The First Church of Christ in Hartford, known as Center Church, was founded in 1632 in Cambridge, Massachusetts. It had its roots in the village of Little Baddow, just east of Chelmsford in Essex County, England. It called Thomas Hooker to be its first pastor. As a result of disputes between Mr. Hooker and John Winthrop, the governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, Hooker and a band of parishioners traveled on Indian trails from Cambridge to the Connecticut River valley and settled Hartford in 1636. Hartford is named for the town of Hertford, in Hertfordshire County, England, where Samuel Stone (Hooker’s colleague in ministry) was raised. Visit the websites of Center Church’s roots in England:
Four meeting houses have served its ministry in Hartford. The first two were located where the Old State House stands today. The first, built in 1636, was a small log structure and was given to Mr. Hooker to be his barn when the second was built in 1640. In 1739, the third meeting house was built on the present site of the current meeting house.
The fourth and present Meeting House was completed in 1807 at a cost of $32,000. The pulpit recess and barrel-vault ceiling were added in 1853. Originally fitted with clear glass windows, stained glass windows were given as memorials between 1881 and 1903. The first organ, purchased in 1822, was replaced with new instruments in 1835 (the case and façade pipes remain), 1883, and 1907. The present organ, built in 1954 by Hartford’s own Austin Organs, Inc., was renovated in 2004 (organ specification). The tower bell, first cast in England in 1633, continues to ring today.
Center Church has many daughter churches in the Hartford area. These include First Church, Farmington (1652), South Church, Hartford (1670), First Church, East Hartford (1702), First Church, West Hartford (1713), Asylum Hill Congregational Church (1865), and Immanuel Congregational Church (1899 – a merger of daughter churches North Church and Pearl Street Church).
Some specific historical highlights include:
1639: The Fundamental Orders of Connecticut were adopted in the first meeting house by representatives from Windsor, Wethersfield, and Hartford. This document served as a model for the United States Constitution. As a prelude to the drafting of the Fundamental Orders, Thomas Hooker preached a sermon in which he stated, “The foundation of authority is laid firstly in the free consent of the people.”
1788: In the third Meeting House was the site of the Connecticut convention to ratify the United States Constitution.
1807: At the dedication of the fourth meeting house, the first performance in Hartford is given of the “Hallelujah!” chorus from Handel’s Messiah.
1813: The first Roman Catholic Mass in Hartford is celebrated in the meeting house. Center Church continues to open its doors to expressions of faith other than its own.
1822: The Jubal Society is authorized to presents concerts in the meeting house. Concerts continue to this day through Music and the Arts at Center Church.
1865: Mary Warburton endowed a chapel on land the church purchased on Temple Street. Warburton Chapel served many immigrant families. It continues today as the Warburton Community Church.
1908: The Center Church House (at the corner of Gold and Lewis streets) is dedicated to the educational and social work of the church. It provides meeting spaces for many community programs.
1909: Center Church’s Camp Asto Wahmah begins its ministry at Columbia Lake.
1957: Center Church voted with other Congregational, Evangelical, Reformed, and Christian churches to merge in order to establish the nation-wide United Church of Christ.
1968: Center Church joins other downtown churches to found Center City Churches, now Hands of Hartford, a social services agency.
1994: Center Church votes to become an Open and Affirming congregation.
1999-2001: Extensive restoration of buildings in preparation for the twenty-first century.
2003: Center Church hosts the first covenanting service of the Greater Hartford Interfaith Coalition for Equity and Justice.
2007: In its 375th anniversary year, Center Church opens its doors to the 12,000+ UCC Synod attendees as part of the UCC’s 50th anniversary. Twenty-six members and friends of the choir and church travel through England on a “Journey in the Footsteps of Thomas Hooker and Samuel Stone.”