The History of the Deering Church
ABOUT 10 a.m. on July 15, 1989, Kenny Weinberg was grumbling aloud why a good Jewish boy like himself was driving his father-in-law’s truck pulling a gigantic float of the Deering Community Church into place for the annual Hillsborough parade. Sitting atop the replica of their church, Dorothy and Wallace Wood, Thelma and Tom Copadis, Jeanne and Bud Bartlett, Hazel Vogelien and Don Johnson, all dressed in period costumes, represented the different eras of the Church’s two-hundred-year history.
The Deering Community Church’s float won first prize that day as Brad Abernathey, a founding member of the Deering Lake’s summer colony, was delivering the sermon, “New Arks for Old Covenants.” These and other events such as Jane Spragg’s oral history play, “This is the Church and These are the People,” a program of early American music and the burial of the Church time capsule punctuated that glorious summer when our church celebrated its bicentennial. The celebration reached its climax when, to a standing-room-only congregation, Rev. Keach preached his stirring message based on John Wise’s sermon centuries earlier, “The Heart and the Head.”
On Christmas Eve of that same year the candle-lit church resounded with song and prayer as the congregation transported themselves back two centuries to Thomas Merrill’s two-story colonial house just down the road from our present building. In 1789, nine Deering residents gathered to create the Deering Congregational Church. Merrill was known as an orthodox Calvinist and his son Daniel was the first local man to be ordained a gospel minister. The other eight men had journeyed on horseback from all parts of town for this historic meeting.
Parker Morse had traveled a short distance from the Valley View area, while John Shearer had set out from the farm where Tom Copadis now lives and ridden over five miles across snow-covered Tubbs Hill and Greg Road. Ninian Aiken, William Aiken and William Forsaith had had only about two miles to travel. The Aikens set out from the present-day His Mansion complex and Forsaith from Jane Spragg’s former home near County Road.
William McFarson journeyed a little over two miles from the present Dutton Farm, and William Waugh and Robert Wilson arrived from the southern section of town, the area where “the leading men” of Deering lived.
Two visiting ministers, Reverend Moore from New Boston and the beloved Rev. Barnes, of Hillsborough, had come the furthest. Rev. Moore served as the moderator for that founding meeting, while the more liberal Rev. Barnes played a supporting role. By the end of that cold evening, the nine founders of our church had composed the church covenant, the document that still governs our membership.
Toward the end of that document, we read: “To walk in love towards others, endeavoring ye mutually edification in visiting, exhorting, & comforting, as occasion serves…” words that have remarkable resonance in our own day.
The Deering Church set out on an orthodox Calvinist path, but the swirling winds of reform threatened to move the membership toward a more liberal theology.
By the time of the church’s founding, the Great Awakening had come to New Hampshire and religious leaders like Hosea Ballou were preaching about a generous God who could offer salvation to everyone no matter what race or class. Baptists, Methodists and Universalists were winning converts throughout New England and the old-line Calvinist beliefs, especially its salvation-scarce doctrine of the “Chosen few,” were under attack.
During its first four decades the Congregational Church was Deering’s official Church and services were held in the meetinghouse, our present Town Hall.
In these years prior to the NH separation of Church and State in 1819, each town was expected to raise taxes to settle a minister and from the first, the debate between mainstream Calvinism and Reformers caused contentious debate at most town meetings. Deering was no exception. By 1801 out of New Hampshire’s 188 churches, fifty had voted to dissent from mainstream Calvinism.
Deering was unable to call a settled minister until the Town Meeting voted to invite Rev. William Sleigh as pastor in 1801. He was popular with the general voters, but the Church fathers were not happy with Sleigh’s selection. In the ensuring years the argument over Sleigh’s credentials and theological outlook split the town into bitter camps. After the area ministers questioned Sleigh’s education and failure in his ordination examination, the Deering church leaders refused to ordain him. As a result, Sleigh left, taking most of the membership with him, and he started a new church. When Sleigh left Deering in 1808, to try his hand as an entrepreneur in the newly arriving industrial revolution, the town was badly divided.
Struggle to survive
The Congregational Church struggled to survive, even inviting Rev. Richards, one of America’s first trained missionaries, to come to Deering “to heal a divided town.” After serving in Deering from 1814 to 1816, Rev. Richards carried the “Good News” to Sri Lanka. When he fell ill there, he was treated by Dr. John Scudder, one of Cy Sherman’s illustrious ancestors. The Scudders were the first American medical missionaries and their work still goes on at the hospital in Vellore, one of the best such facilities in India.
In 1825 another “Awakening” spread through New Hampshire and Deering was able to settle ministers and build the church building where we now worship. The membership called Eber Child, a Calvinist with Evangelical leanings, and he plunged into the Awakening network, preaching in nearby towns and attracting new converts. The membership paid their new minister $300.00 per year and launched a pledge program to raise funds to construct a new church.
To plan and finance the new church building, the membership incorporated as a Congregational Society, wrote bylaws and elected a moderator and clerk. By 1828 the new church was able to vote a voluntary system of taxation which later became the practice of pledging. For the first year the assessments ranged from $8.14 paid by Russell Tubbs, owner of the general store beside the Huggard’s house, to $3.73, paid by the venerable Thomas Merrill. Twenty-five other members joined in the effort to raise $82.06, the first of many Church budgets. In 1829, the membership voted to build their new church, leaving the old meetinghouse to the growing number of Free Will Baptists, Universalists and Methodists, who combined to form the Free Salvation Society of Deering.
