The History of the Rocky Mountain Conference


In the Beginning-The Reformation:


To understand the Rocky Mountain Conference and the UCC it helps to understand the origins of protestant churches during the reformation.


Following the Dark Ages, which ended in approximately 1100 A.D., the Roman Catholic Church, more than any other institution, brought civilization to Europe. The church’s monks developed land for farming. The church trained Europe’s teachers, scholars, lawyers, government ministers, and clergy. It provided food for the poor and hospitals for the sick. And, the church became the richest and most powerful institution on earth.


By 1500, although its power and influence was waning, it still owned vast property. Monasteries were surrounded by large estates that peasants sharecropped, while the bishops and cardinals lived in a style the workers could only imagine. The Catholic Church owned half the land in Scotland and one-fifth of the land in England. While Cardinal Wolsey, was Lord Chancellor of England, he gave his thousand-room brick palace at Hampton Court to King Henry VIII “to avert the evil eye of royal jealousy.” Wolsey moved to another of his luxurious palaces and King Henry lived at Hampton Court with five of his six queens.


Roman Catholicism was the state sponsored religion of the Western European countries and England. Church and state were united. The government’s ministers and diplomats were church bishops, archbishops, and cardinals. A seventeenth-century aristocrat wrote, “The ecclesiastical and civil state (were so) interwoven together, that like the Hippocrate’s twins they cannot but laugh and cry together.” The concept of having more than one denomination, or a church that was not part of the state, was beyond imagination.


The church’s money had been accumulated over centuries from levies, taxes, and the purchase of indulgences. Unless you left the church a legacy, you probably couldn’t be buried in consecrated land, the consequences of which were too horrible to contemplate. The sale of indulgences finally started the Reformation. In 1517, Martin Luther started the reformation in Germany by nailing his demands for reforming the Catholic Church to his church door. A decade later when a group of Germans published a “Protest” against the Catholic Church, the Catholics designated the rebels as protestant.


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The Puritans:


The roots of the Congregational Church were the Puritans that emerged during the English Reformation.


When Henry VIII broke with Rome, in 1534, he became the temporal head of the church in England and the Archbishop of Canterbury became its ecclesiastical leader. Henry, who was not a Protestant, did his best to keep the English church Catholic and continued the Latin Mass.


With Henry’s death in 1547, his ten-year old son Edward VI became King. Edward, an ardent protestant, started converting the church to Protestantism. With the publication of the first Book of Common Prayer in 1549, the Anglican Church started to emerge. Queen Mary, known as Bloody Mary, who followed Edward in 1553, started a bloody campaign to return the English church to Catholicism. She burned almost 300 Protestants at the stake and another 800 fled to Europe where John Calvin influenced many of them.


Elizabeth, who came to power in 1558, returned the church to the Protestants, but she was also a realist. Two-thirds to three-quarters of the people in England were Catholic. She hoped the high church liturgy of her Anglican Church would satisfy the Catholics, and rejecting the pope would satisfy the Protestants. Early in Elizabeth’s reign the Protestant exiles returned from Europe.


The first Puritans, which appeared about 1560, rebelled against the Catholic like practices of worship Elizabeth’s church retained. They wanted to “purify” the church and replace the emphasis on ceremony with preaching and prayer. The Puritans wanted to eliminate such things as kneeling at communion, bowing at the name of Jesus, and Catholic liturgical vestments. They wanted college-trained clergy to replace the poorly trained incompetent priests.


By the 1640’s, the Puritans had shifted their concern from ceremonies and vestments to church organization and government. In his book, Visible Saints, Edmund Morgan somewhat simplified the results when he said, “…some of the Puritans preferred to leave each individual church independent of outside control, while others thought that the ministers of the church should be organized into presbyteries, consociations, and synods in order to enforce orthodoxy among themselves. Those that held the latter view became Presbyterians; those who held the former were called Independents or Congregationalists.”


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The Early Congregational Church in America


Church historians frequently trace the origin of the Congregational Church to the merging of two separate groups, the Pilgrims that came over on the Mayflower and the Massachusetts Bay Puritans who settled in Salem and around Boston. The first gathering of the two groups was the Cambridge (Massachusetts) Synod of 1648.


