Setting the foundation…
1861: The City of Washington has 56 churches and 90,000 inhabitants, of whom about 2,000 are federal employees. It is a southern city hostile to Congregationalism, which is identified with northern abolitionism.
1865: Washington grows to a city of 150,000, of whom 6,000 are federal employees, but only four new churches are added. The election of Abraham Lincoln as president, representing a new political party particularly resonant in New England and the Northwest, bring into Washington a sizable group of persons loyal to the new party and its principles. In addition, the Federal Government grows much larger as the Civil War lengthened and war-time logistics made its need manifest. It takes several years for newly-transplanted-from-New England Washingtonians to meet one another, to grow to a size large enough to consider action, to find leadership, and to decide they are not temporary sojourners in the nation’s capital.
September 17, 1865: A group of Washington Congregationalists has their first public service of worship.
November 15, 1865: One hundred and four persons, who three days earlier had covenanted together to be a new Church, stand before a Congregational Council of representatives from other Congregational churches and are recognized as the First Congregational Church of Washington, DC.
First UCC Begins to Form…
1865: The first minister is the Reverend C. B. Boynton, who is at the time Chaplain of the United States House of Representatives. The congregation quickly outgrows its worship spaces at the Unitarian Church (6th and D St NW), Metzerotte Hall (Pennsylvania Ave near 9th St NW), and the Law School of Columbia College, before beginning worship in the House of Representatives chambers in the Capitol.
May 1868: Due to the often 2,000 people who flock to hear Dr. Boynton each Sunday, the congregation moves into its new home at 10th and G St NW. Its large brick building makes a statement – the Congregationalists are here to stay.
1867: The church works diligently to use its Sunday school for basic education and to establish other schools to teach freed slaves. First Church plays a crucial role in the founding of Howard University to promote higher education for African Americans. The church later assists and gives financial support to African Americans who want to organize independent Congregational churches. Lincoln Temple Congregational UCC and Peoples Congregational UCC are among the beneficiaries. Over the church’s 150 year history, First Church has mothered or mentored five other churches in the Washington, DC area.
1869: Despite the church’s abolitionist beginnings and work for racial justice, internal disagreement regarding whether its calling is to help freed African Americans start their own churches or to accept them as members of First Church causes members resisting “integration,” including Dr. Boynton, to splinter. When the church divides over integration and segregationists leave, Howard University saves the church by buying the note.
Becoming a just and loving community…
1950’s: The church’s original, and almost 90 year old, building is declared unsafe during a time where other downtown churches are leaving the inner city and moving into the expanding Washington neighborhoods to be closer to members. Church leaders begin to propose moving First Church, but its “Congregational Church” nature requires all major decisions be made by congregational vote. Much to the surprise of the leaders, the congregation soundly rejects the relocation recommendation by a 3:1 margin. Although several church leadership resign and some members leave, the congregation remains committed to stay in the city.
1957: The United Church of Christ is founded. In its over 55 year life, the UCC has effectively overcome historical divisions and actively promoted social justice and radical hospitality. First Church, and neighboring Grace Reformed Church on 15th St, become part of the UCC. Click here to read more about the United Church of Christ.
1960’s: First Church remains engaged in racial justice, and the sanctuary was one of the few large halls in Washington, DC, that would host an interracial meeting. First Church acts as a staging area for the 1963 March on Washington.
1961: The church moves into a newly rebuilt space after the old building is demolished. First Church worships at the Chinese Baptist Church in Chinatown during construction.
1970’s and 1980‘s: First church provides space and support for the new Metropolitan Community Church of Washington, DC, which was one of the earliest gay and lesbian congregations in the DC area. In collaboration with MCC, First Church launches the Dinner Program for Homeless Women.
1980’s: The church joins a UCC initiative to become a Just Peace church, rejecting war and working for peace. The church also passes a resolution aspiring to be a multiracial-multicultural church.
1987: First Church officially votes to become an Open and Affirming congregation in the UCC, welcoming all people regardless of sexual identity. It is the 14th local congregation in the entire denomination of over 5,000 churches to take this step.
God is still speaking…
2000’s: First Church moves out of the location at 10th and G St NW for yet another much-needed restoration, worshipping in the afternoons at First Trinity Lutheran Church in Judiciary Square. The Dinner Program moves with First Church but soon becomes too big for the First Trinity space and its intended home at 10th and G. The program is reorganized as an independent organization, Thrive, DC, and provides meals and support for homeless men and women at a new location.
2011: The congregation returns to its home since 1868 after overcoming funding struggles and leadership changes.
Today: First Congregational United Church of Christ in Washington, DC is reinventing itself – building on its longstanding loyalty to the city, strengthened by ties to the United Church of Christ, and nourished by new leaders and members. The church remains deeply rooted in its history and at the same time faithfully claiming a new future. God is still speaking and we are listening.