From the early abolitionists, to ordaining the first woman minister, to being the first church to vote for marriage equality regardless of gender or orientation, read this list of our denomination's many historic "Firsts"
1620: Pilgrims seek spiritual freedom
Seeking spiritual freedom, forebears of the United Church of Christ prepare to leave Europe for the New World. Later generations know them as the Pilgrims. Their pastor, John Robinson, urges them as they depart to keep their minds and hearts open to new ways. God, he says, "has yet more light and truth to break forth out of his holy Word."
The Mayflower en route to the New World.
1630: An early experiment in democracy
Pilgrims, later called the Congregational Church, signed the Mayflower Compact. The Congregational churches founded by the Pilgrims and other spiritual reformers spread rapidly through New England. In an early experiment in democracy, each congregation is self-governing and elects its own ministers. The Congregationalists aim to create a model for a just society lived in the presence of God. Their leader, John Winthrop, prays that "we shall be as a city upon a hill ... the eyes of all people upon us."
1636: To advance and perpetuate learning
The commitment of those who walked before us to education and higher learning was deep. Both Harvard (1636) and Yale (1701) were founded out of that vision. So were eight historically black colleges and universities in the South, schools that continue today as places of nurture and liberation for the children of this generation. Also founded by our UCC forebears were Wellesley, Smith, Dartmouth, Williams, Amherst, Oberlin, Mount Holyoke, Howard, Elmhurst and UC Berkeley. Nationally, 47 schools are members of the UCC Council for Higher Education today, including residential secondary schools, colleges, universities and 15 seminaries.
1640: Beginning of freedom of the press
The idea of a "free press" in North America begins when Congregationalists publish their first book – the Bay Psalter. In Europe, the first "Pilgrim Press" was seized by government agents to suppress criticism of King James. In America, the new community could publish in freedom. Today's Pilgrim Press – an imprint of the United Church of Christ – is the oldest publishing house in the U.S.
1663: First Bible Printed in North America
The first bible in the new world is printed in the Algonquin language, translated by Congregationalist John Eliot. Eliot begins preaching to the Algonquians in their own language in 1646.
1700: An early stand against slavery
Congregationalists are among the first Americans to take a stand against slavery. Samuel Sewall writes the first anti-slavery pamphlet in America, "The Selling of Joseph." Sewall lays the foundation for the abolitionist movement that comes more than a century later.
1730s: The Great Awakening
The first Great Awakening sweeps through Congregational and Presbyterian churches. One of the great thinkers of the movement, Jonathan Edwards, says the church should recover the passion of a transforming faith that changes "the course of [our] lives."
1773: First act of civil disobedience
Five thousand angry colonists gather in the Old South Meeting House to demand repeal of an unjust tax on tea. Their protest inspires the first act of civil disobedience in U.S. history—the "Boston Tea Party."
1773: First published African American poet
A young member of the Old South congregation, Phillis Wheatley, becomes the first published African American author. "Poems on Various Subjects" is a sensation, and Wheatley gains her freedom from slavery soon after. Modern African American poet Alice Walker says of her: "[She] kept alive, in so many of our ancestors, the notion of song."
1777: Reformed congregation saves the Liberty Bell
Old Zion Reformed Church hides the Liberty Bell from British soldiers.
The British occupy Philadelphia—seat of the rebellious Continental Congress—and plan to melt down the Liberty Bell to manufacture cannons. But the Bell has disappeared. It is safely hidden under the floorboards of Old Zion Reformed Church in Allentown.
1785: First ordained African American pastor
Lemuel Haynes is the first African American ordained by a Protestant denomination. He becomes a world-renowned preacher and writer.
1798: 'Christians' seek liberty of conscience
Dissident preacher James O'Kelly is one of the early founders of a religious movement called simply the "Christians." His aim is to restore the simplicity of the original Christian community. The Christians seek liberty of conscience and oppose authoritarian church government. O'Kelly writes that "any number of Christians united in love, having Christ for their head, ... constitutes a church."
1806: Modern American Mission Movement
A prayer meeting and a sudden thunderstorm sent 5 Williams College students into a haystack in 1806. Their commitment to spread the teachings of Christianity around the world launched the modern American mission movement. Starting in India, then including blacks and Native Americans in the US, they translated the Bible into local and often previously unwritten languages. Missionaries built schools, churches and hospitals and trained local leaders. Their efforts sometimes led to conflict and the destruction of indigenous practices. Today, successor bodies work with local partners and ecumenically in 80 countries to share life, resources and needs.
1807: First Protestant seminary in America
Congregationalists organize Andover Theological Seminary http://www.ants.edu/about/index.htm, the first Protestant seminary in America, which becomes a center for religious reform. It later introduces the critical study of scripture and church history, and offers the first challenge to conventional religious thinking in the debate on the theory of evolution.
1817: First School for the deaf community in America
The Rev. Thomas Gallaudet went to Europe to learn new forms of communicating with those without hearing. He opened the Connecticut Asylum for the Education of Deaf and Dumb Persons in 1817, supported by voluntary contributions and subsidized by the state. In 1856, the school for the deaf later named Gallaudet University opened in Washington, D.C.