The Puritan church was much closer to the Roman Catholic church of that era than to our present church. The Puritans brought with them the close ties of the church and government. By law every town had to have a church supported by taxes levied on all the households. Everyone was legally compelled to attend the church services. Only church members could vote in the civil elections. Laws were based on the bible and the pastor and church leaders served as judges. The Congregational Church remained the official church in Massachusetts until 1833.


The meetinghouse, in the center of each community, served as the church on Sunday and housed the community’s civil government the rest of the week. Society was very “class” oriented and a committee assigned seating for Sunday services according to the person’s church membership status, wealth, and age. Freedom of religion beyond the their own Puritan religion was not tolerated. By 1661, they had executed four Quaker missionaries that were persistent in trying to recruit church members in Boston. In rebellion against Catholic ceremonies, weddings and funerals were considered civil rather than religious events. It wasn’t until 1685 and 1686 that the first prayers were offered at a funeral and at a wedding.


Church members followed Calvin’s example that religion should be involved in all aspects of life. In 1642, Massachusetts legislated that towns with more than fifty families employ a schoolteacher and those with more than one hundred families establish a grammar school. They also believed in educated clergy, and started Harvard in 1638 to train their pastors. Over the next 250 years they also founded, Yale, Dartmouth, Andover Theological Seminary, and scores of other colleges and seminaries. The early Puritan effort to turn work into a spiritual vocation is still known as the Puritan work ethic.


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Our Churches’ Early Home Missionary Work


Contrary to myth, the Pilgrims had little to do with the Native Indians. William Bradford, their leader and who later documented their history, wrote that the Pilgrims regarded Indians as “savage people, who are cruel, barbarous, and most treacherous.” In that era, individuals, rather than churches, did the limited missionary work done among the New England Indians.


The first organized effort for missionary work in the Congregational Church was the Plan of Union of 1801 that several New England state associations signed with the Presbyterians. The plan promoted cooperation in founding churches on the frontier. The churches, Congregational, Presbyterian, or mixed, could be served by pastors of either faith.


In the eighteenth century individual Congregational Churches, acting independently of each other, sent missionaries to establish churches on the American frontier. In 1826, several Andover seniors helped found the interdenominational American Home Missionary Society (AHMS). The United Domestic Missionary Society, mainly sponsored by the Presbyterians, immediately joined this new organization. It also administered the Plan of Union. However, the Presbyterians slowly withdrew their support. By 1860, the AHMS was predominately Congregational and in 1893, it changed its name to Congregational Home Missionary Society.


One of the problems with sponsoring mission work was that there was no national Congregational organization to funnel funds through. The Congregational Cambridge Synod of 1648 had not established a national organization, but had authorized ecclesiastical councils “for determining matters where consultation among several neighboring churches might be desired.” During the first two hundred years a few local and state “voluntary societies” were organized, but a Congregational denomination did not exist. The ad hoc Albany (New York) Convention of 1852 was the first meeting of American Congregationalism since the Cambridge Synod of 1648. This gathering’s main action was a unanimous decision to terminate the Plan of Union. As the speaker said, “They have milked our cow, but have made nothing but Presbyterian butter and cheese.”


A second national meeting in Boston in 1865 adapted a statement of church policies. Finally, the 1871 national meeting in Oberlin, Ohio resulted in the formation of the National Council of Congrega-tional Churches of the United States.


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Mid-Nineteenth Century Colorado


A century before the Pilgrims landed in Massachusetts, the Spanish were exploring the New World, searching for silver and gold. When they failed to discover these riches, they reorganized their efforts and made their colonies missionary provinces. In 1608, a decade before the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth, Pedro de Peralta established Santa Fe with twelve soldiers and eight Franciscan missionaries. By 1628-29, when Puritans founded Salem, Massachusetts, there were forty-six Franciscan missionaries in what is now New Mexico. The Spanish had explored much of what is now Colorado by the 1770s, but most of the area remained under Indian control for another century.


