The First Congregational Church of Wauwatosa History

Adapted from the Sesquicentennial History by Julius Ruff, Ph.D.

First Congregational Church of Wauwatosa is, indeed, Wauwatosa’s first church. It was gathered by a group of settlers who had come to Wisconsin from New England and New York bringing their Congregational faith with them. Eleven of these pioneers, under the guidance of the Rev. John J. Miter of Plymouth Congregational Church-Milwaukee and the Rev. Hiram Marsh, a home missioner sent by the American Board of Commissioners for Home Missions, entered into covenant and formed First Congregational Church in the home of Richard Gilbert on March 11, 1842. The church was served by various itinerant missioners until the arrival of the Rev. Luther Clapp in 1845. Rev. Clapp provided the stability and opportunity for growth the fledgling congregation needed. He served until 1874.

The congregation purchased a plot of land covered by a blackberry patch for $50 from Charles Hart in 1853 and began the construction of its first sanctuary on the present site of the church. Members donated timbers for a structure that was built and furnished at a cost of $3,347.80 when it was dedicated on October 27, 1853. A bell had to be added later, in 1855, which continues to ring out from the steeple to this day. The completion of the Church building permitted the congregation to have its own Sunday School and to end weekly participation in a joint Sunday School endeavor with Methodists and Baptists. Nevertheless, a warm relationship continued with the Baptists who founded Wauwatosa’s second oldest church (founded October 11, 1845; now Underwood Memorial Baptist Church) and were led from 1849-1887 by Rev. Clapp’s good friend, the Rev. E. D. Underwood. Clapp and Underwood also shared a passion for the anti-slavery movement and both gentlemen were active as were members of their churches in the underground railroad that ran through Wauwatosa and up toward Canada. Well into the 1860s Congregationalists and Baptists joined for bimonthly Sunday School concerts. The church held Sunday School in this period between morning and afternoon services, and often as many as 120 adults and children attended.

Growth in Wauwatosa meant growth in the congregation of the church, which required accommodation. In 1870 a lecture hall had been added to the rear (west) of the church. Built at a cost of $2,076.29, it was entered through doors on either side of the front of the sanctuary. Additional growth led to further expansion of the church’s physical plant. A parsonage was constructed for $2,200 in 1884 opposite the church. In 1888, at a cost of about $8,000, the original church building was raised and a “good basement” constructed. A vestibule was added to the front (east side) of the church, red-cushioned theatre seats replaced the original pews, and a space was provided for the eventual placement of an organ behind the pulpit.

Such renovation of the original building, however, still failed to meet the needs of a growing congregation. At the annual meeting in 1911 a sinking fund was established for a new building, and the church’s seventy-fifth anniversary, although observed on the brink of World War I on March 1, 1917, provided the opportunity to accelerate fund raising for a new church. With the end of World War I, construction became possible. The last services were held in the original meetinghouse on July 20, 1919, because the new structure was to be built on the same site. For several months, the congregation was without a home. It held joint services with the Methodists, who also were building a church, in the Masonic Temple through August 17, 1919; and then the congregation held Sunday afternoon services in the basement of Underwood Baptist Church.

Finally, the congregation leased the lot on the southeastern corner of Church Street and Milwaukee Ave. and there constructed, with donated materials and the congregation’s labor, led by the example of its minister, the Rev. Howell Davies, a structure known as “the Tabernacle” that was used for services from November 1919 through May 1921.

On May 20-23, 1921 the church dedicated its new sanctuary. Designed by architect E.E. Kuenzli, a church member, the building and its furnishings represented an investment of $118,258.04 funded in part by a mortgage of $38,650.00 on the church and parsonage. This sanctuary, presently still in use, was connected to the original structure which had been turned ninety degrees and moved back on the church grounds to form a wing for Sunday School classrooms and recreation facilities.

The activities of the congregation in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries were numerous because this church, like so many others of the period was really the center of its members’ social as well as religious lives. Church benevolence grew in size and scope of interest, and by its fiftieth anniversary the church had contributed $23,526.97 to such worthy causes as Beloit College ($13,100), Chicago Theological Seminary ($900), Ripon College ($200) and missions ($9,326.97).