1839: A defining moment for abolitionist movement
Enslaved Africans break their chains and seize control of the schooner Amistad. Their freedom is short-lived, and they are held in a Connecticut jail while the ship's owners sue to have them returned as property. Christians—including forebears of the United Church of Christ—organize to free the prisoners. The case becomes a defining moment for the movement to abolish slavery. The Supreme Court rules the captives are not property, and the Africans regain their freedom.
1840: First united church in U.S. history
A meeting of pastors in Missouri forms the first united church in U.S. history—the Evangelical Synod. It unites two Protestant traditions that have been separated for centuries: Lutheran and Reformed. The Evangelicals believe in the power of tradition, but also in spiritual freedom. "Rigid ceremony and strong condemnation of others are terrible things to me," one of them writes.
1845: 'Protestant Catholicism'
Theologian Philip Schaff scandalizes the Reformed churches in Pennsylvania when he argues for a "Protestant Catholicism" centered in the person of Jesus Christ. The movement founded by Schaff and his friend, John Nevin, revives sacramental worship in the Reformed church and sets the stage for the 20th-century liturgical movement.
1846: First integrated anti-slavery society
The Amistad case is a spur to the conscience of Christians who believe no human being should be a slave. In 1846 Lewis Tappan, one of the Amistad organizers, organizes the American Missionary Association—the first anti-slavery society in the U.S. with multiracial leadership. It unites Congregationalists, Presbyterians, Methodists and other Christians. See also the entry for 1862.
1853: First woman pastor
Antoinette Brown is the first woman since New Testament times ordained as a Christian minister, and perhaps the first woman in history elected to serve a Christian congregation as pastor. At her ordination a friend, Methodist minister Luther Lee, defends "a woman's right to preach the Gospel." He quotes the New Testament: "There is neither male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus."
1858: First Community to openly defy slave laws
Members of First Congregational Church in Oberlin, Ohio join others from Oberlin College and the local community, both blacks and whites, in defying the Fugitive Slave Law. They rescue a captured runaway slave, John Price, from the hotel where he is being held in nearby Wellington, Ohio. Twenty are arrested and held in jail in Cleveland. Price is hidden and sent along on the underground railroad to Canada. The Oberlin Wellington Rescue Case helps raise opposition to the Fugitive Slave Law, one cause of the Civil War.
1862-77: Colleges and Universities for Blacks in the South
The American Missionary Association founded six colleges: Dillard University, Fisk University, LeMoyne-Owen College, Huston-Tillotson College, Talladega College and Tougaloo College, all historically black colleges and universities (HBCU) that continue to offer excellence, access, and opportunity in higher education. The AMA also founded the Bricks School in eastern North Carolina in 1895, a time when most southern communities ignored post-primary education for blacks. It offered both liberal and industrial education and effective community outreach programs. Bricks closed in 1933, and eventually became part of the Franklinton Center, a place where issues affecting the marginalized, the oppressed, and the poor are addressed today.
1887: Poor Wolf converts to Christianity
Poor Wolf, Chief and Spiritual Leader of the Hidatsa people, converts to Christianity. Sent by the American Missionary Association and American Board of Foreign Missions, Congregationalist pastor Charles Hall works in the northern plains beginning in 1876. Various denominations are assigned to "Indian Territory" geographically by the U.S. War Department. In 1971, the UCC Council for American Indian Ministry was formed. Governed by an American Indian directorate, CAIM provides ministry and witness in Indian settings, and understanding of Indian communities to the wider church.
1889: First theological school to admit women
Hartford Seminary in Connecticut was in the first in the nation to admit women into regular classes, training them for work in education and missions.
1889: The Deaconess Movement
St. Louis, MO was frontier in the late 1880s and home to many new German immigrants. To meet the urgent need for medical care, the Evangelical Deaconess Society and the Evangelical Deaconess Home and Hospital were founded. Katherine Haack, a trained nurse and widow of an Evangelical pastor, was the first deaconess to be consecrated. At a time when women were often silenced at church, women as Haack were leaders in the administration and guidance of the home and hospital.The Deaconess movement led to the establishment of 16 hospitals and institutions for healthcare and nurse training. More than 500 deaconess sisters were trained to provide professional but also loving and spiritual care for the sick, aged and dying.
1897: Social Gospel movement denounces economic oppression
Congregationalist Washington Gladden is one of the first leaders of the Social Gospel movement—which takes literally the commandment of Jesus to "love your neighbor as yourself." Social Gospel preachers denounce injustice and the exploitation of the poor. He writes a hymn that summarizes his creed: "Light up your Word: the fettered page from killing bondage free."
1943: The 'Serenity Prayer'
Evangelical and Reformed theologian Reinhold Niebuhr preaches a sermon that introduces the world to the now famous Serenity Prayer: "God, give us grace to accept with serenity the things that cannot be changed, courage to change the things that should be changed, and the wisdom to distinguish the one from the other."
