LIBERTYVILLE, ILL – I was barely in the door of my sister’s house here for a recent visit when she said, “Oh, you’ve got to see this.”
And off she went to retrieve a large coffee table book and separate study guide. The book was “Worship, Fellowship, and the Work of the Kingdom: The First Church of Lake Forest, Established 1859.”
Mary’s pastor there, Christine Chakoian, an occasional contributor to the Outlook, has sculpted her doctoral dissertation into this remarkable collection of stories, photos and documents that describes how Lake Forest itself and then the church grew up intertwined.
What most intrigued me was my sister’s attachment to stories of pioneering women in the church. She especially wanted me to read about Sarah Jane Rhea who lived in the mid-1800s and became a missionary to Persia with her husband. He died overseas in 1865 leaving her with several children to rear.
Sarah joined First Church of Lake Forest in 1873 when it was just 14 years old and became a national leader in various areas, including children’s ministry.
And today, Sarah has become one of my sister’s heroes, proving once again that our rich faith history can guide us in countless ways — not only inspiring us to faithful action, but also making us determined to avoid the errors of the past.
The book and study guide that the Lake Forest church has produced evokes the tumultuous time in 1859 in which the congregation was born, just one year after the famous Lincoln-Douglas debates, in which Sen. Stephen A. Douglas declared, “I do not regard the Negro as my equal, and positively deny that he is my brother or any kin to me whatever. I do not believe that the Almighty ever intended the Negro to be the equal of the white man.”
Roughly 100 years later, session records from my own congregation, Second Church of Kansas City, show that our elders discussed what the response of the church should be if black neighbors began to show up for worship. The minutes reveal that the elders could not come up with any official response and left the question hanging. Imagine that.
This session inaction was radically out of character from the 10 people who founded its congregation in 1865 as an anti-slavery break-way group from old First Church (now gone), which did not oppose slavery.
These are the stories that create a congregation’s understanding of itself. And it’s wise to preserve both the inspiring stories and the embarrassing ones, in much the same way that the gospels preserve those two categories of stories. Doing so adds to the credibility of the written record.
My congregation has a church historian who volunteers to keep our documents and artifacts, and I hope your congregation does, too, for we cannot really know where we are today if we have no idea from where we came.
So I’m hoping that the new book from First Church in Lake Forest will inspire other congregations not just to preserve their history but to learn from it. Read it and weep, yes, but also read it and rejoice.
BILL TAMMEUS is an elder at Second Church in Kansas City, Mo., and former Faith columnist for The Kansas City Star. Visit his “Faith Matters” blog. Read about his latest book. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.