Colorado’s first non-Native American settlers were the Spanish-American farmers who settled on Spanish Land Grants in the San Luis Valley in the early 1850s. They brought their Catholic religion with them and in 1858, Bishop Lamy of Santa Fe, the model for the main character in Cather’s classic novel Death Comes to the Archbishop, made his first trip to Colorado. On the Conejos River, Lamy erected the first church, actually a crude jacal chapel, in what is now Colorado. Our Lady of Guadalupe Catholic Church, in Conejos, currently stands on the chapel’s site.


The 1857 gold discovery along Cherry Creek, in what is now Denver, started the Pikes Peak Gold Rush. At that time Ute Indians controlled most of Colorado‘s mountains and occasionally killed prospectors that ventured onto their land. The Cherry Creek gold discovery drew tens of thousands of people from the eastern United States. The discovery turned out to be limited, so most of the people returned home that winter. But the following year, a major strike was discovered twenty miles west of Denver at Central City and Black Hawk. Again the region experienced a boom and by 1860, it had 34,277 residents.


Following the Pikes Peak Gold Rush, prospectors slowly explored the eastern range of the Rocky Mountains. In the late 1870s, gold discoveries at Leadville, Lake City, and other towns along the Colorado Mineral Belt produced another boom that brought prospectors to the western part of Colorado. Along with the prospectors came miners, merchants, farmers, a wealth of undesirable characters, and a few preachers and missionaries.


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Frontier Churches


As Spanish-American farmers were settling what is now southern Colorado, prospectors were searching for gold in Colorado’s mountains. Gold strikes or even hints of mineral deposits resulted in mining camps. Larger deposits resulted in frontier towns. Early preachers discovered that western frontier churches differed from churches in the eastern states. Fifty years ago, the historian Walter Prescott Webb noted that the further west you travel from England and New England the less influence the church has.


While religious groups such as the Puritans and Quakers founded many New England communities, this was not true on the frontier. Frontier mining camps existed for one reason, to make money; and the primitive rawness of these early camps was not favorable for church activities. Early preachers found that to survive in Colorado, they had to be innovative and the church had to adapt. As one Colorado historian wrote, “The camp molded the image of the church, not the church that of the camp.”


The first denominations in the Colorado mining camps were the Catholics and the Methodists. St. James United Methodist Church in Central City, founded in 1859, is the oldest Protestant church con-gregation in the state. By Christmas 1860, both the Methodists and Catholics had church buildings in Denver. After these two, the most commonly encountered denominations were the Presbyterian, Congregational, and Episcopal churches.


In many communities, the preachers in the early 1860s were either laymen who felt the spirit and preached on Sunday or circuit riders. Even when churches were established only a small percent of the people attended. By 1863 when the first Congregational pastor was sent to Colorado, there were five or six Methodists ministers, two Catholic priests, and two or three Protestant Episcopal ministers in the Colorado Territory.


The rough life was not limited to the mining camps or to the first few years. At a Methodist revival meeting in a farming and ranching region near Paonia, in the 1890s, a German-Russian participant prayed that God consider a neighboring horse thief, cattle thief, and drunkard, “Oh God, come down and save dis miserable sinner. But don’t send your son Yesus, for this is no boys yob.”


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The Rev. William Crawford


In 1863, 243 years after the Pilgrims brought the Puritan church to America, the American Home Missionary Society, the chief home missionary agency of the Congregational church, sent the Rev. William Crawford, their first Congregational missionary, to what had become the Colorado Territory in 1861. At that time the Rev Crawford, a native of Massachusetts, was a 28-year-old graduate of Andover Theological Seminary.


As Crawford traveled west he sent reports back describing his trip. He was disappointed in Denver. In his June 13, 1863 report on Denver, he wrote, “I preached for Mr. Day [a Presbyterian minister] in the morning, and was strongly tempted to give out that hymn of Watts:


Lord, what a wretched land is this,

Which yields us no supply,

No cheering fruits, no wholesome trees,

No streams of living joy.


“ Yet some Denverites think they have found the best spot on earth. Poor, deluded mortals!”