1952: 'The Courage to Be'
Evangelical and Reformed theologian Paul Tillich publishes "The Courage to Be"—later named by the New York Public Library as one of the "Books of the Century." "Life demands again and again," he writes, "the courage to surrender some or even all security for the sake of full self-affirmation."
1957: Spiritual and ethnic traditions unite
The United Church of Christ is born when the Evangelical and Reformed Church unites with the Congregational Christian Churches. The new community embraces a rich variety of spiritual traditions and embraces believers of African, Asian, Pacific, Latin American, Native American and European descent.
1959: Historic ruling that airwaves are public property
Southern television stations impose a news blackout on the growing civil rights movement, and Martin Luther King Jr. asks the UCC to intervene. Everett Parker of the UCC's Office of Communication organizes churches and wins in Federal court a ruling that the airwaves are public, not private property. The decision leads to a proliferation of people of color in television studios and newsrooms.
1960: Nobel laureate protests apartheid
Albert Lutuli is honored by the Nobel Peace Prize Committee in 1960 for non-violent protest campaign. Educated in a Congregationalist mission school in South Africa, Albert Lutuli becomes an educator, lay preacher, and key leader in the United Congregational Church of South Africa. He opposes apartheid policies and the unjust ‘Pass Laws’ that limit freedom of movement of Africans. Despite threats of arrest, charges of treason, and government bans restricting his travel, he persists in opposition until his death in 1967.
1972: Ordination of first openly gay minister
The UCC's Golden Gate Association ordains the first openly gay person to mainline Protestant ministry: the Rev. William R. Johnson. The ordination of the first lesbian minister follows soon after. In the following three decades, General Synod urges equal rights for homosexual citizens and calls on congregations to welcome gay, lesbian and bisexual members.
Watch a clip from the ordination ceremony [RealPlayer format]
1973: Standing with farm workers
Meeting in St. Louis, the UCC General Synod becomes impassioned about the plight of farm workers in California. They learn from labor organizer Cesar Chavez that farm owners had unleashed a campaign of violence and beatings against strikers. The church charters a plane to fly delegates to Coachella Valley to show support.
1973: Civil rights activists freed
The Wilmington Ten—ten civil rights activists—are charged with the arson of a white-owned grocery store in Wilmington, N.C. One of them is Benjamin Chavis, a social justice worker sent by the UCC to Wilmington to help the African American community overcome racial intolerance and intimidation. Convinced that the charges are false, the UCC's General Synod and raises more than $1 million to pay for bail. Chavis spends four and a half years in prison but is freed when his conviction is overturned. The UCC recovers its bail—with interest.
1976: First African American leader of an integrated denomination
General Synod elects the Rev. Joseph H. Evans president of the United Church of Christ. He becomes the first African American leader of a racially integrated mainline church in the United States.
1977: First to lead national UCC disabilities ministries
First to lead national UCC disabilities ministries, Harold H. Wilke is internationally known activist and advocate for persons with disabilities. Born without arms, Wilke serves as pastor, author, denominational executive. When President George H.W. Bush signed the Americans with Disabilities Act, newspapers worldwide carried the photo of Bush handing Wilke one of his pens, which Wilke accepted with his left foot. A headline, "My left foot plays the White House."
1978: First to publicize the Love Canal disaster
UCC member Roger Cook helps organize public response to the Love Canal disaster. A residential area and school had been built directly on the former toxic waste dump near Niagara Falls, NY. The Ecumenical Task Force, using tactics including civil disobedience, brings the site to public attention. President Carter declares it a federal emergency. Residents are moved and the site cleaned up.
1987: Identifies "Environmental Racism"
The UCC Commission for Racial Justice issues "Toxic Wastes and Race in the United States," a groundbreaking study documenting that race is the most significant variable in the national distribution of hazardous waste facilities.
The UCC coined the term "environmental racism" with its ground breaking study.
1993: Apology accepted
Sometimes "being first" means being the first to admit a past mistake. In Hawai'i, UCC President Paul Sherry apologizes on behalf of the church for the complicity of missionaries in the 1893 overthrow of Hawai'i's sovereign government and its leader, Queen Lili'uokalani. As a symbol of reconciliation, a total of $3.5 million is pledged to native Hawai'ian churches and a non-profit organization.
1995: Singing a new song
The United Church of Christ publishes The New Century Hymnal—the only hymnal released by a Christian church that honors in equal measure both male and female images of God. Although its poetry is contemporary, its theology is traditional. "We acknowledge the limitations of our words while we confess that in Jesus Christ the Word of God became flesh and lived within history," writes Thomas Dipko, a UCC executive who played a key role in shaping the new hymnal.
2005: Marriage equality resolution
General Synod delegates raised their voting cards in 2005 in favor of a resolution supporting equal marriage rights for same-gender couples, a first for a mainline Christian denomination. UCC President John Thomas said, "On this July Fourth, the General Synod of the United Church of Christ has acted courageously to declare freedom, affirming marriage equality, affirming the civil rights of same gender couples to have their relationships recognized as marriages by the state, and encouraging our local churches to celebrate and bless those marriages."