The United Church of Christ in Keene, the second oldest Christian fellowship in southwestern New Hampshire, was “gathered” in the wilderness settlement of Upper Ashuelot, now Keene, on October 18, 1738. Pioneers had arrived in 1736 to carve out homes in the primeval forest. In 1737 they erected a rude meetinghouse, “40 feet long and 35 feet wide and 20 feet stud,” far down Main Street, and on May 5, 1738, they extended a call to the Rev. Jacob Bacon to be their first pastor. The candidate accepted, and in connection with his ordination on October 18, 1738, an organization of 19 professed Christians was constituted into a church body. Their names are those of all Keene’s first inhabitants and settlers, for the church of the 18th century was an all-encompassing civil as well as ecclesiastical institution. The United Church of Christ in Keene is a merger of this First Church with the Court Street Congregational Church, formed out of the original body in 1867, which took place in 1963. The congregation of today pays homage to the pioneers, and in no less measure gratefully recognizes their literal and spiritual descendants who have maintained and nurtured Christian witness and service in Keene for over 250 years.
The nucleus of the church building at the head of Keene’s Main Street and Central Square is the 220-year-old 50×70 foot frame of Keene’s fourth meetinghouse raised in June 1786. The structure originally stood south of its present location, near the site of the Civil War Soldiers Monument today. Placed with its broad side and central doors facing down the wide expanse of Main Street, the church was “consecrated to the Divine Being” on October 29, 1788. It was painted white or light yellow with green doors. The interior arrangements were typical of their time: broad aisles and unpainted pine pews all around the room with boxed partitions between, and topped by a row of twelve-inch high turned spindles. A wide aisle led to the pulpit high on the opposite wall with a “wine glass” base, and suspended above it was a dome-shaped sounding board.
The town’s first church bell was hung in 1792, and a public clock was installed in 1794. In March 1792, the town voted eighty pounds to purchase a bell, and in September authorized fifteen pounds two shillings for hanging the town’s first bell, and also decided “to employ a Person to ring the Bell.” In 1794 a vote for a larger bell was passed and one weighing 1000 pounds was procured by Judge Daniel Newcomb for the town and church. Normally the bell was rung from the ground floor of the meeting house, but when tolled just before service, the sexton climbed into the second story where through a small window he could see when the minister was on his way to church, and from another window the pastor’s progress down the aisle as he made his entrance after the congregation was assembled and waiting, and the bell tolled until he was seated and the service was to begin.
Until 1828, the First Church had the only bell in town and it was used as a signal for meetings, celebrations and alarm. In that year the Baptists acquired a bell cast by the famed Revera firm and with aid of the town hung it in their Ash Swamp Church where it served an important signal function for the region The Unitarians soon had another Revere bell as well as a public clock located not far from the First Church itself. Another use to which the church bells were put was as a public announcement of death. Three quick strokes told of a man’s death, and four a woman’s. These were followed by tolled strokes equal to the number of years at death.
As soon as the division of religious and civil authorities in Keene was complete in 1828, and as plans for the development of the Common were formulated, the meetinghouse underwent its first major renovation. Under a January 1, 1829 contract the structure was turned one quarter around and moved north almost to its present site. The building was brought up to date with prevailing taste by the construction of an entrance bay and porch and a new spire 130 feet high. The interior was entirely altered with the installation of long, narrow “slip” pews painted white and a pulpit located at the far end of the long sanctuary. It was in this period that the gilt weathervane still perched atop the spire today was installed.
Finally in 1859-1960 the last major renovations and alterations were undertaken, again for the purpose of bringing the building in line with contemporary usage. Moved back four feet, the whole structure was raised to allow the introduction of a vestry below the auditorium. The sanctuary was enlarged; 138 pews on the main floor and 42 in the balcony. A new façade was added with elaborate decorations, Corinthian columns, pilasters, urns and enriched pediment and cornice surmounted by a rebuilt spire 152 feet 2 inches high. The 60×90 foot church remains almost unchanged in appearance since its dedication January 29, 1861. There have been some minor changes in the 60×70 foot and 30 foot high auditorium; a kitchen was constructed in part of the vestry in 1870. This space was converted into Chapel and office use in 1959-1960. Installed on one wall is a portion of a stained glass window from the Court Street Church. Other historic souvenirs of this building, removed in 1965, are the pulpit chairs now in use, communion silver, baptismal font and a memorial cross.
