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updated: 5/7/2011 2:46 PM

First church in Elgin to mark 175th anniversary

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  • First Congregational Church constructed this building at the northwest corner of Fulton and Villa streets in Elgin in 1843 and remained there until relocating to its current location at Center and Chicago streets in 1889. The site, which was later occupied by the Bethlehem Lutheran Church, was razed in the 1950s for one of the city's first municipal parking lots.

      First Congregational Church constructed this building at the northwest corner of Fulton and Villa streets in Elgin in 1843 and remained there until relocating to its current location at Center and Chicago streets in 1889. The site, which was later occupied by the Bethlehem Lutheran Church, was razed in the 1950s for one of the city's first municipal parking lots.
    Courtesy First Congregational Church

  • The home of James T. Gifford at Prairie and Villa streets as it was described by his widow and other pioneers. First Congregational Church was organized in this cabin and used it as a meeting place for its first three years.

      The home of James T. Gifford at Prairie and Villa streets as it was described by his widow and other pioneers. First Congregational Church was organized in this cabin and used it as a meeting place for its first three years.
    Courtesy First Congregational Church

 

By Jerry Turnquist

Daily Herald columnist

First Congregational Church of Elgin -- the first congregation to be formed in the city -- will mark a special anniversary on Thursday, May 12, when it celebrates the 175th anniversary of its founding.

It's a milestone just as important to the city as the church because it commemorates the beginning of the city's long religious heritage.

Numerous historical sources record how Elgin was founded in 1835 by James T. Gifford of upstate New York. Devoutly religious, Gifford had selected the name "Elgin" for his new community before leaving from his home state -- a name taken from a favorite hymn tune of his.

Gifford arrived in the Elgin area in April 1835, and began construction of a log cabin dwelling near what is now the intersection of Villa and Prairie streets on the near east side. Leaving it partially completed, he returned to New York during the summer.

According to church records, religious services were held in his absence in a home on what is now the intersection of State and Highland on the near west side. Upon Gifford's return, services resumed at his log home.

These early services included "reading the scriptures, prayer, singing and reading a sermon, one part of the day; the other part was appropriated to Bible class instruction," according to memories recorded by the first pastor in an early church publication.

The first sermon was given in the Elgin area near the end of 1835 by an itinerant Methodist minister -- a clergyman whose name was not recorded. The second sermon was delivered on Feb. 14, 1836, by the Rev. John Prentiss of Joliet who had been invited to the new settlement.

In February 1836, the Rev. Nathaniel C. Clark of Naperville was invited to the Elgin area. He had spent the day before organizing a church in Elk Grove Village. The formation of a church in Elgin was discussed, but deferred to a later date because the 10 people in attendance were split as to whether or not they wanted to organize as a Presbyterian or a Congregational church.

On May 12, 1836, Clark returned to meet with citizens of Elgin to form a church. This time the organization of a church was able to move forward since one person had agreed to switch his vote to "Congregational."

"I would that I could make you see with my eyes into that rude little tabernacle with a puncheon floor, small windows, rustic seats, latch string out, a few loose boards across the sleepers above, and a ladder for stairs," wrote Julia McClure in her memories of the cabin where the group had assembled.

"On a table were a Bible and I think Village Hymns. Eleven expectant, quiet persons were there to consummate an event of deep and solemn interest to themselves and the future. Prayer was offered, resolutions adopted and letters from home churches presented and read," McClure said. "All arose and entered into solemn covenant."

These first members included Ruth Dixon, Experience Gifford, James T. Gifford, Laura Gifford, Philo Hatch, Reuben Jenne, Mary Ann Kimball, Relief Kimball, George McClure, Julia McClure and Sarah McClure.

The fledging congregation continued to meet regularly without a pastor until Clark returned in late July 1836 to conduct the church's first communion service. He returned again in December when five new members joined the congregation.

In September 1837, Clark took over as part-time pastor, sharing his time with a church in St. Charles. Two years later he assumed the role full time.

Much of the congregation's energy in early years was directed toward opposing the "curse of strong drink" and the "sin of slavery," recalled McClure.

"It is safe to say that nearly every cabin under Congregational control was a station of the Underground Railroad," she wrote.

Gifford's cabin met the needs of the members for the next three years. In 1838, when the congregation numbered about 46, they joined a group of 13 Baptists in constructing "Union Chapel."

Located at the northeast corner of DuPage and Geneva streets, the building was sold to the Baptists in 1843. First Congregational then relocated to Fulton and Villa streets, and in 1889 moved into its current location at Chicago and Center streets.

Gifford desired his new community to have a strong religious basis and offered a free lot to any congregation wanting to build in Elgin. In the next few years, a Methodist and a Universalist congregation were established.

By the Civil War, the city's religious offerings expanded to include Catholic, Presbyterian, German Evangelical, and German Lutheran congregations. By the 1960s, that number had climbed to more than 50 -- a number that now stands at more than 100.

At 6:30 p.m. Thursday, May 12, the church will conduct a 60-minute historic walk, open to the public, which will take tour-goers from the church at 256 E. Chicago St. to the original log cabin site and other locations associated with the early church.

On Sunday, May 15 -- the day the church also conducts a special 175th anniversary celebration during its 10:15 a.m. service -- the tour will repeat at 1 p.m.

For more information, call (847) 741-4045, or visit fcc-elgin.org.

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