The Congregational Society sold eighty shares at $25.00 per share and hired Reuben Loveren as architect and builder. Ironically, Reuben and his brothers were also engaged to build the East Deering Church where the Free Salvation Society established Deering’s second church. The Loverens were original settlers in Deering and built both the complex where our present pastor lives and the white colonial house just up the road.
Besides selling shares, the Congregational Society also auctioned off family pews. The families and the amounts they paid are listed on small plaques on the pew doors. The Sunday school students made these plaques in the 1960s.
Wallace and Dorothy Wood usually sit in the John Grimes pew and Gordon and Cy Sherman in Thomas Merrill’s. For over seventy years the Johnson/Vogelien family has been sitting in the Russell Tubs pew. Other members who worship on Sundays may pause to read the names on each pew and reflect on how these families lived and what they were thinking when they sat where we now sit some 175 years later.
From the Child ministry until the Civil War, the church prospered and played a significant part in Deering affairs. Following Child’s departure, the membership called Peter Holt, a Harvard graduate, who served from 1835-1843.
Under Rev. Holt the church enthusiastically embraced the Temperance Movement and other features of mid-19th century Protestant piety that sought to regulate personal morality. In the 1830s some 200 townsfolk joined the Temperance League.
Central to Protestant Piety was the universal possibility of salvation for anyone who accepted the “Good News.” If one freely pledged to live a pious life and chose the path of light over darkness and to follow God’s will as revealed through Jesus Christ, the new believer could gain eternal life in heaven.
Central to this theology was Christ’s sacrifice to remove our sins. A common hymn sung by Deering Sunday School students in 1857 rang out: “I lay my sins on Jesus, The Spotless Lamb of God; He bears them all, and frees us, From the accursed load.”
The nineteenth-century morality of the Deering Church was particularly harsh on adultery. Our church records list several incidents where women seeking to join the church were examined and asked to repent their breaking of the seventh commandment. For example, on September 26, 1823, Anna Carr faced the congregation and publicly admitted to her sin of adultery. She explained:
..with a broken heart and contrite [sense] that I now take blame and shame to myself, and confess my transgression. I have sinned against God. I have by my conduct as it respects the seventh commandment grossly broken over covenant obligations. I am sorry for my sin and repent.
Expanded education was another religious reform of the era. Protestantism began with the belief that the Bible rather than the Church was the true vehicle of God’s will, and literacy became a crucial skill for everyone who sought to know Divine revelation. To facilitate understanding the Bible, Congregational ministers were graduates of the best universities and they were usually the most educated citizens in their communities. Protestantism in this country brought with it free public education that was infused with religious socialization. Public school children often used Biblical materials to learn to read.
Students in Deering chanted their alphabet beginning: “In Adam’s fall, we sinned,” and ending with “Zacchaeus he, Did climb a tree, His Lord to see.” In the 1840s the Church Sunday School supported a library of nearly three hundred volumes and the youngsters read them religiously and took them home to study.
From 1863 to 1874 Morris Holman served in Deering as pastor and, until Stanley Keach in 1981, held the record for the longest service as a Deering minister. Holman accepted the call when our church was viable and a vital force in the community. When he left, the Church was entering a period of sharp decline. The regular attendance of about 50 during the Holt years had plummeted to less than a dozen by Holman’s departure.
Meanwhile the Congregational churches in neighboring towns, with populations similar to Deering’s, were flourishing. Antrim’s church had 204 members, Greenfield had 195 and Hancock had 266.
Francistown, with fewer people than Deering, managed to attract 500 members. One reason for the decline of the Deering Congregational Church was the parallel rise of the Free Salvation Society in East Deering that merged into the Methodist Church.
These members were able to finance the construction of a new church building in 1830, built by the same architects who had planned the Congregational Church. Although we do not have access to the Methodist Church records, it is apparent from oral histories that the East Deering Church attracted enough members to keep open into the 1920s.
From 1860 to 1900, the Deering Community Church suffered continual decline. Part of this trend can be explained by industrial development. In 1830 Deering and Hillsborough were about the same size. However, with no source of waterpower, Deering lost so many people that by 1900 it was home to less than 400 people. In the meantime Hillsborough’s population had climbed to over 2,000.
to just 24
After Rev. Holman left Deering in 1874, the Congregational Church would not call another full-time minister for 65 years. When Holman left the membership had dwindled to 24 members, nineteen women and five men. Luckily, one of those women was Esther Ellsworth. She served as clerk, kept the church records and tried her best to infuse some life in the dying institution.
The Church managed a few summer services and a few funerals. Student ministers from Andover-Newton, pastors from neighboring churches and ministers from the East Deering Church supplied most of the preaching.
During this period the church made only one major decision: In 1891 it decided “To celebrate the Communion of the Lord’s Supper with water instead of wine.” That same year 15 men gathered to shore up the deteriorating building including constructing a new steeple.
