Something special started 150 years ago.
Dennis Hudson of First Congregational Church in Forest City was named current pastor just this February. But he knows everyone associated with the church places significance on its 1871 founding and storied history.
The church celebrates its 150 years on April 30-May 2.
“A tremendous amount of work has gone into it,” said Hudson, who began serving as church interim pastor in December 2019. “We’ve been making plans for almost a year. It’s a really big thing here. We have a great group of people. We are still preaching the original Gospel message of Jesus Christ and people are getting saved.”
A 6 p.m. ice cream social on April 30 will feature a horse and buggy from the 1800s with Hudson serving as a circuit preacher. The church’s famous ham ball dinner is planned for 6 p.m. on May 1, followed by the play “Kitchen Kackles,” written by Christa Cosgriff.
Sunday service is at 10:30 a.m. on May 2, followed by a salad luncheon. The church basement has a display of 150 years of its history, including music, photos, and scrapbooks for all to enjoy.
“The people in this church have a real heart for Forest City and our surrounding areas,” Hudson said. “During the (1979) flood, they were actively providing things to meet the needs of the community. Our main mission is the same as the church in the Book of Acts, which is to spread the Gospel and also to provide help to people whenever and wherever we can.”
Hudson noted that the May 1 dinner is an invitation-only event, due to limited space, but he invited members of local communities to stop by and share in other aspects of the celebration.
“Our hope is for a great turnout and also that the people of Forest City and the area will be supportive and that we will be a blessing for people,” Hudson said.
The Forest City Council has been supportive, approving the closing of the half block of North 6th Street adjacent to the church for the ice cream social on April 30.
Rev. Ozias Littlefield led the first services by a Congregational minister in Forest City in the summer of 1866. Rev. A.S. Allen was the pastor of the Congregational Church in Clear Lake. He went to Forest City once a month to preach to the villagers beginning in 1869.
The small congregation first met in homes, the courthouse, and the school. On April 30, 1871, the church was organized with six charter members. It was the first English-speaking church in Winnebago County.
Father Ephraim Adams, State Missionary of Iowa, and nine other young ministers who graduated from Andover Seminary in Massachusetts formed the "Iowa Band."
“If each one of us can only plant one good permanent church, and all together build a college, what a work that would be,” wrote Adams of the Iowa Territory. The Iowa Band arrived in October 1843 to establish Congregational churches and schools.
Rev. Allen continued his preaching visits until the fall of 1873. Rev. James D. Mason began his pastorate January 1, 1876, becoming the first resident pastor. Funds were needed to build a church.
Mrs. W.A. Burnap volunteered in 1876 to go back East to secure aid. She visited poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow at his home in Cambridge. He gave the church a large pulpit Bible. Longfellow inscribed “Presented to the Congregational Church of Forest City, Iowa” with his name. This Bible remains a treasured possession today.
“He was so moved by the devotion of the Forest City Congregationalist that he sent his big Bible to the church,” said present-day Pastor Hudson of the historical highlight.
Burnap received a loan of $1,100 from the Congregational Church Building Society for the erection of the church. It was built for $2,575 in 1877 and dedicated January 20, 1878.
Father Adams and Rev. Truman Orville Douglass were present at the dedication. Furniture was meager, consisting only of the pulpit, organ, and a few necessary chairs. The building was inadequately lit by small kerosene wall lamps. Mr. and Mrs. Jasper Thompson donated for two chandeliers and helped secure the church bell.
First Congregational Church was a missionary church. In December 1882, a great revival was held by Rev. Morton of Rochester, New York. Rev. Mason accepted a call to Clear Lake in January 1884. Rev. C.F. Dykeman of Rockford served until October 1887. For three months Rev. Asa Countryman of Iowa Falls supplied the pulpit.
In September 1889, Rev. Abbie R. Hinckly from Racine, Wisconsin, began serving. The Young People’s Society of Christian Endeavor was organized. Rev. Hinckly left in September 1890.
Rev. Mason returned in 1891. He served until January 1, 1897. Rev. W. B. Sandford of Parkersburg began on April 15, 1897. Youth interest, reorganized Christian Endeavor, social activities, and membership flourished. The parsonage was built with electric lighting installed.
From 1901 to 1905, there were five preachers. The church became disorganized and by 1905 entered a time of depression. Members were leaving. Insufficient funds hampered ministers in their work.
Again, Rev. Mason assisted, after retiring to Forest City. During four callings, he served 17 years. From October 1911 until March 15, 1913, Rev. E. F. Clark of Cambridge was pastor. Under him the C.E. Society flourished. In July 1913, Rev. T. B. Couchman of Earlville was pastor until May 1915.
Rev. John McLain of Chicago left after just a few weeks in 1917 to engage in war work. In May 1920, Rev. Southgate of Algona, State Conference representative, tried to resurrect the church.
The church clerk soon wrote a letter to Rev. Hardcastle advising of a decision to disband the church. The Missionary Board of the Iowa Conference held a meeting in Grinnell and decided the Forest City church should not close since it was a missionary field.
Rev. Hardcastle led through the crisis. Rev. W. J. Suckow began May 1, 1921, served seven years, and saw 100 new members join. He began with only 38 members. His first sermon text was Nehemiah 4:6, “For the people had a mind to work.”
The church building was remodeled and placed on a new foundation in 1924. The basement gained a dining room and kitchen cupboards. A north-side addition was built and stained glass windows installed. On January 20, 1925, the church was rededicated.
From 1928 to 1932, Rev. E. Carnell Wilson served the church. For seven years, supply ministers helped. Rev. George Barsalou came in September 1940 and served until 1947. On February 1, 1948, the church welcomed Rev. Gordon Blunt. He helped form a monthly men’s fellowship meeting. Speakers came from out of town or Waldorf College. Rev. Blunt left in August 1950. Rev. Floyd Bryan served from January 1951 to July 1954.
In September 1954, Rev. Thomas Rebentisch came and served until April 1959. Remodeling of the church was completed. Mr. Rebentisch was ordained in the church in October 1954.
The retired Rev. Bryon Wright, served as interim pastor from June 1959 to May 1960. Dr. John C. Eichorn started on May 8, 1960. He had one of the largest youth groups, 36 teenagers, in the area. Sunday school increased from the low 20s to the 70s. The parsonage was remodeled.
Since 1960, 16 ministers have served the church. Its long-time local radio broadcast was recently expanded to cover the United States. Continuing missionary services include delivering blessing bags to residents and meals to prison inmates.
Editor's Note: Christa Cosgriff provided historical information for this story
Rob Hillesland is community editor for the Summit-Tribune. He can be reached at 641-421-0534, or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.