History of the Community Church of Durham

 

The Community Church of Durham, which changed its name in 1923 from “Congregational Society in Durham,” is a congregation of the United Church of Christ. Its actual founding was in 1718, but its roots go back to 1651. That was when the town of Dover, of which the sprawling settlement along Oyster River was then a part, voted to support a minister there in addition to the one already installed at Dover Point. In 1655, Valentine Hill, a prominent settler, built a meetinghouse on the south side of the river about halfway between the falls and what is now called Durham Point. There followed a long period of spotty ministerial services but no organized church, featuring for much of that time an unordained preacher and physician named John Buss.

In 1716, Oyster River Plantation, as it had been called, was set apart as a separate parish within Dover with its own powers of taxation to support a minister. At the same time there arrived the young Reverend Hugh Adams, who immediately saw to the building of a new meetinghouse at the falls near the present Sullivan monument, where a second Oyster River community had begun rivaling the earlier and more dispersed settlement downstream. In 1718, Adams presided over the gathering of a church. His pastoral identity seems to have been with the congregation at the falls, but by legislative order, he continued to preach on alternate Sundays at the original meetinghouse on the river and then at a replacement meetinghouse closer to Durham Point. Despite his difficult personality and his eccentricities, which were many, Adams needs to be recognized as the founder of the church and in one sense of the town of Durham itself, since it was he who suggested the name under which the parish became an incorporated town in 1732.

A crucial turning point in the history of both church and town came in a series of actions between the firing of the stubbornly orthodox and anachronistic Curtis Coe in 1806 and a final decision by the town in 1814 to end forever the long-standing town ministerial tax. Durham thus disestablished the church on the town level five years before New Hampshire’s “Toleration Act” mandated the same thing across the state. The church struggled for survival during the next few years, it not being immediately obvious that voluntary support could take the place of compulsory taxation. Then in 1816 the Reverend Federal Burt arrived as a missionary to revive the almost moribund congregation and did so with great success. Membership increased dramatically, a Sunday School was founded, and the church was put on a new legal footing appropriate to its disestablished status. After more than a century during which the church had suffered several periods of anguish and near death, never again would its vitality be in doubt.

Mr. Burt’s invigorating tenure was followed by the 40-year pastorate of the Reverend Alvan Tobey, the longest in the history of the church. This was an extraordinarily eventful period in the life of the nation, including among other things the Civil War, and the church had to deal with issues such as temperance and the abolition of slavery that were part of the reform enthusiasm leading up to it. Mr. Tobey and his congregation were not always in accord on these matters, nor did he always feel appreciated. The most visible and lasting consequence of his ministry was the erection in 1848 of the building in which we worship today. In both architecture and emerging terminology among Congregationalists, the building was a “church” rather than the “meetinghouse” that had preceded it.

The life of the church changed forever in 1893 with the arrival in Durham of the New Hampshire College of Agriculture and Mechanic Arts. The church began immediately to adapt to an enlarged and enriched community with the renovation of the church building and the installation of a new furnace and organ. In 1923, the year the College became the University of New Hampshire, came the most decisive steps of all, a new remodeling of the sanctuary, the addition of the Community House that stayed in place until the renovations of 1999, and, without changing its affiliation with the Congregational denomination, the renaming of the church to Community Church of Durham. The new name not only reflected the diverse denominational backgrounds of students, faculty, and staff members from various parts of the country who were now making the Durham church their church, but emphasized anew its assumptions of community service and leadership. Since then, the church’s ties with the university have profoundly affected the congregation in its heterogeneity, its programs, and its discussion of social and religious concerns. A similar force for diversity and adaptation has been the movement into Durham over several recent decades of business and professional families without university connections but from equally varied regional and denominational backgrounds.

After World War II, the arrival in Durham of Roman Catholic and Episcopal mission churches spurred participation in inter-church programs and dialogue then being encouraged by the mid-century ecumenical movement. The movement reached particular intensity in the late 1960s and early ‘70s, involving briefly an actual ecumenical ministry to university students, but declined gradually thereafter. At the same time, the church was increasing its own commitment to community service and educational role by adding in 1963 a new education building, subsequently attached to the main structure as part of the major alterations of 1999. In 1961, the same year the decision was made to go ahead with the education building, the church voted to become a member of the United Church of Christ, a merger of the Congregational-Christian and Evangelical and Reformed churches, approved by both denominations at their national meetings on July 25, 1957. The same year the Durham church became one of the first in the state to sign on to the merger, the New Hampshire Congregational-Christian Conference decided to become a state UCC conference. Many local churches in the state dragged their heels, worrying about compromising congregational autonomy, but eventually 90 percent of the Congregational-Christian churches in New Hampshire followed Durham’s early lead by becoming members of the UCC.

Another landmark year was 1976, when the church responded to a generous bequest by remodeling the sanctuary a third time, installing a concert-quality organ as a community as well as a congregational resource, establishing a significant fund for mission and outreach, and providing the land for the construction of the Church Hill Apartments for the elderly. In a nod, at least, to a growing ecumenical consciousness, the remodeling of the sanctuary resulted for the first time in a divided chancel centered on the Communion table rather than the pulpit-centered arrangement that had been in place in a variety of forms for 128 years. In addition to its other outreach programs, including making its facilities available to community organizations and activities of many kinds including a church-sponsored Boy Scout troop, the church has taken a leading role in encouraging and supporting the evolving forms of a Protestant ministry (and briefly an ecumenical ministry) to UNH students.

In 1999, the church completed its most ambitious building program since 1923, the demolition of the community building and the substitution of the mid-level Fellowship Hall, providing a connection between the main building with its street-level sanctuary and the 1963 education building and chapel. Almost at the moment of its completion, the church welcomed the Reverend Mary Westfall, the first woman in the 281-year history of the church to be called as its senior minister. She was already on familiar terms with the church and community, having just directed the United Campus Ministry. Responding to her charismatic encouragement, the church since then has undertaken substantial new initiatives, including becoming “Open and Affirming,” a UCC designation indicating welcome to members without regard to sexual orientation, the long-term development of a strategic plan for the church, a more flexible and diverse sharing of church facilities, the inauguration of a thrift shop designed as a community outreach program , and an emphasis on programs and activities aimed at environmental responsibility, peace, and social justice.

~ Charles E. Clark

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