By 1895, most of the original settlers of Deering had gone west or moved to Hillsborough, and the Church had only three members. As the new century opened, Deering, like many farming communities in upper New England, was a moribund town. As failing farmers fled to richer fields or to the burgeoning factories along the rivers, Deering houses fell into disrepair as their paints faded and floors rotted.
When, in 1902, Governor Rollins called for all towns to celebrate Old Home Days, the few remaining residents of Deering had only nostalgia to lighten their hearts. Even the builder of the first farmhouse in town was forced to close his doors after 136 years of tilling his land, and he moved down the hill to work as a hired hand on the Loveren farm.
Into the vacuum left in Deering by the departure of old Yankee settlers flowed a new influx of settlers determined to fulfill their dreams of owning their own farms.
This time the new settlers were not old English or Scottish-Irish stock but part of the new wave of Ellis Island immigrants from Europe. Little did they realize that their predecessors had left Deering because they had failed as farmers. What these refugees from the industrial cities saw were open fields, endless woods, opportunities for self-employment and a wholesome place to raise their large families.
These new settlers, such as Peter Wood from Scotland, Ernest Johnson from Sweden, Harold Titcomb from England by way of Canada, John Evans from Lithuania, and Julius Gruenier from Germany, were willing to exchange hard money they had earned in wages for largely subsistence farming that they believed gave their lives meaning.
Moreover, these new settlers to rural Deering longed for the sense of community they had abandoned in Europe. A handful of current church members like Wallace Wood, Joyce Peace, Tom Copadis, Jeanne Bartlett, Aino Bigwood, Hazel Vogelien and Don Johnson owe their presence here to some of these adventurous immigrants who fled the factories in order to build new lives in a strange place.
The transplanted Europeans soon found new friends among the surviving Yankees in Deering and most had large families that slowly increased Deering’s population from 288 in 1920 to nearly 400 a decade later. As their children attended public schools and joined the church, they became loyal Americans, many of whom would later fight in World War II and the Korean War.
Probably most citizens of Deering after the 1920s did not think of themselves as poor, although objectively they were.
They thought of themselves as successful and invested much effort in building a tightly-knit community and looked forward to their children advancing beyond their own meager educations. However, just as this second wave of Deering settlers were invigorating Deering, they were joined by a third wave of settlers who were as strange to them as they were to the newcomers.
The local farmers in the later 1920s called the new settlers “summer people” because they poured into town in June and had mostly left by Labor Day. The summer people tended to call themselves, “the summer colony,” and most of them built cabins around Deering Lake (known by locals as the Deering Reservoir), or snatched up deserted farms for bargain prices. Many like the Beavens, Abernethys, Polings, Pettys and Yeaples were ministers. Others were administrators and officials in denominational work. Many were well-known religious leaders with national and international reputations.
The impetus behind this summer migration of theological luminaries was Eleanor Campbell, a millionaire social reformer who was also a medical doctor and divorced, placing her in a small minority of women of the time. Dr. Campbell, as she was known among the Deering locals, had used her medical training to uplifting Italian immigrants in New York’s Greenwich Village, where she had established a clinic that gave free medical and dental treatment, and she actively visited families in their humble homes in an effort to improve their parenting.
The pastor of the justly famous Judson Memorial Church, Dr. A. Ray Petty, had already decided in 1925 to buy a deserted farm near Fulton Pond and he, in turn, convinced Dr. Campbell to follow suit. She purchased a farm across the road from him. Later Dr. Petty swapped his farm for 17 acres on Deering Lake where he proceeded to build the first of many cabins. The same year Dr. Campbell bought four more farms, totalling around 700 acres. She soon persuaded many of her friends to join her and the summer colony soon owned much of the south eastern shore of the Deering Lake.
Dr. Campbell did not come to Deering just to relax. She and her friends plunged into Deering uplift with zeal. She moved quickly to build several new community-based organizations including a health center near the Town Common. She launched the Community Club, which remained the major organization in town until the 1950s. She also introduced birth control and opened a vacation Bible school that served hundreds of children from surrounding towns.
Certainly Dr. Campbell’s motives were altruistic and pure, yet for many of the local Deering residents, especially the proud new European immigrants, the new culture she introduced was a lethal threat to their sense of their personal worth and to their belief that they were building their own American Dream.
When Dr. Campbell compared Deering children to the Italian and Greek kids crowded in the New York slums, many were insulted. Later when the leader of the Deering Community Center, which she started, wrote an article in theBoston Globe describing the Deering kids of the 1930s as “poor, pallid, bean-fed children who lived in tar paper shacks,” even the youngsters were offended. As one member of our church now says, “Before the summer people came, we didn’t realize that we were poor.”
One of the most dramatic changes the summer people caused in Deering was the revitalization of the moribund Congregational Church. At first Dr. Campbell and her summer community thought about reviving the Methodist Church as it was the more vital one. However, they decided to invest their considerable energies into the Congregational Church and they proceeded to enlist many locals in this effort.
