It’s hard to imagine the Grinnell of today without the ministry of the congregation now known as Grinnell United Church of Christ. The founder of the town, Josiah Bushnell Grinnell, was an entrepreneur and minister in the Congregational tradition. Tradition holds that he is the person to whom the abolitionist newspaper editor Horace Greeley said, “Go west, young man.” Grinnell purchased land on the prairie where he anticipated the Rock Island Railroad would intercept another rail running north and south. Instead of establishing a new school in the area, he persuaded the board of trustees of Iowa College in Davenport to move 120 miles west. He granted land to the college, which assumed his name, and established the First Congregational Church. Grinnell himself presided over the church for its first two years along with Samuel Herrick.
The church met first in the parlors of its leaders, then built wooden structures for worship and education, and in 1877 erected the largest auditorium in the Iowa territory. Today we look back with fondness on the “Old Stone Church” as the site of many Grinnell College convocations and commencements. The strength of the Grinnell church as an ethical and political force in the Nineteenth Century brought many preachers and activists of historical significance to its pulpit. Henry Ward Beecher, Frederick Douglass, Booker T. Washington, Harry Emerson Fosdick, William Howard Taft, and Washington Gladden have all proclaimed the word of God to our congregation. The Grinnell Church was early to the promotion of women in church leadership. Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Anna Dickinson and Helen Keller have all testified before our congregation.
The church’s wholehearted rejection of the cause of slavery in its early years made it an important organizing site for abolitionism. In 1858 the congregation and its minister hosted the radical abolitionist John Browne, along with fourteen fugitive slaves and a “miniature arsenal” headed for Harpers Ferry, Virgina. Brown spoke before the First Congregational Church and stayed in the home of the pastor. JB Grinnell himself saw to Brown’s passage by train as far as Chicago.
Following the Civil War, the social justice commitments of the Grinnell Church found new expression in the Social Gospel movement. Speaking to the spiritual needs of the Industrial Age, ministers of the Social Gospel like Washington Gladden and Josiah Strong rigorously applied the teachings of Jesus to an era of increasing social inequality. They spoke to the importance of education for children and especially girls, to the sins of low factory wages and dismal working conditions, and against the dreary quality of life in crowded American cities. On the prairie, Grinnell became an important outpost of the Social Gospel movement when the Rev. George Herron was called from the Congregational church of Burlinton, Iowa to serve the college as Professor of Applied Christianity. Herron’s political interests distracted from his teaching duties and compromising personal decisions ultimately cut his tenure at the college short. However brief, the department Herron established contributed to the formation of young Christians as critics of society and culture.
Following World War II, the church spoke to the needs of Grinnell in three important new ways. A major building campaign, chaired by the Rev. Royal J. Montgomery created a more manageable alternative to the magnificent Old Stone Church and added needed space for classroom instruction and spiritual growth. The midcentury brick building that stands today is a symbol of the church’s capacity to adapt its ministries for changing circumstances. Second, immediately utilizing the new facilities the church established a preschool to provide prekindergarten education to its members and the community. The UCC preschool remains today an important commitment of the church to the Grinnell community. Unlike in its early years, classroom enrollment now consists mostly of children not otherwise affiliated with the church. Finally, in the same year that Dr. Montgomery broke ground on our new building he dedicated the structure that now bears his name three blocks south. The Mayflower Community was born as a ministry of the United Church of Christ. The Mayflower remains a covenanted ministry of our denomination and we welcome many Mayflower residents as members and friends of our church.
Much more complete histories of the Grinnell Church are available to anyone interested. Topical essays by longtime church members and historical authorities like George Drake are available in a book published on the church’s 150th Anniversary. Some of them are available below.
George Drake, “The Church and Grinnell College”
Henry Rietz, “History of Grinnell Church”
Scott Libbey, “A Community Rich in Legacies of Faith”
John Saxton, “The Legacy of the Evangelical and Reformed Church”
Bob Molsberry, “A Whole New World: The Changing Role of the Mainline Church in Grinnell and Across America”