Failing to find a suitable group of Congregationalists in Denver where he initially planned to make his home, Crawford made his headquarters in Central City, then the center of the mining activities in Colorado. He preached his first sermon in Central City on June 28, 1863. Two months later he organized a church at Central City with 21 members.


Money was a perpetual problem. In another report, the Rev. Crawford, wrote “the money is not in the hands of the Christians and we cannot get it from the others.” The Central City church held its first meetings in a hall over a saloon. But, in 1866 a church building costing $11,000 was built in Central City.


In January 1868, after helping to start several other Congregational Churches in Colorado, Crawford, by then weary and in poor health, resigned his pastorate and returned to Massachusetts. Crawford was replaced in Central City by the Rev. E. P. Tenney, who became the second president of Colorado College.


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Early Congregational Churches in Colorado


In addition to being the pastor of Central City’s Congregational Church, the Rev William Crawford, the first American Home Missionary Society (A.H.M.S.) missionary in Colorado, helped organize other Congregational Churches in the area.


The Boulder Congregational Church, started in July 1864 with 14 members, was without a pastor for its first year. Although the church was organized in the small community of Valmont, four miles south of Boulder, in 1866 they moved to Boulder. It is now the oldest surviving Congregational congregation in Colorado.


First Church Denver held its first meeting on October 23, 1864, in the United States Court room, with the Rev. Crawford preaching. The Rev. Norman McLeod, the second missionary sent to Colorado by the A.H.M.S., received the Society’s permission to become the church’s pastor for three months. Following McLeod’s brief pastorate, First Church was also without a pastor. In 1929, First Church merged with Plymouth to become First Plymouth Congregational Church.


During the summer of 1865, Crawford returned east to raise money and recruit ministers for the new churches. He recruited three recent Andover Seminary graduates, the Rev. G. D. Goodrich for Denver, the Rev. Nathan Thompson for Boulder, and Harvey Mellis for Empire, a mining camp five miles north of Georgetown.


On January 16, 1866, ministers and lay delegates from Central City, Boulder, and Denver met in Empire, for the first General Conference of the Congregational Churches of Colorado. That day they ordained Harvey Mellis and the Empire Church became the fourth Congregational church in Colorado. A decade later, when Colorado became a state, there were eight Congregational Churches in the state. By 1886, the Indians had been removed from western Colorado and there were forty Congregational churches in Colorado.


In the harsh frontier environment, these early churches were very fragile and most of them didn’t survive. The Central City church closed in 1881 and the Empire church closed in 1877. Congregational churches in Aspen, Breckenridge, Gunnison, Pitkin, and other towns closed when their towns’ populations fizzled. For a lack of Congregational ministers, other Congregational churches changed denominations. Of the 260 Congregational churches founded during the church’s first century in Colorado, 190 churches had disappeared by 1960.


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Utah’s Early Congregational Churches


The Mormon migration from Missouri to Utah, which started in 1847, has been compared to Moses leading his people out of Egypt to the Promised Land. Thus, unlike the mission churches in Colorado, the Mormons brought their church with them and “Utah” and “Mormon” became almost synonymous.


Following his short pastorate in Denver, the Rev McLeod moved to Salt Lake City and organized a Congregational Church there in February 1865. As the first non-Mormon church in Utah it served all of the Gentiles until other denominations opened their churches.


That summer the church constructed, “Independence Hall.” In addition to being their sanctuary, “Independence Hall” also served as the community meeting place and virtually every evangelical denomination in Utah, including the Jews, held their organizational meetings there.


Rather than sermons, McLeod’s preached “tirades” against polygamy and the Mormon Church, which didn’t help the hostile environment. The Sunday school superintendent, Dr. J. King Robinson, had married a woman with Mormon ancestors and owned property in downtown Salt Lake City. In October 1866, while McLeod was visiting the east, Dr. Robinson’s property was gutted and he was assassinated. A fence post near Robinson’s grave was inscribed, “Damn the Gentiles. We did this.” McLeod was advised not to return to Utah and the Congregational church folded. McLeod spent the next two years in Denver. The First Congregational Church in Salt Lake traces its roots to this early church, and although it still survives, it is now a member of the National Association of Congregational Christian Churches, rather than the United Church of Christ.


