A brief history of our church
Once there was a congregation in Westerly whose historical affiliation was simplicity itself: the Christian Church. Across the river, in Pawcatuck, was a Congregational church, one of many in Connecticut.
The Christian Churches were one of the first “all-American” religious movements. They came about in the early 1800s and strived to be, paradoxically, a denomination without a denomination: free of an organizational structure and set apart from the rivalries that they perceived took people far away from the simplicity of the earliest Christians. The Christian Churches were most numerous in the South, but the message was heard as far away as southern Rhode Island. Some members of a long-vanished Congregational church—the Hill Church—formed the Christian Chapel Society of Westerly in 1843 and built a meetinghouse across from Wilcox Park. In 1876, the name was changed to the Broad Street Christian Church.
Although the Christian Churches were never numerous, they have a distinguished place in our nation’s history. They were ahead of their time in knowing that the Good News was not just for certain ethnic groups, or races, or social classes, but for all of us.
The Congregational Church hearkens back even farther into the past. The earliest settlers of New England—the Pilgrims and the Puritans—were Congregationalists. They wanted to take the Protestant Reformation even farther away from centralized authority and toward small communities of believers. Despite the dour, authoritarian image the word “Puritan” conjures up today, they were true religious radicals, respectful of the intellect and of individual expressions of faith. In thought and in deed, they changed the world forever.
The Pawcatuck Congregational Church also formed in the 1840s, in a private home where the Westerly Library now stands. Soon, its members built a sanctuary across the river in Pawcatuck.
The Congregational and Christian denominations merged in 1931, but since neither had ever recognized ecclesiastical authority past the level of the local congregations, each individual church retained much of its own flavor.
In 1957, the Congregational Christian Churches—as our denomination was known by then—became part of the new United Church of Christ. Some individual congregations chose not to affiliate with the UCC; the Road Church in Stonington, another of our ancestors, was among these. But the majority, including our two churches, did join.
Starting in the 1950s, increasing numbers of Americans drifted away from their traditional church affiliations. Our corner of New England was not immune to this trend. Faced with declining numbers and aging buildings, and with a long and generous relationship between us, our two churches agreed to become one. Property was purchased off Pequot Trail, half a mile west of the Pawcatuck Congregational Church, and our new church home was dedicated in 1968.
The Pawcatuck Congregational Church is only with us in memory and spirit; a gas station is now on its old site. The sanctuary of the Broad Street Christian Church has had a happier fate; it lost its steeple in the Hurricane of 1938, but the rest of the building is now the home of the Granite Theater.
The United Church of Christ has as its motto "That they may all be one" (John 17:21). It is an ambitious attempt to transcend denominational differences and to achieve a spirit of unity among many diverse people who accept Jesus Christ as the Savior. We include in our numbers representatives of the Congregational, Reformed, and Evangelical traditions of Protestantism.
Individual congregations retain a great deal of autonomy; one UCC congregation may not—and probably won’t!—“feel” much like another. As we like to say, “In essentials unity, in non-essentials diversity, in all things charity.”
The United Church of Christ Web site has a wealth of historical material and links to thousands of UCC congregations.
Both our parent churches were affiliated with the UCC’s Rhode Island Conference, and even though we meet in Connecticut, we remain so to this day.