October 29, 2019
The year was 1869. The United States had finally emerged from its bloodiest war into the chaos and uncertainty of reconstruction. But out in the far northwest of the country, a very small town of less than 1000 people on the edge of the continent was granted a charter by the Washington Territorial Legislature, and Seattle became a city. At that point, Seattle was little more than a street skirting the waterfront, with rutted dirt roads traversing precipitous hills and muddy tide flats to form blocks platted in a semblance of modern-day downtown.
On October 16th of 1869, nine congregationist men gathered to form the Plymouth Congregational Society under the leadership of Rev John Damon. Within a week of its formation, the society expanded to the point that, with 5 teachers and 20 scholars, it could begin Sunday school work. One founder described the early Sunday school as “long on frontier ingenuity and short on theologically trained staff or published materials.”
Only three months after this initial meeting, on January 14, 1870, a group of six leaders (four men and two women) met and after a prayer, unanimously adopted the Confession of Faith and Covenant of the First Congregational Church of San Francisco, California as its own. Plymouth Congregational Church was born. The first worship service was celebrated two days later.
From its earliest days, Plymouth has been marked by the membership of business and civic leaders. The church was helped to build its first building by the donation of a lot by Arthur Denny and a scow of lumber by Captain William Renton. The first building was dedicated in August 1873. The rest, as they say is history.
But how are we, the spiritual descendants of those first Seattle Congregationalist founders to approach and make meaning of that history? One frame of reference is the many accomplishments of this church over its history.
Indeed, Plymouth has much to be proud of in its long history of ministry and leadership in the Seattle community. And we celebrate it at this time of commemoration. But there is another frame of reference that might be valuable and instructive for us to use as we celebrate this 150 year history.
Our legacy of civic engagement has been carried out within a white-dominated culture and power structure. For our entire history we have been a white-dominant culture church, as we remain today. In the past few years a noticeable number of white Plymouth members have begun a process of personal discovery into their own white privilege. So what does this have to do with our history? Let’s go back to 1869. One month after Seattle was incorporated an ordinance was passed ordering the Indians to be removed from the town. The land that made up Seattle and the surrounding community was the home of the Duwamish tribe for centuries. That first church building that Plymouth dedicated in 1873 was built on what had been Duwamish land. And so that gift of land is an example of white privilege that has been a constant throughout our history and deserves to be considered.
Within such a frame of reference we might ask how Plymouth and its members have reacted to moments of injustice to people of color. How did we respond in the 1880’s to the Chinese exclusion Act and the treatment of local Chinese? What voice did we raise when Japanese-Americans were being shipped off to Internment camps in 1942? How did we respond in the 1960’s to rampant red-lining practices in Seattle that effectively created a black ghetto in the Central District? What do we say today about the mass incarceration of a generation of African-American young men and the well-documented differences in police treatment of citizens by race?
We are hoping that as we celebrate our achievements as a church over a long history, that we also take the time and effort to reflect on our responses to injustice as part of the power structure of our city. Perhaps we can learn something that will help us navigate the world we will find in the next 150 years.
So as we begin this eight-month season of celebration and reflection, I want to mention two main events that will mark this time.
In January we will celebrate our date of forming as a church with a special weekend highlighted by a gala dinner on Saturday, January 11 and a worship service on Sunday, January 12 featuring the Rev. John Dorhauer, General Minister and President of the United Church of Christ.
Then next Spring, between Easter and Memorial Day we will have another weekend of special events and celebration. In between we will be having periodic exhibits and events showcasing different aspects of our history.
It’s going to be a very exciting time together. I urge you all to participate. --Don Bell, 150th Anniversary Committee