The few early schools in Utah were private, used the Mormon Bible as their primary reader, and more than likely used the “Deseret Alphabet.” Brigham Young stated, “I will not give one dollar to educate another man’s child.” When the early Gentiles discovered that the schools were inadequate, denominational schools were established. The Congregational missionaries started schools in 1880 and many of Utah’s early Congregational churches were formed in conjunction with these schools. By 1890, when the state established public schools, the Congregational church had established a third of Utah’s 99 denominational schools, and over the next several decades they sent 700 teachers to Utah.


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Wyoming and the Rev. Jerome D. Davis


The Rev. Jerome D. Davis was one of the more interesting and outstanding pastors in Wyoming. Davis entered Beloit College as a member of the class of 1862. His education was interrupted when he enlisted in the Illinois Volunteers at the beginning of the Civil War. While acting as Color-Sergeant, Davis was wounded at Shiloh. Three years after he enlisted, Davis was elected commanding officer of the Fifty-second Illinois Volunteers and was appointed Lieutenant Colonel, the youngest Regiment commander in the Fifteenth Army Corps.


Following the war, Davis graduated from Beloit College and entered Chicago Theological Seminary. While there, he was a student pastor in a small church. When the church jilted him by selecting a friend of his to be their pastor, Davis asked the American Home Missionary Society to send him to their most difficult location. They sent the Rev. Davis to Cheyenne, Wyoming, a wild railroad town known as “hell on wheels,” where he organized the First Congregational Church in June 1869.


After serving as a pastor for two years in Cheyenne, Davis was appointed by the American Board as a missionary to Japan. At that time, it was a capital offense to accept Christianity in Japan, an edict that was finally removed in 1872. His early work was in Kobe, where he organized the first Congregational Church in 1874. He stayed in Kobe until 1875, when he and Joseph Neesima founded the Doshisha University in Kyoto, then the only Christian university in Japan. After Joseph Neesima died, in early 1890, Davis became president of Doshisha. Under Davis, the school flourished in both physical growth and in enrollment.


The first transcontinental railroad stimulated the population growth of southern Wyoming and the early churches followed the railroad across Wyoming. In western Wyoming, the Rock Springs First Congregational Church was started in 1881. Over the years, a few more western Wyoming churches were organized. Many of these churches were small and isolated. These western Wyoming churches, along with the Utah and Idaho churches organized the Intermountain Convention in 1951, which became the Intermountain Conference in 1965.


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Social Concerns


In addition to establishing churches, the early Congregational pastors continued their missionary commitments to establish evangelical Protestant values and institutions in their frontier communities. The first two Congregational ministers in Cheyenne are an excellent example.


While he was in Cheyenne, the Rev. Jerome Davis organized the First Congregational Church, established a public reading room, served as superintendent of schools and successfully led drives for a new brick school building and Cheyenne’s first water supply system.


The Rev. Josiah Strong, who followed Davis, helped organize a public library, a city park, closed the houses of prostitution, and ran the undesirable characters out of town. Strong later wrote Our Country: Its Possible Future and Its Present Crisis, which advocated home mission work in the inner city.


These early missionaries also continued Congregationalism’s long-standing commitment to education. In 1874, the Congregational Church established Colorado College in Colorado Springs. Woodrow Wilson and Katherine Lee Bates taught school at Colorado College in the summer of 1893 and on a trip up Pikes Peak, Miss Bates wrote “America the Beautiful.” Although the college dropped its Congregational ties in 1907, it remains close to the RMC.


The most significant development in late nineteenth century Colorado Congregational churches was the emphasis on social gospel and other outreach programs. They stood for equal rights and complete justice for all and “exercised a tremendous influence on public opinion in Colorado.”


The Rev. Myron Reed, who went to Denver’s First Congregational Church in 1884, was an early proponent of the cause of labor. He attacked sweatshops and child labor and was a chief founder of Denver’s Associated Charities. Eventually, when his views got him in trouble with his middle-class congregation, he broke with the Congregational church and founded a nondenominational church. Reed became so popular he was nominated for congress in 1886 and 1892. He was also known as “the greatest preacher west of Brooklyn” and remained prominent until his death in 1899.


