First Congregational Church

Published In:
Ann Arbor Observer, May 1998,
May 1998

Author: Grace Shackman

Many Ann Arborites today consider the First Congregational Church, on the corner of State and William, one of the most beautiful buildings in town. But the 1872 structure was lucky to survive the improving impulse of the early twentieth century. In 1924, a disdainful visitor wrote that it was “as inadequate, shabby, and disreputable as any church I have seen in such a [prominent] location.” Twice the congregation voted to replace it with a bigger, more modern structure, but the first plan was derailed by World War I, the second by the Depression. The delays gave the congregation time to realize what a gem they had. Today, in spite of limited parking and high maintenance costs, the Congregationalists are committed to staying in their historic church.

The church was designed by Gordon Lloyd, “one of the most prominent Gothic church architects of his time,” according to his great-granddaughter, Anne Upton, who lives in Ann Arbor. Other local examples of Lloyd’s work are St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church, Harris Hall, and the entrance to Forest Hill Cemetery. Around the state, his commissions included the Whitney home in Detroit (now the restaurant of the same name) and churches as far afield as Marquette.

Gothic Revival architecture, with its steep roofs and tall pointed windows, was rarely used for Congregational churches. The denomination traces its origins to the Pilgrims, and its prototypical church in New England was a simple wooden structure with a tall steeple. Lloyd made some concessions to this history in his design. “It’s simpler, more open, not typical Gothic Revival,” says retired assistant minister Dorothy Lenz.

Photograph of 608 East William
Street, home of the First Congregational Church

First Congregational Church.

Although many of Ann Arbor’s early settlers came from New England, the Congregational church was not organized until 1847, more than twenty years after the town was founded. Under an agreement called the “plan of union,” the Congregationalists had originally deferred to the Presbyterians in organizing churches west of the Hudson River. But in 1847, forty-eight members left the First Presbyterian Church to start First Congregational. According to the Presbyterians’ history, the group that branched off “preferred the Congregational form of government [each church governs itself], they didn’t care for the recent revival, and they were more ardent in their antislavery feelings” than the Presbyterians’ current minister.

The new group purchased land at the corner of Fifth Avenue and Washington (now Bank of Ann Arbor), meeting at the county courthouse until their church was built. They remained strongly antislavery. In 1861, they hosted controversial abolitionist Wendell Phillips at a time when other churches refused to let him speak for fear that protesters would do physical violence to their buildings.

In 1876 the Congregationalists moved to their current location on William and State. (They sold their original building to Zion Lutheran Church, which itself had recently broken off from Bethlehem Evangelical Church.) At the time, State Street was still a dirt road, and although the university was across the street, the neighborhood was mainly residential. Most parishioners walked to services. Judge Thomas Cooley, a U-M law professor who also served on the state supreme court, lived right down the street on a site where the Michigan Union now stands.

Like Cooley, many of the church members were important in the development of the university or the town; the church’s form of self-government and tolerance of personal beliefs appealed to people who enjoyed dialogue and new ideas. Other prominent members included opera house owner George Hill, physician and hospital owner Reuben Peterson, and U-M presidents James Angell and Marion Burton. Walter S. Perry, the superintendent of Ann Arbor schools, headed the church’s Sunday school program.

This high-powered congregation hired challenging thinkers as ministers. The most famous in this century was Lloyd C. Douglas, minister from 1915 to 1921, who went on to become a nationally famous religious novelist. Many of his books were made into movies, including The Magnificent Obsession, The Green Light, and The Robe.

After leaving Ann Arbor, Douglas went on to preach in Montreal before his success as a writer allowed him to retire from the pulpit. “He always enjoyed being a celebrity,” says Ray Detter, who wrote his 1975 doctoral dissertation on the minister. Douglas eventually moved to Los Angeles, where he hobnobbed with actors who starred in his films, among them Arthur Treacher.

After his wife died in 1944, Douglas moved to Las Vegas to live with one of his daughters. “He described Las Vegas as a place where ‘the Ten Commandments are viewed as a forthright insult to the freedom of the human spirit--a hell of a place for an elderly prophet to end his days,’ ” Detter recalls. Not long before his death, Douglas wrote to a friend, “The happiest years of my life were spent in the Congregational Church of Ann Arbor.”

Douglas died in 1951 and today is memorialized in a chapel named after him. Before his death, his daughters contributed money to the church to build the chapel, part of an addition organized by Leonard Parr, minister from 1937 to 1957. Parr, a scholarly man who also wrote hymns, appreciated the beauty of the church building and developed plans to adapt it to the needs of the congregation. In 1941 the church underwent a major renovation, including the addition of more stained-glass windows (there were only two originally) and the removal of the side balconies. In 1953 the new wing was added. Designed by U-M architecture professor Ralph Hammett, it includes the Lloyd C. Douglas Chapel, Pilgrim Hall, and Mayflower Lounge, as well as offices and classrooms.

Near the end of Parr’s ministry, the church faced the big question of whether to join the United Church of Christ, a new denomination formed by the merger of the Evangelical and Reformed Church and the Congregational Church. After much discussion, the Ann Arbor congregation voted in 1956 to remain separate. Today they are part of a national association of Congregational churches but remain free to make their own decisions.

In 1965, minister Terry Smith came to Ann Arbor. A former basketball player at Ohio State, he attracted parishioners involved in U-M athletics, including Fritz Seyferth, Gus Stager, Bill Frieder, Newt Loken, Johnny Orr, Bob Ufer, and Lloyd Carr. Smith, who retired last year and still gives the invocation at U-M athletic department events, was the longest-serving minister in the church’s history.

Most of the changes in the church’s more than 150-year history reflect larger changes in town. Few members still live near enough to walk to church, and the congregation has become more diverse in race and ethnicity. Says present minister Bob Livingston, “It’s impressive, coming as I do from Grand Rapids where it is more homogeneous.”

But many things have been constant over the years. An emphasis on good music is one. From 1890 to 1895, the church employed Reuben Kempf, one of the best musicians in town, as choirmaster. Today, Marilyn Mason, world-famous organist, provides music, and Willis Patterson, associate dean of the U-M music school, is choir director.

Probably the most consistent element in the history of the First Congregational Church is its tolerance of a wide variety of views. Longtime church member Louise Allen says, “You can have your own thoughts. Religion isn’t thrust at you.” According to Smith, “It’s a thoughtful congregation. When I was preaching, I knew they were thinking. They were responsive, they’d talk to you afterwards.”

Smith’s description of the congregation parallels comments written by Calvin Olin Davis in his 1947 history: “members were often bluntly outspoken in their judgments and often wearisomely stubborn in their convictions . . . but [they believed] that all men are of equal worth in the sight of God and that each one is entitled to the full and free expression of his thoughts and feelings.”