First Congregational Church of Ashfield/UCC:
A historical sketch of our church
Ashfield, or Huntstown, as it was then known, began as a “proprietor town,” one of sixteen townships granted by Acts of the General Court of the Province of Massachusetts to the officers and soldiers who had served in the failed 1690 expedition to Canada during King William’s War. The original “proprietors” of this town took early measures to supply the first settlers with “Gospel ordinances.” In the original grant of land, two lots were reserved for the support of an “orthodox” ministry – one for the minister and one for a church.
On December 22, 1762, the Huntstown Proprietors called the Rev. Jacob Sherwin as their first pastor. On February 22, 1763, an ecclesiastical council convened to organize The First Congregational Church of Huntstown. Fifteen people gathered at the home of Ebenezer Belding on what is now called Bellus Road. (That group of 15 included six white men, eight white women and one freed slave.) On February 23, the next day, the Rev. Jacob Sherwin was installed as pastor and the Articles of Faith and Covenant, prepared by the ecclesiastical council, were consented to and signed by the six white men of the original 15 members.
With the minister’s lot of fifty acres and 60 pounds annually, the Rev. Nehemiah Porter was installed in December 1774 as the second minister. He was sole pastor until 1808, serving for over 33 years. He continued to serve as minister emeritus, with two colleague pastors, until June of 1819 when he preached his final sermon at the age of 99.
According to the original grant, the town was required to settle a minister and build and finish a meetinghouse for the Public Worship of God. The records show no definite action was taken on the building until 1767, when a frame was set up on Bellows Hill. By January 1771, the frame had been removed to what is now Plain Cemetery and the building, though unfinished, was first used.
According to Barbara Zalenski’s article in the Aug. 10, 1963 issue of the Greenfield Recorder-Gazette, “this initial building was very plain and unadorned. It was 48 feet long and 36 feet wide. There was no bell and no belfry. The walls were without plaster, covered from floor to ceiling with side boards, estimated as being four to six feet in width. It is said the wide cracks were evident on the north and west sides, which must have made worthless the meager warmth from footstoves.”
In 1800, according to Frederick G. Howes’s ‘History of the town of Ashfield, Franklin County, Massachusetts: from its settlement in 1742 to 1910’, there were three carriages owned by those attending the Congregational Church and these were actually lumber wagons. The roads were torturous and hilly; most traveled to church on horseback and on foot. Yet all went to meeting. There were then no cushions on the seats, no backs to lean against, and no heat. It is said that Mr. Porter, in the short days of winter, would preach as long as he could read from his notes in the fading light. Nevertheless, our hardy ancestors used this building until 1812.
Between 1812 and 1814, a new and magnificent building was completed at what is now Hill Cemetery on the top of Norton Hill. It was used there until the spring of 1857, when a Mr. Tubbs of Springfield was hired to move the building down the hill on “sticks” (log rollers), some of which are still under the building. This church on the Plain continued in use there until 1868. In the meantime, in 1856 there was a split within the congregation and one group moved down to Main Street and constructed what was then called the Second Congregational Church. (The conflict within the congregation is a separate story. There are at least three theories about the source of the conflict and probably it involved all three – differences of opinion about the morality of birth control; conflict with a treasurer and missing funds; and conflict between dueling choir directors.)
In any case, for 12 years (1856-1868) Ashfield housed two Congregational churches. In 1868, the two congregations reunited and decided to meet in the “new” church, which took the name The First Congregational Church. The Norton Hill church, now across the street from the second church, was sold to the town for use as a Town Hall, continuing as such to the present time.
Our current church has seen many physical changes over the years: the church has had two steeples, both of which blew down in storms; the church has grown – adding a chapel and dining room in 1886, a kitchen in 1930, a new wing for Sunday school in 1956, and the current pipe organ which was purchased and installed in 1932. The church parking lot was significantly enlarged in 2003, and all three levels of the building were made wheelchair-accessible with the installation of a lift in 2007.
From 1945 to 1983, the First Congregational Church and St. John’s Episcopal Church experimented with an ecumenical ministry by sharing a pastor and a Sunday school for the two churches. It proved to be a successful experiment but apparently not sustainable. In 1958, the Ashfield Congregational Church joined many other Congregationalists in the newly formed denomination called the United Church of Christ, the UCC. We continue to be members of that national body.
In the 1970s and 1980s, our church served as an incubator for several important community institutions. Among them are the town newspaper, the Ashfield News; the Ashfield Community Preschool; and the Hilltown Churches Food Pantry, which continues to be located in our church building and co-sponsored by our congregation.
In 2001, we became the first UCC church in Franklin County to declare ourselves an Open and Affirming [ONA] Church and to maintain that status, pledging to be pro-actively welcoming and affirming to all. [Please see our ONA declaration for the full text which is part of the home page of this website.]
