11/5/17 Susan Nason
Why and how was Eliot Church started? Actually the railroad had a lot to do with it. In 1834 a railroad opened that ran from Boston through Newton and Newtonville to Squash End (now known as West Newton). It was not by chance that the early rail line took this route – it was largely through the efforts of William Jackson, a descendant of one of the earliest Newton families, who had the vision to see what this new method of transportation would mean to the communities through which is passed. By the early 1840s families began to recognize how pleasant it would be to have a home in the “country” so the population in the Newton Corner area grew.
The dominating influence around which the life of any community centered in those days was the church. Most of the people in Newton Corner attended the First Church in Newton Centre, but in 1844 some began to talk and pray about having a meeting house closer to their homes.
So in Nov. 1844 a group of men, under the leadership of William Jackson, took the first step toward forming a church by writing an eloquent letter to the First Church asking for their permission to allow the group to establish a new church. So it was that Jackson and 36 other members, with the blessing of First Church in Newton Centre, organized what became The Eliot Religious Society whose purpose was to build a meetinghouse. The land for the building was donated and it is the land that our church building still stands on today.
So on July 1, 1845 the Eliot Church of Newton was officially organized and the building dedicated The new church was named in honor of John Eliot, the Puritan minister who was also a missionary to the Native Americans of the area in the 1600’s. He was the first minister to preach and translate the Bible into their native tongue and he helped to establish 14 Prayerful Indian communities. In 1645 John Eliot founded the Roxbury Latin School. Eliot historian, Arthur Lord, wrote “The name Eliot became a symbol and a constant reminder of what they wished their church to stand for” and I believe that this “Eliot spirit” has, through the years manifested itself in worship, education, service and outreach.
There were 37 original members of Eliot Church – 12 men and 25 women. And you can see their names on a plaque in the vestibule.
The people who founded the church had a number of concerns and areas of focus, even as we do today.
The spiritual life of the church was its primary concern and for many decades there were Sunday morning, afternoon and evening services and Friday night prayer meetings. Music was valued from the beginning. For the first three years music was provided by a 12 person choir, accompanied by instruments that members brought from home. Sounds like the Eliot Philharmonic! After that an organ was built.
Education was also very important. A Sabbath School was formed for all ages with the Bible as the basic curriculum. In the first month 71 children were formed into 12 classes and later in the year adult Bible classes were organized. Within 15 years, attendance increased to over 200 with 27 teachers. When Pastor Reebee is looking for folks to serve as Sunday School teachers, remember the words that Sabbath School Superintendent Otis Trowbridge wrote in 1855 “We do not mean to be understood as excusing any of the members of this church of either sex who have health and strength from bearing a part of this good work.”
During the first 50 years the “Eliot spirit” was very evident in the service and missionary work, carried out mainly by seven active women’s groups. Among the recipients of their caring and labor were 1) missionaries in South Africa, India and Turkey, 2) Hampton Institute in Virginia and Talladega College in Alabama, 3) the Boston Seaman’s Friend Society as well as the needy of the parish. In the 1860s Eliot Church also supported the establishment of a mission school and later a new church called North Church in what is now Nonantum. Also when new missions were being opened in Japan as part of the surge of missionary interest in the 19th century, Eliot church members raised $5,000 to support a mission church in Tottori. Over the years this connection has been renewed with visits to Tottori by some Eliot members and visits to our church by Rev. Yukimasa Ohmae and others. In 1995 Eliot Church sent money to Rev. Ohmae to help the people of Kobe after the earthquake there. The print on the wall of the Lord’s Prayer in Japanese is a gift from the people of the Tottori church as is the communion plate on the alter.