A motion in 1927 that allowed the summer people to join as Associate Members meant they could join the Deering church while retaining full membership in their home place of worship. At the same meeting Drs. Campbell and Poling were appointed to head a committee to carry out the much-needed repairs to the church building. The next week’s Hillsborough Messenger announced that, “The Old Congregational Church at Deering that had practically ceased to function and the membership of which had dropped to three persons, has been brought back to life and put upon a firm basis.” The paper went on to explain that the renovation was largely due to “the efforts of a distinguished summer colony…”
The restoration and reinvigoration of Deering’s old church brought together the Yankees, the new immigrant families, and the summer people, a seemingly strange mixture. However, the effort awoke the old church. Although the Church was open mostly in the summer and relied on student ministers, gradually the townspeople assumed more of an active part in maintaining the building and filling offices.
At the July 26, 1931, service and another the following month, the largest numbers of new members were accepted. With the influence of the summer colony, the Church enjoyed some of the best preaching in the country. Besides the resident Abernathys, Beavens and Yeaples, distinguished preachers included James Mulienberg, Roger Shinn, Truman Douglas and Howard Spragg.
Dr. Campbell also launched the Deering Community Center on Route 149. Young people from all over the East came to enjoy a week’s camping there, and local youngsters could attend vacation Bible school. Later, when Dr. Campbell turned the Center over to the United Church of Christ, the summer minister’s school attracted some of the best scholars in the nation as teachers. The Center also produced plays, musical programs and other cultural events for the townspeople. Beginning in the early 1940s, the director of the Community Center was usually an ordained minister who also served as the pastor of the Congregational Church. The summer colony not only revitalized our church, but financially sustained it down to Carlton Sherwood’s leadership in the construction of Sherwood Hall in the 1960s.
With the strong leadership and financial support of the summer colony, our church entered a paradoxical phase of its history. In the years up to the 1950s, most churches were more active in the winter and slowed down in summer when many farmers were preoccupied with haying and tending their crops. However, in Deering, church attendance was very low in winter, sinking to only two or three families in the 1940s, while the summers saw Sunday services packed with occasional services that attracted as many as two hundred worshippers.
During the first half-century of the Deering Church, no two people were more responsible for keeping the slender thread of faith alive in Deering than Almeda and Lottie Holmes. The Holmes sisters were daughters of the old south, but moved to Massachusetts when they were both young children.
As a child Almeda was devout, given to prayer, and she knew she would follow a religious life. As a young woman in Boston, Almeda got the Call while reading in the newspaper about a rural town in New Hampshire that had no Sunday School. Almeda convinced her sister Lottie to support her missionary efforts in Deering where she spent the rest of her life caring for the sick and needy, helping to build community and investing her effort and small savings in establishing a Sunday School for generations of Deering youngsters.
Since there were no church services in the winter, Miss Almeda carried the “Good News” by snowshoe to the homes where children lived. She brought the children books, Bibles and her intense love of God. Almeda and Lottie not only brought the Good News to this struggling town, but were special witnesses to God’s love and grace. They tended the sick, cooked food for the needy, lent money to many, took neighbors to the doctor pulled along by their beloved horse Snookums. They were first in line at all voluntary efforts. They were pillars of the Community Club, Grange and Guild. From 1920 to 1958, no one in the Congregation would dare nominate anyone but Almeda as the Sunday School Chair.
Dr. Campbell’s master plan for Deering aimed to build a functional community where all citizens would volunteer for service projects of self help. Self help had been her approach among the Italian immigrants of the lower east side in New York and she believed that Deeringites could also be taught the skills that would ensure their children better health, a stricter Protestant morality, stronger community and even, for some, the opportunity to attend college. To achieve these goals, the summer people not only revived the church and launched the Community Club.
The Community Club was initially designed as a women’s service organization. However, a parallel men’s club never got off the ground and in 1922 both men and women were welcome in a single volunteer and service group.
The Community Club attracted many of the leaders of Deering and the new organization raised funds and oversaw the addition to the town hall, installing running water in the town hall, repairing the church, sponsoring Christmas parties for all the town’s children and holding dances and whist parties.
The Community Club also raised the funds to purchase the town’s first tractor for plowing snow, sending the old snow rollers into permanent retirement.
Despite the enormous success of the Community Club, Dr. Campbell wanted an organization just for women. Consequently the Women’s Guild, the longest-running voluntary organization in Deering’s history, was launched in 1927 when thirty-five women gathered at Mrs. Poling’s Longhouse and elected her the Guild’s first president.
From its inception, the Women’s Guild served as the major gathering place for Deering women and it is still going strong. Margaret Colburn was at the founding of the Guild and has been an active Guild and Church member ever since.
The Guild, infused with the Christian message of service, has been the strongest arm of the church. The Guild has raised money for the church, the town and for countless needy people at home and around the world.
For Deering women who lived in families struggling for physical survival, the service function of the guild was a crucial factor in strengthening their dignity, self-reliance and their sense of the wider community. Asking poor people to give and to serve others is a high compliment indeed.
The social dimension of the Guild was equally important. Farmwomen often find themselves isolated from their neighbors and caught in an endless round of work. With the Guild, once a month Deering women could take a bath, put on their best dresses and even hats and leave husband or children to prepare supper that day.
They were off, usually by foot or horse and buggy, to the Guild where they entered another world of small cakes and coffee, served on real china that soon swept away the worries and pressures that they had temporarily left at home.
