First Congregational Church
July 23, 2017, 10:30 a.m.
150th Celebration Sunday
“so the next generation would know”
Mrs. Harriet Kittridge Voorheis (Rev. Dinah Haag), preaching
1 My people, hear my teaching; listen to the words of my mouth. 2 I will open my mouth with a parable; I will utter hidden things, things from of old— 3 things we have heard and known, things our ancestors have told us. 4 We will not hide them from their descendants; we will tell the next generation the praiseworthy deeds of the Lord, his power, and the wonders he has done. 5 He decreed statutes for Jacob and established the law in Israel, which he commanded our ancestors to teach their children, 6 so the next generation would know them, even the children yet to be born, and they in turn would tell their children. 7 Then they would put their trust in God and would not forget his deeds but would keep his commands. 8 They would not be like their ancestors—a stubborn and rebellious generation, whose hearts were not loyal to God, whose spirits were not faithful to him.
Good morning, my children! You know, I call you that, because you are! Two years before my husband, Jacob, and I moved to Frankfort - in 1864, mind you, the pioneers of the town heard the first sermon preached by Rev. George Thompson of Benzonia.
During the next few years, Mr. Walcot or Mr. Kirkland, Rev. J. B. Walker or Rev. John Pettit would come on Sundays - as often as they could make it - over a blazed trail from Benzonia to hold services in a small barn near the north side of the mouth of Betsie Bay.
Before I forget to give due respect, I need to mention that we actually arrived here through the efforts of Oberlin College. A Rev. Charles E. Bailey came to this area, looking to recreate the Oberlin missionary school in the north, and after five years, he established the Grand Traverse College in Benzonia. It was an institution that sought to “afford to both sexes, without distinction of color, the opportunity of acquiring a liberal education.” It was quite the institution, although all that remains now is what I believe you call the Benzonia Library or the Mills House - the red brick building on that fancy paved road you call US 31.
When Jacob and I and our passion for teaching and learning arrived in 1866, it seemed only natural to begin Sunday school classes and Bible studies in our home. And it was just a short time after that - all our small efforts culminated in a Council called for January 26, 1868. With minsters and deacons from Benzonia and with our 23 charter members, a church was born - right here in the sophisticated wilderness of Benzie County, on the shore of Lake Michigan! You may think that as common as saddle soap in a general store, but there were just 19 houses in the whole town. And so it was, that the children we taught, taught their children, who taught other children, and 6 generations later, here you are - people still after God’s heart.
It would take another 14 years before the Lutherans would build their church home, another two before the Methodists made their mark, and another eleven years for the Roman Catholics to build.
I declare that we had no hard vision of 150 years down the road! We had enough to figure - cutting enough wood for winter Sunday Services, working to call our first pastor and all. Oh, and you younger folks, you should remember that we were a down-to-earth group back then - really. None of this high-flying, church in the sky like you have now, although it is still beautiful and grand!
Back then this floor was flat, and on the ground, and there were no stairs to climb. When I was an old woman, in 1907, they raised this place up and put the parlors underneath. Man power and horse sweat and levers and intelligence - all were needed and all were used to have what you see around you.
Speaking of horses, we had split rail fences around the church, so’s we could tie up horses and buggies and such, too. I have a feeling in my left knee that all those horses are part of the reason for all those pretty flowers you have outside there - if you catch my drift!
We needed that space downstairs, because in no-time-flat, Frankfort moved from a little place at the end of the road to a destination. The Royal Frontenac Hotel was built by the Ann Arbor Railroad Company and completed in 1902 “for the sole purpose of popularizing beautiful Frankfort, and no attraction and accommodation that money, skill and ingenuity could provide would be omitted.” The 3-story, 500 feet long, 250 room hotel came with all the latest amenities of the times, including telephones in every room, a cigar and candy store and a beautiful bar room.
With all those folks making their way here on passenger boats (from Chicago, St. Louis and Milwaukee), by railroad (from Toledo, Ann Arbor and Detroit), horse and buggy and even those new fangled cars (from places unknown), there was a growing need to make room for those God sent us. And children needed to learn about Jesus and everyone needed to understand the expanse of God’s love. And the more that love and teaching was shared, the more that the love and mercy overflowed.
Don’t get me wrong, we had our times, and we struggled. We struggled with personalities that didn’t blend well. We struggled like the rest of the nation, trying to make ends meet and to be responsible with what God gave us, summoning creativity to survive in a tourist town. But the best part of what we had, didn’t really cost us anything, because God’s love is free. The only real cost is in the courage and learning to share it.
