Source: REGISTER OF OLD SETTLERS , BOOK One, page 139, 136, 151
submitted by Neal Carter, Sept. 28, 2007


History of a Forty Years’ Pastorate in Muscatine
(article was printed in the newspaper on Tuesday, May 8, 1883)

A fine audience turned out last evening to the meeting of the Academy of Science.

In the report of committees, Hon. Suel Foster reported that Mrs. Maxwell, State Librarian, had written the committee on the semi-centennial, offering to present a copy of the Indian treaty relating to Black Hawk’s village on Rock River and also in respect to the “Black Hawk Purchase.” He also reported at length upon what Burlington was doing and said he had written Supt. Ives for special train accommodations.

President Barnard introduced Rev. A. B. Robbins, D. D., as the essayist of the evening. It was a rare event for the Academy to have Dr. Robbins before them, his own historiographer of the most celebrated pastorate in the State and of a church which has held such important relations with the city. The Doctor read from manuscript as follows:

    A Paper on the History of the Congregational Church of Muscatine, May 7, 1883

    A Congregational church is a democracy. The reason there are no more (so-called democrats) in it is that the labors of the apostles and prophets have not yet sufficiently availed in “turning the world upside down;” that is, right side up.

    Our churches began to be organized in this land in 1620, and have had 262 years to grow in. They have made comparatively small advance.

    When looked at by the side of the 28,000 Baptist churches, and the 29,000 Methodist churches, or even the 11,000 Presbyterian churches, the 4,000 orthodox Congregational churches are but few among the thousands of Israel in the United States – though they are 19, 164 and 86 years older than these, respectfully. But still the great mistake of the Congregationalists has been in being inspired, by the example of their brethren of the Evangelical churches, and a worldly ambition, to the increasing of their number; the number of professed adherents. They should have been satisfied, the rather, with the leavening power of their example in other denominations rather than stimulated with a desire to add to their own numbers. Every member of a Congregational church, not a real believer and one showing his faith in all things in his daily living, is in that church, more than any other, a weakening to its power for good.

    The churches having more machinery, more organization, less simplicity in forms, are stronger for themselves, and in so far as the cause of Christ depends upon them, have more strength for it. But if there be no spiritual life, real piety, in a Congregational church there is no power for good in it; and the degree of that power depends upon the degree and pervading influence of the piety of the church in its daily living.

    When the Congregational church here had less members, and less wealth, and less honor, and was a by-word and a reproach for its weakness and radicalism it had more power for good than when its wealth and numbers had greatly increased.

    It was a great mistake and always is, in a Congregational church more than in any other, to catch the infection as to increase of numbers. Two things are essential in such a church, necessarily more so than in any other form of church policy – viz: intelligence and piety; and whoever comes into it without either, weakens it, no matter what his position in society, no matter what his pecuniary ability.

    In the year 1839 a church called “The First Presbyterian church of Musquitine county, Iowa Territory,” was organized in this city, then a town called Bloomington.

    This was made by its constitution New School Presbyterian, and was supplied with preaching by a Congregational minister, supported by the A. H. M. Society, a society at that time sustained by both Congregationalists and New School Presbyterians. This church was dissolved by vote of the Presbytery of Iowa City in 1845. In the last part of the year 1841 and the beginning of 1842 another Presbyterian church, connected ecclesiastically with the Old School body, existed. There were several members of Congregational churches in both these Presbyterian organizations and other Congregationalists, not connected with either, were in the town and vicinity. The formation of the Congregational church grew out of an effort, desired with great unanimity by all three parties, to unite in one church.

    It was organized on the 29th of November 1843, with articles of faith, covenant and by-laws according to Congregational standards, with twenty-six members, twelve men and fourteen women; one other man united in consummating the organization, Stephen Whicher, but he was not formally received at the dissolution of the First Presbyterian church in 1845, at which time he presented a letter from the session of that church.

    Pliny Fay and Samuel Lucas were chosen deacons; and Harvey Gillette clerk; and H. Q. Jennison, G. G. Auston and Nathan Price, business committee of the Congregational church.

    Rev. A. B. Robbins, of Salem, Mass., a graduate of Amherst College and Andover Seminary, and ordained as an Evangelist by a council called at Salem, and commissioned as a Home Missionary by the American Home Missionary Society, served, by invitation this church as its acting pastor, from November, 1843, to January, 1853, at which time he was installed as pastor of the church by a council of churches and ministers called, and meeting on the 20th of January, 1853. This relation still continues.

