Our history tells a compelling story of serving God through the pursuit of social justice, advocacy for the poor and service to the community. Throughout Galesburg’s early years both of the merging congregations were unwavering abolitionists, with the Old First Church being a station on the Underground Railroad. The other congregation, First Congregational Church, had as its member Mary Ann Bickerdyke, famous as a firm and tireless advocate for persons suffering in poor living conditions, particularly Union Civil War soldiers. The pastor of that congregation was Edward Beecher, an abolitionist and a social justice advocate who helped establish the first anti-slavery society in Illinois. He was a member of the well-known Beecher family, sibling to Harriet Beecher Stowe and Henry Ward Beecher.

A Historical Sketch

Homer Zumwalt with Mary Jean Clark and Harvey Safford compiled this historical synopsis entitled “History of Central Congregational Church.” This paper is an excerpt from a collective history entitled “150 Years of Memories 1837-1987” which was compiled for the 150th anniversary celebration of the founding of the church.

Central Congregational Church has a history that dates back nearly to the founding of Galesburg. It was in 1836 when the early settlers came to this area as a colony from the state of New York headed by the Rev. George Washington Gale, a Presbyterian missionary. The colony church was organized as fully Presbyterian to conform with the Rev. Gale’s wish, although 24 members brought letters from Congregational churches, and both the Presbyterians and Congregationalists were familiar with the Plan of Union of 1801. The objective of the colonists was to found a college in addition to a church and city.

Thirty or forty families consisting of about 175 individuals, spent the winter of 1836-37 at “Log City,” a temporary village three and a half miles northwest of the location where the city was to stand. On February 15, 1837, a meeting was held with Rev. John Waters presiding. At this meeting, it was resolved to form a church. More meetings were held on the 17th, 21st, and 25th of February. The date of February 25th, 1837 is regarded as the date of organization of the church. The ministers officiating at the February 25th meeting were Rev. George W. Gale, Rev. John Waters and Rev. Ephraim P. Noel. Rev. Noel was appointed by the Presbytery of Schuyler, Illinois. Elders and deacons were installed on April 9, and the church became fully organized with 81 members, 63 having united by letter of transfer and 18 on profession of faith. The first meetings were held in the home of Mr. Hugh Conger, but after several months, they moved to a two-room building in Log City, which served as both school and meeting house. By autumn of 1837, so many had completed homes in the new village of Galesburg that worship services were moved to a store building in Galesburg. Then in the fall of 1838, the first Knox Academy building was finished and, for several years, it was used for the religious meetings.

The frame of the first church building was made from white oak timbers, cut from around the area of Henderson Grove. The timbers were cut in 1843 and allowed to lie on the ground, exposed to the weather. Construction was stalled because the Congregationalist portion of the membership had grown faster than the Presbyterian, and they asked for a change in church polity. The demand was granted, a compromise arrived at and, in 1845, the church was reorganized along the lines of the Plan of Union. This was an agreement between the two denominations in New England to establish new churches cooperatively in New York and Pennsylvania that could worship as one group, in harmony, under one roof.

Construction was resumed and, although the building was incomplete, Knox College held its first Commencement exercises there in June of 1846. During this time, the church members had exhausted their resources. Therefore, Dr. Blanchard, President of Knox College, decided to make a trip back east to raise money to complete the project. At the time of its erection, it was said to be the second largest church building in Illinois. It was 60 by 80 feet with a ceiling height of 24 feet. The pews and inside finish were entirely of black walnut.

The Church was completed and formally dedicated in June of 1848, and for many years was the center of community life. However, circumstances did not remain as pleasant. Presbyterians and the Congregationalists differed in their concept of church structure and government. Almost from the beginning, there was a bitter sectarian conflict between the two denominations, which eventually resulted in a division of the church.

In response to a request written by Dr. Gale, 37 members were dismissed on May 29, 1851, for the purpose of organizing the “Second Presbyterian Church of Galesburg.” On October 6, 1855, the old church “withdrew from the care of the Presbytery on account of slavery,” and became essentially Congregational in its polity. On October 8, 1856, the name was changed to “The First Church of Christ,” the word “Presbyterian” having been omitted. On January 1, 1885, the phrase “of Christ” was dropped, and the official name became “The First Church of Galesburg,” although it was commonly known as the “Old First Church.”

