BRIEF CHURCH HISTORY
The church was originally
called the “Church of Christ;” the term “Congregational” did not
come into use until about 1810. In 1961 the church voted to
become affiliated with the United Church of Christ, a Protestant
denomination founded in 1957 as the union of several Christian
In Vermont’s early years
the church as an institution was part of town business; taxes provided support;
and the location of the church building was a matter of public debate. After a
period of controversy over where the official “center” of the young town of
Middlebury would be located, the town voted in 1794 to meet for worship in the
growing village near the falls, where Gamaliel Painter and John Chipman had
built a gristmill and a sawmill. Services were held in Mattock’s Tavern for
four years. Once the first Addison County Courthouse was completed in 1798, it
became the regular place for worship. Meanwhile, Vermont was moving toward
separation of church and state. In 1801 the legislature voted to exempt
religious dissenters from paying taxes to support the church, and the separation
became complete in 1807.
Eventually the site for
a proper church building was determined: the location above the falls at the
head of Main Street. Construction was begun in 1806, entirely financed by
voluntary contributions from local settlers. Lavius Fillmore, who had already
built three churches including the one in Old Bennington, was chosen as the
architect. The building, considered Fillmore’s masterpiece, was completed in
1809 at a cost of $9000.
five-tiered spire, soaring 135 feet high, was designed with a flexible frame
that was able to withstand the gale-force winds that occasionally buffet
Vermont, such as the 1938 and 1950 hurricanes that leveled or severely damaged
many local buildings. The rectangular interior reaches upward to a cross with a
central dome—the Cross embracing the World—supported by handsome ionic columns,
each cut from a single tree on the town green across the street. The interior
has been redecorated numerous times, most recently as part of a preservation and
restoration project completed in 2001.
The building was hardly
roofed over when the state legislature met here in 1806. A Sunday School,
organized in 1815, was one of the first in New England. The Middlebury College
commencement exercises were held here until 1938. A bell was installed in the
tower in 1821, and replaced with the present one in 1841. Sometime before 1853
the town of Middlebury installed the
clock, which it still owns and regulates—an example of cooperation between
church and state on the local level.
The church has a rich
musical tradition. The first pipe organ was installed in 1864, and it too has
undergone a number of changes and additions in the process of becoming the
wonderful instrument it is today. The choir is often joined by guest instrumentalists and
A succession of
distinguished pastors have served the church. After John Barnet (1795-1805),
the noted Thomas Merrill served from 1805 until 1842. More recently, the Rev.
David Andrews (1982-2003) guided the church into its third century. In
November, 2004 the congregation enthusiastically welcomed the Rev. Marthinus J. Riekert, as
the nineteenth settled pastor of the Congregational Church.
Congregational Church of
Middlebury, Vermont, 1790-1990, by
Stephen A. Freeman, and A Walking History of
by Glenn M. Andres.