Congregationalism (United Church of Christ) in Nevada

By John Marschall

The origins of Congregationalism are deeply rooted in ancient notions that the local congregation is the autonomous embodiment of the ecclesia or church. In Elizabethan times, some members of the Church of England adopted Reformed principles of John Calvin in opposition to the Anglican episcopal polity (governance by bishops) and the presbyterial system (based on regional church representation). These dissenters also opposed the Anglican church’s maintenance of a liturgy quite similar to that of Roman Catholics. These were the first “Congregationalists.”

The Pilgrim Separatists from the Mayflower who settled Salem in 1621 and the Puritan Non-Separatists who settled Boston in 1830 were the émigrés from England who became the pioneers of Congregationalism in the New World. Congregational churches dominated the American landscape until the early nineteenth century, particularly in New England where, in Massachusetts, they remained the established (official) church until 1833—more than forty years after the adoption of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Their notion of local autonomy was believed to have encouraged American notions of independence from England and set the stage for a whirlwind of Congregational movements and mergers over the next four hundred years.

Congregationalists joined Presbyterians in a Plan of Union in 1801 to pool their missionary resources directed to the new frontier. What developed from this effort was a plethora of state and, later, national organizations devoted to distribution of Bibles, promotion of Sunday schools, public education, temperance, abolition, peace, home and foreign missions, and other reform causes that became emblematic of the Second Great Awakening in the first forty-five years of the century. Congregationalists were among the first to open their colleges to women and African Americans. The same Awakening was often characterized by a revival style unacceptable to Congregationalists, but which bolstered the numbers of Baptists, Methodists, and Disciples of Christ. Additionally, the influx of German Lutherans and Irish Catholics before the Civil War (1861–65) left Congregationalists in fifth place in 1860 among mainline Protestant and Catholic churches in the United States.

The Congregationalist domestic missionary impulse derived, in part, from a concern that a small liberal wing of the group (Unitarians, who denied the divinity of Jesus) might assume control of local churches. Beginning in 1810, the missionary effort extended beyond the American borders to India, Palestine, and the Sandwich Islands (later Hawaii), and subsequently to other South Pacific islands.

Congregationalists in the twentieth century were less oriented to the promotion of specific creedal positions and consequently were open to merger with other Protestant churches with similar views on congregational autonomy. In 1925, the small German and Swiss Evangelical Protestant Church and in 1931 remnants of some early nineteenth century “Christian” churches merged with the Congregationalists, forming the Congregational Christian Church. It was its union in 1957 with the Evangelical and Reformed Church that resulted in the formation of the United Church of Christ

The United Church of Christ welcomed women and African Americans to the ordained ministry and, in 1972, was the first denomination to ordain gays and lesbians. The Church has encouraged its congregations to be “open and affirming of all people” (the ONA program), shorthand for welcoming gay, lesbian, and transgender members. Congregants are offered an educational orientation before voting on becoming an ONA congregation, which is considered by some to be a privileged religious status.

Congregational Churches in Northern Nevada fall under the aegis of the United Church of Christ Northern California Nevada Conference and those in Southern Nevada under the Southern California Nevada Conference. In 2007, the United Church of Christ numbered 1.2 million members in the United States. Despite its relative smallness, this modern-day embodiment of Congregationalism has been a noticeable proponent of social causes in some communities, not unlike its leadership role in developing the reform and benevolent societies during the Second Great Awakening.

Northern Nevada
By Donald Jessup

Congregationalism arose in Nevada in 1870 when eight Reno Congregationalists—James C. Hagerman, Kitty Hagerman, Mary F. Poor, Annie L. Poor, James Weston, E. Crane, Mary E. Crane, and Mary A. Kinney—petitioned the national organization in Boston to establish a “Calvinistic and orthodox church organization generally known as Congregational” in Reno. The petition was accepted, and the Reverend James Henry Morgan, D.D., was invited to Reno to direct the organizing of a Congregational church. Morgan had graduated from Union Theological Seminary in New York City and, with his new bride, sailed to Panama, crossed the isthmus by mule, and arrived in San Francisco in 1850. After seven years as a pastor and seven more as an administrator in the Congregational Association of California, he became superintendent of missions for California and Nevada. His mission was to establish new churches wherever he could. He arrived in Reno on February 18, 1871, and met with the petitioners that evening to make plans for the formal organization of the church on the next day. The Reverend A. F. Hitchcock, who had resigned from First Methodist Church, which had been organized a few months before, was called to be the first pastor. The first service was held the next day at Northside Elementary School. This was the second church organized in Reno and was called simply the First Congregational Church

