Over the years,
pews empty and fill
MARK E. RONDEAU,
— People are really what make up a church, not construction
people, a church is just another empty building. And churches don't
there are committed people who get them going. According to a
account printed in the Bennington Banner in 1909, "the history of the
Bennington Methodist Episcopal Church begins with a sermon preached
Freeborn Garrettson in September, 1792." Who this man was or what he
to say is not recorded. The closest Methodist church at this time was
In August of
1795, a giant of American Methodism, Bishop Francis Asbury, visited
Asbury "preached a sermon at a dwelling in the east part of the town at
the home of one designated as Brother D. in his diary, supposed to have
Dunham or a Downes." During his years as bishop, Asbury traveled all
the young United States, preaching in all kinds of places. He is also
have preached in Pownal and Williamstown, Mass.
Still, it was 32 years
before a permanent organization of Methodists formed in Bennington.
about when a young man named James Pitts Godfrey, of East Bennington, a
stoneware distributor, became interested in Methodism. He invited a
preacher named Merritt Bates to preach in his home. Bates is described
"serious young man, full of enthusiasm for Christ and not content with
preaching the Gospel and going his way. "He
opened the door for church membership and organized a class for six
probationers, thereby rooting the first of the Methodist Faith in
soil. This organization occurred on Thursday, May 6, 1827," according
newspaper article. This meeting is commemorated by a wooden sign next
front door of the Methodist Church on Main Street. There was no
church building at that time, however. The congregation met once every
weeks in Bennington at a place called the academy, served by Bates and
other circuit preachers.
first year serving the town, "a gracious revival erupted from their
services." One of those converted was Braman Ayres, who joined on April
16, 1828, and later became a minister. In a letter written years later
read at the dedication of a new Methodist church in 1909 —
Ayres remembered his
early days as a Methodist in Bennington. "I worked at the furnace three
miles from the village, and had much persecution, being the only
worked there. If I reproved them for swearing, they would threaten to
I stood much abuse in many ways for standing square for God," he wrote.
"Often while eating, a piece of bread or potato would be thrown at my
or in my face. I finally asked the privilege to eat alone in the
which was granted."
time, the Methodist congregation of 15 to 20 members went to a camp
a place called Oak Hills. "Under a sermon by Asa Kent the Holy Ghost
down in great power. From that time, Methodism began to make a great
of us praised the Lord aloud in church and often shouted victory," he
wrote. "We were sometimes led out of church and severely lectured for
raising a shout in camp." Ayres said he was probably the worst
and a church elder named Weaver was assigned to control him. Ayres
be quiet during services. "But some influence would come on me, and
I knew it I would be shouting and praising God." Rather than being
Weaver "wept and said, 'Brother Ayres, do the best you can, I don't
believe you can help it.'"
grew in Bennington, to the point where a church needed to be built
On July 28, 1831, the first preparations were made to build a church on
Street. The new church was dedicated on Aug. 15, 1833. Unfortunately, a
unpaid debt was incurred during the construction. One man stepped up to
challenge, Mason C. Morgan, who mortgaged his own farm to save the
"This mortgage proved an embarrassment to the church for many years,"
the historical account notes.
major event happened in 1856, when the Protestant ministers of
visited everyone in town to talk about the sin of disrespecting the
about the importance of attending church and about personal religion.
out religious tracts on these subjects during their visits. "While this
was in progress, a gracious revival broke out, and hundreds were
the churches. The Methodist Church received 220 persons on probation."
This led to churches being built elsewhere in the area, including the
Church in North Bennington, now the Capstone Baptist Church.
later, in October 1905, the official board of the church adopted plans
resulted in a new Methodist church building on the site of the old
Main Street, including rooms for Sunday school. The work was partially
completed in 1907, when it became
apparent that construction would have to stop
until more money could be raised. No work was done for about 18 months.
April of 1909, the Rev. W.W. Brunk was appointed pastor of the church,
inherited a project $13,600 in the red. People were very discouraged.
an interdenominational reception in May for the new pastor had good
"By a proposition made by Judge Bates, a member of the Baptist Church,
was decided to make an offering to apply towards completing the
church." Some $4,063 was pledged. The next Sunday, a visiting Methodist
official preached a sermon calling for more pledges from church
members. At the
close of this service, $10,000 more was pledged.
Work on the
church restarted immediately, and the congregation held a week of
dedication services for the finished facility on Nov. 21-28, 1909. The
expanded new church included electric lighting and the installation of
glass windows, including a large one of Jesus as The Good Shepherd at
end of the worship space. The photo of the front of the new church on
official program of events looks just like the front of the church
Each day of
the dedication services could be found written up in detail on the
of the next day's Bennington Banner. The Monday, Nov. 22, 1909, Banner
a point in Sunday's morning service when "the whole audience turned
the great window put in by the Morgan family and recited the 23rd
subject of the window being The Good Shepherd. This part of the service
very impressive. The public is invited to step into the church and see
splendid piece of art."
mid-1960s, a $110,000 renovation project took place to adjust the
the needs of the time. Now, 40 years later, a greatly reduced
no longer afford to run the building and recently moved its services to
Bennington Free Library.
16,780-square-foot church is for sale for $550,000. On three floors it
diverse array of worship spaces, meeting rooms, classrooms, storage
kitchens. With multiple Sunday services it could easily serve a
1,000 people. It's unlikely, though not inconceivable, that the
be used as a church again. It costs about $24,000 a year to heat the
For the time being,
however, the unused church remains a landmark on Main Street. Some
it as a symbol of a bygone era. Few people see The Good Shepherd window
anymore. Inside the silent building one recent afternoon this stained
window filtered streams of light into the dark and empty sanctuary as
cars and people
moved along Main Street a few feet away outside. (Little
did Mr. Rondeau realize that less than three weeks after publication of
this article the grand old building would be filled with praise to the