In 1861 THE CITY OF WASHINGTON had 56 churches and 90,000 inhabitants, of whom about 2,000 were federal employees. It was a southern city, hostile to Congregationalism, which was identified with northern abolitionism. Prior to the Civil War, two attempts had been made to establish a Congregational church in the city, and each had eventually failed because of local antagonism. The election of Abraham Lincoln as President, representing a new political party, particularly strong in New England and the Northwest, brought into Washington a sizable group of persons loyal to the new party and its principles. In addition, the Federal Government grew much larger as the Civil War lengthened and war-time logistics made its need manifest. Washington by 1865 had grown to a city of 150,000, of whom 6,000 were federal employees, but had added only four new churches. The presence of so many New Englanders in Washington without their traditional Congregational church to attend seemed intolerable to a small group of persons who were determined to remedy the situation. From all accounts it took several years for the members of this group to meet one another, to grow to a size large enough to consider action, to find some leadership, and to decide they were not temporary sojourners in the nation’s capital.
As the Civil War drew to a close, elements within Congregationalism felt a challenge to establish more Congregational churches in areas affected by emancipation. Petitions from existing churches led to convening a National Council of Congregational Churches in Boston on June 14, 1865. Shortly thereafter, on September 17, 1865, a group of Washington Congregationalists held their first public service of worship. And on November 15, 1865, one hundred and four persons, who three days earlier had covenanted together to be a new Church, stood before a Congregational Council of representatives from other Congregational churches and were recognized as the First Congregational Church of Washington, DC.
The first minister was the Reverend C.B. Boynton, who was at that time Chaplain of the United States House of Representatives. At first the congregation worshiped in the Unitarian Church at 6th and D St. NW, then it moved to the Metzerotte Hall on Pennsylvania Avenue near 9th St. NW, and still later to the Law School of Columbia College. By the end of 1865 they needed more space and because of Dr. Boynton’s connections in Congress, they were able to make arrangements to hold Sunday worship in the House of Representatives chambers in the Capitol. Meanwhile fundraising and design decisions moved forward to build a sanctuary to accommodate the 2,000 people who flocked to hear Dr. Boynton each Sunday. Several years later, in May 1868, the congregation moved into its new home at 10th and G St. NW. Its large brick building made a statement. The Congregationalists were here to stay.
The church was abolitionist from the beginning, working for racial justice. However, early in its history there was an internal disagreement about whether its calling was to help freed African Americans start their own churches, or whether it ought to accept African Americans as members of First Church. Those who resisted “integrating” the church, including Dr. Boynton, eventually left to form another church. The early membership rolls show that as many as 381 people had joined by 1870, but 130 of them had left in 1868-69. Those that remained continued to welcome African Americans. The church never had a large number of African American members, however, it worked diligently to use its Sunday School for basic education and to establish other schools to teach freed slaves. In 1867 First Church played a crucial role in the founding of Howard University to promote higher education for African Americans. Later it assisted and gave financial support to African Americans who wanted to organize independent Congregational Churches. Lincoln Temple Congregational UCC and Peoples Congregational UCC were beneficiaries. In fact, over its almost 150 year history First Church has “mothered” or “mentored” five other churches in the Washington, DC area.
In the 1950’s when its vintage building, by then over 90 years old, was declared unsafe, and when other downtown churches were leaving the inner city and moving out into expanding Washington neighborhoods to be near their members, the leaders of the congregation proposed that the congregation sell its increasingly valuable land and use the money to relocate somewhere else. In a “Congregational Church” all major decisions are made by congregational vote. Much to the surprise of the leaders, the congregation soundly rejected their recommendation by a 3 to 1 margin. Most of the church leadership resigned and some members left, but those that remained reaffirmed their commitment to stay in the city.
Soon plans were made to demolish the original building and construct another building at 10th and G Street NW. After a time of worshiping in the Chinese Baptist Church in Chinatown, the congregation moved into new space in 1961. Thirty years later, in the early 2000’s, that “new” building had outworn its usefulness and the congregation once again confronted the question of location. However, by 2000 there was no contest. Committed to the city, the church sought out a partnership with a local developer to build a mixed use building on its historic site that would accommodate the needs of the church and provide financial security. Click here to read more about the eight year journey to its present building which was dedicated in 2012.
In the 1950’s the ecumenical movement led many Protestants to seek out ways to overcome the differences that had divided Christians since the 16th century Reformation. In 1956 First Church began conversations with Grace Reformed Church on 15th Street, considering merger. This was a natural step, because both congregations were exploring (and did indeed become part of) a new progressive ecumenical Protestant denomination called the UNITED CHURCH OF CHRIST that was founded in 1957. In the end the merger of the two congregations did take place, but both churches became part of the UCC. In its 55 year life the UCC has effectively overcome historical divisions and actively promoted social justice and radical hospitality. Click here to read more about the United Church of Christ.
The commitment of the congregation to racial justice endured. It is said that for many years the sanctuary of First Congregational Church was one of the few large halls in Washington, DC that would host an inter-racial meeting. Until the 1960’s Washington was a Southern segregated city. During the Civil Rights movement in the 1960’s First Church was always engaged on the side of racial justice, working for change and serving as a staging area for the 1963 March on Washington.
In the 1970’s First Congregational UCC provided space and support for the new Metropolitan Community Church of Washington, DC (one of the earliest gay and lesbian congregations in the DC area). In 1987 it formally voted to become an OPEN AND AFFIRMING congregation in the UCC, welcoming all people regardless of sexual identity. It was the 14th local congregation in the entire denomination of over 5,000 churches to take this step. In the 1980’s First Church also joined a UCC initiative to become a JUST PEACE church, rejecting war and working for peace. A few years later it passed a resolution aspiring to be a MULTIRACIAL-MULTICULTURAL church. Click here to read these three statements which continue to inform its contemporary identity.
In the 1970’s and 1980’s, in collaboration with the MCC congregation, First Church launched the Dinner Program for Homeless Women. For years attention to the needs of DC’s homeless women involved many members. In the mid 2000’s, when First Church moved out of its space at 10th and G Street NW, to make way for its third building, the Dinner Program moved with the congregation. For over five years the congregation worshiped in the afternoons at First Trinity Lutheran Church (ELCA) in Judiciary Square. Eventually the dinner program became too big for the First Trinity space, for the planned space in the new building, and too controversial in the bargaining required to complete the new building. The program reorganized itself as an independent organization,THRIVE, DC, and provides meals and support for homeless men and women at a new location.
The time away from 10th and G Street was difficult. Funding for the new building collapsed during the 2008 recession, and for a time it was unclear how the project would be completed. Pastoral leadership went through several transitions. However, the church did not give up and eventually the building was completed. In late 2011 the congregation returned to the land it had occupied since 1865 .
The years with no building were sobering. Everyone says that a church is not its “building,” but when it becomes hard to even locate a church, membership declines. Now, however, new members are coming; educational and music programs are thriving; justice commitments are expanding. 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.