Monday December 3, 2012

Today marks the exact date 250 years ago when settlers from Hardwick and Sunderland, Mass., joined together here in Bennington to merge their churches into the Bennington Church of Christ, now commonly called the Old First Church.

The main reason most of them -- and others from varied towns in Massachusetts and Connecticut -- left their former homes was because they were subtly and not so subtly discriminated against as dissenters from the established Puritain Congregational church. For one thing, laws on the books in both states required them to pay for the support of churches they no longer attended.

When they established the Bennington Church of Christ on December 3, 1762, they no doubt met in members’ homes. Later, they built a meeting house, which somewhat resembled an old windowless barn. In this building both church services and town government took place, for the establishment of both the church and the government of Bennington happened at virtually the same time by mostly the same people.

Yet, when they established the church we now know as magnificent Old First Church in Bennington, these people made sure to reject the idea of having the magistrate collect a town tax that all would have to pay in support of the church; they also rejected the idea of using governmental power to prevent schisms and splits, in which dissenters from the main church in a community would go off and form their own church.

So, despite as "New Lights" being the evangelicals of their day, favoring a strict interpretation of their faith and warm, emotive testimonies of their relationship with God, the founders of what we know as the Old First Church also took a stand for religious liberty for dissenters and the separation of church and state.

A man-sized brass plaque on the outside wall on the cemetery side of the Old First Church marks passage of a joint resolution of the Vermont Legislature from December, 1935. This plaque notes all of the historic events that had taken place on the site, including ratification of the U.S. Consitution by delegates from around the state in 1791 before Vermont became the 14th U.S. state. The plaque also notes all of the prominent Vermonters buried in the adjacent Bennington Center Cemetery, including the remains of five governors, 75 Revolutionary War soldiers, the author of the Vermont Declaration of Independence, and the founder of the Vermont Gazette.

This resolution then declares both the cemetery and the Old First Church building "to be Vermont’s Colonial Shrine for the preservation of the sacred memories and traditions of colonial days, in order that our children’s children may cherish the great deeds of our fathers and build on the foundations laid by them the commonwealth of the future."

What does this "Colonial Shrine" and its "sacred memories and traditions" have to tell us today? Can we get past the immense beauty of both the 1806 church and the adjacent cemetery that at times give the place an otherworldy quality, so that it seems a disembodied a relic of an ancient time?

Yes, we can remember and celebrate the heritage of a strong faith in God, which was combined with a strong realization of the rights of dissenters and the proper role of civil authority to stay out of religious questions. We also can remember the strong legacy of public service embodied in so many of those now interred in Bennington Center Cemetery.

And finally, we can remember that we are heirs to a heritage that celebrated both individual enterprise and a spirit of cooperation for the common good that for many generations has marked life both in Bennington and in other communities throughout Vermont.