By Rich Tarrant
In October of last year Vermilion’s UCC Congregational church celebrated its 200th Anniversary at a dinner held at the German’s Villa banquet facility. I was slated to be the “church history guy” speaker following the dinner and had worked on my presentation for several weeks prior. However, before I reached the podium that day those who preceded me essentially covered just abut everything I was going to say, or at least touched, however briefly, on the finer points. So to avoid redundancy I extemporaneously babbled on about some of the 53 ministers who had served the church since 1818. (Yikes! And double Yikes!) Anyway, what follows is, with some revision, what I wrote for that occasion:
A goodly heritage has been left to our care: 200 hundred years’ worth. To prepare for this occasion I wrote – or rather re-wrote (several times) – the pure history of the church using the Lucy Morgan (1918) and Betty Trinter histories (1993) as guides.
However, in addition to these histories I also reacquainted myself with the Dedication Sermon delivered by one Reverend Jotham Weeks Goodell to a crowded congregation in the first church built in the Village of Vermilion back in December (20) of 1843.
To be sure, Goodell’s sermon was intended to consecrate a new House of Worship, but it also provides a contemporaneous view of an American church in its early years. Much of this begs our (or at least my) imagination. How hard it must have been for those pioneer families. And it is important to understand here that the word “church” in this context refers to a group / body of Christian believers as opposed to a physical structure or building. As such it provides a unique account of those years and I want to share at least some of it with you. It begins:
“Twenty five years ago this church was organized, by the Rev. Alvin Coe and Rev. Amasa Loomis. Then the country was new. With the exception of here and there a settler, with his rude habitation of logs, this and the adjoining towns were a vast wilderness. The church, as it was organized, consisted of six members, three of whom lived in Florence, two in Clarksfield, and the other in Wakeman.”
While the seed was firmly planted in the spiritual soil of community in 1818, the church seemed to grow in spurts. How hard it must have been for those families to keep the faith without regular spiritual guidance given the difficulty of their daily labors. But they did. And they persevered. And so did those who sought to serve them; as Rev. Goodell noted:
“Nor would we forget the self-denial and devotedness of those missionaries, who cheerfully forsook the comforts and privileges of New England, and endured the hardships and privations incident to a new country, to carry the bread of life to the perishing.”
Gradually area settlements began to grow. Then of the winter and spring of 1828 Goodell wrote: “…a meeting house was built of hewn logs, about a mile and a half from the lake shore on the road [Cuddeback now Risden Road] leading to Florence.” It was the first house of worship (and public meeting house) in the community known as Vermillion in Ohio.
However, between the years 1835 and 1837, “an unhappy division took place in the church with regard to the removal of the meetinghouse from its original location…The spirit of revival with which the church appears to have been blessed in former years was gone.” Goodell referred to it as being “a dark period in the history of this church.”
Although his view of this period in the church’s life may have been accurate, it was (from my point-of-view) somewhat overstated. The falling off of membership was actually caused by a miscalculation on the part of elder church members as it pertains to where the center of the community was going to be located. They had mistakenly thought it was going to be along the ridge near the place we now call “Furnace Corners” close to the corner of State and Darrow roads. They had dismantled the Risden Road church and reassembled it there. But that site apparently never appealed to congregants. And as a consequence, many took up meeting in several different cabins around the pioneer community instead of the log church on the ridge.
Finally, in the spring of 1837 a committee, after a full investigation of the matter, decided that the society ought to be united in locating their place of worship at the mouth of the river. And thus, in accordance with this decision a new church was to be built.
In 1838, church trustees chose Lot 130 on the public square in the recently incorporated Village of Vermillion for the site of the church. The site was just north of the place where the Vermilion Township Hall would later be built. The church erected was locally made brick with a white steeple and trim. It was 60 feet long and 45 feet wide. The steeple was 27 feet high.
In December 1843 the new church in Vermilion Village was complete and Reverend Jotham Weeks Goodell was installed as Pastor and delivered the sermon of dedication. Of the building Rev. Goodell said, “For God this house was built, and now, to God, the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, be it ever consecrated. Within these sacred walls may the saints often draw water out of the wells of salvation.”
In closing Rev. Goodell said: “When the builders of this house, and its occupants, and their pastor, shall have closed their earthly pilgrimage-when their feet shall no longer be heard treading these courts, may their children and their children’s children, here learn the ‘fear of the Lord, and find the knowledge of God.’ Surely this is the house of God, this is the gate of heaven.”
Well, this was certainly one powerful sermon. And though the objective was to dedicate the church “building” one thing should by now seem perfectly clear: a church is not a building. As previously mentioned, a “church” in this context refers to a group / a body of believers as opposed to a physical structure or building. Thus, it became a church with a legacy and vision of Christian service to our community and our world – sharing of faith through good works. And while another century and one meeting house has passed since Ms. Lucy Morgan penned her history of Vermilion’s first church her words still ring true: “A goodly heritage has been left to our care”; a goodly one in deed.
Vermilion resident Rich Tarrant has agreed to share many of the photos and stories he has acquired from the former Vermilion News and other local sources with the readers of the Photojournal. Rich is the youngest son and a grandson of the late proprietors of The Vermilion News (1897-1964). Readers may email him at: email@example.com