Slammed doors, a 17th century refugee crisis, temptation in the wilderness, and hidden silver: it’s all a matter of record. An address to the congregation on the lessons (and companionship) of history.
Old Colony Sunday Address
Delivered May 7, 2017
M.R. Georgevich, Church Historian
The First Church of Christ in New Haven
“Old Colony Sunday” isn’t that old, for a church established in 1638. It was organized in the spring of 1945 by the Board of Deacons, who intended for it to be “a singularly acute measure of our discernment in and devotion to our church, the First Church of Christ in New Haven.” What’s going on historically, that calls this new tradition into creation?
1945 was a unsettling year. Easter Sunday fell on April 1st — 5 weeks before the Nazis would finally surrender. A special offering was collected that holiday: “Unless otherwise designated, our gifts this morning will help minister to those whom war has struck with its terror and pain.”
The inaugural Old Colony Sunday was on April 29 and introduced with a note in the Chronicle:
“We should think neither too much nor too little about our forbears. If we think too much of them, their virtues will fade into inert traditions, and their limitations will become a straight-jacket upon all growth. If we think too little of them, derision may discount what they are. In fact, men have come to scorn them and their ‘Puritanism.’ And we are in a generation which does not even dream that our forebears were anything but scarecrows with black and foreboding brows.”
There is nothing new under the sun.
When I give tours here, I always explain that in any institution older than the United States, you’re going to have stories that bring great pride of identity, and others that feel shameful in the light of present day — and often these seesaw back and forth within a single generation. And then I tell those stories. The minute you try to write that complexity out of your narrative is the minute you cease being relevant to the conversations happening outside your doors. This congregation has never stopped speaking. We just continue to weave our modern day selves, our broader voices and hard-earned wisdom, into our history’s threads. We do not expurgate the past — we do not reduce our history to a regressive nostalgia to clutch at during unsettling times. That’s not what they were doing in 1945 and it’s not what we’re doing here today. A good Puritan does not commit the sin of idolatry. Our lived history is too sacred and expansive of a text for that.
Davenport preached that first sermon pictured in the window above us on Matthew 4:1, the temptation of Christ after being led by the Spirit into the wilderness. It was a warning that sometimes actions that seem neutral or even beneficial at the time — turning stones into bread, for instance — may actually turn out to be a temptation held out by the devil himself. He knew the dangers ahead.
Now I’m going to tell some stories, because as Church Historian that’s what I do.
In 1820, members of this church who were tired of sitting segregated in the balcony left to help lay the groundwork for what is now Dixwell United Church of Christ, the oldest historically African American Congregationalist church in the nation. In 1825, Leonard Bacon arrived at our doorway. He was just 23 years old, recently graduated, and as he stood on the steps you passed through this morning — a day before his installation — he looked across the green and witnessed the last slave auction in New Haven. Lucy Tritton and her daughter Lois were sold off to settle someone else’s debt. Bacon was so revolted by what he saw he devoted his ministry to the abolitionist cause, inspiring Lincoln himself.
We look back now with pride and gratitude at his redemptive leadership and it’s like a chapter heading that reads, “BY THE GRACE OF GOD, LEONARD BACON,” just like his memorial plaque on the wall over there. I want to reassure you, however, that this was tough, imperfect, messy work. There’s a story that right in the middle of one of his sermons a woman stood up, marched out of the sanctuary right down this center aisle and then slammed that loud exterior door behind her. It’s not difficult to accept that slavery is wrong; it would have been considerably more painful to hear from this pulpit that your family and neighbors from just a generation or two ago were complicit in an act of evil for following the customs of their day.
This congregation kept showing up for the work. We didn’t just survive it. We helped lead it. It’s never finished. If you’re here this morning it’s probably because you, too, feel called to this place to keep wrestling with the work — on ourselves, on our community.
On Thanksgiving of 1851, Reverend Bacon gave a legendary sermon entitled, “A Higher Law.” The US was teetering on the brink of what would be the bloodiest conflict in our history. We almost didn’t survive. In one the most prominent meeting houses in the nation, Bacon dared to lay out an argument in favor of civil disobedience — in this case, specifically, the Christian obligation to assist runaway slaves. Bacon didn’t use any of the rhetorical flourishes or impersonal language that was common practice at the time for this address. His language was just as direct that day as it sounds to us now: “There is a higher law, and you know it; a law to which all men owe….The eternal law of right, which will prevail, is higher than any constitution — you cannot escape it, you must obey it.” The so-called Old Lights in these pews gave him an amen.
Bacon’s sermon echoed a foundational moment in New Haven’s sovereignty that happened in our first meeting house, also built near this spot. Here’s what a refugee crisis looked like in 1661: the regicides Edward Whalley and William Goffe are headed to town after being discovered by the Crown’s agents in Boston, with warrants on their heads. Sheltering them might threaten the colony’s status by attracting the ire of the newly restored king — and just so we’re all clear on this scenario, this king was the son of the very regent these men had signed over to death. Davenport preached, “Let us own the reproached and persecuted people and cause of Christ in suffering times. Be not forgetful to entertain strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels unaware.” He was also asking parishioners, “Are we England — or are we New Haven?” It was a high-risk question at yet another unsettling time. This congregation agreed there was a higher law, and here we all still stand, both the church and New Haven.
And this has always been New Haven’s meeting house — the Puritan, un-churchy term we still use to describe this building. There is literally nothing sacred in this sanctuary except the body of Christ — all of us together right now — gathered within it. We still follow that very Puritan way of thinking about and being in worship. I do not venerate this building. I do believe there’s a certain “civic sacred” in our stewardship responsibilities — not just of the material, but of the narrative and the spiritual — and it’s something that anyone can choose to colonize for themselves as I have, whether your family arrived in 1638 or 2008.
We hold the story of New Haven in our hands.
1779 was another unsettling year. The British had finally invaded New Haven and the looting had begun. Deacon Stephen Ball knew they would head straight for our meeting house and grabbed our communion silver to hide in his home, on the corner of Chapel and High. He lifted one of his daughters — probably Mary, who turned twelve that year — up into the chimney so she could hide it on a shelf created by the brickwork. The British showed up at his house, ripped a gold bead necklace right off of his wife Abigail’s neck, but they never did find the silver and it survives to this day. We held a joint communion service with United and Redeemer last April, and when we needed an extra vessel we brought out the Davenport cup, which was donated to this church in 1718. It was one of the caudle cups that survived one of the most harrowing days the New Haven Colony had ever seen, thanks to a young and very brave girl.
Art historians talk about object contagion — the idea that certain objects have a sort of spiritual essence that can be transmitted to anyone who touches them. As with our Puritan forebears though, nothing here is consecrated. When you share and care for our communion vessels, or run your hands over our pews, what is holy and transmitted to you are the all stories and prayers of those who came before — and endured. For myself, this is the “something greater” I can feel a part of and find strength in even as faith waxes and wanes.
2017 has been an unsettling year. We’ve going to have to continue to wrestle with a lot of work.
As your church historian, I want to reassure you — and myself — that there is no challenge to us on the horizon — at an individual or group level — that we cannot find some echo of in our archives. Our history runs as wide and deep — as troubled and calm — as the Book of Psalms. Our Puritan founder would have wanted us to not just tell our old stories, but to draw upon them as another lamp to our feet, and a light on our path.
I’ll leave you this morning with the first verse of Hebrews, Chapter 12: “Therefore, since we have so great a cloud of witnesses surrounding us, let us also lay aside every encumbrance and the sin which so easily entangles us, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us.” We have never been asked to do this alone.
In Christ all things are born again; there is nothing new under the sun.