    The church held its services of worship, on the Sabbath, for several months, in the court room of the old Court House, occupying occasionally, on a cold or wet day, one of the offices in the lower story of the building. It then removed to a room furnished for the purpose over a store nearly where Mr. Coe’s bookstore now is. Both these places, the Court House and the store, were a long time afterwards destroyed by fire. I am not aware that the church had anything to do with these calamities.

    Here the church remained, with an interval in the heat of summer again at the Court House, sustaining their Sunday services and Sunday school and mid-week prayer meeting until the 8th of December, 1844, when they removed to their first new house of worship, built on what was then quite a lofty ascent, by a winding path, through stumps of trees to a lot 60x140, upon which now stands the fine residences of Mr. Semple and Romulus Hawley. This building was of brick, facing the river, but the rear of the lot. Its dimensions were 22x40 feet. It was built with considerable sacrifice and personal labor on the part of both pastor and people. Its timbers or joists for the floor were cut, hewn and drawn from the woods by the brethren from the country. It was furred and lathed, an uncommon thing in brick houses at that day, here, the pastor and brethren working at this. No application for help on the part of the church was made to eastern friends. But the shingles upon the roof of the building were voluntarily given by a contribution from John St. Congregational church, of Lowell, Mass. And afterwards, its bell, the same one now used, was presented to the pastor by several members of the Essex St., now called the Union Congregational church, in Boston, Mass. This bell, weighing with its yoke, &c., about 600 pounds, was too heavy for the roof of our church building, and a wooden tower of plain, undressed plank was built for it in 1848. This gave rise, in those free and easy times to the name of the church as “the stern wheel church.” Though this name and others by which the church was at various times honored, for example as the “d—d Yankee church,” and the” Uncle Tom’s Cabin church” came the rather from its real or supposed, more than usual, interference with the somewhat loose way of living in church arrangements – and with the whisky and pro-slavery sentiments then prevailing and continuing to increase for many years, especially the pro-slavery, increasing in intensity and bitterness up to the time of the war.

    When men were distinguished from each other and named by the color of their hair – when “Preacher Robbins” was distinguished from “Plug-Robbins,” their work being thus indicated, and when a judge giving a temperance decision, was hung in effigy and the mob doing it dispersed with three cheers in derision for “Cook Robbins” and when any measures for displacing a temperance and abolition preacher his position were not thought unbecoming; and when, in one congregation at least, a minister was timed by the watches of his hearers, it is not to be wondered at that any church and preacher undertaking to bring things up to Puritanic and still more primitive standards, should be somewhat roughly treated at least with the tongue. But with more or less enjoyment of the contest, the church slowly advanced.

    You will please remember that the Congregational church built the first house of worship, properly so called, in this place. Others combined under their roofs some secular purpose, one a school house, the other a Masonic lodge, and both of them should have had photographs taken as illustrations of homeliness, especially after one of them had been entered “vi et armis” by the preacher at a side window, which was afterwards barricaded for a long time with planks. The Congregational house of worship, by its comeliness and adornment, and setting apart by dedication to the worship of God, gave an impulse in this direction felt for a long time, and not yet, we trust, exhausted. If it is in the arrears now in this respect, it comes from unforeseen circumstances, such as have made many other plans among us gang awry.

    In October, 1852, the church had erected another house of worship upon the corner of Third and Chestnut streets.

    They worshipped for about two and a half years in a very commodious and pleasant conference and lecture room in the basement of this building, and in June, 1855, removed to the upper room of the building. The dimensions of this house were, on the outside, 70x43 feet. It had a spire seventy feet in height from the ground, and, with a large hand, unfortunately the left, and, pointing its forefinger upward.

    The space, in the lower part or basement of the house, was divided into a lecture or Sunday school room, 35x39 feet. A Bible class or committee room 21x18 feet, a furnace room, and a hall 9x39 feet.

    This was an effort, quite successful, to build a plain and unadorned sanctuary, yet in accord with the rules of the best taste. In the color of the painting, in the arrangements of the blinds, in the height and slope of the seats, in the arrangements of the lights, there was great effort to secure an attractive and useful place of prayer. The pulpit, quite an innovation at that time, was only three feet from the floor, though there was a gallery at the front end of the house. The house had 72 pews and with the gallery would seat 576, and cost, including the lot $7,000. There were in the church at the time 90 members, and the prospect of abiding and growth was very fair. But alas, in 1856 when it was supposed that this was to be the great central city of Iowa, an ambitious change in the grade of Third street was made and we were left in our church building, some 12 feet up in the air at the bottom of our foundation. Obliged either to lower or rebuild, it was decided, after much consultation and debate about upon the first day of June, 1857, that the house of worship on the corner of Third and Chestnut streets, be taken down and rebuilt on the same lot, that thirty feet in width be purchased from the next lot and that the dimensions of the new building be increased in depth to ninety feet. It was the understanding and expectation that in three years or less the new building would be changed into a business block of two stores, and that immediately thereafter, a new and more beautiful house should be erected on the corner.

