using Methodist hymnals.”
With the abrupt resignation of Elden Mills in 1956, Associate Minister John P. Webster was called to become the next Senior Minister, later that same year. Under the leadership of John Webster, (1956-1976) and Sid Lovett (1976-1986) the church continued to develop and add programs that reached out to the community. In 1974, Associate Minister, Henry Millan was instrumental in the founding of the Pastoral Counseling Center, an interfaith counseling service that treats those in crisis without regard to the ability to pay. First Church also founded The Wednesday Program, an innovative program for the mentally handicapped, which offered educational and socialization opportunities prior to the availability of town services. In 1976, the meetinghouse was made accessible to the physically handicapped with the addition of a ramp in the front.
Also in 1976, First Church celebrated the opening of the John P. Webster Library, a specialized collection of resources on Christianity, World Religion, and spirituality. Funded by a bequest of Florence Crofut, a Hartford philanthropist who joined First Church late in her life, but left an enduring legacy, the library is open to all and serves the greater Hartford religious community.
The 1990s proved to be a period of transition at First Church. Three short pastorates, congregational discord, and societal changes led to a decline in enrollment during the last decade. Yet the smaller congregation maintained its active church and the community outreach programs. In addition to the church-wide Service and Outreach Ministry, many members build houses for Habitat for Humanity, cook meals for Loaves and Fishes, or work with Covenant to Care. First Church Nursery School serves the community at large providing quality but affordable daycare. First Church also provides a home to the congregation of the First Korean Congregational Church in Connecticut, which worships weekly in the chapel.
The church’s Spiritual Life Ministry draws church members and others from the religious community to weekly Lectio Devina and monthly Taize services and Labyrinth walks. The Prayer Shawl ministry meets monthly to knit prayer shawls to be given to people in crisis.
As First Church moves into the 21st century it seeks to define both its faith journey and its role in the community. During the crisis of September 11, First Church ministered to the community-at-large with an evening memorial service and candlelight vigil. During that week, community members and church members alike sought solace in the meetinghouse which was open for prayer and meditation.
With the opening of the expanded memorial gardens and outdoor labyrinth in 2003, First Church welcomes its neighbors by providing an accessible space for meditation in the center. Building on its more than 300 years of growth, First Church seeks to maintain its vital role in the life of the community and pursue its mission “to be a center where spirituality and caring come alive in faithful community.”
Benjamin Colton 1713-1759
Nathanael Hooker 1757-1770
Nathaniel Perkins 1772-1838
Caleb S. Henry 1833-1835
Edward Andrews 1837-1840
George Wood 1841-1844
Dwight M. Seward 1845-1850
Myron N. Morris 1852-1875
Franklin S. Hatch 1876-1883
Henry B. Roberts 1883-1890
Charles W. Mallory 1890
Thomas M. Hodgdon 1891-1926
James F. Halliday 1926-1936
Elden H. Mills 1937-1956
John P. Webster 1956-1976
Sidney Lovett 1976-1986
Ed Lopeman 1987-1991
Bob Heppenstahl 1992-1995
Lee Neuhaus 1998-2000
C. Geordie Campbell 2004-2020
Erica Wimber Avena 2020-2021