The congregants met in the school for two years and, even though they were few in number, they, along with the Odd Fellows Lodge, raised enough money to build a two-story building. The church used the bottom floor and the Odd Fellows the top floor. The lot was donated by the Central Pacific Railroad, which was interested in developing the towns along its route. The money was largely raised with the sale of baked beans and Boston brown bread

As Reno expanded, the congregation swelled and soon outgrew its church facility. In 1884, the pastor A. B. Palmer retired. He owned a house and a lot at the corner of Fifth and Virginia streets and sold it to the Ladies Aid Society of the church for $900. The house was used as a parsonage for many years. Once again, fundraising for a new building began in earnest, and, as before, largely consisted of the sale of meatless dinners that were priced at less than thirty-five cents. In addition, the church obtained a grant of $2,984 from the Congregational Building Society in Boston. This money was used to erect a beautiful new brick building on the Fifth and Virginia site. It was dedicated on Thanksgiving Day, November 24, 1892. In 1904 the old parsonage was demolished and rebuilt, and the church added a new Moeller pipe organ. This organ came around Cape Horn and was shipped to Reno by rail from San Francisco. This building served the congregation for sixty-six years. Several of the stained glass windows and the organ are part of the current edifice

During this time, the Pilgrim Brotherhood was organized by the men of the church. This group was responsible for the building of the Reno YMCA and the passage of the anti-gambling law, which was repealed in 1931. The ministry of the church, in addition to serving the spiritual needs of the community, had been opposed to gaming in the community while simultaneously striving to serve the spiritual needs of the employees of the gaming establishments and the entertainers who appeared there

The World War I years were difficult for both the Presbyterian and Congregational churches. The Presbyterian church had a small membership and the Congregational church was having difficulty supporting its pastor. It was suggested that the two churches federate on a trial basis for a year. This type of arrangement was popular throughout the nation at that time for similar reasons. The basic principles of this agreement were that each church would retain its identity and that new members would be offered the choice on which particular church roll their names would appear. Also, the benevolent funds would be equally divided between each denomination, and the pastors were to be called from the two denominations on an alternating basis. The trial was so successful that it was made permanent in 1921. Despite several administrative problems that existed with this arrangement, the Federated Church lasted until 1971 when the congregation voted to de-federate and resume the name of the First Congregational Church of Reno

After sixty-six years at the Fifth and Virginia location, the neighborhood had become mostly commercial and the church building had developed many problems associated with its age, so it became necessary to relocate. The church had received many offers for the property and finally, in 1958, the Sewall Corporation offered $150,000 (compared to its purchase price of $900) to use it as a parking lot for their supermarket that was located next door. The church accepted the offer and prepared to move to a residential neighborhood on Sunnyside Drive. There they built the Christian Education building, which was designed to serve all activities of the church until a sanctuary could be built in 1963. A third building was constructed in 1995 to house the nursery and additional meeting rooms

This church, like many in the Congregational fold, had periods of conflict concerning its religious philosophy and experienced several periods of financial difficulty. In addition, it needed to overcome problems peculiar to the local community. In the 1930s and 1940s Reno had an international reputation as the divorce capital of the world. However, significantly more marriages than divorces took place during this period. The church was located near the downtown core with its myriad of wedding chapels. Many couples preferred to be married in a church, and the local Congregational minister catered to them like a “Marryin’ Sam.” It generated a considerable amount of revenue and conflict. Disputes over the distribution of marriage fees between pastor and church led to the departure of this minister, and subsequent local church policy solved the problem for future generations

The location of the church on Sunnyside Drive in northwest Reno was relatively isolated. One pastor decided to reach out to the community in the face of a declining congregation of largely senior citizens. He became part-time chaplain at a local hospital, joined civic organizations, and became a “Buryin’ Sam” by connecting with a local funeral home to be the pastor of choice for families that did not have a church connection. Although some congregation members expressed concern that the funereal duties detracted from pastoral visitation and counseling, the church’s relationship with the pastor survived to mark its 137 years of service in Reno.

First Congregational Church hosts Light of the Soul, a gay, lesbian, and transgender congregation with its own minister and services. It is expected that the two congregations will merge, forming a single “open and affirming” (ONA) United Church of Christ congregation

Southern Nevada
By Grace Schmiedel

Congregationalism in Southern Nevada started with a Las Vegas community church founded by Methodist missionaries Albert C. and M. Carol Melton in 1929. On September 6, 1931, seven people organized a Sunday school in a private home at Harvard and Oxford streets north of the Las Vegas city limits in a depressed area known as Old Town or North Town. The growing congregation met in the Meltons’ double garage and a nearby school, until Immanuel Community Church incorporated in 1934 and completed its first building in the 1900 block of Glider Street the following year. Church services were in the Methodist tradition but the congregation had no official affiliation.