    This work under the energetic superintendence of Mr. Joseph Bennett, was immediately performed.

    After holding the Sunday services, for sixteen Sundays, in what was then called Mississippi Hall, a large room on Water street, the church resumed its services on the 11th of October, 1857, in the building which they now occupy.

    This is the re-erected and elongated old church, and cost for the work and new material the sum of $5,000 making the investment in church building, as in 1857, amounting to $12,000.

    This church building has been several times very thoroughly repaired, once in 1865 and again in 1873 and at other times.

    The general crash in the business interest of the country in 1857, hindered the completion of a vast number of plans, and among them that in reference to a new edifice for the Congregational church. And those disasters left the church encumbered with a heavy debt which, after some years was removed, by, among other measures, the sale of the site reserved for a new building.

    On Feb. 26, 1880, the business committee of the church were instructed to purchase 90x140 feet adjoining on Third street, the old site. This is held in readiness whenever the time shall come for the erection of a new and more commodious house of worship.

    The church reports the number of reported members at 241, 86 men and 155 women. It is free from debt and holding pleasant relations in its connection with the pastorate, and seems to be waiting only for that spiritual blessing which will secure sufficient unanimity and liberality to enable them to rise and build, as has long been their hope and aim and prayer, a house that shall be better fitted for the purpose of the good work that should be done, in any community, by a Congregational church. The present house, though unfortunate in its location and surroundings, has a fine audience room, is better warmed in winter and cooler in summer than, perhaps, any other church audience room in the city, and will seat as many people as any other, unless extra seats are furnished. We have none of us anything to boast of with regard to beauty or convenience in our houses of worship, and would God that all the Lord’s people would rise and shine in this desirable direction.

    *** continued on page 136 (out of sequence) ***

    It cannot be expected that in any paper as is called for here, much, if any of the internal, spiritual or social history of the church should be given. There have been times of depression and times of exaltation; times of revival in which many have been added. A large number have come and gone. Only one of its original members (Mrs. A. J. Fimple) remain. There have been 520 persons connected with it – such names as Fay and D. R. Warfield and Lucas and Stone and Thurston and McGinley and Hoover, gone from us, and others still abiding might be mentioned as indicating something of the force, mental or otherwise, put into it.

    The number of professional men was somewhat alarming to any young minister, from the beginning.

    Its record in benevolent giving, one of the great purposes for which any Christian church is organized, may be alluded to in tracing its history and intimating the kind of work it has done. In 1856-7, its recorded donations to benevolent causes, as kept by myself, amounted to $8,152, and for fourteen years, from 1848 to 1861, there was an average of $1,000 per year. Though not amounting to so much since that time, yet it is to be hoped and is believed that the leaven of benevolent giving is not lost, that of 1881-2, one year, amounting to $576.70. That is far short of what it might well have been. But to this, among other things, under God, may be attributed that abounding of not undesirable traits which, despite many infirmities and mistakes, has preserved unbroken the unique spectacle, not found anywhere else in the State, in any order of Christians, a pastorate of 40 years. And in the same connection might be mentioned the continuance (remarkable indeed) of the same leader of the choir for 12 years.

    *** continued on page 151***
    It is not yet decided in (shall I say) literature, or chronology, whether when a man has had 41 birthdays, the coming of the 41st is his 41st or 40th anniversary.

    Anyway, we are through our 40 years. On the first of November, 1843, we began preaching in Iowa. On the 12th of November, 1843, we began to preach in (Muscatine) Bloomington. We were never invited to come to Muscatine or Bloomington. We have never been asked to leave, tho’ (now and then) it has been threatened that we should be driven out. The church has never intimated that we would do well to leave, and I think never intentionally given us a hint in that direction. And the cordial and multitudinous welcome or greeting on this anniversary does not look that way.

    We have hints and signs and infirmities and weariness enough in ourselves in that direction. We do not think that any diffidence on your part conceals from us an inward longing that we depart either to Dakota or heaven, were that wish in your hearts.

    This union is a unique affair. There never can well be another like it. Men are born and towns are born, living faster than they were 40 years ago.

    This whole country by railroad and telegraph and telephone and electric light and street cars &c., has been condensed and no preacher starting out from the seminary could face such a place as this was 40 years ago. No church and minister could jog along and get so used to each other as we did.

    It seems almost worth while to keep this union as we can mutually endure, as a sort of curiosity – one of the wonders of the western world.

