600 years ago, it was difficult to believe in God according to the dictates of one’s own conscience. For a thousand years, the Bible had been copied by hand, and only the clergy had access to it. In some churches, the Scriptures were chained to pulpits to prevent theft.
Only religious authorities had the right to speak on behalf of the Bible and to interpret its meaning. The Light of God’s Word was limited to the interpretations of a particular few.
Then in 1436, a German by the name of Gutenberg invented the printing press, making mass production of literature possible. The first book ever mass produced was the Bible, and ever since, no other book has been more broadly published.
People throughout Europe began to read the Scriptures with great interest. New insights emerged, and the Protestant Reformation was born. Luther sparked the movement with his 95 Theses in 1517, and the Lutheran church resulted.
In Switzerland, Calvin taught of the sovereignty and providence of God, and the Presbyterian Church found its origins. In England, Henry the VIII had already established the Anglican Church in revolt against the authority of Rome, but a small number of believers did not agree with the idea of a bishop’s authority, even if the bishop was English. This handful of Christians searched the Scriptures for a betterway.
These Dissenters were first known as Puritans, as they believed the Anglican Church could be purified from within. Most of them were persecuted by religious authorities, and some were executed. Puritanism failed, but the Dissenters persisted. Forming a new underground fellowship as Separatists, they believed the Church existed wherever and whenever the people gathered in God’s name.
They did not accept the Episcopal form of government, which gives authority to a bishop. They did not agree with the Presbyterial form of government, which grants authority to elected representatives from many congregations. They believed that every Christian congregation comprised of its members should have the right and exercise the responsibility to govern itself according to the leadership of Christ’s authority alone.
This was the beginning of the Congregational way, and the movement took on momentum across the country, but the bishop’s persecution would not stop. To escape this abuse, the Congregationalists moved to Holland to enjoy greater religious freedom.
Eventually, however, they longed for home and returned to England, but the persecution from the official church was stronger than ever. Banding together all that they had and risking everything, these believers commissioned a merchant-ship to transport them to a new land full of both promises and perils.
That ship was known as the Mayflower, and it left the port of Southampton on September 16, 1620, carrying 102 Congregational pilgrims and crewmembers on a 66 day voyage to America. On November 21, 1620 the Mayflower anchored at Plymouth Rock and the Massachusetts Colony was born.
Through the years, Congregationalism grew throughout the colonies, giving rise to a new spirit of mutual freedom that would energize the American Revolution. Whether in times of conflict or peace, the Congregational way always stood for the strength found in real fellowship and the merit of responsible self-government.
Years later, a little settlement began in Western Pennsylvania at the confluence of Pine Creek and the Allegheny River. Located in the center of the county, Centerville became a thriving town, teaming with German and Swiss immigrants seeking good work and a better way of life.
Many of the town’s citizens traveled weekly by foot, horseback, or wagon to the German congregation in the busy city of Allegheny, across the river from Pittsburgh in what is now known as the North Side. Hundreds of people gathered for worship every Sunday morning and the growing church launched a major building campaign.
Most of the people supported this idea, but one man envisioned a new church in Centerville that would allow local residents to have their own church home. Jacob Von Ins shared his idea with Daniel and Salome Heiber, devoted leaders in the community. Immediately, the Heibers opened their doors to interested persons who gathered regularly for worship and study. The first meeting took place in March of 1849, with seven persons in attendance.
Within a few months, the little congregation outgrew the Heiber home, so the people acquired a vacant parcel of property on the corner of Locust and Walnut Streets upon which a small wooden house of worship was built. Gathering there for the first time in the autumn of 1849, the German Evangelical Church of Centerville was born with a charter membership of slightly more than 50 individuals.
It was to be a church for all people. All persons were welcomed in this new self-governing church that became the first household of faith in the community. With no relationship to any particular denomination, members came from many different backgrounds to build a new life of faith together. Catholics, Lutherans, Presbyterians, Orthodox, Methodists, Episcopalians, and Baptists became a part of this unique, blended congregation that was founded upon the organizational principles of the Congregational way.
In just over 30 years since it began, the church had outgrown its original building, so the present brick structure was built in 1880.
Still known as the German Evangelical Church, but newly of Etna, the people adopted this new name to accommodate the town’s new identity as one which had its own high ridge, reminiscent of the famous mountain in Europe.
So the new building became a headquarters for a growing community ministry. All were welcomed, as signified by the stained-glass window over the front doors of the church. Many changes, circumstances, and crises were endured over the years, but God always blessed and provided for this church that was officially named the First Congregational Church of Etna in 1929. Through floods, fires, and financial depression the church has stood from in the faith, believing in the One with whom all things are possible.
Like the early Pilgrims who cared for their neighbors in need, the First Congregational Church of Etna has always been compassionate toward the needy. Feeding thousands of hungry people through the years, caring for the sick, dying and destitute in times of calamity, and being a center of hospitable friendship to the community, the church’s history is rich with love and service.
Like our predecessors who founded the country’s first schools and colleges, we share a high value for learning. As contemporary Congregationalists, we are interested in all things pertaining to God’s great gift of life, and we are intentional about Biblical study and spiritual growth and development. All are encouraged to pursue their highest potential according to the inspiration of the Holy Spirit.
As one of the nation’s first churches to elect women to offices of leadership, this church has an historical record of respect, dignity and opportunity for every person. The First Congregational Church of Etna values people, as they are created in the image of God.
As a covenant people, we unite in Faith, Fellowship, and Freedom upon life’s journey, following God’s guidance as expressed through the Word like those who have gone before, trusting God every step of the way. Approaching the start of our third century of service to the Lord Jesus Christ, this church rejoices in that which lies ahead.
As a congregation always bridging the valued past to a promised future, we will continue to worship God, proclaiming the eternal message of God’s love; we will strive to be mindful of that which is good; we will continue to promote that which is helpful; and we will demonstrate to the world in word and deed the wonder of God’s grace for which Jesus lived and gave His life. Empowered by the Spirit, we invite all to join with us in shining the Light of God’s love today, and in discovering new Light for every tomorrow.
We are a member of the National Association of Congregational Christian Churches.