The regional Methodist authorities determined there was no need for another Methodist church in Las Vegas. Consequently, the thirty-five member congregation voted to join the Congregational-Christian denomination and to call Rev. Albert Melton as their minister. He openly fostered interracial activities and opened his pulpit to African American ministers well in advance of organized civil rights activism in Las Vegas. Melton became president of the Clark County Ministerial Association and sat on the council that founded the city of North Las Vegas in 1946. The growing congregation erected a new church in 1951 and a parsonage followed in 1954. Melton retired but remained on the staff with the title of emeritus minister.

The new pastor, Rev. Donald R. Coyle (1954–55), strangely, did not become a formal member of the congregation until two weeks before his forced retirement. During the course of his pastorate, he tried to lead the church away from traditional Congregational procedures—possibly toward a more Episcopalian liturgy and church décor. When he removed the descriptor “Congregational-Christian” from Immanuel’s phone book listing, there was concern that Coyle was moving the church out of the Congregational fold with support from an aggressive segment of church members. In addition, county courthouse records showed that he performed in commercial chapels an astounding 1,988 marriages over a seven-month period. His reputation as a “Marryin’ Sam” reflected badly on the church. Bitter meetings ensued and Coyle officially joined the congregation in order to vote in its deliberations. The Coyle faction succeeded in obtaining the resignation of Melton, effective November 1955, but there was a subsequent vote of no confidence in Coyle. He and forty members were voted out of the church on November 27, 1955. Melton rejoined the church in December.

In March 1956, Melton was joined by a new pastor, the Reverend Gudmund Gudmundsson, who revitalized the congregation’s social and religious activities, thereby attracting new members. In 1957 the congregation of 160 people voted to accept the merger of the Congregational-Christian Church with the Evangelical and Reformed Church to form the United Church of Christ. Gudmundsson, who helped found Spring Mountain Youth Camp for troubled teenage boys, served Immanuel Community Church until his death in 1962.

Gudmundsson’s death interrupted plans to erect a new church building at Searles Avenue and North Twenty-fifth Street, which was finally completed in 1965 under the pastoral leadership of the Reverend Ralph Earle. This was the occasion for Immanuel Community Church to shed its name, which, because of variant spellings, had been a source of denominational confusion. First Congregational Church United Church of Christ was chosen as the new name to reflect the fact that it was the inaugural Congregational church in the Las Vegas area. The street address was later changed to 1200 North Eastern Avenue.

Between 1966 and 1968, First Congregational shared its facilities with the St. Luke’s Episcopal Church congregation. It also was a primary support of the innovative but short-lived “Strip Ministry” program through which Congregationalist minister Richard Mawson counseled employees in hotels and casinos on Las Vegas Boulevard South. The program ended in 1968 because of lack of sufficient funding from other local churches and the Southern California Conference.

The Reverend Paul Gaston (1967–69) was a social justice activist. Although the church’s growth did not meet his expectations during these years, there began on his watch a lively tradition. For ten consecutive years the congregation and its Hawaiian friends sponsored a luau with leis and coconuts donated from Waialua United Church of Christ in Oahu, Hawaii. The luau was followed by a Hawaiian service on Sunday, which has continued every couple of years and which has nourished the congregation’s relationship with local Hawaiians and the church in Maui.

Missionary and social outreach programs increased during the pastorates of the Reverends Thomas C. Dick (1969–76) and Bruce Hatt (1976–89), although the church membership remained between 150–200 persons. The Unitarian/Universalist fellowship shared the newly erected multipurpose Gudmundsson Hall from 1969 to 1978, as did a Pentecostal congregation during part of this period. The Priscilla Women’s Fellowship provided assistance to the women’s group at the Moapa Indian Reservation in Southern Nevada. First Congregational co-sponsored a missionary couple in Ghana, and Hatt with his wife served as missionaries in Jamaica for six months in 1983. In 1989–90, led by the Board of Mission and Action, First Congregational supplied dinner for a homeless shelter started by St. Luke’s Episcopal Church. It was moved to Main Street and Owens Avenue in the fall of 1990, was sponsored by the Junior League of Las Vegas, and is now called The Shade Tree Shelter for Women and Children.

The Reverend Ron Gibson became pastor in 1990 and attempted to move the growing congregation in a more conservative direction. He encouraged affiliation of congregants in Promise Keepers and sponsored films produced by the Promise Keepers’ conservative parent organization. Some members were offended by the tone of a Gibson anti-abortion sermon. Gibson’s untimely death of a heart attack in June 1995 occasioned the congregation to call more liberal ministers to its pulpit. Interim minister Otto Sommer started leading the congregation a little less conservatively and revitalized many activities, but in December 1996 he also died unexpectedly. With the encouragement of interim minister Jacqueline Brown and the congregation, First Congregational member Patricia Manning helped with the founding of the AIDS Interfaith Ministry in Southern Nevada in October 1997. The first AIDS Candlelight Vigil was held at First Congregational Church on December 1, 1998, and celebrated its tenth anniversary there in 2008.