Several Colorado Congregational churches helped found hospitals. In 1923, the Congregational church in Hayden, along with one of its members, Farrington Carpenter, founded the J. V. Solandt Memorial Hospital; at that time the only accredited hospital between Denver and Salt Lake City. This hospital is still used several days a week by visiting doctors.


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Germans From Russia


In 1970, descendents of Germans from Russia were the second largest ethnic group in Colorado, exceeded only by Spanish-speaking people. This migration can be traced to the hundreds of thousands of Germans that moved to the Volga River and Odessa regions of Russia between the 1760s and 1820s. This move was encouraged by Catherine the Great’s charter of 1765 that gave them “unhindered freedom of worship,” local autonomy, and exemption from military service. For a century, they kept their mother tongue, schools, and churches. Then, in the 1870s, changes in Russia led many of these German-Russians to migrate from Russia to Iowa, Nebraska, the Dakotas, and Kansas.


For these hardworking, thrifty Germans from Russia, “lay prayer meetings were at the center of their lives.” Half-a-dozen denominations organized churches for these new immigrants. While many of these Russia Germans remained Lutheran or Catholic, the freedom that Congregationalism offered appealed to many of them. In 1883, they organized the General Evangelical Church Assembly of German Congregationalists in Crete, Nebraska. By the 1930s, 30 percent of the Germans from Russia had joined the Congregational Church.


Between 1885 and 1887, Evangelical Volga Germans from Sutton and Lincoln, Nebraska helped establish Globeville, just north of downtown Denver, where they worked in the Globe Smelter. The construction of a sugar refinery in Loveland in 1901, followed by the construction of refineries in Eaton, Greeley, Fort Collins, Longmont, Windsor, Sterling, Fort Morgan and Brush over the next five years, led to a large number of Volga Germans migrating to Colorado from Kansas.


This rapid influx of Germans resulted in German Congregational churches being established. In 1894, the First German Church (Denver) was organized. Over the next few decades, 33 additional churches were organized in Colorado, including churches in Delta and Montrose on the Western Slope. They grew so rapidly that in 1914, the Board of Home Missions established an academy in Fort Collins to train their ministers. However, after two or three years the academy closed. In 1927, the National Council formally incorporated the German Congregationalists into the main stream of Congregationalism and recognized them as a conference. In 1957, the German churches in Colorado became the German Association that evolved into the current Northeastern Association.


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The UCC and the Rocky Mountain Conference


The United Church of Christ is made up of a series of church mergers, starting in 1648 with the union of the Pilgrims and Puritans, to form the Congregational Church. The next major union was the 1931 union of the Congregational Church and Christian Church to form the Congregational Christian Church. This union had little impact here since the only Christian church in Colorado was in Fairview, near Cripple Creek.


The United Church of Christ was formed in 1957 when the Congregational Christian Church and the national Evangelical and Reformed Churches combined. This later group in turn had resulted from the 1934 merger of the German Evangelical Synod and the German Reformed Church. Although most of these churches were in Pennsylvania and Missouri and Illinois, a few were in Colorado and Wyoming. In the 1880s, a group of German immigrants, many members of the German Evangelical Synod, started moving to Colorado and Wyoming. Their first church, now Salem UCC in Denver, was established in 1884.


The 1934 union involved more than a dozen Evangelical churches and one Reformed church in Colorado and Wyoming. In 1957, these Colorado and Wyoming churches, and the churches in the Colorado German Congregational Conference combined with the Colorado Conference of the Congregational Christian Church. At that time, several Congregational Christian Churches, including the Cheyenne, Salt Lake City, and Fairview churches voted not to join the UCC.


In addition to changes in the Congregational polity, merging the German churches with the Congregational Christian churches resulted in a wide diversity of beliefs that ranged from theologically conservative to liberal. English and German churches in the same town were frequently as different as two distinctly different denominations. Until the late 1930s many Germans spoke German in their churches, used a catechism and the same traditional service they had used in Russia or Germany. The descendents of these Germans are still often troubled by the UCC emphasis on social action.