We celebrated the 250th anniversary of this congregation on February 24rd, 2013, with a very spirited and well-attended Sunday morning worship service. The celebration continued with a large dinner/dance at Edge Hill Golf Course on July 13th, 2013.
The First Congregational Church has been served by 38 pastors, one for over 33 years and some for as short as 6 months.
The calling of the Rev. Kate Stevens as settled pastor of this church in 2004 has led to a 21st century church resurgence. She is the first female settled pastor in the history of our church, and continued to serve in this position until June 4th 2017. The Rev. Nada B. Sellers is our new interim minister.
Though things have changed in many ways since 1763, some things never change. We continue to wrestle with conflict and disagreements and we continue to experience love and growth that can come within community. The Holy Spirit is alive and well and active in our church, and we today are honored to be a small but important part of the history of this sacred, always inspired, congregation.
Timeline of our church
1763 - February 22 - The Ashfield Congregational Church was organized.
1771 - First meeting house was erected on the site of the Plain Cemetery and was used until 1814.
1812 - Another building was erected on the site of the Hill Cemetery. It was used for worship until 1856 when it was moved to the Plain and used as a church there until 1868. Later sold to the town for use as a Town Hall.
1819 - The Sunday school was organized by Rev. Thomas Shephard.
1856 - The congregation split and a second church (our current church building) was built on Main Street.
1868 - The two congregations re-united, using the newer building, call-ing it the First Congregational Church of Ashfield.
1886 - The chapel and dining room were added.
1895 - The interior was redecorated and again in 1945.
1913 - 150th Anniversary of the church.
1930 - The kitchen was built.
1932 - Present pipe organ was installed.
1945 - St. John’s Church and the Congregational Church agree to yoke and share one pastor.
1948 - Sunday schools combined.
1957 - Addition of six rooms on the west side of Friendship Hall for the
Sunday school, pastor’s office and, eventually, storage space for the Food Pantry.
1958 - The First Congregational Church joins the United Church of Christ, UCC.
1963 - Our 200th Anniversary!
1969 - Brief three-way association: First Congregational Church of Ash-field, St. John’s Episcopal, and United Church of Conway. By 1977, Conway has left.
1976 - The Ashfield News is started, using Upper Friendship Hall.
1976 - Ladies Circle [LC] votes not to renew agreement with Ashfield Food Co-op for use of Lower Friendship Hall. Cabinet overrules decision. LC annual reports reads, “This was the year for the LC to relinquish control of Friendship Hall.”
1983 - Dissolution of the joint ecumenical ministry between St. John’s and the Ashfield Congregational Church. Ecumenical church school for children and adults, and ecumenical worship on fifth Sundays, continue until the late 1980s.
1984-1985 - Church Self-Appraisal and Bylaw Revision, decentralizing authority, instituting several new committees: Trustees, Mission & Social Action, and Christian Education.
1985 - The Ashfield Community Preschool opens in Friendship Hall, moving in 1998 to their own building.
1988 - “Sharing Christmas” program is started, providing gifts for children of Food Pantry clients.
1990 - The Ladies Circle votes to disband; transfers their assets to the church. Belfry Restoration Campaign is launched and repairs are completed.
1996 - Endowment policy is adopted.
1998 - Our Vision Statement is adopted, after a nine-month whole church process.
1998 - The Hilltown Churches Food Pantry expands and moves from St. John’s Corner House to Lower Friendship Hall.
2000 - The first of several additional bylaw revisions, in an evolution toward a “transformational” (“bubble-up”) process of church governance ’00-’06.
2001 - The church, after a two-year study and discernment process, votes to become an Open and Affirming (ONA) congregation. Our church marches yearly with other area churches in Northampton Gay Pride Parades.
2002 - Capital Campaign enlarges the parking lot, improves handicapped access into side entrance and does major repairs and renovations to the sanctuary and Friendship Hall.
2003 - Centennial Organ Concert, October 26th.
2005 - Celebration to commemorate the 2004 Massachusetts Marriage Equality decision. Annual celebrations have continued.
2006 - Installed lift, giving access to all three floors of building. Culminated in Lift-Off Celebration / Sanctuary’s 150th Anniversary Dinner on Sept. 16, 2006.
2007 - Talent show on May 25 to celebrate the completion of the lift and its first official riders.
2008 - Community “Share the Warmth” program started, to assist with residents’ cold weather issues.
2008 - Community “Sacred Conversation on Race” started.
2011 - Two-day ecumenical community forum on “Christian Socialism.”
2012 - Ongoing ecumenical community “Kairos Palestine” study group starts.
2013 - Two day “Kairos Palestine” community event, “Palestine 2013: Art, Crafts, Film, Food, and Politics,” June 14-15.
2013 - 250th Anniversary Celebration of the Church.
2017 - Celebration of Rev. Kate Stevens and partner John Hoffman’s ministries, June 3-4, as part of the Ashfield town wide spectacle.