I would be remiss if I did not say a few words about the Eliot Church buildings themselves. As I said earlier, the first building which was a typical New England meeting house style was dedicated in 1845. The chief source of revenue for Eliot (as well as for other churches of the time) was the sale of pews and the annual tax assessed on them. The 8 pews in the most desirable locations were valued at $145 apiece and the others ranged in value down to $55. An auction for the sale of the pews was held. Each pew was the property of the person who bought it and no one could sit in it without the owner’s permission. Persons who bought more than one pew could rent seats in them so others could attend church. At the annual meeting of the Society it was decided how much money was necessary for the expenses anticipated for the following year. The money was raised by an assessment laid on each pew, proportional to its valuation. Also complicating the situation was that some members wanted to pay their pew rentals “in soap, milk or other commodities.” But I don’t get any ideas – I don’t think Mary Anne Schoonover or David Wood would appreciate folks paying their pledges in soap or milk!
The congregation continued to grow and within 15 years the original building became too small. It was sold and moved in 1859 to the corner of Centre and Elmwood Streets and became Eliot Hall.
So a second much larger meeting house designed in the Romanesque style of architecture was built and was dedicated in 1861. The sanctuary, or “auditorium” as it was called at the time had 176 pews and could seat about 1,000 people. Again, sale of pews was important to meet expenses, but a debt of $10,000 remained for several years. They tried a few different ways to reduce the debt, but Arthur Lord writes that “it was not until 1866 when a few individuals made liberal gifts for the purpose that it was wiped out.” So dealing with deficits is not a new thing.
But on a cold morning of January, 1887 the church caught fire. Members and friends were able to carry out nearly everything that was movable, and within two hours the church was a smoldering ruin. But the Eliot Religious Society lost no time in starting to rebuild.
The dedication of this third building took place just two years later, in 1889. It too was in the Romanesque style of architecture but had many features of Byzantine art and was much different from the first two buildings. The outside walls were made of pink granite with brown sandstone trim. There were two towers with one having a four sided clock and large bell. The bell was inscribed “Blessed is the people that know the joyful sound.” The building also had nine beautiful stained glass windows.
This third building was in use for the next 67 years, but in 1956 a fire of unknown origin tore through this edifice. Although some items were saved, the building was a total loss. The beautiful stained glass windows exploded from the intense heat. But again the decision to rebuild was made without hesitation. This time, however, they reverted to a simpler building – one in New England colonial style and this is the building we are in today. One side note – in the days following the 1956 fire the members of the church collected the pieces of glass that had been the stained glass windows. As one way to raise money for the new church, they made and sold pendants made from the glass pieces. I am wearing one of them and you can see others today after church in the parlor.
In its nearly 175-year history the 14 senior ministers and countless lay leaders have guided the church through the changes and crises the years have brought. Wars have impacted the church. From the beginning Eliot Church members stood against slavery so Rev. Joshua Wellman and the church supported the Civil War as the way to abolish slavery. Rev. Hiram Grant Person guided Eliot through the years of World War I when 92 members of the church served in the military and during World War II Rev. Ray Eusden and Eliot members supported that war effort.
However, the congregation became seriously divided during the Vietnam War – probably the most divided it had ever been throughout its history. The minister at that time, Rev. Harold Fray, believed that the war in Vietnam was a fundamental moral issue. When the US invaded Cambodia in April, 1970 Rev. Fray started his sermon, but was so overwhelmed that he stopped, took off his robe, and just sat on the chancel steps. That began an effort by some members of the congregation to bear public witness to their faith and to give expression on church property to their moral outrage over invasion of Cambodia. On May 6, 1970 35 members of the congregation gathered on the front steps of the church for a service of worship to initiate a daily vigil that would last for 8 weeks. A casket draped with an American flag was placed on the lawn. This action created a crisis both within the church and the community. Polarization, for and against and deep concern about how decisions were made took place immediately and continued for a long time. Some long-time members of Eliot withdrew financial support or left the church, but the church’s actions also brought in new members and built a new sense of community and support for those who supported the vigil and what it stood for.
But the Vietnam War was not the only thing that was impacting Eliot during the late 1960s and 1970s forcing the congregation to examine its mission and priorities.
