The historic St. John’s Congregational Church is one of the oldest and active Black Churches in New England. St. John’s has a rich history of positive community influence by its pastors, members and ministries. In 1848 the church was known as “Free Church” and its first pastor, the Rev. Leonard Collins vigorously defended Blacks’ right to organize their own churches in a public debate against the legendary abolitionist, Frederick Douglass. The debate appeared in the printed pages of Douglass’ North Star Newspaper. Douglass eventually came to accept the importance of establishing Black churches and attended services at the “Free Church.”
Throughout St. John’s history, it has maintained relationships with other nationally known human rights advocates. In fact, Abraham Lincoln knew one of the founding members of the church personally. Other honored guests and visitors to the church have included Sojourner Truth, James Baldwin, Langston Hughes, Jesse Jackson and Deval Patrick, just to name a few.
John Brown, the celebrated abolitionist and hero of Harper’s Ferry, was a member of the church during a period of time when he lived in Springfield. Brown and members of the church were actively involved in efforts to aid the escape of fugitive slaves. Springfield became a major stop on the Underground Railroad due in part to the abolitionist activities of this historic church. One of the most prized possessions of St. John’s is a Bible once owned by John Brown. Brown’s Bible remains on display at the church.
A number of the St. John’s members served bravely in the Union Army during the Civil War, including the Rev. Samuel Harrison. Rev. Harrison served as the church’s pastor from 1866 until 1870, and his work for racial equality placed him on the national spotlight during the Civil War. He went head to head with Abraham Lincoln over equal pay for Blacks serving in the Union Army, and he won. In June 1864 Congress granted equal pay for the 180,000 Blacks who fought on the side of the North. Rev. Harrison knew first-hand how badly Blacks were treated in the military because he served as an officer and chaplain of the famed 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Regiment, the first all Black infantry unit to fight in the Civil War. The exploits of this unit were dramatized in the movie Glory. The life and times of Rev. Harrison are also the topic of documentary film, A Trumpet at The Walls of Jericho: The Untold Story of Samuel Harrison. The film features Winton Marsalis and was narrated by Ossie Davis Jr. and Mario Van Peebles.
St. John’s current sanctuary, located at the corner of Union and Hancock Street, was erected in 1911, under the skillful and committed leadership of the Rev. Dr. William N. DeBerry. At the turn of the century DeBerry established a number of ministries benefiting the community, including a parish home for working women, girls’ and boys’ clubs, a summer camp and classes in domestic sciences. These ministries developed into long-standing institutions that still continue to serve the needs of the community including; the Dunbar Community Center, the Springfield Urban League and Camp Atwater, the oldest and most prestigious African American summer camp in the country.
St. John’s legacy of community service and commitment has inspired the rise of a number institutions dedicated to the education of our youth. Two Springfield Public Schools have been named in honor of deceased members of St. John’s who were active in the daily affairs of our church. The William N. DeBerry Elementary School was named in honor St. John’s former Pastor, the Reverend Dr. William N. DeBerry. Dr. William N. DeBerry came to lead St. John's in 1899, and under his leadership the church became nationally-known for its extensive facilities and neighborhood outreach programs. The Rebecca M. Johnson Visual and Performing Arts School was named after Rebecca Johnson, an accomplished educator in Springfield Public Schools and the first Black Principal to be hired in Springfield, Massachusetts. Ms. Johnson was an active member and leader of our church.
During the Civil Rights turbulence of the 50’s and 60’s St. John’s reputation as a community leader expanded under the leadership of Rev. Dr. Charles E. Cobb. In 1956, Rev. Cobb led a successful campaign which forced the Springfield School Board to end its discriminatory policy of not hiring qualified Black teachers in Springfield Public Schools. Rev. Cobb was a highly educated man with a universal perspective that influenced and directed our church. He led the church to buy a bus and used it to take students to historically-black colleges in the South. Rev. Cobb also reached out to the Nation of Islam when most ministers and church leaders in the community wanted nothing to do with them. Rev. Cobb defended the Nation's right to sell its newspapers in the streets. When Malcolm X heard about Rev. Cobb’s supporting their efforts Malcolm visited Cobb’s home in Springfield to personally thank him. Rev. Cobb was also the first religious leader to focus national attention on “environmental racism,” the practice of dumping toxic waste in poor communities.