In 1924, a two-story brick parish house was erected adjacent to the church, and this structure was renovated and enlarged in 1959-1960. The most cataclysmic accident of recent history was the loss of part of the spire in the great 1938 hurricane. Some 37 feet 6 inches was replaced in exact duplication of the original The church today appears almost as it did in pioneer photographs of Central Square taken just after the close of the Civil War. Within the church are numerous objects of historical importance. The ornate rosewood pulpit, made by local cabinet makers, was a gift in 1860 from Abijah Kingsbury. A fine mahogany communion table still in use was also locally crafted and presented to the church in 1829 together with a side chair which was copied in the 20th century to constitute a pair. Also dating from the turn of the century is the central chandelier with its cluster of incandescent electric bulbs. A sanctuary gallery clock was presented by John Pond in 1829, since electrified. At either side of the pulpit recess are bronze plaques. One memorializes the Rev. Zedikiah S. Barstow (1790-1873) and his wife, Elizabeth Fay Blake Barstow (1792-1869). Dr. Barstow occupied the pulpit of the First Church for half a century, the longest pastorate in the history of the church, 1818-1868. It is interesting to note that during all this time, the pastor used as his parsonage the historic “Wyman Tavern” of Dartmouth College and Revolutionary War fame which in 1968 became Keene’s first museum and period house under the auspices of the Historical Society of Cheshire County. The other tablet recognizes the Rev. Aaron Hall (1751-1814) pastor 36 years, from 1778 until his death. The Rev. Mr. Hall represented Keene at the convention which voted New Hampshire adoption of the Federal Constitution in 1788. Both ministers were outstanding leaders in matters of religion, education, temperance and charitable works in community and state.
The church’s Berkshire/Gilbert pipe organ, one of the largest and most versatile in the state, incorporates elements from the First Church’s 1903 Hutchings-Votey and the Court Street Church’s Johnson instruments and has most recently undergone additional renovations by Czelusniak et Dugal. It is a three manual instrument of thirty stops and forty ranks of pipes. It is used for a wide variety of programs, recitals and concerts and has proved to be popular with musicians and organ enthusiasts.
A published history of the First Congregational Church, by David R. Proper, is available. For further information, contact the Historians Committee, United Church of Christ in Keene. Rev. Dr. Zedekiah S. Barstow’s Semi-Centennial Discourse entitled “Remember The Days of Old”, has been republished by the Historian’s Committee of the Keene United Church of Christ in Keene. The sermon was preached on July 1, 1968 at the close of Dr. Barstow’s fifty years’ pastorate and originally published by his children back in 1873. Rev. Barstow served as pastor of the First Congregational Church 1818-1868 and Pastor Emeritus 1868-1873.
The United Church of Christ came into being in 1957 with the union of two Protestant denominations: the Evangelical and Reformed Church and the Congregational Christian Churches. Each of these was, in turn, the result of a union of two earlier denominations.
PREAMBLE OF UCC CONSTITUTION
The Congregational Churches were organized when the Pilgrims of Plymouth Plantation (1620) and the Puritans of the Massachusetts Bay Colony (1629) acknowledged their essential unity in the Cambridge Platform of 1648. The Reformed Church in the United States traced its beginnings to congregations of German settlers in Pennsylvania founded from 1725 on. Later, its ranks were swelled by Reformed folk from Switzerland and other countries. The Christian Churches sprang up in the late 1700s and early 1800s in reaction to the theological and organizational rigidity of the Methodist, Presbyterian and Baptist churches of the time. The Evangelical Synod of North America traced its beginnings to an association of German Evangelical pastors in Missouri. This association, founded in 1841, reflected the 1817 union of Lutheran and Reformed churches in Germany. Through the years, other groups such as Native Americans, Afro-Christians, Asian Americans, Pacific Islanders, Volga Germans, Armenians, Hungarians and Hispanic Americans have joined with the four earlier groups. Thus the United Church of Christ celebrates and continues a wide variety of traditions in its common life.
CHARACTERISTICS OF THE UNITED CHURCH OF CHRIST
The characteristics of the United Church of Christ can be summarized in part by the key words in the names that formed our union: Christian, Reformed, Congregational, Evangelical. Christian. By our very name, the United Church of Christ, we declare ourselves to be part of the body of Christ—the Christian church. We continue the witness of the early disciples to the reality and power of the crucified and risen Christ, Jesus of Nazareth. Reformed. All four denominations arose from the tradition of the Protestant Reformers: We confess the authority of one God. We affirm the primacy of the scriptures, the doctrine of justification by faith, the priesthood of all believers, and the principle of Christian freedom. We celebrate two sacraments: baptism and the Lord’s Supper or holy communion.
Congregational. The basic unit of the United Church of Christ is the congregation. Members of each congregation covenant with one another and with God as revealed in Jesus Christ and empowered by the Holy Spirit. These congregations, in turn, exist in covenantal relationships with one another to form larger structures for more effective work. Our covenanting emphasizes trustful relationships rather than legal agreements.
Evangelical. The primary task of the church is the proclamation of the gospel or evangel — the good news of God’s love revealed with power in Jesus Christ. We proclaim this gospel by word and deed to individual persons and to society. This proclamation is the heart of the liturgia — the work of the people. We gather each Sunday for the worship of God, and through each week, we engage in the service of humankind.