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The Encyclopedia of Cleveland History

CONGREGATIONALISTS - The Encyclopedia of Cleveland History

CONGREGATIONALISTS. Congregationalist churches, part of the United Church of Christ (UCC) since 1957, were among Cleveland's first and most influential religious institutions. The UCC was the first major denomination to place its national headquarters in Cleveland (1990). Congregationalists were active in the first years of the town's growth and, in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, conducted much of the city's mission work among immigrants. They have maintained their traditionally autonomous churches, liberal theology, ecumenical orientation, and vigorous social activity. In the town's early years Congregationalists vied with PRESBYTERIANS to establish churches. Under the Plan of Union, Presbyterians and Congregationalists united to evangelize the western U.S. Most of the churches under the plan, after brief attempts to combine the organizational forms, finally affiliated with either Congregationalism or Presbyterianism. Many of the oldest of the city's Congregational churches began as Presbyterians. ARCHWOOD UNITED CHURCH OF CHRIST, the first of the city's existing Congregational churches, was organized in 1819 with a Presbyterian Confession of Faith, and maintained links to a nearby synod. It associated with the Cleveland Congregational Conference in 1867. First Congregational Church (Cleveland, closed in 1954) was organized as First Presbyterian Church of BROOKLYN (Old Brooklyn) in 1834. It left the Presbyterians in 1848 to become an independent Congregational church, and 10 years later joined the Cleveland Congregational Conference. EUCLID AVE. CONGREGATIONAL CHURCH started as First Presbyterian Church in 1843 but became Congregational in 1854.

Plymouth Congregational Church resulted from dissension and instability introduced by the conflicting Presbyterian and Congregational forces within FIRST PRESBYTERIAN CHURCH (OLD STONE). Nurtured by Congregationalists, Plymouth adopted a mixed form of government. Finally, in 1835, under Rev. SAMUEL AIKEN†, the church settled into Presbyterianism. A number of religions and new churches can be traced at least partly to dissatisfaction with the form of organization. The most significant defection, Free Presbyterian Church 1850, resulted from opposition to the church's moderate antislavery stance and its practice of charging for pews, in addition to misgivings about its structure. Two years later, to mark its new denominational leanings, Free Presbyterian took the name Plymouth Congregational Church at the suggestion of New York's Rev. Henry Ward Beecher. Plymouth Congregational disbanded in 1913 but, with the aid of the Congregational Union, was reconstituted in 1916 as one of the 5 churches provided for by the VAN SWERINGEN† brothers in SHAKER HEIGHTS One Congregational church that began as such in 1855 had its own mixed denominational, heritage. When it was organized in 1859, Heights (later Pilgrim) Congregational Church (see PILGRIM CONGREGATIONAL CHURCH) combined members, confessions, and organizational forms from Congregational, Methodist, Wesleyan Methodist, and Presbyterian churches.

In general, Congregationalism suffered in Cleveland under the Plan of Union. The Congregational form of government, with autonomous churches, was considered by many inappropriate for a pioneer region such as the WESTERN RESERVE, where denominational support and supervision were needed. In addition, other Presbyterian churches were located in nearby Pennsylvania, closer than the New England Congregationalists. As a result, Plan of Union churches in the city tended to be Presbyterian, while those outside of town were more likely to be Congregational. One historian aptly characterized the phenomenon: the milk from Congregational cows was being turned into Presbyterian butter. By 1865, out of a total of 50 churches, there were 4 Congregational churches in Cleveland, including 2 that had just left the Presbyterians, as compared to 6 Presbyterian churches. Although individual Congregational churches were self-governing, the need to establish some connections with other churches led in 1853 to the formation of the Cleveland Congregational Conference. The conference exercised no supervisory functions but provided a forum for discussion and a base for joint efforts. It supplied the organizational framework for much of the denomination's mission and benevolent work.

From 1880-1910, Congregationalists mounted the most extensive mission effort of all the area's denominations. They established missions throughout the city to reach nearly 2 dozen different ethnic and language groups and founded the Bible Readers' School in 1886 (later the SCHAUFFLER COLLEGE OF RELIGIOUS AND SOCIAL WORK). Many individual churches conducted their own mission work. Plymouth Congregational's Olivet Chapel worked with the Czech community. Pilgrim Congregational reached out to new neighborhood residents: by 1895 it conducted classes in English, trained immigrants for jobs, and sponsored clubs for all ages and interests. The church building itself was constructed with outreach in mind, as an auditorium with sliding doors and walls, according to the Akron Plan. In addition to churches that grew from missions, Congregationalists established churches in the SUBURBS and surrounding towns. From 9 churches in 1880, Cleveland Congregationalism increased to 21 by 1896, more Congregationalist churches than in any U.S. city except Boston and Chicago.

Congregational churches promoted a variety of social and moral reforms. First Congregational Church (earlier known as First Presbyterian Church, Ohio City) was one of the most socially active. Its long-time minister, JAMES A. THOME†, joined the antislavery effort. Congregational churches worked for, TEMPERANCE and aided the poor and orphans, continuing their moral reform efforts after the Civil War, particularly in the Women's Crusade of 1873 against liquor traffic. In 1886 Pilgrim Congregational Church established the JONES SCHOOL & HOME FOR FRIENDLESS CHILDREN for Friendless Children. Benevolent work sponsored by church women's organizations has been another regular feature of Congregational church activity; Christian Endeavor societies for younger members were popular around the turn of the century.

With their distaste for limiting creeds and strict organizational forms, the city's Congregationalists actively supported ecumenical efforts. At various times early in the 20th century, for example, Pilgrim Congregational Church held services that involved ST. THEODOSIUS RUSSIAN ORTHODOX CATHEDRAL, Methodist and German Evangelical churches, and TIFERETH ISRAEL. Formal ecumenical agreements shaped 20th-century Congregationalism. Some diversity was introduced in 1931 with the merger of Congregational churches with Christian (or Christian Congregational) churches, which brought in more African American members, among other changes. The ecumenical process went a step further in 1957, when Congregational churches nationwide merged with the Evangelical & Reformed church to form the United Church of Christ. The UNITING SYNOD was held in Cleveland's Music Hall. The merger added the German and Methodist influences of the Evangelical & Reformed denomination. In 1986 the UCC numbered 48 churches, compared to 43 for the Presbyterians, of the metropolitan area's more than 1,300 churches. Predominantly a white denomination until the 1970s, the UCC had 1 black church, the influential MT. ZION CONGREGATIONAL CHURCH (est. 1864). Other black UCC churches, such as East View UCC and Shaker Community Church (a former Evangelical & Reformed church), resulted when AFRICAN AMERICANS moved into formerly all-white areas. In the 1980s local UCC churches have been among the most active in the INTERCHURCH COUNCIL OF GREATER CLEVELAND and the Inner-City Renewal Society. Efforts to promote civil rights, peace, and economic justice in the 1980s continued the social activism that has characterized Congregationalists in Cleveland.

On 2 Jan. 1990, the UCC opened its national headquarters in the former Ohio Bell Bldg. in downtown Cleveland (700 Prospect Ave.) under Pres. Rev. Paul H. Sherry. The previous July the denomination had voted to move from New York, to be closer to the geographic center of the national membership. In 1990 the Ohio Conference was the largest of the 39 UCC regional bodies, with about 170,000 members in nearly 500 churches.

Michael J. McTighe (dec.)

Cristy, Rev. A. B. Cleveland Congregationalists, 1895 (1896).

See also RELIGION.

Last Modified: 14 Jul 1997 04:39:27 PM

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