A Brief History of the Bennington Second Congregational Church,
United Church of Christ
It is difficult to decide which is more important, the many dramatic ways in which Second Congregational has changed since its beginnings in 1836, or the ways in which it has preserved what is most important from its past.
The original Bennington was in the area now known as “Old Bennington,” a village at the top of the hill with the First Church at its center. In the 1820’s and 30’s water-powered industry developed at the foot of the hill and the center of population shifted. Climbing the hill for multiple services each week, often carrying children, proved onerous. And so, in 1836, “Old First” granted letters of Dismission to 45 of its members allowing them to form a Second Church (Congregational) in the valley.
The theological focus, the governing structure of the church, and the modes of discipline for members have certainly changed since those earliest days. The Covenant all signed then began with the words, “Convinced of your guilt, and professing unfeigned repentance for your sins….” and left no room for disagreement over the received “pure gospel.” The form of structure featured a division between a Society and a Church. The Church, led by male Deacons, oversaw the spiritual life of its members. The Society, a group of worthy men, hired, paid and fired the pastor, owned the building, and had the power to expel the Church from it, Discipline included excommunication and expulsion of individuals straying from the “pure doctrines of the gospel” or virtuous behavior. But many things have not changed despite fires and an explosion in the church buildings and tumultuous social, intellectual, economic, and political changes in the community, country and world. Some continuities will be noted at the end of this brief history.
The first church building was a converted house and the first Pastor, Aretas Loomis, has been described as “a stern and rigid Puritan.” The Society had difficulty affording his $500 a year salary and he often had to settle for less. Under a “warmer” pastor, Chauncey Hubbard, the church began to grow. It erected a proper white clapboard meeting house and established an outpost Sabbath School at the east end of town. When the church building burned down in 1864 it was strong enough to rebuild on a larger scale. By the time Pastor Hubbard retired in 1872 there was a large brick edifice on Main Street with a brick chapel around the corner on School Street. A large brick parsonage was added. The church had become a major establishment in town.
With its respectability, the church could attract and retain distinguished men as pastors, offer sober but delightful social experiences to its members, cooperate in limited ways with other Protestant churches in the area, and engage in mission outreach. As of 1889 it could even be daring enough to choose women for church offices other than Deacons. In 1924 the division between Society and Church was ended. Organizations proliferated and numbers remained strong. The building was rebuilt in three years after a fire severely damaged it in 1928. It church adapted to meet the needs of the community in the Depression and World War II years.
By 1958 it had become clear, though, that something had to be done about the building. It was too large for the existing congregation and in need of major repair. When an offer was made for the Main Street property, the church accepted land donated on Hillside Street and built its current building there. (The architech was L.L. Rado of Raymond and Rado, New York City). The building was dedicated in March of 1960. Its construction was sorely tested, but survived, a major gas explosion in 1961. Tom Steffen, the Pastor Emeritus was called in 1965. The current Pastor, Rev. Mary Lee-Clark was called in 1995.
Mention of continuities was promised above. One of these is the congregational form of governance in which each local church exercises autonomous control over its ministry, its property, and its organization. Second Congregational has, for 50 years, been a part of the United Church of Christ, covenantal relationship which endorses this autonomy. A second continuing feature, despite a few temporary disagreements, has been a congregation demonstrating mutual love, respect, and caring. This has been especially noticeable as the diversity among those welcomed in the congregation has increased. Finally, while belief that one creed or denomination possesses “the pure doctrine” has declined, Second Congregational remained a place and a group in which there is joy in worshipping God and following Christ.