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UCC Firsts

The United Church of Christ and its predecessor groups have always been in the forefront of pro-gressive change in our nation and world. We have many “firsts” to our credit. We sailed on “The Mayflower.” We signed of the Declaration of Independence. We fought for justice, sought peace and reconciliation, and expressed our faith in life-giving and life-affirming ways. We are a risk-taking people, for we worship a risk-taking God!

1620: Pilgrims seek spiritual freedom
Seeking spiritual freedom, forebears of the United Church of Christ prepare to leave Europe for the New World. Later generations know them as the Pilgrims. Their pastor, John Robinson, urges them as they depart to keep their minds and hearts open to new ways. God, he says, “has yet more light and truth to break forth out of his holy Word.”

1630: An early experiment in democracy
The Congregational churches founded by the Pilgrims and other spiritual reformers spread rapidly through New England. In an early experiment in democracy, each congregation is self-governing and elects its own ministers. The Congregationalists aim to create a model for a just society lived in the presence of God. Their leader, John Winthrop, prays that “we shall be as a city upon a hill … the eyes of all people upon us.”

1700: An early stand against slavery
Congregationalists are among the first Amer-icans to take a stand against slavery. The Rev. Samuel Sewall writes the first anti-slavery pamphlet in America, “The Selling of Joseph.” Sewall lays the foundation for the abolitionist movement that comes more than a century later. 

1730s: The Great Awakening
The first Great Awakening sweeps through Congregational and Presbyterian churches. One of the great thinkers of the movement, Jonathan Edwards, says the church should recover the passion of a transforming faith that changes “the course of [our] lives.”

1773: First act of civil disobedience
Five thousand angry colonists gather in the Old South Meeting House to demand repeal of an unjust tax on tea. Their protest inspires the first act of civil disobedience in U.S. history—the “Boston Tea Party.”

1777: Reformed congrega-tion saves the Liberty Bell
The British occupy Philadelphia—seat of the rebellious Contin-ental Congress—and plan to melt down the Liberty Bell to manu-facture cannons. But the Bell has disappeared. It is safely hidden under the floorboards of Zion Reformed Church in Allentown.

1785: First ordained African American pastor
Lemuel Haynes is the first African American or-dained by a Protestant denomination. He becomes a world-renowned preacher and writer.

1810: First foreign missionary society
America’s first for-eign mission soc-iety, the American Board of Commissioners of Foreign Missions (ABCFM) is formed by Con-gregationalists in Massachusetts.

1817: First school for the hearing-impaired
The Rev. Thomas Gallaudet goes to Europe to learn new forms of communicating with those without hearing. He opens the Connecticut Asylum for the Education of Deaf and Dumb Persons in 1817, supported by voluntary contributions and subsidized by the state. In 1856, the school for the deaf later named Gallaudet University opens in Washington, D.C.

1839: A defining moment for the abolitionist movement
Enslaved Africans break their chains and seize control of the schooner Amistad. Their freedom is short-lived, and they are held in a Connecticut jail while the ship’s owners sue to have them returned as property. The case becomes a defining moment for the movement to abolish slavery. Congregationalists and other Christians organize a campaign to free the captives. The Supreme Court rules the captives are not property, and the Africans regain their freedom.

1840: First united church in US history
A meeting of pastors in Missouri forms the first united church in U.S. history—the Evangelical Synod. It unites two Protestant traditions that have been separated for centuries: Lutheran and Reformed. The Evangelicals believe in the power of tradition, but also in spiritual freedom. “Rigid ceremony and strong condemnation of others are terrible things to me,” one of them writes.

1846: First integrated Anti-slavery Society
The Amistad case is a spur to the conscience of Congregationalists who believe no human being should be a slave. In 1846 Lewis Tappan, one of the Amistad organizers, organizes the American Missionary Association—the first anti-slavery society in the U.S. with multiracial leadership.

1853: First woman pastor
Antoinette Brown is the first woman since New Testament times ordained as a Christian minister, and per-haps the first woman in history elected to serve a Christian congregation as pastor. At her ordination a friend, Methodist minister Luther Lee, defends “a woman’s right to preach the Gospel.” He quotes the New Testament: “There is neither male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”

1858: First community to openly defy slave laws
Members of First Congregational Church in Oberlin, Ohio join others from Oberlin College and the local community, both blacks and whites, in defying the Fugitive Slave Law. They rescue a captured runaway slave, John Price, from the hotel where he is being held in nearby Wellington, Ohio. Twenty are arrested and held in jail in Cleveland. Price is hidden and sent along on the underground railroad to Canada.

1943: The Serenity Prayer
Evangelical and Reformed pastor and theologian Reinhold Niebuhr preaches a sermon that introduces the world to the now-famous Serenity Prayer: “God, give us grace to accept with serenity the things that cannot be changed, courage to change the things that should be changed, and the wisdom to distinguish the one from the other.”

1959: The airwaves are public property
Southern television stations impose a news blackout on the growing civil rights movement, and Martin Luther King Jr. asks the UCC to intervene. Everett Parker of the UCC’s Office of Communication organizes churches and wins in Federal court a ruling that the airwaves are public, not private property. The decision leads to a proliferation of people of color in television studios and newsrooms.

1972: Ordination of first openly gay minister
The UCC’s Golden Gate Association ordains the first openly gay person as a minister in a mainline Protestant denomination: the Rev. William R. Johnson. In the following three decades, General Synod urges equal rights for homosexual citizens and calls on congregations to welcome gay, lesbian and bisexual members.

1976: First African American to lead an integrated denomination
General Synod elects the Rev. Joseph H. Evans president of the United Church of Christ. He becomes the first African American leader of a racially integrated mainline church in the United States.
2005: Marriage Equality Resolution
The General Synod overwhelmingly passed a resolution supporting same-gender marriage equality, a first for a mainline denomination in the U.S.

For more UCC Firsts, see www.ucc.org/god-is-still-speaking/firsts/ucc-firsts.html

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