In search of a healthier climate, the Rev. Theodore Munger left his New England church for the Pacific coast in 1875. While recuperating in San Francisco, he was visited by the Superintendent of the General Association of Congregational Churches. Since the mid-1800s, the Congregationalists of San Jose had been worshipping with the Presbyterians. However, the Superintendent told Munger, the Congregationalists were now eager to call their own minister.
After visiting the infant congregation, Munger committed to a year of helping to organize the church. The First Congregational Church of San Jose held its first church service on April 11, 1875, in a rented hall.
Thanks to the generosity of members and friends, the congregation was in a position to build its first sanctuary by that summer. First Congregational Church’s first church home was dedicated on August 29, 1875, on the south side of San Antonio Street between Second and Third Streets.
From its earliest days, the congregation had a heart for the community. In the 1870’s, First Congregational welcomed children from the San Jose orphanage, who formed the bulk of the church’s Sunday school.
The church’s ties to the nearby state Normal School (teachers’ college), now San Jose State University, were equally as long-standing and close. As early as the 1880s, the congregation provided students with a church-home away from home. Students in turn taught Sunday school, provided music for services, and formed a social service group.
In 1886, the sanctuary was moved to the rear of the San Antonio and Third lot, and was remodeled into a kitchen and Sunday school rooms. The congregation’s second church was dedicated on December 27, 1887. This would be the home of First Congregational Church for almost 70 years.
Pastors of First Congregational were noted early on for preaching a Christianity which engaged the mind as well the heart. The Rev. Herbert Tenney (pastor 1891-1903) was noted for his views on biblical scholarship, as well as for his active role in community affairs. The popular Sunday evening forums of Rev. W.W. Willard (pastor 1912-1915) drew listeners from far and wide. Remarkably, anticipating by 70 years the high-tech mecca that San Jose would become, motion pictures on contemporary issues were shown under the Rev. Fred W. Morrison (pastor 1921-1928).
The church was hard hit by the Great Depression, almost forced to close its doors in 1938. However, the church’s own difficulties did not keep it from reaching out to others who were hard hit as well. When there were few warm places to sleep and little to eat, the church opened its facilities, providing the downtrodden with food, clothing, and a listening ear.
First Congregational vigorously opposed ethnic, religious, and racial discrimination at a time when many churches were eager to maintain the status quo. During World War II, when Japanese-Americans were “evacuated” to internment camps — departing from San Jose’s own Southern Pacific depot! – church members befriended Japanese-Americans instead. When a neighboring Jewish synagogue was destroyed by fire in the 1940s, the church shared its facilities until Temple Emmanu-El could be rebuilt. As early as the 1940s, church members supported the Inter-Racial Council of San Jose, promoted open housing for minority families, and pressed their congressmen to support the Civil Rights Act. As early as the 1970s, women were serving as associate ministers and vital lay leaders in the congregation. By the end of the century, the church would become a congregation Open and Affirming of people of all orientations, “welcoming all into our community of faith in the assurance that we are all created by God, reconciled by Christ, and empowered by the grace of the Holy Spirit.”
In 1962, the congregation joined with other Congregationalist churches, the Christian Church, and Evangelical and Reformed Churches, to form the United Church of Christ.
In the mid-twentieth century, sensing that the surrounding area had become predominantly a business district, First Congregational elected to relocate to a more residential district. The church bought the Hamilton and Leigh site in 1953. Because of soaring construction costs, the congregation chose to build classroom wings and a fellowship hall; the fellowship hall would double as a worship space until there were funds to build a sanctuary. Ground was broken on June 6, 1954, and the classroom wings and fellowship hall were dedicated on May 22, 1955.
Because of continuing growth during the following years, it was not long until the church was able to realize its dream of a sanctuary. The congregation broke ground on October 17, 1965. T he first services were held in the new sanctuary on December 4, 1966; and the building, with its ten-story-high spire, was finally dedicated on January 15, 1967.
Although First Congregational Church had a new site, it remained as committed as ever to community outreach and service. The church began a prison ministry at Elmwood Correctional Center in 1985. In 1991, First Congregational Church joined a federation of community churches called People Acting in Community Together (PACT), which sought community betterment in San Jose. The youth began going on annual house-building trips to Mexico in 1992. In 1996, the church became an “Eldernet Church,” forming a special relationship with Willow Glen Convalescent Hospital. In 1997, the church became part of InnVision’s rotating church shelters for the homeless.
In 1989, 16 adults and six children from the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) began worshipping at First Congregational. In March 1991, First Congregational entered into a covenant with this group, called the United Disciples Fellowship, and they became associate members of the congregation.
First Congregational Church celebrated its 125th anniversary during the week of May 13, 2000, with the theme “Reflection and Recreation.” At the dawn of a new millennium, the congregation not only looked back with thanks to God for its own century and a quarter of innumerable blessings; it also looked forward to continuing its tradition of service to both local and world-wide communities.
[This congregational history is adapted from the following sources: The First Congregational Church of San Jose, United Church of Christ: An Anecdotal History, by the Rev. L. Arthur Domingue. “Historical Highlights,” from the Women’s Fellowship Directory. Christian Century, by James Noah et al.]