History of Second Congregational Church
Prior to 1846 the First Congregational Church, United Church of Christ (UCC) was the principal religious institution for Blacks living in the area. Owing to racial intolerance, however, there came a time when seven of the Black congregants decided they should form their own religious institution, one that would be free of the racism they experienced.
On February 20th, 1846 the Second Congregational Church was organized by four men and three women who withdrew from the First Congregational Church because they felt the religious development of the colored (so-called in that era) people could be best helped in a church home of their own. John L. Brown, Morris Potter, William Potter, David S Thomas, Catherine Fields, Delilah potter, and Mary Richards established the first of the region’s Black churches. It is reportedly the second oldest UCC affiliated church in Massachusetts and the eight in the nation to continuously serve a predominantly African American congregation.
Through the efforts of Rev. John Todd, pastor of the first congregational church the Honorable E.A. Newton, the group reconstructed a dilapidate Wesleyan Methodist Church building that was relocated to First Street. It was dedicated as the Second Congregational Church on 20 February 1846.
Reverend Henry Highland Garnet (the first pastor of the Liberty Street Presbyterian Church in Troy, New York, until 1848 and a noted Black abolitionist) supplied pulpit services during the initial four years of the church. The Reverend Thomas P. Hunt also filled the pulpit on occasion until the coming of Rev Samuel Harrison in 1850.
Reverend Harrison was born of slave parentage in 1818. He was called to be the first pastor of the Second Congregational Church in 1850. There he ministers until 1862, when, because of a rift in the church, he tendered his resignation; but later returned in 1872 and remained until the time of his death in 1900. Reverend Harrison served a total of forty years ministering to the needs of the Pittsfield Community and in particular its Black residents.
In August 1901 the Rev. Dr. Thomas Nelson Baker became the second pastor, Dr. Baker, a learned and humble man, was a graduate of Boston University (BA), Yale Divinity School (STB, 1896), and Yale Graduate School (PhD, 1903. Reportedly Dr. Baker was the first African American and former slave to receive a PhD in philosophy.
Church membership rose from 88 in 1917 to 120 by 1936. During his 38 years of continuous service, he guided the congregation in remodeling the original church building and celebrating its sixtieth and ninetieth anniversaries. Also, during this period, 25 young people from the church went to college. In January 1939, after tendering his resignation, Reverend Baker was elected minister emeritus. He held this honorary title until his accidental death on 22 February 1940.
The third pastor to fill the pulpit was Rev. Harold Leslie Nevers, also a graduate of Yale Divinity School, who began his service in September 1939, with Reverend baker serving as minister emeritus. Reverend Nevers observed that his church was “sandwiched between two barrooms” and that there was the need “to establish a church more accessible to its members” He guided the congregation in selling the church property on First Street and purchasing another building, a 13-room homestead owned by John A. White, and an adjacent vacant lot at the corner of Columbus Avenue and Onota Street. The home was to be used as a parsonage and temporary church until they were able to build one on the adjoining lot.
After extensive renovations he led the congregation in its first service on 1 May 1941and dedication of its sanctuary on 15 March 1942. By 1945 church membership had risen to 166. Reverend Nevers died in January 1965, after 26 years of continuous service and before the church edifice he envisioned could be constructed. Quinlan Peacock, of the First Congregational Church, occasionally provided pulpit services during the remainder of 1965 until the next pastor, Isaiah Jenkins, was called.
In 1958 Fannie Cooper, a member of the church since 1925, became ordained elder in the A.M.E. and began Price Memorial A.M.E. Zion Church out of her home. She later pastored Warren Brown Chapel A.M.E. Zion in North Adams, Massachusetts.
In January 1966 Rev Isaiah Jenkins, a graduate of Boston University School of Theology, was called to be the fourth pastor to full the pulpit. During this decade of nationwide racial turmoil and Black frustration, Reverend Jenkins brought a sense of solidarity to Pittsfield’s Black populace. Construction of the church edifice envisioned by Reverend Nevers began in July 1967 under Reverend Jenkins’ leadership, but not without opposition, confusion, and misunderstanding. Owing to rancorous discord with members of the community (both Black and white), Reverend Jenkins departed in 1968. Completion of the church was accomplished under the able leadership of Wilbert N Stockton, Willie Singleton, Clifford Potter, and Sammy Kennedy. The first service of worship in the new church building occurred on 21 Dec 1969 with the Rev Simeon Bankole-Wright serving as the fifth pastor to fill the pulpit, from June 1970 until May 1972. Reverend Randolph Smith frequently provided pulpit services until the next pastor, Robert Mason, was called.