In 1965, Rev. Cobb ran for Mayor of Springfield on a platform of racial equality. It is believed that he was the first Negro to run for Mayor of Springfield. He ran unsuccessfully for mayor, in part to protest the teaching of ''Little Black Sambo'' in reading classes. Rev. Cobb was elected Executive Director of the United Church of Christ’s Commission for Racial Justice. He convinced the UCC to “do what was right” by financially supporting “The Wilmington 10”, a group of civil rights workers who were imprisoned for allegedly firebombing a white-owned grocery store during a period of unrest over school segregation. An appeals court overturned their convictions, ruling that their Constitutional rights had been violated in the trial. One of those defendants, the Rev. Benjamin F. Chavis, Jr., became Cobb's successor as executive director of the Commission for Racial Justice and later the President and CEO of the NAACP. Chavis credits his freedom and subsequent success to Rev. Cobb. Rev. Cobb served St. John’s pulpit and congregation until 1966.
For the next thirty years St. John’s experienced a period of transition and uncertainty as four pastors and several interims led the church during turbulent times for the church. The church, however, continued to maintain an active presence in the community.
In November of 1997, the Rev. Dr. Howard-John Wesley was installed as pastor. Under Rev. Dr. Wesley’s leadership, the church grew both spiritually and numerically. Long overdue facility repairs were attended to and technology upgrades were introduced to improve the quality of the praise and worship experience. Several new ministries were established to better facilitate spiritual growth in St. John’s youth, young adults and new Christians. The church rented Springfield Symphony Hall on several occasions to accommodate the swelling attendance at its Resurrection Sunday services.
As the membership of St. John’s grew to nearly 3000, the church developed television and internet broadcast capabilities which greatly enhanced the accessibility and effectiveness of St. John’s ministries. Rev. Dr. Wesley’s preaching gift and the reinvigorated ministries, attracted new and mature Christians of all ages, races and economic backgrounds to St. John’s church family. The ministries developed under Rev. Dr. Wesley’s visionary leadership include a world class Music Ministry featuring exceptional praise and worship vocalist, musicians, choirs, ensembles and liturgical dancers- all of whom helped transform St. John’s worship experience into spirit filled encounter with God.
The rapid growth of St. John’s positioned the church to receive God’s vision for a new worship center on a two acre lot adjacent to St. John’s current sanctuary. Under Rev. Dr. Wesley’s leadership, St. John’s began Project Vision, its multi-million dollar building project to erect a state of the art 1200 seat worship center. Project Vision is now approaching the end of its pre-design phase and progressing towards the design and construction phase. Rev. Dr. Wesley served the St. John’s congregation until 2007 and continues his extraordinary ministry in Alexandria, VA.
God has blessed St. John’s to maintain high standards of worship, ministry and administration and once again blessed the church with an anointed man of God to serve as the new under-shepherd. On June 22, 2010, Dr. Calvin J. McFadden, Sr., was elected and appointed to serve as the 13th Senior Pastor of the St. John’s Church. Under Dr. McFadden’s leadership, the membership and spiritual growth continues to improve. A renewed sense of excitement and vitality are expressed throughout the congregation as our church moves to a new level in Christ. Dr. McFadden continues the legacy of former pastors and seeks to lead the church by revitalizing the spiritual foundation of the church through relevant preaching and teaching, reverent worship, innovative ministry, and a focus on congregational care. Since Dr. McFadden’s arrival, the church has experienced considerable spiritual and numerical growth and is on the move for future ministry expansion.
St. John’s continues to build the kingdom of God in the congregation and in community by offering two Sunday worship services, two weekly bible study classes, visitation to the infirmed, free meals to the hungry and hope to the hopeless. St. John’s (Cornerstone Build) continues to lay the foundation with plans to build a new worship center to provide adequate space and services for its ministries, 7 choirs and community outreach efforts. The new worship center will also address anticipated growth of St. John’s membership and remove accessibility barriers to mobility challenged guests and members. God is doing a new work in the life of St. John’s. We work with anticipation of defining the next exciting chapters of the rich history of St. John’s Congregational Church.