UNITED CHURCH OF CHRIST: A CHURCH OF MANY FIRSTS
Following Christ's example, we in the United Church of Christ are proud of our history of leading the way toward the creation of a more inclusive, welcoming, and just world. We and the denominations which bonded together to create the United Church of Christ were first to accomplish the following:
Inspired by the principle of religious freedom, the Pilgrims and Puritans traveled to this land to establish their own churches. They also founded the nation’s first public schools. The oldest continuously operated public school in America was founded in 1635.
Prevented by King James from publishing their materials, the Pilgrims brought their press to the new world and published the first book on the North American continent, "The Bay Psalms Book", in 1640. Today, the UCC's Pilgrim Press is the oldest continuously operating press on the continent, and freedom of the press is a hallmark of U.S. democracy.
Early New England Congregationalists began founding colleges – Harvard, Yale, Dartmouth, Oberlin, Elmhurst, Pomona, Rollins – all across the frontier as it moved west and south. Our forebears founded college after college.
Congregationalist opposition to slavery began in 1700 when Puritan Samuel Sewall, chief justice of the Massachusetts Superior Court, wrote the first anti-slavery tract published in America. Throughout the country, many future UCC churches were active in the abolitionist movement, and some served as stops on the Underground Railroad.
In 1773, Congregationalist Phillis Wheatley was the first black woman whose writings (poetry) were published.
The Rev. Lemuel Haynes was the first African-American ordained to Christian ministry in a mainline tradition at First Congregational Church in Torrington, CT, in 1785. He went on to serve churches in Massachusetts and Vermont and became an internationally renowned preacher and lecturer.
In 1839, it was our forebears in southern New England who rallied for the freedom of the African captives from La Amistad who had mutinied as they were being shipped for enslavement. Congregationalist John Quincy Adams represented the Africans in the first human rights case successfully argued before the U.S. Supreme Court. Congregationalists led the effort to form the Amistad Committee to educate and care for the captives – a committee that later evolved into the American Missionary Association (AMA). After the Civil War, the AMA worked with freed African Americans to found hundreds of schools, colleges and churches all over the south to educate freed slaves and their children. These became the first inter-racial schools in the country, as white New Englanders traveled to the South to teach in the schools attended by both the children of freed slaves and the teachers' own children. Examples of these institutions of higher education are Fisk, Talladega, Berea, Hampton, Atlanta and Howard.
Continuing the legacy begun in the 1700s, the United Church of Christ was in 1989 the first Christian denomination to name racism as a sin.
In 1806, five Williams College undergraduates felt a calling to dedicate their lives to foreign mission. This resulted in the establishment of the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions. In 1812, the Board sent out America’s first foreign missionaries to Bombay. Today, the United Church of Christ has 100 missionaries around the world.
Oberlin College, founded by Congregationalists in 1833 in Ohio, was the first U.S. college to award four-year college degrees to women.
In 1853 Antoinette Brown was ordained as minister of a Congregational Church in South Butler, New York, making her the first American woman ordained into Christian ministry.
In a Congregational church in Massachusetts in 1943, Reinhold Niebuhr introduced and first prayed the Serenity Prayer: "God, give us the 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."
In 1964, the Rev. Everett Park, executive of the UCC Office of Communication, petitioned the Federal Communications Commission, challenging the broadcasting license of a station in Jackson, MS, for systemic racial discrimination in its coverage. The ensuing landmark decision by the U.S. Court of Appeals determined that the public had the right to be heard in license renewal proceedings. Through a series of additional court appeals, the FCC finally was ordered to reopen license hearings and, in 1979, the Jackson station's license was revoked from the racist Lamar Broadcasting and given to a majority black-owned group.
The United Church of Christ was the first denomination to ordain an openly gay person when the San Francisco Association ordained Bill Johnson in 1972.
United Church of Christ ordained minister and national staff person of the UCC Commission for Racial Justice, Benjamin Chavis, first coined the phrase, "environmental racism" to describe the practice of placing toxic and waste facilities near poor and ethnic communities, targeting Native Americans, African Americans and Hispanics. We issued the report “Toxic Waste and Race” in 1987.
Also in 1987, the General Synod of the UCC voted to declare that Christianity does not supersede Judaism and that God’s covenant with the Jewish people has not been rescinded or abrogated, the first such pronouncement by a major denomination.
In 2005, meeting in Atlanta, GA, the General Synod of the UCC became the first denomination in the United States to affirm equal marriage rights by an overwhelming vote.
In 2014, the United Church of Christ filed a landmark suit against the state of North Carolina challenging its marriage laws, arguing that those laws violate the First Amendment rights of clergy and the free exercise of religion.
The UCC also became the first religious denomination to be a major sponsor of the Gay Games in Cleveland in 2014. The Florida Conference and several Florida churches – Naples UCC, Miami Shores Community Church UCC, Venice UCC, and Trinity UCC in St. Petersburg – were also sponsors of the event.
God is still speaking