They got to talk with neighbors they may have only seen at church, weddings or funerals. More importantly they could expand their minds and souls.
Almost every Guild meeting had a program featuring talks by missionaries who had served in China, Japan or the Philippines. There were also book reviews and talks on how to make things like Christmas decorations, advice on cooking new dishes and innovative sewing techniques.
The Guild was a major force in bringing Deering women and the summer people together in a single community. At first most meetings were held at summer residences and Mrs. Poling and Dr. Campbell planned most of the programs.
However, Millie Johnson, a local woman, succeeded Mrs. Poling as president and thereafter meetings were rotated among all sorts of homes in town. Later, Deering women such as Almeda Holmes, Margaret Colburn and Clara Rich, all of whom were also active church members, served as president.
In 1941, as World War II began, Rev. William Sipe, together with his wife and six children, came to Deering as its first settled minister since 1874. By this time the Congregational Church’s Board of Homeland Missions had taken over the Community Center and begun to appoint directors that also served as our pastors.
Mrs. Sipe volunteered to teach at the last one-room school house in Deering and fifty years later one of her sons would be elected to the Hillsborough High School Sports Hall of Fame.
Rev. Sipe moved the small congregation to Judson Hall at the Community Center for the winter services, while Carlton Sherwood continued to arrange for the exciting schedule of summer preaching. On December 17, 1942, Rev. Sipe, with help from the Guild and Community Club, sponsored their annual Christmas party for the town and ninety citizens, nearly one third of the population, turned out for the celebration.
In 1946 Rev. Charles Reidt, the second successive full-time minister and director of the Community Center, arrived in Deering. The Reidts, like the Sipes, settled easily into Deering society. With three children, one still in high school, the Deering kids were directly connected to the Reidts and the Church. Mr. Reidt also volunteered to conduct a Sunday School for the high school youngsters and even encouraged them to set up a basketball court in Elizabeth Hall.
At least one of the teen-age boys who attended Mr. Reidt’s Sunday School reported that these classes were far more engaging than those offered at Hillsborough High School. Mr. Reidt was not shy about giving reading and writing assignments and believing that young people were capable of sophisticated Biblical analysis.
When the Reidts retired in 1954, the church entered a twenty-five year period of attempted self-sufficiency. The Community Center no longer supplied pastors and the small congregation struggled to find part-time ministers and others who might volunteer to preach.
In 1954 Deering welcomed Rev. Lydia Whipple Wood for a two-year assignment as the first woman pastor to our church. Rev. Wood came to Deering one day a week and conducted Sunday services. In these times the annual church budget was about $2,700.00 a year. Our church also relied on subsidies from the New Hampshire Council and the Board of Homeland Missions.
In 1957 the Church opted to join the newly organized United Church of Christ, but it still had no full-time pastor and struggled to find visiting preachers, except during the summer months. However, in 1962, the church fortunes changed when Elmer Lushbough and his wife agreed to serve as lay ministers.
Lushbough later wrote of his years here that he had no major problems “ with a conservative congregation pretty much Republican, I think…” Thanks to the Lusboughs’ Sunday School project, we have plaques on all our pews identifying the original supporters of our church building.
During the Lushbough ministry, the Church took the daring step of building an addition to the sanctuary. This decision was largely motivated by Anne and Carleton Sherwood who offered the motion in January, 1964, to construct, “…a separate building, on the same road and facing the same way as the Church, with a completely excavated cellar with two toilets…. Consisting of a hall and kitchen.” Later the building committee, chaired by Bud Bartlett, decided to enlarge the plan and add a “four room apartment” for future ministers, to be dedicated as the Dr. Eleanor Campbell Parsonage.
With a generous $5,000.00 dollar gift and a $5,000.00 loan from the UCC Board, another donation from the erstwhile benefactor of Deering for $5,000.00, the small church membership still had $20,000.00 to raise. In two years the church raised $10,000.00, mostly given by members of the summer colony. Later the church membership voted to withdraw $14,000.00 from its endowment to finish the ambitious project that is now used for suppers, meetings and church offices.
In 1965 William Sipe returned to Deering for a second stint as our minister. Although retired to his home town of Hollis, Rev. Sipe commuted to Deering to see our congregation through a difficult period, and Moderator George Wolfe ably led the membership.
During the 1970s a series of retired part-time pastors came to serve our church. The first of these, Lloyd and Mildred Rising, asked the moderator if $100.00 per month would be possible and then drove to Deering to be the first to live in the new parsonage. The Risings knocked on Deering doors and attracted several new families to the Church.
The 1970s was a continue growth period in Deering history as the population soared from 400 in 1960, 578 in 1970, and 1,041 by the end of the decade. Making one’s living by farming had all but ended as newcomers built new homes and began to commute to work. Thanks to the Risings and their successors, who spread the “Good News” to newcomers, the Church also experienced two decades of rapid growth. Not only were new Deeringites coming to church, but several new members from Weare and Hillsborough were also attracted to membership.
Rev Otto Jonas and his wife succeeded the Risings in 1975 as our part-time pastor. Rev. Jonas presided over the nation’s bicentennial celebrations in 1976 when the church contributed special services, one involving churchgoers in period costumes and Tom Allen’s arrival by horse and buggy dressed as Uncle Sam.
