The History of South Church Hartford
Congregationalists came to this New World on The Mayflower under the leadership of Elder William Brewster landing at Plymouth, Massachusetts in 1620. Thirteen years later Puritan minister the Rev. Thomas Hooker arrived on the ship The Griffin. Rev. Hooker was appointed the first pastor of the church at Newtown, Massachusetts (now Cambridge). In 1636, because of a disagreement with another highly regarded Puritan minister – the Rev. John Cotton – Hooker lead 100 members of his congregation west to establish the new English settlement at Hartford, Connecticut and founded the First Church of Christ. It is known today as Center Church just up the street from South Church in Hartford. Hooker continued to be in contact with New England leaders such as John Winthrop and Roger Williams often traveling to Boston along the Old Connecticut Path, to help mediate inter-colonial disputes.
In 1637 the towns of Hartford, Wethersfield, and Windsor started a collective government or “commonwealth” in order to fight the Pequot War (1636-1637). In the Spring of 1638, Reverend Hooker challenged the General Court to set down and fix the principles of government preaching a sermon in which he stated, “The foundation of authority is laid firstly in the free consent of the people.” This stimulated the drafting of the Fundamental Orders which were adopted in the First Church meeting house by representatives of Wethersfield, Hartford, and Windsor. This document is one of the modern world’s first written constitutions and had great influence upon the formation of our own current American Constitution, written nearly a century and a half later. This is why today Connecticut is known as the “Constitution State.”
In 1647 Rev. Hooker died and within a decade a controversy was brewing. Rev. Edwin Pond Parker tells us in his 1892 book The History of the Second Church of Christ that Rev. Samuel Stone, the Teaching Elder, and Mr. William Goodwin, the Ruling Elder, differed in their understanding of church government. Rev. Stone was more “Presbyterian” and Mr. Goodwin a staunch defender of Rev. Hooker’s view of congregationalism. The church was split in their opinions and eventually, on the 22nd of February 1670 the Rev. John Whiting and thirty-one members of Hooker’s original First Church of Christ (now Center Church) formed themselves into a distinct church – the Second Church of Christ in Hartford also known today as South Congregational Church.
Our first Meeting House was a wooden building erected at the corner of what is now Main and Sheldon Streets. The second, dedicated in 1754, was located in the middle of the intersection of Main and Buckingham Streets. The third and present Meeting House, built in 1827, stands on the home lot of our second minister (Rev. Thomas Buckingham), deeded to the church by his wife and son. In 1960, a large Chapel, hall, office and classroom wing were added. Since 1853, the Meeting House has been damaged by three major fires and two hurricanes. In 1979, a tornado virtually demolished the Lecture Rooms. This historic structure – the third oldest public building in the city and one of the only four remaining that were built before 1830 – was named to the National Register of Historic Places in 1977, the year of our 307th anniversary.
South Church is not only one of the oldest churches in America, but has one of the longest unbroken traditions as a continuing Congregational church. In 339 years the church has had just sixteen ministers. Our first pastor John Whiting (1670-1689), “declaredly Congregational,” ministered to his flock, to the Indians, and as a chaplain in the French and Indian Wars. Other notable ministries include those of Thomas Buckingham (1694-1731), a founder and original trustee of Yale; Elnathan Whitman (1732-1777), a preacher in “The Great Awakening,” that period of tremendous religious revival, and who saw our second meeting house built in 1754; Abel Flint (1791-1824), co-founder of the Connecticut Missionary Society and the Hartford Bible School; Joel Linsley (1824-1832), under whom our present meeting house was built; Edwin Pond Parker (1860-1912), distinguished writer, historian and hymn writer; and Irving Berg (1912-1917), who completed a merger with the Wethersfield Avenue Congregational Church in 1914.
Under Warren Archibald (1917-1954) the church grew to over 1900 members. He was a leader in the struggle to keep our churches free, but died before the formation of the independent National Association of Congregational Churches (NACCC). Henry David Gray (1955-1970) sparked a revitalization of the South Church neighborhood. He was nationally known for his youth work and as a Congregational scholar, writer and spokesman. John Robert Elmore (1970-1992), called to be the Assistant Minister for Youth in 1956, succeeded Rev. Gray. Widely recognized in the field of Marriage and Family Counseling, he was, like Rev. Gray, active in community affairs and the NACCC. On December 4, 2005, the Rev. Adam Thomas Söderberg joined his predecessors and fellow Bangor Seminary graduates the Rev. Edwin Pond Parker, and the Rev. John Robert Elmore, and accepted the call to become only the sixteenth Senior Minister of South Congregational Church.
Dr. Söderberg is a graduate of the Congregational Foundation for Theological Studies; American Christian College and Seminary (B.A.); Bangor Theological Seminary (M. Div.); and Luther Rice College and Seminary (D.Min.). He pastored an NACCC church in Maine for nine years during which time he also served the Congregational Christian Council of Maine on the State Youth Ministries Committee (1998-2000), as a Summer Youth Camp Co-Director (1999, 2000, 2001, 2006), and as a Vice Moderator (2004-2005). He served on the Nominating Committee of the NACCC (2001-2003) and as the Vice Moderator, Moderator and Assistant Treasurer of the Fellowship of Northeast Congregational Christian Churches. He is also President of the Connecticut Bible Society.
Over the past four decades, South Church has increasingly tried to address the needs and problems of our community and beyond. We are home to and partner with Al-Anon – a worldwide organization that offers a program of help and mutual support for families and friends of someone with a drinking problem – their regional distribution center is at 277 Main Street. We are also home to Grace Academy – the first faith-based, tuition-free, all-girls middle school in Hartford. Grace Academy offers a comprehensive college preparatory educational program for girl’s grades 5-8. We also have a mission in Haiti where we support a school with our sister church: The Bethesda Church of Camp Perrin.
In our fourth century of ministry in downtown Hartford, Connecticut South Church remains committed to the “Great Commission” given to us by Jesus, “…go and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Teach these new disciples to obey all the commands I have given you. And be sure of this: I am with you always, even to the end of the age.” (Matthew 28:19-20; NLT) as well as the “Greatest Commandment,” “The most important commandment is this: ‘Listen, O Israel! The Lord our God is the one and only Lord. And you must love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, all your mind, and all your strength.’ The second is equally important: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ No other commandment is greater that these.” (Mark 12:30-31 NLT)
Growing together, we worship, we serve, we laugh, we cry, we learn, and we reach out to our world with the life-transforming truth of Jesus Christ. After three hundred plus years of ministry in Hartford all we can say is, “We’re just getting started!”
If you’ve been thinking, praying, searching and hoping for a place to belong and to serve, South Church can be Your Congregation.