The first 150 years of First UCC
Left (click thumbnails to enlarge): “The Old Brown Church”, built on the NE corner of Washington and 4th Streets, Northfield, MN, in 1861. It was enlarged three times, was used at one time to house students from the new Carleton College, and was destroyed by fire in 1880.
Center: Northfield Congregational Church was erected soon after the loss of “The Old Brown Church”, at its present site on Union and Third Streets, in 1881.First UCC Sesquicentennial, 2006
Right: A group of children from the Congregational Church having a picnic, August 6, 1886.
Our church was originally organized in 1856 as the First Congregational Church of Northfield. The town of Northfield itself was founded only slightly before, in 1855—three years before Minnesota would become the thirty-second state in the union. The first sermon by a Congregational minister was preached on June 10, 1855, in the Stewart cabin on the Carleton College campus, by Rev. Richard Hall. He arrived in Northfield the previous day in a wagon drawn by oxen, from Point Douglas and Hastings.
Rev. Jeremiah R. Barnes and Rev. Joseph S. Rounce shared equally in the establishment of the Northfield Congregational Church. Eight charter members drew up articles of faith on Sunday, Aug. 31, 1856, in the first schoolhouse of Northfield. Rev. Barnes, the founder of the Congregational Church in Cannon Falls, guided this small congregation through its first winter, and was succeeded by Rev. Rounce. Mr. Rounce was born in England and had served six years as a pastor in Illinois. He oversaw the raising of $1,100 for the construction of the “Old Brown Church”, located on the corner of Washington and Fourth Streets, and this building was dedicated debt-free in February, 1862.
By 1864 membership had grown to 130, and three additions to the church were built in 1865-67 to accommodate this growth. The arrival of Northfield College in 1866, soon renamed Carleton College, added many students and faculty to the membership of the church, and in fact students occupied the two new wings of the church. Graduation exercises of the college were held in the Old Brown Church, and in 1875, the college president, James W. Strong, shared pulpit responsibilities with the new minister, Rev. Delavan L. Leonard.
On May 19, 1880, the Old Brown Church burned to the ground and the congregation, numbering over 250, held services in the temporary locations of Lockwood’s Hall and Willis Hall at the college. A new site for the church was selected on Union St. across from the school, and a much larger, sturdier church was built at a cost of $20,647.
The second 25 years of the church’s history were marked by steady growth to 588 members in 1905, the fourth largest Congregational church in Minnesota. Other notable events included the purchase of a church bell costing $540 (1890), construction of a parsonage just west of the church (1895) and the 50th Anniversary Celebration in Sept. 1906. The 10th minister to serve the church was Rev. Edwin B. Dean, arriving in 1905.
The third 25 years of the church saw the development of the Boys’ Brigade, the forerunner of the Boy Scout movement in Northfield. In 1908 the west end of the building was lengthened and land was excavated beneath the assembly room to create a gymnasium and classrooms. Many foreign missionaries served in this period. Rev. Dean joined the Carleton staff as assistant to President Cowling in 1920, by which time membership had increased to 710 members, second in size only to Plymouth Congregational Church in Minneapolis among Minnesota Congregational churches. The twelfth minister, Rev. Samuel Johnson began his ten-year service in 1925. The 75th anniversary took place in October, 1931. The church had weathered World War I, the Great Depression, and a decline in membership to 550.
The years 1931-1956 found church members dealing with two more wars: WW II and the Korean War. Rev. Robert Rasche, the 13th pastor, oversaw a number of remodeling projects of the church as well as program developments for youth. He took a leave of absence in 1943 to serve as a chaplain in the US Navy. He was succeeded by Rev. Silas Evans, Rev. Kenneth M. Martin, and Rev. Max Volkmann.
Recent history: The United Church of Christ was formed in 1957 by the union of the Evangelical and Reformed Church in America and the Congregational and Christian Churches. In August, 1963, our congregation voted to be part of this new denomination, and our name was changed from Northfield Congregational Church to First United Church of Christ (Congregational).
Our steeple has always been a landmark, and has its own colorful history. It was blown down by a windstorm in 1881, and damaged again by storms in 1902 and 1920. Renovations were carried out in 1980, and again in 2006.