By Jonathan W. Wright-Gray
The story actually begins some 40 years before Sterling was a town. In 1742, residents of the Chocksett area of Lancaster petitioned the town to form a separate parish. (They were tired of the five mile walk to church each Sunday!) A small meeting house was built on the same spot where the present church now stands. They officially became a church on December 19, 1744, when 18 men, including the new minister, (representing their families) signed a rather lengthy “covenant” in which they bound themselves “to keep close to ye truth of Christ”.
1742 First meetinghouse built on present site
1744 Original church organized as “Second Parish of Lancaster”
(later became First Parish Unitarian of Sterling )
The Rev. John Mellen (whose stern portrait, along with that of his wife, hangs on the rear wall of the church) was their minister for thirty years, until the congregation dismissed him in 1774, over a controversy about music in worship (and probably also for his Tory views).
This beginning tells a lot about early New England churches. Each congregation was considered to be a valid church not because of some outside authority, but by virtue of the “covenant” made between the people themselves and God. Relations between churches were also on this covenantal basis, in voluntary “association”, rather than through some hierarchical structure with governing power over the local church. Thus the term “congregational” came to describe the independent character of each local parish or society.
What these early New Englanders lacked in being part of a universal or “catholic” church under bishops, able to trace its origins back in history to the time of Christ, they attempted to make up for in the “purity” of their lives (thus, the term “Puritans”). They wanted to form a truly Christian society out of the wilderness of this New World, America. Rules were strict, and if someone didn’t agree with this kind of “pure Christianity”, then they were advised to live somewhere else.
In the early 1800’s as the country become established, a movement of theological reform swept through New England . It was sparked publicly by William Ellery Channing’s famous “Baltimore Sermon”, preached in 1819, but it caught fire because ideas like this had been growing for some time and had not found expression. The movement became known as “Unitarianism“. It attempted to form a more rational approach to religion, in place of the very rigid Calvinist views which had dominated the Congregational churches since the 1600’s. (For example, part of the strict Calvinist view is that God chooses some people to go to heaven and some to go to hell, even before they are born.) Many, though not all, of Channing’s original ideas are similar to those of “mainline Protestants” today.
Unitarianism was not the only kind of reform however. From the very beginning of the American colonies, Baptists had been a voice of dissent from the established Congregational churches, because of their convictions about religious freedom (or “Soul Liberty”, as they called it). There were the revival movements, like the “Great Awakening” in the late 1700’s which brought to many people a very personal and emotional experience of religion. Sometimes this happened within the Congregational churches and sometimes it led to the formation of Baptist or Methodist groups.
In the 1830’s the Sterling church adopted the new Unitarian view. Some people, of course, disagreed. But this was really no problem, since given the New England tradition, all they had to do was withdraw, adopt a new covenant among themselves, and a new church was born. This is an oversimplified account of how the First Baptist Society came into existence in the town in 1837. Though generalizations are dangerous, the Baptists tended to preserve the more warmly emotional side of religion, of personal experience and expression, while the Unitarians preserved the more rational and intellectual side, adopting views they felt made sense in the modern world.
c.1830 – First Parish becomes Unitarian
1837 – First Baptist Church organized
1842 – Present (third) meetinghouse built
1852 – Evangelical Congregational Church organized
About this time a third society, this one Universalist, was formed which lasted just a few years. Then in 1852 some people who disagreed with the Unitarians, but also disagreed with the Baptists, formed the First Evangelical Congregational Society. For sixty years the town struggled to support three churches, one on each side of the common. In 1914, led by the Rev. Evart Kent, the Baptists and Congregationalists agreed to “federate”, that is, to function as one church body while maintaining their separate memberships and denominational identities.
During World War II the minister of this Federated Church , the Rev. Kenneth Mac-Arthur, was called into the military chaplaincy. The Unitarians and their minister, the Rev. Rubens Hadley, invited their neighbors to join with them in worship. During those years the groundwork was laid as they together discovered the practicality of the present church motto: “In essentials, unity; in nonessentials, liberty; in all things charity.” In 1949, agreement was reached to officially join forces and the First Church in Sterling came into being. They would use the Unitarian church building for worship; in the 1950’s the Federated church building was sold, and the united congregation built the present Parish Hall and classroom addition.
1914 – Baptist & Congregational Churches federate
1949 – Federated and Unitarian Churches join to form First Church
2011-The Baptist Society of the First Church in Sterling voted to disband for lack of membership. The Congregational, Unitarian and Interdenominational Societies remain.
So now there exists what we like to think of as a modern church, putting denominational particularities in the background in order to worship and work together to meet the needs of Sterling today. Yet ours is a church that maintains ties with not one but three denominations, continuing the history of three separate churches that grew out of each other and have now grown back together.
The First Church in Sterling today is one of the stronger examples among the 75 or so multidenominational congregations in Massachusetts . Its present membership reflects not only the heritage of these three Protestant “free church” traditions, but is enriched by those who have come from backgrounds as diverse as Lutheran, Methodist, Orthodox, Roman Catholic, and others who have joined a Christian church for the first time. And in the best free church tradition, we have our unity not in a fixed creed but in the responsibility of each person to interpret and understand Christian faith and the Bible in the light of their own experience.
The First Church in Sterling is a microcosm of New England church history, and in its unity contains a wonderful breadth and richness that is both our heritage from the past and our hope for the future.