In many respects, the stories of our local church embody in miniature a history of the broad religious movements that transformed Protestant faith across America during the past two hundred years. We built our first churches in Illinois while Andrew Jackson was president, and as William Lloyd Garrison began printing copies of The Liberator. The frontier of the early 1830's was bounded by the prairie of Illinois, and those first settlers from the East "moved to the Western edge as best they could by teams of horses or oxen or occasionally by flatboats on the rivers and canals."
By 1850, 46 Congregational and 69 Christian churches had been established throughout the state. "What was to become the city of DeKalb was first recognized as a village in1854"; its site along the railroad drew pioneers from New England and New York. That same year, Rev. Hamilton Norton, a member of the Northwest Missionary Society, took charge of organizing the DeKalb Congregational Church. Norton was one of a number of folk sent west by agencies in Boston and New Haven to found anti-slavery churches in the growing territories. For many years, these ministers' salaries were paid by the Home Missionary Association, which had come into being as a committee to defend captives of the Amistad.
The first meeting of DeKalb's Congregationalists was held on December 2, 1854, "on a stormy day and under somewhat discouraging circumstances." They began with just eight members, representing four local families. Ironically, even this small group reflected the ecumenical scope that would one day typify the United Church of Christ. Four of the first founders--all from the Flynn family--came from Bethel, a town in Vermont planted along the White River, where they had belonged to the Congregational Church. Two others, the Hilands, came from Pennsylvania, near Lancaster, and, in fact, had been German Reformed.
The church in DeKalb began with a handful of people at an anxious time. After a single recorded meeting, services were discontinued until spring, "having been suspended for about three months on account of the prevalence of the small pox in the place," though none of the original group died of the disease. Several times during its first thirty years, unlucky pastors and internal conflict nearly split the congregation. By 1858, there were 43 members. These included former Baptists from upstate New York, Presbyterians from Pennsylvania, English Evangelicals from Ohio, and some folk from a Reformed Dutch church in the Hudson River Valley. These folk came together, in part, as fellow abolitionists. Norten's successor was granted a leave of absence in order to fight slave owners in "Bloody Kansas."
Before 1870, Congregationalists met in a number of temporary halls before taking over a rundown schoolhouse. There, the Rev. Atwood, a carpenter, built his own pulpit. But another pastor, Rev. John Bennett, ousted Atwood in 1873, and his brief tenure badly divided the congregation. Bennett "had a habit of altering minutes of church meetings to express his opinions of those who disagreed with him," and he scolded several families during his sermons, charging them "with gross prevarication in the church by defaming his character."
By 1878, church membership remained stagnant at 53. The Rev. J.D. McCord of Hinsdale began a month-long series of revival meetings in DeKalb in January, 1884. Apparently, McCord inspired Congregationalists to begin what must have appeared to be a foolhardy venture-to construct a new stone church in the center of the town. Such a project encouraged and intimidated, both. One member, Manley Barber, fretted in a diary that year that "we are too small in numbers, and many of the members are not well-to-do in the world's goods."
Nevertheless, the plan went on. Though they did not join the church, a pair of wealthy families -- headed by DeKalb's barbed wire millionaires, Joseph Glidden and Isaac Elwood -- unexpectedly provided the funds to complete the building. The new church was begun in October 1885, and completed in early 1888. Enthusiasm evidently brought hope and new life. An 1888 directory lists 216 members, and this figure had swelled to 460 by 1938. Church records document the growth of women's circles and reading groups, and old photographs show us the children coming for Sunday school. DeKalb's Congregational Church played a part in the social movements of its time -- in campaigns meant to feed the poor, root out the causes of war, and, naively, perhaps, outlaw alcohol. A popular minister, the Rev. George H. Wilson, left after a decade in 1909 to become secretary of the State of Illinois Anti-Saloon League. For many years, our church was an ardent supporter of Prohibition. And new people kept coming.
Finally, the stone church became too small, and, perhaps, parishioners eventually tired of having the choir interrupted by the whistle of passing trains. Land farther from the tracks was donated; plans for a new building were accepted late in 1951, and the ground-breaking ceremony took place on a Sunday morning, April 12, 1953. On July 4, 1954, the members walked the mile to the new building for the first worship service in its new sanctuary, where we continue to meet today.
The First Congregational Church of DeKalb was founded by anti-slavery settlers, who ratified a covenant that read, in part: "We receive the Lord Jesus, our Redeemer and Sanctifier. We freely, with fixed purpose of our heart, give all we have to be the Lord's, promising to walk before him in holiness. We receive all true Christians as our equals in Christ and his friends as our friends irrespective of color or condition in life and promise to watch over them in fidelity and tenderness."
That last phrase --"with fidelity and tenderness" -- expresses how we hope to minister to others in a community of faith. Ours is not a faith restricted to shareholders, or Midwestern-Americans, or to people who speak English. Our first impulse, says Luke, must be to try to see all people as the people of God's favor, and to do everything in our power to help them see and live that reality in all the areas of their lives