Rev. Jonas remembers the Deering Association suppers, Tom Rush concerts and the annual Guild Fair as the highlights of his time with us. He also recalls that the membership was “mostly liberal, both socially and politically.”
Since Charles Reidt had retired in 1954, Deering had not enjoyed a full-time pastor, but that dream had not faded. As early as 1964, Beverly Yeaple and George Wolf had expressed continuing concern about attracting a full-time pastor. They had requested the New Hampshire Conference to assist in this endeavor, and Rev. Broadbent, the Conference minister, had come to Deering to conduct a survey and hold discussions with the membership.
Although the dream was delayed, it did not die. In the 1970s fifty-one new members joined the church, including 27 after 1977. The new membership, including the Shermans, Spraggs and Weedans, sparked a genuine revival in our church. The spiritual harvest of the 1980s was even more dramatic. From August 17, 1980, to March 20, 1988, seventy-one new members joined our church. This new influx of members, more than any other factor, facilitated the serious consideration of our church’s decision to call a part-time minister, for the first time since 1874, financed by our own members.
In 1977, led by the moderator Howard Spragg, and made possible by the generous offer of Rev. Jonas to donate his time during the winter months as well, the church voted to maintain a year-round church ministry as an experiment. With the help of the New Hampshire Conference minister William McKinney, who conducted another survey of Deering’s potential to support a year-round Church, the membership affirmed the experiment as a permanent policy.
Katherine Bliss remembers that at this meeting many members were scared to vote for a year-round church. She recalls that Edna Yeaple was the most adamant that the experiment should be continued. Mrs. Yeaple told the meeting, “Let’s do it, we can do it. . . . You’ve got to have faith to go ahead.” Others present at that meeting felt “If she has that much confidence, we shouldn’t be scared.” (Bliss interview, August 12, 1989)
The membership believed that with its current pledges, it would be able to pay a pastor about $5,500.00 per year. In January 1979 the pastoral search committee, chaired by Gordon Sherman, invited the membership to a buffet supper to meet William Salt, their choice to be the new pastor. At the time Bill Salt was in the process of ordination and still had courses to finish at Keene State in order to graduate. After he preached his first sermon on February 4, he was unanimously voted in as the new minister.
Rev. Salt came to live in the parsonage and assume his ministerial duties on May 27, 1979. He was to work at the church four days per week, while completing his course work. The membership helped his wife Lee and their two daughters move from Bangor, Maine, to the Eleanor Campbell parsonage.
Bill Salt, who had accepted God’s call in mid-life, after attending Bangor Seminary, came to Deering as a 48-year-old “rookie minister.” Rev. Salt initiated our World Service and Prayer Committee and nurtured our membership’s compassion for the wider world. The first year of his ministry, Bill Salt made an astounding 104 home visits. He also conducted Bible study, ran a confirmation class, and began a Church newsletter, all accomplished while attending college, looking after a family and supposedly working only part time.
Kay Bliss remembers Bill Salt’s constant kindness and Leo Vogelien recalls “how much at home Bill made the newcomers feel and how down to earth he was.” The 1980 annual meeting attracted 57 participants, the largest number since the 1930s. The meeting learned that pledges had increased from $9,000.00 to $13,000.00 and that the 1981-82 budget could be met. That year was Bill Salt’s last in Deering. He had accepted another full-time position in Vermont and would later move to Tom’s River, New Jersey. He now serves as the pastor in Washington, New Hampshire, and is a frequent visitor to Deering, the place of his first call as a gospel minister.
In 1982, the Church appointed another search committee and its members expressly sought to engage a full-time woman pastor. After one rejection, the committee voted to call Stanley Keach. After Stan and Lola visited Deering, it did not take long for the membership to vote to call Stan as our minister.
The Keaches were one of the most interesting couples ever to serve our church. Stan was a solid New Englander who had attended Brown University and Andover-Newton Theological School. His career had already spanned 40 years when he came to Deering.
He had served as pastor, Minister of Education, and had served several deteriorating churches. When the Search Committee discovered Stan, he had just completed an unusual Call as taxi cab driver minister, reminiscent of the old Methodist clergymen who had moved by horse on the American frontier.
During his long career the Keaches had not avoided controversies. Lola was a social worker and had developed a very successful ministry at Walpole State Penitentiary. Stan loved music of all kinds and often included musical pieces in his sermons.
When he cited lyrics from the rock group U-2, many in the congregation may have thought he was giving a sermon on nuclear energy. However, those who came on Sunday soon learned to appreciate the lyrics of Bob Dylan, Judy Collins and Stan’s own folksinger son.
Stan summed up his own theology:
It is my understanding that the Christian Ministry now must more and more see
the gospel as a matter of relationships: helping persons in a positive way to be more
satisfactorily related to God, to the church, to the Bible,
to other persons of all races and classes, to their inner beings,
and to Jesus Christ.
Many in our congregation will never forget Stan’s Easter Sermon in 1992, given only a week after his daughter had perished in a sudden fire. The synchronicity of this tragic event and the arrival of Easter threw into bold relief what our tradition teaches about death.
Stan understood the timing and his own grief well and gave a sermon that greatly deepened our own understanding of the most important Sunday of our Christian year.