The war years also produced the beginnings of a major division in American Congregationalism in which First Congregational Church played an important role. The General Council of Congregational Christian Churches, carrying forward the nineteenth-century impulse to realize greater Christian unity, initiated merger talks with the Evangelical and Reformed Church.

The two potential partners were quite different, both in size and practice. American Congregationalists in 1945 numbered 1,130,824 persons in 5,836 self-governing congregations that subscribed to no uniform creed. The Evangelical and Reformed Church, itself the result of a merger in 1934 of two Protestant groups of German origin, the Reformed Church and the Evangelical Synod, had a membership of 695,971 persons in 3,806 churches. The Evangelical and Reformed church had a centralized, presbyterical mode of church governance and a creedal tradition. Nonetheless, negotiations between the General Council of Congregational Christian Churches and the Evangelical and Reformed Church proceeded and a “Basis of Union” document emerged from those discussions in 1942.

Many Congregationalists found the Union a move toward a church with a central presbytery and a uniform creed that was antithetical to the Congregational Way. Such feelings were especially strong in First Congregational Church. Dr. Lee, the church’s senior minister, the associate minister Neil Swanson, and the overwhelming majority of the church’s members opposed the merger and the church’s annual meeting in 1948 rejected the “Basis of Union.” Many other Congregationalists were like-minded. They joined members of the church in the League to Uphold Congregational Principles and the Committee for the Continuation of Congregational Christian Churches. In addition, Cadman Memorial Congregational Church in Brooklyn, New York, filed suit to challenge the merger efforts of the General Council.

The Cadman case held up merger plans for some years but when the courts finally dismissed the suit, merger plans moved forward toward the creation of the United Church of Christ (UCC). In order to provide an alternative to the UCC, members of the League to Uphold Congregational Principles, the Committee for Continuation of Congregational Christian Churches, and other concerned Congregationalists met in Detroit in 1955 to propose creation of the National Association of Congregational Christian Churches (NACCC).

In Wauwatosa in this period there were numerous meetings to determine First Church’s stand in all of this. Much of what follows is based on the reminiscences of Neil Swanson. The church drafted a new constitution in 1953 that reaffirmed Congregational principles. That constitution, as subsequently amended, still guides the church. Especially noteworthy in this document was the creation of the office of lay moderator to guide the church’s operation. Then, in May 1956, the congregation voted a resounding affirmation of traditional Congregationalism by again rejecting the “Basis of Union” by a vote of 259 to 9 and by voting 250 to 2 to join the NACCC. In addition, First Congregational Church hosted the October 1956 meeting that created the basic structure of the NACCC, and the church’s Neil Swanson was selected as the NACCC moderator for 1957. Mr. Swanson served as moderator in addition to his duties here where he was ably assisted by his associate minister, the Rev. John Alexander. Thus, while the majority of Congregational Churches joined in launching the UCC in Cleveland in 1957, First Congregational Church of Wauwatosa was already playing a vital role in the founding of a religious fellowship determined to maintain the Congregational Way. Today the results of the efforts of these Congregationalists stands as the NACCC with nearly 450 affiliated congregations.

The middle and later years of the twentieth century the church continued a slow and steady growth under the able leadership of the Rev. Dr. Henry James Lee, the Rev. Neil Swanson, the Rev. Dr. Norman Ream, the Rev. Dr. Philip Muth, the Rev. Dr. Lonnie Richardson, and the Rev. Dr. Steven Peay. First Congregational Church continues to hold benevolence as an important part of its church life, designating ten percent of every budget to various mission causes, both domestic and foreign. In addition, the church has a policy for the benevolence of the building, opening its facilities to twenty or more non-church-related community groups in the course of the month, at no charge. During Dr. Ream’s tenure the church added the education/office/chapel wing in 1959. In 1974 the congregation took the great step of founding the Congregational Home for the Aging in Brookfield, Wisconsin, which continues successful and caring operation to this day. Various improvement projects have kept First Congregational Church’s historic meetinghouse vibrant and open to the needs of its members and of the community.