31 Maple Street
Bristol, Connecticut USA
March 20, 2022
1 John 1:5-10
Rev. Kristen J. Kleiman
We are sinners. Knowingly and unknowingly, as individuals and groups, we do things that are wrong. We even do wrong as the church, because even as we are trying to faithfully follow Jesus Christ, we are also humans, people who are broken and imperfect, who sometimes do broken and imperfect things.
Here is the irony about sin, though. When we pretend we are not sinners, we only add to our sin by lying; however as the writer of 1 John says, when we talk about our darkness, confess our brokenness, acknowledge our imperfections, that is when we are forgiven. We don’t confess our past because it feels good. We confess our past so we can release the old, heal the broken, and be made new to walk forward in the light of God.
So today, as we continue to celebrate 275 years of ministry at the First Congregational Church, Bristol, CT, I’m going to drag lots of skeletons out of our church closet. My apologies to those of you who missed last week, which was celebrating our past. There is much to celebrate.
FCC Bristol is proud that for almost 275 years, our community has worshipped in this exact spot on Federal Hill. As the center of the community in 1745, it was declared the perfect place for the new church building to be constructed and was bought from a member for 4 pounds. By this time, much of this area, which was called New Cambridge, had already been claimed by settlers as if there had not been native peoples living on this land for generations. As our 1947 history acknowledges, “While the fathers of New England scrupulously tried to keep the Ten Commandments, they failed dismally in observing the tenth [thou shall not covet your neighbor’s property and I would add the eighth, thou shall not steal], so far as the property of the Indians was concerned.” (pg 18)
Sadly throughout too much of our history, including our church history, we have treated non-Europeans with little dignity.
FCC Bristol’s first pastor, the Rev. Samuel Newell, and others in the church community owned slaves. And although by the mid 1800’s, FCC’s pastors advocated for abolitionism and one even preached:
Fugitives from American Slavery should receive the sympathy and aid of all lovers of freedom. If they come to our doors, we should be ready to feed and clothe, and give them shelter, and help them on their way. No law is entitled to respect and obedience that outrages the law of conscience and the principal’s of God’s word.
Despite those stirring words in 1857 to love all of our neighbors, still, Bristol and this church community were pro-slavery. Pro-slavery because they were pro-money and as clock makers, they made their money selling clocks to the big plantations in the south.
Upholding racist systems often has to do with money because discrimination almost always goes hand in hand with privilege, with wanting to maintain status and position. The history of FCC Bristol is full of stories of prioritizing status and position, dating back to the construction of the first meetinghouse. As soon as pews were installed, a seating committee was created with the purpose of “dignification”, which meant determining where people were allowed to sit according to their age, rank, piety, and importance in the church.
This practice seems wildly out of date, and yet, those who have been around FCC for decades know that in the last century, the north side pews were where the rich people sat, and the south side was where everyone else sat… with a few exceptions. In the early colonial days, young people sat under the stairs and children had to sit in the aisles. With the construction of a balcony, children and youth were relegated there, which was also true for people of color.
One of our members’ great grandfathers was a Chinese immigrant. Through great hardship, he traveled across the United States and ended up in Bristol where he started a business and raised a family. He was invited to attend worship here by an upstanding member of the community; however she also advised him he “had to sit in the balcony in the back because he was yellow and that only people who were white were allowed to sit downstairs or along the front [of] the balcony.” And he took it in stride. It was simply the way it was.
We should not accept that it was the way it was. As we confess the sins of racism, privilege, and exclusivity, we should also wonder why the First Congregational Church does not reflect the racial and economic diversity of Bristol. Why we ever had a rich side and a poor side. Why even into the 1980’s and 90’s, our children were “encouraged” to sit upstairs in the balcony.
We should question our past and not gloss over or deny the difficult parts because they are embarrassing and uncomfortable.
As we celebrate the establishment of our church on March 23, 1747 with the calling of the Rev. Samuel Newell, we also need to note that this was the fourth vote to call him. The first was in December 1744 and because seven voted no, they voted again in January 1745 and again in October 1745. They really wanted the vote to be unanimous so they began searching again for someone who the entire community could agree on, only to vote again on Samuel Newell in 1747. And even then, after two and a half years of searching and discussion, of trying to be in unity, 36 voted for him and 10 voted against him, and 8 of those 10 promptly left the church.
For 275 years, we have been a Christian community nurturing faith lives and serving the Bristol community. And for 275 years, we have also been a community of conflict and disagreement.
Conflict and disagreement are not bad things. We are all different. We are never going to always all agree – whether it is two people in a partnership or hundreds of people in a church community. There is always going to be conflict and disagreement in human relationships. What matters is how we deal with it though, and our forebears did not set a good role model for us when it came to disagreement and change.
In her presentation for Heritage Sunday in 1977, Elaine Carlson wrote that on the first Sunday after stoves for heat “had been put in, some of the old timers said they could not stand the heat, rose, and walked out – not knowing that the fires had not yet been lighted!” And in the early 1800’s, when the church introduced instruments and singing in worship, members who were opposed to this newfangled music, left or tramped up and down the aisles in protest. It “was darkly prophesized that there would soon be dancing in the Church!” I wish!
Change is hard for humans, especially change that we do not choose. When we feel like life is out of control, when we feel like we are not getting our way or that our voice does not matter, we can have a tendency to behave badly. Sadly, for 275 years, we have been a church community much more comfortable behaving badly than looking inside our hearts, examining our own discomfort with change, and discerning how we can deal with conflict and disagreement in healthier ways.
As challenging as it is to acknowledge our mistakes and imperfections, to confess our sins, when we do, we feel better; we do better; we are better. We discover that God forgives us, God heals us, God frees us to walk in light, to walk in love, to walk forward in hope and faith, to become more loving people who create a more loving world.