The Reverend Valerie Garrick (1998–2000), with the Board of Mission and Action, sponsored an eight-member Islamic family from Kosovo, Serbia, as they adjusted to settlement in Las Vegas. During Garrick’s pastorate, twelve of the more liberal members of the congregation joined with her under the aegis of the Southern California Nevada Conference to leave First Congregational and form a new church. The first move was to Bill Thomas’s coffee warehouse near Rancho Drive and Cheyenne Avenue and its name was Northwest Community Church (United Church of Christ). The church had a membership of about 120 and was very active in programs promoting social justice under its pastor, Rev. David Krueger-Duncan. Over eight years the church moved four times and in 2009 for economic reasons returned to share the facilities of First Congregational Church where, in a “partner church” arrangement, it retained its own ministers, staff, and services

The Northwest congregation, with a membership of 120, is a progressive church and open and affirming to all people regardless of gender preference or identification. The church is involved with the AIDS Interfaith Ministries program. It also includes a Justice Advocacy Group that brings issues to the attention of local, state, national, and international authorities. The church sponsors a food pantry with the First Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), is a primary participant and donor in the Crop Walk program, and active in Special Olympics. Additionally, the church has shared joint committee membership with its host, First Congregational Church.

Meanwhile, the original First Congregational Church at the Eastern Avenue location with its eighty-five members provided a small but effective mission presence in a mixed low-income and predominantly Hispanic neighborhood. Under student pastor Crespin Orozco (2000–03), the food pantry was started to help the area’s families. The small congregation was unable to retain its five pastors for any length of time until the arrival of interim ministers Gail and Stuart Wells (2003–05). Part-time pastor Rev. Dave Pomeroy came at the beginning of 2006. He, like most of First Congregational pastors, was active in the Clark County Ministerial Association and was its president in 2009. In addition to providing the usual church school classes for all ages, the congregation had a pantry feeding more than eight hundred families in 2008, a thrift shop, a bread program led by Catholic friend Ana Garcia, and for five years the church was the location of the County Resource Center for the needy.

First Congregational also developed a unique relationship with Samoan congregations and other Christian denominations. Beginning in 1996 the Samoan Congregational Christian Church of Las Vegas, UCC, under the leadership of Rev. Fereti Moenoa, shared First Congregational Church’s facilities. This group later moved to Sandy Valley, south of Las Vegas, where Moenoa continued to exercise a leadership role with emerging and already established Samoan congregations in the Southern California Nevada Conference, UCC. He has also been active in the Safe Place network serving Las Vegas homeless youth. Later, what came to be called the Congregational-Christian Church of American Samoa under Rev. Ailao Tofaeono had its first home in the facilities of First Congregational Church. It held services in both Samoan and English, and its youth group met with that of First Congregational in a joint English service. Also meeting at First Congregational were the Hispanic Iglesia Apostolica, the Pentecostal Peace of the Gospel Church with services in Romanian, and the Greater Las Vegas Church of God in Christ, an African American congregation

South of Las Vegas, the Community Church in Henderson was founded in 1942 when 187 people of several Protestant faiths asked Roy Couch of the Federated Council of Churches to act on their behalf. The congregation petitioned Titanium Metals Corporation to build them a church, but it was the federal government that erected the church at Texas and Army streets in downtown Henderson. Rev. Clayton Gill, a member from First Congregational in Las Vegas, was minister (1958–60). Community Church of Henderson joined the United Church of Christ denomination in September 1966, when Rev. T. Terrance Phelps was the interim minister, followed by the new pastor, Rev. Robert W. Richards. In the late 1980s and early 1990s the pastor was Rev. J. Ed Swain, who had been an assistant pastor to Rev. Bruce Hatt at First Congregational. The congregation moved into a new facility at 360 Horizon Drive, Henderson, Nevada, in July 1988, and built a new chapel in 2000. Rev. Merrill Kanouse was pastor of 140 members in 2009. The congregation has helped the Las Vegas Rescue Mission, assisted with hurricane relief in Mississippi, and sponsored work missions to Arizona, California, and La Esperanza near Tijuana, Mexico. The old building in downtown Henderson is now a senior center and is listed on the National Register of Historical Places, because it was one of two churches built by the federal government.

Elsewhere in Las Vegas, Filipino-American United Church of Christ and Disciples of Christ (DOC) pastor Ernie Luat started a small Filipino congregation in spring 2008, with help from the Southern California Nevada Conference. First Christian Church, DOC on South Rancho Drive donated space for this new joint venture, which further exemplified the ecumenical cooperation of both denominations.


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