During Stan’s ministry, the longest term of any minister in our Church’s history, 64 new members joined, many in direct response to one of his many visits and obvious concern for all people. Stan was the driving force in raising our membership to 125, the most in all our history.
Stanley Keach had the rare courage to take daring stands on social and political issues, but he always did so with humility and the sense that no-one can know the truth or God’s position with certainty. That kind of faith fostered an openness and willingness to expand our mental and spiritual boundaries to explore new possibilities. When he was asked what his proudest achievement was in Deering, Stan explained it was the time he had invited some of our more conservative members to hear Rev. Jessie Jackson speak. He wanted, he said, not to change their minds, “but [for them] to be exposed to views and stands on issues different from their own.”
Yet, Stan insisted that many forgot that he was “an orthodox Christian who believes in Jesus Christ and His resurrection.” Stan said, “Concepts of faith are never static and always must be reinterpreted in every age.” Few who know him will ever forget Stanley Keach, a paradoxical man who called himself an old-fashioned Christian, but who radically reminded us of the misery in which many of the world’s people live, through no fault of their own, and our own Christian responsibility for acting on their behalf with faith and love in our hearts.
We also remember Stan’s wife Lola, who was as dedicated to social justice as her husband. She had served in a long-running prison ministry and infused Deering with her energy and positive attitude. Lola died in 1990 and a year later Stan married Alice. Alice plunged into her new life in Deering, and with her sharp mind, ready wit and devotion to social justice, soon won over the church membership and many others in Deering. She was a genuine companion to Stan and brought great happiness and meaning to him in his last years.
After Stan retired in 1993, he very much wanted the church membership to vote him to Minister Emeritus status. For whatever reason this decision was long in coming, but happily Jane Spragg and Margaret Seymour delivered the citation to him as he lay dieing. They sat on his bed as Jane read out the words. According to Alice Keach, “Stan could not speak, but by the faint smile he was able to raise, we knew that he had understood.”
During Stan’s last days his brother Rev. Richard Keach, Rev Carlson the N.H. Conference Minister, the venerable Rev. Dan Poling, our own Rev. Joyce Lovejoy, among many others made the pilgrimage to say good-bye to this great man. When Stan Keach retired in 1993 and died three years later, we lost one of the most inspirational ministers in our more than 200-year history.
Following Stan’s departure, we were blessed with Virginia Jones, who came to serve as interim minister. Virginia also worked as a Hospice minister and we remember her for her intense compassion and sensitivity toward others. Her sermons were inspirational and her service to us was so much appreciated that many in the congregation were intensely sorry to see her leave us.
As always happens in the long continuity of the church, pastors come and go, each one appreciated in his or her own ways and new search committees are formed to seek new candidates. In this process faith in the future and in God’s grace infuse these committees with the belief that somewhere there is that special person who will come as the glove to our hands.
In 1994 the new Search Committee, chaired by Sherry Phinney and Chris Hague, set out on another adventure to find a new pastor for our Church. After an extensive round of reviewing applications and interviews, in 1995 the committee recommended Joyce Lovejoy and she was unanimously voted in as the new minister.
Joyce, like Bill and Stan before her, had worked in other careers before finally responding to God’s call to become a gospel minister. She had worked as a teacher and computer specialist in business before attending Andover-Newton Theological Seminary.
When Joyce came to Deering, she had the difficult task of following one of the most beloved of our ministers. However, with a very strong personality and a deep sense of faith, she quickly established herself as a strong presence and brought us a different theology. Many had called Stan Keach “almost a Unitarian,” while Joyce brought a stronger focus on Jesus Christ and the eternal forgiveness of God.
During Rev. Lovejoy’s tenure Deering’s rapid population growth slackened and our membership dipped toward a hundred members. However, after the usual pessimism and frantic efforts to raise more money, the Church made its budgets every year. Joyce was instrumental in attracting a number of new families, several, like the Nases, Robinson’s and later Griests, Rivera’s and Dodsons, with young children.
Many of us have watched these babies grow into school children and beyond, and their delightful smiles remind us of our own long-ago childhoods and the gift they bring to us with their weekly presence. During the Children’s sermons, we often sit in awe as profound questions and insights pour from their innocent minds.
Joyce Lovejoy came to our congregation with energy and an approach to organization that surpassed any leader we had before. She instructed us in the ways of the computer and communication with each other that has left a lasting impression on us. One person said, “We are organized so well, now, thanks to Joyce, that we can run on autopilot for awhile.” The click of her heels as she entered the hall or sanctuary challenged us to share innovative ways to express Sunday worship while still demonstrating the value of traditional liturgy in the new member ceremony and baptism.
Joyce shared with Stanley a commitment to social activism and encouraged our members to get involved with social reforms. One example was our congregation’s rapid response to request from the Indian State of Gujarat for aid after the terrible earthquake in 1991. The membership generously raised $1,500.00 to contribute to relief efforts there. The Committee to move our church to adopt an Open and Affirming Policy also got under way during Joyce’s ministry.
Joyce was dedicated to ministering to the sick and troubled. She religiously visited those in the hospital or recovering at home. She patiently listened to people’s problems and always offered her quiet support. She brought a passion and excitement to her preaching and no one who attended church during her tenure could doubt Pastor Joyce’s deeply felt faith.