The Church was the focal point on the city square for 47 years. The last service to be held in the building was on June 16, 1895, when the ceiling gave way and the plaster fell to the floor. The building was considered unsafe for further use, and was sold to S. R. Swanson for $150.00, who tore it down and removed the materials. The church bell was not sold with the building.

Second Presbyterian Church had not been the only split from the mother church. By 1855, the membership had grown tremendously and the meeting house was crowded. Approximately 60 members organized themselves into a new church. They had the blessing of the mother church and the two were decidedly friendly.

This was the beginning of the First Congregational Church, later known as Beecher Chapel. The date of organization was November 9, 1855. Dr. Edward Beecher was called to the pastorate. The Church raised $15,000.00 in order to construct the church building. A site was chosen on south Broad Street across the street and south from the Old First Church. The plans were accepted in August, 1856, and the building was occupied in March, 1857. It was the first brick church in Galesburg.

Just one year after construction, tragedy struck. On Thursday, May 13, 1858, at approximately 2:00 p.m., a tornado almost leveled the building, throwing the side walls outward and breaking them off near the lower part of the windows. The congregation was discouraged, but by great effort and sacrifice, the church was rebuilt. To help rebuild, Dr. Beecher relinquished a part of his salary. He also went east to solicit donations from his friends and to raise additional money by lecturing. From that time until it was closed by a merger with Old First Church, it was a prosperous church.

Both, the Old First Church and The First Congregational Church, existed separately until 1895. The churches talked of building new houses of worship, and it soon became apparent that they had a common objective. With the conviction that the cause of the Redeemer would be better served by a union of the churches, it was voted by both churches to unite their effort and build one church. The declaration of union came on January 6, 1895, and with it, an agreement that the name of the new church would be “Central Congregational Church.” It was also agreed that the site of construction would be on the site of Old First Church.

As word of the union of the two churches became known, and the prospect of a new building planned, architects became active. Eight architects submitted plans. The plan chosen was submitted by Charles E. Gottschalk, who had studied in Europe. The plans were submitted to bid in July of 1896, but when the bids were received, they were found to be too expensive. The plans were reworked and the size of the building was reduced. Even then, the cost was $75,000.00. The contract was signed with general contractor O. C. Housel. who sub-contracted some parts of the construction to other contractors.

The cornerstone was laid on June 10, 1897. It was almost a year and a half later that the first public service was held, which occurred on December 4, 1898. One week later, on December 11, the building was dedicated, and over 2,000 persons crowded into the church. The collection that day was to be applied to the building debt, and when counted, was just over $6,000.00.

For the next 15 years, the membership grew from 743, at the time of the construction, to 1,337. The finances made equal gains to the point where the debt was paid off and the mortgage was burned on March 3, 1908.

The Church is constructed of brown, raindrop sandstone, quarried in Marquette, Michigan. The huge stone blocks were of natural bed stone. The foundation is of vitrified brick. The building is 135 feet from east to west, and 133 feet, five inches from north to south. The Sanctuary is 69 feet by 76 feet, and is 46 feet from the floor to the top of the shallow dome. The truss ceiling and roof are made of wood, and the trusses in the attic span 80 feet from pier to pier. Eighty tons of iron and steel were used in the construction of Central Church. The seating capacity was 950 in the Sanctuary plus another 650 in the Sunday School room to the south. The wall between the Sanctuary and the Sunday School room divided horizontally in the center, half being raised into the ceiling and half lowered into the basement. This made an opening between the rooms 32 feet wide and 24 feet high.

The Sanctuary, shaped in the semi-circular style popular during the last quarter of the 19th century, reflects the emphasis placed on pulpit oratory and musical performance. Behind the minister’s rostrum originally was a large choir loft facing the congregation. On the back wall of the choir loft and directly in the center was the organ console.

There are many beautiful stained glass windows in the church (see below.) The most impressive is the round, or Rose, window above the east entrance. It is 22 feet in diameter with a Greek cross in the center. Surrounding the center are 12 sections symbolizing the 12 tribes of Israel.