There is a place here called the Congregational Summer Assembly that is here because of this little church, too. Congregational ministers would combine vacations with continuing education and camping in Ohio. But wherever they tried to meet, the skeeters there would like to carry off small children. So it was suggested that the planners check out some property owned by the railroad in Frankfort, Michigan. As so many of us know, the hills and dunes and lakes and shores of this little slice of heaven can hardly be resisted, and the skeeters weren’t near so bad. Thus Frankfort became the official home of the CSA in 1904.
At that time, the pastor of this church, Rev. John Hull, was not only our pastor, but was instrumental in the purchase of the CSA land as well as serving as the CSA Secretary and Manager for a time. If you go through the CSA grounds, you will notice that the lanes and avenues were named after our Pilgrim forefathers, such as Standish and Robinson and Fuller. Teaching sometimes happens even when we aren’t aware it is happening. Making the connections between teachings sometimes is a little tougher, but isn’t that why God gave us the Holy Spirit?
It would be another 50 years or so before the north wing was added, and oh, how that space would be needed! At one point in time, they were sectioning off class groups in the parlors, in the sanctuary and even packing Sunday schoolers into the balcony. But those teachers kept teaching, and the students kept learning, and God’s message of love and grace and mercy was instilled into the next generation.
Over time, there would continue to be births and deaths, weddings and funerals and hundreds and hundreds of people have passed through the doors of this little white church in the vale. 34 pastors would serve this church family from those early days until this day. (I hear the current pastor is a pip!)
I’m not surprised that your current pastor is a woman. The first woman to be ordained as a mainstream Protestant minister in the United States was Antoinette Brown - later Antoinette Brown Blackwell - and don’t you know - she was a Congregationalist! She was given a license to preach by the Congregational Church way back in 1851 and then offered a position as Minister of a Congregationalist church in South Butler, New York. Antoinette grew up in a home of faith, and was accepted into the church before the age of nine. She set her sights early on her education and hope to attend Oberlin College. And yes, she obtained her bachelor’s degree. But the college’s theological course presented more of a problem.
Antoinette could enroll in the courses, but she was not to receive formal recognition. But she kept listening to her heart and God’s call and ironically, Oberlin College ended up awarding Antoinette an honorary Master's and Doctoral degree in 1878 and 1908, respectively. Someone taught Ms. Brown’s parents about God, someone taught them, and so the line goes back to Jesus.
Today, you celebrate that lineage, too. Someone taught you about the message of Christ’s love, and someone taught those people, and someone taught them. We forefathers and mothers taught our little ones, and they passed the Word along to their offspring, and the love has been spread not only in time, but in distance.
I’m so happy for you this day - and yes, I know that the exact date has caused a bit of confusion. We officially gathered - I forget exactly when - in 1867 - and formally organized in 1868. Regardless, 150 years is no small thing, and God surely must have a great big smile for this auspicious day, too. It is a day of testament to the faithfulness of the people of this town and the parishioners of this place, to keep pointing to God and spreading God’s word.
But, more than anything, it is also a testament to God’s faithfulness. The people from early days - even from Jesus’ days - put their faith in God - remembering God’s deeds, keeping God’s rules - to the best of their abilities and sensibilities - some better than others - naturally.
Some were certainly stubborn and rebellious, and some viewed our Pilgrim forebears as such. But with hearts loyal to God, great strides have been made - from Bethlehem to Frankfort, MI and beyond. Those with pliant hearts, withstanding the winds of temptation and complacency, have strengthened the lineage of God-trusters and deed-rememberers.
So keep on teaching your children. Keep on reminding them of God’s faithfulness, of God’s mercy and grace and most of all - God’s love. Because your deeds this day will have great consequences long after this one - some you can’t even begin to imagine. And always, always, always, remember to pray.
Gracious and Loving God, we thank you! We thank you for this day and for all those people who have had a hand in us being here at this moment. For your faithfulness in all those days, each and every one of them, we are truly grateful. We pray, too, for those who are yet to come, babies that will grow into adults that will carry your word and light into the next centuries. Bolster the hearts of the teachers, which is really every one of us, to strive against stubborn and rebellious hearts, so that all your people will come to know of your faithfulness and love and mercy and grace. For all that has been, for all that is, and for all that will come, in the name of your Son, all your people say, Amen.
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