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.
The magnificent 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 vocal soloists.
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, 2009 the congregation enthusiastically welcomed the Rev. Andrew Nagy-Benson, as the twentieth settled pastor of the Congregational Church.
Excerpted from The Congregational Church of Middlebury, Vermont, 1790-1990, by Stephen A. Freeman, and A Walking History of Middlebury, Vermont, by Glenn M. Andres.