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Pittsfield's First Church Celebrates 250 Years

By Joe DurwinPittsfield Correspondent
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First Congregational Church is marking 250 years.

PITTSFIELD, Mass. — The oldest church is celebrating 250 years of history in the community this weekend with a combination of events showcasing the past and present life of this historic Park Square place of worship

"It's going to be a lot of fun," said the Rev. James Lumsden, the 19th minister of First Church of Christ, Congregational, reflecting on a two-day anniversary event meant to celebrate the city's oldest religious institution as a place with "deep roots, but also a very different faith community than it was."

On Saturday, from 1 to 4 p.m. the church is holding an open house featuring an art show and an exhibit of artifacts and documents from the church's long history. A celebration concert of music and poetry will be at 3, described as a "mix of gospel, jazz, folk, sacred contemporary and traditional songs as a free party for the people of Pittsfield."

In the sanctuary, artists primarily from local schools have contributed a variety of work, including paintings, drawings and photographs that are reflections on the church and its architecture.  

Historic offerings will include hand written sermons by its first minister, Thomas Allen (brother of famed Ethan Allen), early local genealogy and records, historic books, and a variety of artifacts and antique silver from the church's younger days.

The early history of the church is largely parallel to the history of the city, which celebrated its own 250th anniversary three years earlier. Its legendary Eight Founding Men are essentially the same group of settlers under whom it first incorporated as the township of Pontoosuck Plantation in 1754, and agitation for its construction began at that time.

By 1761 the township had grown to 200 citizens and officially incorporated as Pittsfield, and it was in that year that the local land-owners, after several years debate, agreed upon a tax increase of four schillings per lot to pay for the construction of the church's first building. Under Massachusetts law, every town had to provide for schooling and for an "orthodox ministry," and at that time in the colony's history "orthodox" meant Congregational. For the first 30 years, the church also doubled as the town hall for Pittsfield

Joseph E.A. Smith's "History of Pittsfield" describes this first chapel as "an ugly little structure," about 45 feet long and 34 feet wide, of simple clapboard construction. Controversy erupted during its 1764 construction, as town fathers Capt. Charles Goodrich and Col. William Williams scrambled to secure the best pews for their families. In 1793, local taxes again were levied to build a new church three times the size, designed by Boston's Charles Bullfinch, regarded as America's first professional architect.

Further controversy eventually came to surround its first pastor, the "fighting parson" Thomas Allen, a major Revolutionary War figure reputed to have fired the first shot against the British at the Battle of Bennington. In 1809, a large contingent of the church broke off in frustration with Allen's vocal Jeffersonian politics, but was reunited with the main church in 1817 with the arbitration of a regional ecclesiastical council. The Bullfinch Church, as it was called, burned in 1851, and in 1853 was replaced by the present structure at a cost of $25,000.

Lumsden said one aspect of the celebration is an embrace of the church's history as a whole, even the sometimes uncomfortable parts. For instance, Sunday's concert will feature a generous infusion of music from Second Congregational Church, a participation Lumsden calls part of "a very modest, healing, reconnecting mode" occurring between the two churches.

Just last month, leaders from First Church participated in Second Congregational's own 168th anniversary celebration, a commemoration of the latter church's separation from the former.

"There was a schism at that time, when the racism of the culture, and at First Church, compelled seven black members to leave the church and start what became Second Congregational," said Lumsden. "To have that part of the community come back into a building that they left in a very hard and bitter way, is significant."

In addition to this aspect of its story, Lumsden said Sunday's concert will in many ways reflect the cultural changes in music over the course of the church's quarter-millennium life.

"When I read the history of First Church, I discovered how important music has been," said Lumsden.

Early church music at the meeting house was all non-instrumental, based in hymns such as those of Isaac Watts, a 17th century hymnist who innovated the conversion of scriptural Psalms into songs for worship.

"As the years progressed, the music in the church became very classically oriented," Lumsden noted.

"Some of that continues on my watch," said Lumsden, who said over the past seven years since he joined the church, the church has tried to maintain traditions while broadening them, and simultaneously, "breaking down any divide between what would be called secular and sacred."

The church's first pastor was Thomas Allen, known as the 'fighting parson.'

Sunday's program will intertwine some traditional Protestant hymns and more contemporary classical religious music, with pieces like Keith Jarret's "Memories of Tomorrow", Cat Stevens' "Peace Train," Tom Waits "Come On Up To The House," a setting of Peter Gabriel's "Don't Give Up" reworked by Herbie Hancock, and church youth singing Bob Marley.

"We've begun to discover that there are pop, jazz, folk, rock songs that have as much if not maybe more spiritual significance to people than some of the traditional classical music," Lumsden explained. "It's a fusion style now."

In addition to the church's own in-house band, fronted by Lumsden, its own choir and that of Second Congregational, the concert will also feature local musicians Charlie Tokarz, Rebecca Leigh, Linda Worster, Jon Haddad as special guests.

The church hopes weekend celebration will showcase an institution that has changed and evolved considerably over the arc of Pittsfield's history.

"First Church has moved from being the essential institution in town to being peripheral," the pastor reflected. "That change has given the church an opportunity to become partners with allies in the community, rather than leaders. When you go from being the only game in town, to one of many games in town, there's a certain freedom that we've experienced."

Lumsden says that freedom has played out in parallel to cultural shifts in a body of parishioners that is now more apt to be involved in partnerships with environmental or LGBT groups than administering the strictures of Massachusetts puritan rule.

"I never thought about being pastor of a church celebrating two and a half centuries," mused Lumsden, who relocated to Pittsfield from Arizona to head First Church, "And to have it so deeply rooted in the history of the very community ... it's moving, on a level I hadn't expected."

Tags: church,   historical building,   local history,   

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