In November of 1827, when my great-great-grandmother, Mary, was a young child of three years, her family traveled from Rhode Island, on the Erie Canal until it became so icy that they had to put their belongings onto wagons and haul them the rest of the way to Little Genesee, where they had bought land in what she called a wilderness.
She referred to their journey as going “way out west” because people of European descent had not yet settled in any great numbers in this region. Although there were few of the native people still here, they had not been long gone. She told how they dealt with roads that were more ditch and stump than anything else, and how they lived in what her mother called “the log mansion” until they were able to saw up lumber and make a frame house. She also spoke of how warmly her family members felt about each other.
In those days there were many wolves, bears and cougars, to say nothing of illness, shortage of food, and physical hardship with which to contend. They were busy from the dark of morning to the dark of evening, every day of the week but Sabbath, working to have enough of what they needed to survive.
It was only a few years before my blood ancestors came to this region, that our common spiritual ancestors had traveled here to Alfred and formed a society of Sabbatarian Baptists which is now known as the 1st Seventh Day Baptist Church of Alfred, New York. In 2012, we celebrated the 200th anniversary of that founding event, and we have much of which to be proud, which has occurred in the years since then.
In 1812, those who joined together in a spiritual covenant, met in one another’s homes for worship. Later on, Maxson Stillman, whose son later directed the building of the Alfred University chapel (now known as Alumni Hall), the Brick dormitory, and our church, soon helped operate a “singing school” intended to help everyone learn to read not only words but music, that their lives might be fuller for it.
When those pioneers came here – many on foot – they had little idea what they were getting into, but they showed true courage by moving ahead in spite of fear, not because they felt no fear.
We face a new wilderness, and I think all of us feel some fear about what will become of us. We are few, and we are aged, but we should all feel good that we have stood for good things in our personal lives, and as a congregation. But let us not despair too quickly, for there may yet be work for us to do.
Let us remember that this church has been at the center of a community which has built and sustained two institutions of higher education, when most other schools founded by Seventh Day Baptists have ceased to exist. One of those schools was the first on this continent to educate women in the same classrooms and curricula with men, and to allow them to speak and read their papers in public. The Seventh Day Baptist leaders of that school chose – unlike those of other schools – to educate not only men for the ministry, but men and women of all races, to be better fitted for whatever work they chose. Alfred University’s teachers and administrators, most of whom were Seventh Day Baptists until the 1960s, embraced science as a way of understanding God’s creation, not as something one must dogmatically but irrationally reject, as a tenet of a blind faith.
Members of this church spoke loudly against slavery, and against the Fugitive Slave Act which demanded that human beings of dark skin color be returned to their so-called owners. These same people helped emancipate a number of slaves from their bondage.
This church was one of the earliest to allow its women to be voting members of the congregation. It was one of the first to ordain deaconesses and to send women out to be ministers.
The leaders of this church helped found organizations which united people of many faiths together where they could find common ground, to work for the good of all people.
This community was – as far as we know – the first in the United States to declare that to discriminate against someone because of their sexual orientation, was unfair and illegal.
In short, this church’s people have been the core of a community which has been near the forefront of human adaptation and understanding. Our ancestors may not have known what was coming toward them, but they discerned God’s call for them, and stood up for what they found to be true and Godly. Our building still stands at the center of this community, although we may sometimes feel that the community – and perhaps the world – has moved on without us.
Perhaps we, like the people of Israel, wish to cry out and say:
“Why have you brought the assembly of the LORD into this wilderness, that we should die here, both we and our cattle? And why have you made us come up out of Egypt, to bring us to this evil place? It is no place for grain, or figs, or vines, or pomegranates; and there is no water to drink.”
Perhaps we feel that ". . . it would have been better for us to serve the Egyptians than to die in the wilderness."
We don’t face a wilderness untouched by human hands, for there are few places left on the planet in such a state. But “the word wilderness derives from the notion of "wildness"—in other words, that which is not controllable by humans.”
Our forebears who founded this church looked around and saw what was needed in order for them to survive, and then set about working to fashion it from their environment. They adapted themselves to their new surroundings until they were able to change their surroundings enough to allow themselves to thrive here. Can we not do the same, if we will – if we believe that God still has work for us to do?
Will this church ever be what it was? No. It may cease to exist as such, or it may look nothing like it has in the past. But we can stand for what is good and Godly and Christ-like, no matter what our fears. We can still be a beacon, standing at the center of Alfred, giving light to the world. Fiat Lux!
G. Douglas Clarke August 27, 2011, edited August 14, 2013
An Historical Perspective
By G. Douglas Clarke
In 2005 we celebrated 150 years since our current building was constructed. That same year was also the 75th since a new organ was installed in the building, only shortly after a fire nearly destroyed the building. One cold morning in December of 1929, people saw smoke coming up from the basement, where the furnace was working hard to warm the building. Children, who were assembled for Sabbath School, were ushered to safety and the fire department was called. In the process of trying to put out the fire, almost all of the stained glass windows were destroyed. Only one set of the original windows remains, on the front of the third floor of the building.
The church originally had a level floor, two front entry doors, and the pulpit stood between them. In the years since construction, the pulpit was moved to the opposite end, where the choir already sat, and a door was placed where the pulpit had stood. Also, the flat pine-wood floor had been covered by a slanted oak floor. Both were chopped through, in putting out the fire, and it is said that the damage would have been much worse had it not been for the oak flooring. The church considered replacing the wood structure with one of brick, but decided to rebuild, instead, and added a new pipe organ the following year.
The church has also been a place for worship for another, non-denominational congregation, the Union University Church, since 1922. We Seventh Day Baptists worship in the sanctuary on Saturdays, and they worship there on Sundays. Community Christmas Eve and other services are also hosted in the church building.
Our Parish House, built by the church's Women's Society a hundred years ago, hosts the Opportunity Shop on Tuesday afternoons, which meets many community needs, while the Friends Meeting of Alfred meets there for worship on Sundays.
A third building, known as the Champlin Community House, has been the meeting-place for such community organizations as the Alfred Historical Society, The Allen Civic Amandine Club, and Wee Playhouse -- one of the longest-running community reader theaters in the country -- for many years, so our buildings enjoy much good use.
We have contracted with an architectural firm to create a condition report of all our buildings, so that we can prioritize the necessary repairs and improvements which may be needed. We are working with all the people who use the buildings to find ways to keep them useful and in good repair so they may continue to be places of worship and service, where the people of Alfred can build good and Godly relationships.
Although we are currently a small congregation, once boasting six-hundred members, we plan to continue to minister to the Alfred community for as long as it is given to us to do so. You are welcome to come and visit, and to worship with us, in our venerable places of sanctuary.
© 2006 (12-27-06)