Joyce’s pastorship came to a premature conclusion in 2002 when she announced that health reasons were forcing her to leave her work with us. After Joyce’s departure, Rev. Janice Shepherd bounded into our midst, with her infectious enthusiasm and unorthodox services and sermons, to serve as our interim pastor. Jan was something of a jazz minister, often improvising as she went along. She turned sermons into discussions, debates and constantly urged us to be the Church that we were meant to be.
She also wanted us to spread the news of our own successes and assets. She ordered two large signs announcing the Church’s presence to place along the highway, persuaded us to paint the side entrance door blue to be more inviting, and scheduled a number of pot luck suppers to promote community and explore new ideas for our future. She commissioned a long time line that traced the Church’s past two plus centuries and scheduled historic moments as part of the Sunday services.
Open and Affirming
Toward the end of Pastor Jan’s tenure, the Church met to take a historic vote on the long-discussed issue of becoming an “Open and Affirming Church.” Not surpassingly, the membership voted 27 to 3 to accept the motion. Gordon and Cy Sherman and Suzanne and Stuart Huggard led the year-long consideration of this decision. They invited speakers from other New Hampshire Open and Affirming churches as well as representatives from the New Hampshire Conference to share information with us at several special meetings. After our vote, the Deering Community Church joined only 10 other New Hampshire UCC Churches in affirming our commitment to welcome all people to worship with us, no matter their race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, social class or physical challenges.
During Jan’s time with us we also experienced the trauma of September 11, 2001, and the ensuing build-up to the Iraq War.
The World Service and Prayer Committee, in co-operation with the Smith Church, sponsored a series of talks on Islam and the background to the rise of terrorism. These programs attracted from 50 to 80 participants. This committee also sponsored two programs at the Deering Town Hall, one on the War in Iraq and a second on the Israeli-Palestinian struggle. These public affairs evenings were the first such discussions in the Town Hall in many decades.
Pastor Jan was warmly affectionate and under her ministry there was a noticeable increase in hugs and kisses, and she was known to shed a tear when the Holy Spirit overtook her during sermons.
Jan was one of a kind and another unique person in a long line of unusual pastors who have served our church.
Shortly after Pastor Joyce’s departure, the congregation selected a Search Committee to seek a new minister. The Committee asked Church members to complete two questionnaires and participate in one of eight small house meetings and a pot luck supper to discuss our Church’s future.
The two main goals that emerged from these gatherings were the goal of engaging a full-time pastor supported by our own financial contributions and becoming a more active presence in Deering.
After interviewing possible candidates, the committee unanimously agreed that, by the Grace of God, the person we were seeking had entered our lives and we informed Barbara we would like to Call her as our pastor
At first, in her honest and straightforward way, Barbara informed the committee that she was almost sure she would return to California where she had worked so many years and where her two grown children lived.
No-one in the Church knows exactly why she changed her mind, but we are grateful that she did. Swapping warm and sunny Los Angeles for cold and rural Deering remains a divine mystery.
Pastor Barbara gave her candidacy sermon on October 5, 2004, and at the meeting of the congregation soon after the membership voted unanimously to offer her the Call to become our pastor. Pastor Barbara agreed to begin her work with us in November. She and her husband Neill moved to the old Loveren farm on East Deering Road, originally the home of the men who built our church.
Barbara describes her theology as rooted in service to others through love. She writes, “For me love is the centerpiece of my theology. I believe that God is love: ‘Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love.’” (1 John 4: 7-8)
At Pastor Barbara’s glorious Ordination in Portland, Maine, the Search Committee, on behalf of our membership, presented Rev. Currie with a pewter cross and stated: “We called Pastor Barbara to be our minister because she is a person of deep and abiding faith who will bring forth in us greater faith, hope and commitment. We called her because she will help us move our church to the center of Deering’s community life as we work toward justice for all in these troubled times. Most of all, we have called Barbara because she embodies and teaches us that love expressed in service is the cornerstone of our faith.” Pastor Barbara was officially installed as our minister on February 8, 2004.
Since beginning her ministry with us, Pastor Barbara has plunged into her duties with efficiency and gusto. Her sermons enlarge our understanding of God and challenge us to live up to our professed words in a complex and global world.
She is continuing the long tradition of tending the sick and troubled and has actively visited with some of our absent members whom we dearly miss. Pastor Barbara has also called on people in need and responded to their urgent pleas for help and has invited our neighbors to visit our Church services on Sundays.
As our Church enters its 225th year, we can look back on both times of expansion and growth and dark days of mere survival.
But we also know that faith endures in good times and bad and that God’s call is constant, even if we willfully block our ears. We also know that we are privileged to share our lives in service to others and with a remarkable membership who unfailingly manifest concern, kindness and active support for one another and for the wider world community.
As a Congregational church, totally dependent on the commitment and generosity of its members, we can truly say the future of our church is, with God’s grace as prime mover, in our own hands.
For a more complete history of our church,
see Enduring Faith, The History of the
Deering Community Church 1789-1989,
written by Donald Johnson with Jean Johnson
and Peter Cram and published by the
Deering Community Church in 1991.