In September 1973 Rev Robert Lewis Mason, a Yale graduate with a Memphis, Tennessee, Baptist background, was called to be the sixth pastor to fill the pulpit. Under his leadership the church flourished with renewed vigor and enthusiasm that had not been experienced in many years. Reverend Mason led the congregation in celebrating its 128th anniversary and engaged the Reverend Martin Luther King Sr. to be the guest speaker. In May 1977 Reverend Mason resigned.
Four years passed before the congregation summoned the next minister to pastor the church. In the interim several individuals provided pulpit services to the congregation: Reverends Arthur Teikmanis, James Trefry (Director of Religious Education at the First Congregational Church); Dennis Dickerson (a professor of African American history at Williams College, in Massachusetts); Joseph Forte (then of Albany, New York); Clyde H. Miller Jr (president of the City Missionary Society of Boston, Massachusetts); and Jeffrey Lewis (of Springfield, Massachusetts).
The seventh pastor to serve the congregation was the Rev Leonard D Comithier Jr., who came October 1981. Under his leadership the church again flourished and grew. A community scholarship fund was established in support of college-bound students. The Gospel Ensemble Choir was established along with young peoples’ choirs (the Angels Without Wings). He established a dropout prevention and tutoring program called Project Life for at-risk students. With Dr. Dennis Dickerson as guest speaker, he led the church in celebrating its 135th anniversary. An annual Martin Luther King Memorial Service was established and is still enjoyed by the community after the turn of the twenty-first century. Reverend Comithier recognized a need for the church to embrace its history and to fellowship with a true sense of community. He faithfully served the congregation as its pastor until 16 October 1986.In March 1987 Rev Alexander Jamison Sr., a student at Andover Newton Theological Seminary was called to become the eight pastor to serve the congregation as its minister and the first in twenty years to come with a strong background in the United Church of Christ. Reverend Jamison led the transition of the Project Life program from a church-based to a community-based program at the Christian Center and renamed it Education Project Life. Under the new moniker the purpose of the project expanded and served over a period of ten years to expose at-risk students to the benefits of a college education through campus tours. Reverend Jamison pastored the congregation until his departure in 1992.
Rev Jerome Edgerton served as the ninth pastor, from 1993 until 1994. Reverend Edgerton’s concern for youth in the community led to a revitalization of the church Sunday school, sponsorship of a Boy Scout and a Girl Scout troop, and a television ministry on the local cable network to provide worship services to the sick and shut-in. In 1994 Rev Edgerton resigned. Thereafter the pulpit was filled by several guest ministers, notably Rev John Killikelly and Frank Turner, both from Albany, New York.
Rev. John McFarland served as the tenth pastor from 1995 until 1996. During his brief ministry Rev McFarland recognized that the pastor of this congregation had since its inception been a focal point and a driving force in this community. He recognized that for most of its history Second Congregational Church needed no direct outreach for growth because it was the only predominantly African American congregation in Pittsfield, providing spiritual and social activities for the populace. For many years those coming to Pittsfield lived with family already residing in the area and by association attended the same church. Rev. McFarland’s interests in a communal parenting ministry to address the burgeoning needs of those in recovery, former inmates desiring to rebuild their lives and women who were victims of domestic violence did not align with the desires of the congregation. He pastured the congregation until his departure in 1996.
During the decade after 1996 the church was without a full-time pastor. However, two interim ministers have ably served the congregation during the four years up to 2006; Rev John G. Wightman, the eleventh pastor serving from 13 February 2000 until February 2002; and Rev. Carol K. Towley, the twelfth pastor, serving from February 2003 (installed 2 May 2004) until 12 June 2005. Notably, Rev Wightman was the first non-Black minister called to pastor the congregation. Reverend Towley, the second non-Black minister, was also the first female called to serve the congregation.
The congregation was in search of a pastor as of 2006. In the interim and as had occurred on numerous prior occasions, pulpit services were being provided by guest ministers supplied by the Diaconate Board, then under the leadership of Catherine Rickard.