At the front of the building is a vestibule, which is 86 feet long. At the south end is the parlor, or social meeting room. It is 240 feet square and contains one of the four fireplaces in the building. 

 High above the town, in the 137-foot tower, is the sole surviving symbol of unity between the two churches that united to form Central Congregational Church. It is the bell itself. It was recast from the bells of Old First Church and the First Congregational Church. There is also a small portion of the bell, which had hung at the top of the old frame Knox Academy building, in the new bell. 

The bell of the First Church was cast by the McShane Bell Foundry, Baltimore, Maryland, in 1889. It had the inscription: “In Memory of Deacon Geo. Avery, Presented by his wife in 1889. Worship the Lord in the Beauty of Holiness.” 

The bell of the First Congregational Church was cast by Menecly & Kimberly, Troy, N.Y. and bore the inscription: “First Congregational Church, Galesburg, Ill. Let Him That Heareth Say Come.” 

The new bell repeated these two inscriptions and added: “These churches were United as the Central Congregational Church, A.D., 1895. There shall be One Shepherd and One Fold.” These bells were recast into one by the McShane Manufacturing Co., Baltimore, Maryland, in 1898. The weight of the new bell is 3,400 pounds. For a number of years after World War II, it was thought that the bell was unsafe to ring. The pins had rotted and, under the heavy weight of the bell, it was feared that it might fall. So in 1959, steel beams were obtained from Butler Manufacturing Company to replace the wooden beams under the bell. For a period of time, the bell sounded its call again. Now, in the late 1980s, with the age of the building and the weakened mortar, the vibration of the ringing action would loosen the stone, so the bell is not rung. 

The church celebrated the centennial of the founding of the church, city and college in 1937. On February 7, 1937 a service of unity involving First Presbyterian and Central Congregational was held to signify the common roots of both institutions. On April 14, 1937, the church held a centennial dinner which was presided over by Dr. Carter Davidson, the President of Knox College. Guests spoke on events that occurred during the first fifty years including the furnishing of Old First Church, the raising of the Old First Church and the Underground Railroad. The second fifty years and the future were also addressed. Among the guest speakers were John West, Olmstead Ferris, Benton Weinberg, H.H. Kellogg, Hermann Muelder, John Winter Thompson, George Davis, Dr. Clarence A. Vincent, Dr. J. Percival Huget, Dr. Charles E. McKinley and Dr. Neil E. Hansen.

The only major remodeling projects to the Church occurred in 1962, at a cost of $250,000.00. Most of the renovation took place in the Sanctuary and the basement, with the remainder of the building having little or no change from the original plans. The Galesburg Construction Company was contracted for the structural changes, and Potente Studio of Kenosha, Wisconsin, a specialist in church renovation, was hired to do the decorating and painting of the Sanctuary. The entire front section of the Sanctuary was changed. The elevated pulpit area was lowered to the present level and, instead of one choir section across the entire chancel area, pews were erected on either side of the chancel with a pulpit on the left side and a lectern on the right (see above.) In the center of the chancel now hangs a brass cross, standing 15 feet high and 7 feet wide. Beneath it stands a Communion table (see below.) This replaced the exposed casework of the organ which had extended to the ceiling the full width of the chancel area. All of the pews were removed, refinished, and replaced as they were originally. The electric wiring, plumbing, and heating systems were brought up to date. The seating capacity was reduced to 900.

Major changes and improvements were made in the basement area of the church. A new kitchen was completed with all new stainless steel equipment. Where the old kitchen stood is now the youth room. Sliding doors were placed on tracks to divide the large dining room into Sunday School rooms, and two rooms were remodeled to serve as the kindergarten department and nursery. The dining room seats approximately 400 people for church dinners. 

Central Church is now a member of Midwest Association of Congregational Christian Churches and the National Association of Congregational Christian Churches. 

In preparation for the sesquicentennial year, the current membership, under the leadership of the Rev. Paul D. Clark, planned to raise funds to renovate the building inclusive of painting the Sanctuary, repair of the organ, repair of outside steps, and tuckpointing on the bell tower. The two principle sesquicentennial events were the joint worship celebrations by Central Congregational Church, First Presbyterian Church and Knox College on Sundays, February 15 and 22, 1987.