200 years of worship

It was winter of 1796 when original settlers of the Northwest Territory, including Rufus Putnam, banded together to form the First Congregational United Church of Christ on Front Street, a church that still stands with some of its original foundation more than 200 years later.

The church has been through several paint jobs, a fire and flooding, and bills itself as the “oldest continuous worshiping fellowship west of the Alleghenies.”

Today, the church has come a long way from its strict Puritan traditions and now prides itself on being welcoming to all faiths and always buzzing with activity.

“Hospitality is the hallmark of our congregation,” said Rev. Linda Steelman, who has presided over the congregation since 1997 and is the church’s first female pastor. “Folks of all heritages, and religions-Catholic, Baptist, Mormon, everything-have all ended up here, and I always try to find ways we are alike, not different.”

That, along with a completely open communion, serves as a sign of the evolution of the religious tradition that existed centuries ago.

“It was the old Puritan style of church that is way different from what we have today,” said Scott Britton, who serves as the church’s moderator. “The church deacon and the church trustee would sit on either side, and if they did not deem you worthy to take communion they would let you know.”

As a united congregational church, governance is run by way of what Steelman calls a pure democracy.

“It is governed completely by its members, and you don’t just have one person making decisions,” Steelman said. “Everyone counts as one vote.”

Steelman and Britton said the church’s welcoming arms is one of the reasons it has remained viable.

“For all of the churches that are losing members because of changes to society, we have stayed fairly consistent all these years,” Britton said.

Though practices have changed, the traditional twin bell-cone towers of the church, brought from Boston, still are in place today, including an old system of bells still used during services.

“It did used to just be one square room, without any of these extra balconies,” Britton said.

That was at a time when single women, people of different races and those of “diminished mental capacity” had to sit separated from everyone else.

Today, a balcony and several winding staircases circle the sanctuary, creating a big draw around holidays and tour groups.

But the progression in architecture and collections of historic items did not have a fluid history, as a fire in the early 1900s resulted in a near total loss of the church, with members saving as many items as possible, some that were restored and kept as keepsakes in the church.

“But many of the white oak timbers that supported the church then still support it now, despite being charred,” Steelman said.

Today, the site serves as a close partner with Marietta College, hosting concerts and baccalaureate services. The accompanying food pantry is the oldest and biggest in the county, and events throughout the year are held in the church’s fellowship hall, which has a younger history dating back to the 1920s.

The church also became fully handicapped accessible in 2008 after steps were removed outside of side entrances and a lift was installed for members to reach the sanctuary.

“There’s always something going on around here, and our doors are open seven days a week,” Steelman said.