    But I think I made my 40th anniversary speech at the beginning of the 40th year and so I will stop with repeating to you as a whole that which my wife and I have tried to say to you individually, -- that we welcome you gladly again once more to the old homestead and that we never desired more earnestly or so earnestly to be all that we should be in the pastorate and in our Christian fellowship with brethren of every name and in our neighborly and friendly relations to you all.

    We need not say that we thank most heartily all of you, (our people and fellow townsmen and women) who over and over so promptly supply what creature comforts are needed for our social annual reunion and we do not forget that they are ever some among you who are willing and determined not only to bring their suppers but to pay for it by leaving something to sweeten and enliven a good many of the church suppers in a preacher’s household.

At the close of Dr. Robbin’s remarks, Judge Richman took the floor and read a letter of congratulation and a memorial paper from Mr. Pliny Fay, of Santa Cruz, Cal., for many years one of the deacons of Dr. Robbins’ church, the paper being as follows:


    Yes, how quickly it is passed! It seems but yesterday that we wended our way to the Iowa House (mine host, Robt. C. Kinney) to greet and welcome our new minister, sent us by the American Home Mission. We found him and his young wife, a very comely and genial couple, from my native state, (Massachusetts) their appearance prepossessing and promising. We extended them as good a welcome as our limited circumstances would permit, sharing our small house on the hill with them, giving them a parlor and a small bed room, to use as a study for him, which they occupied for a time. The study room was small, but there came from it strong, pungent and practical sermons regularly. Brother Edwards said after his first sermon in the court house: “The pastor promises well far above the average minister, and will grow with years; he is a thinker and condenser of thought.”

    The church was then small, struggling for life, and rather poor. Our membership was as follows: Stephen Whicher and wife, Samuel Lucas and wife, Henry Q. Jennison and wife, Wm. Brownell and wife, O. G. Austin and wife, Mrs. Z. M. Day and Miss Aseneth Day, P. Fay and wife, Edward Fay and mother, Mr. Magoon and wife, and Mrs. Maria Wheeler (Fimple). Only W. Brownell and wife, P. Fay and wife, Mrs. Jennison and Mrs. Fimple are living. The results of your co-labors as pastor and church of forty years, will in the main, be unknown to you in this life, no doubt – yet I may be permitted to name some of them apparent to present view. When the pastor came to us, we, that is Whicher, Lucas, Jennison, Brownell and Fay, had been taking the Watchman of the Valley, published at Cincinnati, Ohio, a good paper, but slightly tinctured with abolitionism; hence we all discontinued it, as not abolitionists ourselves. The pastor in an incredibly short time had us all out and out abolitionists; yet I never heard him preach an abolition sermon; it was only the influence of illustrations of his sermons oft-repeated; illustrations of the spirit and teachings of Christianity from the bible stand point. And so, again, we all became temperance men and women.

    A careful retrospective view reveals the fact that a goodly number of Sabbath school scholars and church attendants had professed Christ and joined the church. We can pray that they may remain true and all win the crown at last. We have all, pastor and church – mourned that so many have refused to accept of Christ’s salvation, but brethren all, if you have faithfully sown the seed – done what you could, it’s well; the Lord will take care of the germination and harvest. I imagine your labors and prayers had something to do in the State election just had, resulting so gloriously for Iowa – a noble stand and noble results for prohibition, and in establishing schools, academies and colleges, and in elevating the moral, religious and political character of the people of Iowa, until it stands second to none in the nation.

    And now permit me to greet you all as brothers, sisters, and friends. Go on and forward in your good work; acquit yourselves like men and women; improve your possibilities within your reach, remembering the night comes on to us rapidly, the end approaches when work is done here and the record of life closed. Oh! When and where shall we all meet again? In Heaven, I hope and pray; then we will rejoice together, and sing forever.

    Your Brother,
On Judge Richman’s retirement, Dr. Graham took the “doorway” and in a few remarks presented to Dr. Robbins a check for $125 with the hope of a few friends that the Doctor might have some personal want which seemed to him extravagant and which the gift would enable him to gratify.

The host looked his pleasure and thanks, and remarking, by way of a story, that the most important thing for him was the securing of the money. He did the next best thing to making a speech by ordering that the feast prepared by the Congregational ladies be spread before the company, the service being preceded by prayer and the invocation. This banquet, by the way, occupies no inferior place in the programme of these anniversary parties, for probably more pride and culinary skill enter into the preparation of these viands and sweetmeats and coffee than is exercised at any time during the year, it being a common remark of the Congregational brethren that they never get anything quite so good at home as their wives bring to these anniversaries.

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