A Few Centuries in a Nutshell
Our congregation is descended from people who risked death in the New World if it allowed them to believe and worship according to their consciences. If the separatists would provide the King with masts and tar for his ships, the King could turn a blind eye to whatever religious practices the rabble of exiles chose to embrace. Before coming ashore from the Mayflower the people resolved to give up local rule by the King and chose to gather and make their choices as a community.
The churches that sprang from those communities are the parents of who we are today. We are Congregationalists. We decide things in our own house of worship. We may listen to counsel from outside our membership. We may consider supporting a movement or idea. But we decide our own course through the debate and vote of our members.
Congregational churches have usually tried to be mutually supportive. The last 400 years have seen congregational churches sort themselves out and come together… only to sort themselves out yet again. Sometimes the bonds are long lasting but no single gathering has lasted the span of these years or gathered all of us under its wings. Since the beginning, we’ve been a local bunch of believers choosing our paths with prayer, debate, and vote.
Congregationalists were printing tracts against slavery before our founding fathers were born. We were the first to ordain a woman pastor in North America. We were the first to ordain a “black” minister to a “white” congregation. Opposing child labor, Congregationalists created what people today call “Sunday School”—originally organized to teach children who worked the other six days to read and write. Valuing education, we founded several colleges and seminaries so that our churches could be led by people who shared our beliefs.
Each Sunday we gather for worship and ring the bell given to us in 1881 by our founding pastor, “Father” Cushing Eells. The same bell was used as a fire alarm for the city. The church was founded above a saloon on 1st Street--hymns and prayers offered upstairs mingled with the sounds from the saloon below. A church building was soon completed. By 1910 the congregation outgrew the first building and a new building was constructed at the corner of 4th and D streets. With the new building came a new name: A bronze plaque proudly declared “First Congregational Church – 1911”.
In 1928 we made a bond with the Methodists to form “The Federated Church of Cheney”. We shared buildings and pastors until 1961 when that federation dissolved and a separate Cheney United Methodist Church was formed. The rest of us continued in the First Congregational Church building at 4th and D Streets. In the late ‘50s, 7,000 congregations from the Congregational and the Evangelical and Reformed churches formed the United Church of Christ (UCC). Our congregation joined in June, 1961.
With this joining we took the name, Cheney United Church of Christ (Congregational). New property was purchased at North 6th and Oakland Street. Members and friends volunteered their labor to complete the first building in 1971. The first service in the second building was on Easter Sunday, 1973. Our third building, the Sanctuary, was dedicated in June 1984. With its excellent acoustics it’s been the venue for recitals and concerts presented by Eastern Washington University as well as benefit events for local community members. This campus of buildings was built by a few craftsmen and many volunteers. Working side by side made the congregation a tight family. Few of those who raised our buildings are still with us in this world. But we are proud to carry on their convictions. Even our newest building remembers our heritage with stained glass windows from the earlier churches displayed in the foyer.
Over time the goals and distinctive characteristics of the UCC seemed to diverge from those of our own people. In March 2017, after considerable deliberation, our congregation voted to leave the United Church of Christ. Our new name as we enter the future before us is Cheney Congregational Church. We are a progressive Protestant church with roots that run from Plymouth Rock and the earliest days of the city of Cheney. The weekly bulletin of the Congregational Church in 1909, stated, “You are cordially welcome in any of the meetings of this church. The seats are free.” It’s still true!