Starting in 1969 three UCC churches in Newton – First Church in Newton Centre, Second Church in West Newton and Eliot began to consider merging. Over the next few years they explored the possibility in depth and even had a trial partnership but, in the end, that merger did not come to pass.
But one of the things that the trial partnership allowed was more flexible use of building space. This enabled Eliot to open its facilities to a community program for area youth, known as Beginnings. One Eliot member, Fred Rosene, was very active with the Beginnings program. It started as an arts and crafts program that would be available five days a week, but was almost overwhelmed by its success and it too became very controversial since many of the teens wanted a place to gather every day of the week at all hours and this greatly impacted the building as well as other church programs and activities. There could be a talk devoted just to Beginnings and I encourage anyone who wants to know more about the tumultuous time to read the book “Making a Difference” by Fred Rosene.
The merger exploration envisioned the three buildings being used for different purposes. Traditional Sunday morning services would be held at Second Church while an experimental, more informal worship would be held at Eliot Church on Friday nights. By this time Eliot had a lot of young, active and very liberal members and was growing. Even after the merger was voted down, Eliot continued with the Friday night gatherings for entire families for a number of years. These began with a potluck dinner and then there were classes for both adults and kids which ranged from learning self-defense, to ballroom dancing to carpentry! The evenings ended with a brief worship service. If you talk with anyone who was part of those gatherings, they will tell you that they were truly community building.
After Harold Fray took another pastorate in 1972, a team ministry began at Eliot. Chuck Harper, whom some of you know, was one of four individuals, all of whom were members of Eliot, who shared ministerial duties. There was some discussion about making this arrangement permanent, but the congregation eventually voted to proceed with a search for a sole pastor and Herb Davis became the pastor in 1973.
So you can see that the 1960s and 1970s was groundbreaking, but controversial and tumultuous time at Eliot.
But the congregation came together in a remarkable way when Eliot Church folks were asked to help sponsor some Southeast Asian refugees following the war. Many Newton churches and synagogues were involved in this undertaking. In 1979 Grace Church sponsored a family and a number of Eliot folks helped with this effort. One of our members, Jim Humphrey, even studied the Chinese language in order to communicate better with the sponsored family.
Then it was Eliot’s turn to sponsor the next family. Working through Church World Service we learned that our family would be from Vietnam: mother and father, Bo and Muoi Ly and their four children. Finding housing was the hardest part, but Eliot was able to buy a duplex in West Newton from the Archdiocese of Boston for about 1/3 of its assessed value. Many hours were put in to repairing and preparing the house as a home. Then a whole contingent of Eliot folks went to the airport very late one night in March, 1980 to meet the family. There followed health exams and treatment, school enrollment, finding clothing and furnishings for the house and helping the family become acquainted with American customs. An English as a Second Language (ESL) class for adults was established at Eliot with many Eliot, Grace and Newton Baptist church members serving as instructors. Everyone pitched in to help in so many ways. Bo and Muoi worked hard and have stayed connected to Eliot over these many years.
I joined Eliot Church in 1977. Since that time there have been so many events, activities, mission projects and worship experiences that it would take me another hour to talk about them all. Clown services by our youth, Christmas caroling to shut-ins, preparing and serving meals to Long Island shelter residents, the annual Fall Fair, family retreats at Craigville, the singing of the Hallelujah chorus every Easter, clean-up of the Charles River, the Heiffer project, celebrating Eliot’s 150th anniversary and so many more.
As we approach Eliot’s 175th anniversary in 2020 I leave you with these words written by former Eliot pastor Tony Kill at the time of Eliot’s 150th anniversary:
“The church is a living, changing organism, growing and developing through time like any other living body. May we be “joined and knit together” with one another as we “grow and build ourselves up in love”.
And we must continue to ask ourselves: Who is God calling us to be and who are we uniquely equipped to serve?