When King Henry VIII of England broke with Rome in 1535, critics thought he failed to go far enough in reforming the church. Often called puritans, these people believed Henry only substituted the king for the pope as the head of the church. With their emphasis on literacy and scholarship, these dissenters wanted a church that was thoroughly reformed in its worship, governance and outlook that allowed individuals to interpret the word of God. Some dissenters tried further reforms within the Church of England. Others, known as Separatists, left and formed local groups for Bible study and prayer. The king banned such gatherings and one such group based in Scrooby, fled to Holland. Eventually the Scrooby congregation established a Separatist colony in America.
Sailing on the Mayflower, the 102 voyagers arrived off Cape Cod in late autumn 1620 and landed in a harbor they named Plymouth. Before stepping ashore, they drafted an agreement that established the basis for governing their colony. This Mayflower Compact was the first social contract of its kind. It helped define the limits of government and guaranteed the concept of civil rights. Congregationalists draw their heritage from these free thinkers.
Our fore parents with Reformed, Puritan and Congregational traditions helped change the face of Christianity and Western culture. They believed that the Lord Jesus Christ was alive and that the future of this world was directly affected by their faithful living.
In our faith journey with God, individually and as a congregation, we continue that Mission as He is pleased to reveal Himself unto us.
With the help of the American Missionary Society, several families met in the home of James G. Edwards, publisher of the Burlington Hawk Eye. The Rev. Horace Hutchinson was the church’s first pastor. Upon Hutchinson’s death, William Salter was called as the congregation’s pastor and remained with the Burlington church for more than 60 years.
Salter, a graduate of the Andover Theological Seminary, was part the Iowa Band, a group of young clergymen from New England that traveled to the Midwest to establish churches. These ministers generally are credited with giving Iowa its high literate and cultural status. Salter, himself, helped mold early Burlington. He convinced congregations from other churches to cluster their church buildings in the downtown and to construct the tall, impressive steeples that have helped to define the community.
From the early years, this church engaged in an active social ministry in Burlington, which was consistent with many Congregational churches during the 19th century. It championed the abolition of slavery. Indeed, First Congregational Church in Burlington served as a stop on the Underground Railroad. Parishioners in the local church actively advocated the importance of civil rights, public education and free libraries.
Salter was succeeded by Naboth Osborne a Yale educated theologian, who moved the Burlington church into the 20th century. By that time Congregational churches had formed a national body, the National Council of Congregational Churches.
Osborne served First Congregational Church for 35 years. Shortly after his death in 1929, the national Congregational association merged with the General Convention of the Christian Church to form the General Council of Congregational Christian Churches. This merger was accomplished smoothly and with little dissent.
A few years later another merger was proposed: Churches of the General Council would merge with the Evangelical and Reformed Church, a group of mainly German heritage which had theological affinities with many Congregationalists but did not accept the autonomy of the local congregation. This merger was eventually completed, to form the United Church of Christ. About 200 Congregational Christian churches; including First Congregational Church of Burlington, Iowa chose not to join the merger mainly on the issue of congregational polity.
The National Association of Congregational Christian Churches was created in 1955 to give those congregations a national fellowship that would not threaten the freedom of individual congregations.
First Congregational Church of Burlington is an active member of the National Association, the Iowa-Nebraska Association of Congregational Churches and the Burlington Area Council of Churches.