In the decades following the formation of the UCC many of the conferences were reconfigured. The present Rocky Mountain Conference was formed in 1974, when the Utah and western Wyoming churches of the Intermountain Conference merged with the Colorado and Wyoming churches from the Colorado Conference.


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Home Missionaries in the American West


History books and novels glorify the explorers, mountain men, prospectors, and lawmen as the settlers of the west. I grew up reading biographies of Kit Carson and Wyatt Earp, believing they and people like them settled the west. But that wasn’t true. Common people, like my grandparents and your grandparents or great-grandparents, settled Western America.


The west was settled by homesteaders and merchants, immigrant farmers and labors, ministers and the schoolteachers, and perhaps most important their wives and children. Between 100 and 150 years ago, these common people settled Utah, Colorado and Wyoming. They built bridges and dug irrigation ditches. They cleared and plowed the land. They built schools and churches. They formed the first permanent communities and brought civilization to the west.


The clergy, who were frequently home missionaries, and their laypeople molded these efforts to assure the survival of Protestant values, life-style, and institutions on the western frontier. In the late nineteenth century, the most significant development in Colorado’s Congregational church was this emphasis on community building and outreach programs. The clergy preached on local needs and issues, rather than on sin and redemption. They helped the settlers recognize their shared social and moral values, and provided a link to civilization.


The pastors included people like the Rev. Jerome Davis and his successor Josiah Strong who not only organized the first Congregational church in Cheyenne, then a wild railroad town known as “hell on wheels,” but also were also instrumental in building the city’s first school, library, park and water system. They galvanized Cheyenne’s citizens into rebelling against the wild element in town.


In Colorado, Congregational churches helped build hospitals in Hayden and Collbran. Colorado College, in Colorado Springs, was built as a Congregational College. In Utah, the Presbyterian and Congregational missionaries built 60 plus schools that were the predecessors of the public schools in that state.


In addition to community building, Colorado’s Congregational churches stood for equal rights and complete justice for all, and “exercised a tremendous influence on public opinion in Colorado.”


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The Rev. Myron Reed


The Rev. Myron Reed, pastor of Denver’s First Congregational Church, was the leading Christian Socialist in the American West during the last two decades of the nineteenth century. His sympathy lay with the working class people of Colorado. Rather than theology, Reed was interested in loyalty to the Christian idea of life, righteousness, justice, and man’s relationship with God. A friend noted that Reed finished “seminary without absorbing enough theology to hurt him.”


Reed was known as “the greatest preacher west of Brooklyn.” Like Will Rogers, he had the exceptional ability of being able to express complex thoughts with a few words. Examples include “the tramp is a warning to us that our social system has failed,“ and “a man who says he has never had a doubt in matters of faith wears a No. 6 hat.” Reed’s sermons were reprinted in the Rocky Mountain News and in some 50 other newspapers across the country.


During this era, preachers created a movement not only through their sermons, but also through their participation in organizations. Reed, along with Father William O’Ryan, and a lay-woman, Frances Jacobs, founded Denver’s Associated Charities in 1887. Reed was its first president. Soon chapters, modeled after the Denver organization, were founded in communities across the United States. Today this organization is known as the United Way and many local chapter Web sites list Reed as a founder.


The 1880s and 1890s were the era of Industrial Warfare. Workers struck for better working conditions, shorter hours, and better pay. Reed was an early proponent of the cause of labor. He attacked sweatshops and child labor. He thought “all laborers deserved wages sufficient for the needs of their families and for a life beyond their labor.”


Eventually, in 1894, when he sided with miners during a strike in Cripple Creek, his views got him in trouble with his middle-class congregation. Reed resigned and founded a nondenominational church that met in Denver’s Broadway Theatre. When Myron Reed died in 1899, Governor Thomas asked that his body lie in state in the Capital. Instead it lay in state in the Broadway Theatre, where thousands of common people stood in line for hours to pay their respects.


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