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Over the years, pews empty and fill

The Bennington Banner, Sept. 4, 2007

By Mark E. Rondeau

BENNINGTON — People are really what make up a church, not construction materials. Without people, a church is just another empty building. And churches don't start unless there are committed people who get them going. According to a historical account printed in the Bennington Banner in 1909, "the history of the Bennington Methodist Episcopal Church begins with a sermon preached here by Freeborn Garrettson in September, 1792."

Who this man was or what he had to say is not recorded. The closest Methodist church at this time was in Cambridge, N.Y.

In August of 1795, a giant of American Methodism, Bishop Francis Asbury, visited Bennington. 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 been a Dunham or a Downes."

During his years as bishop, Asbury traveled all over the young United States, preaching in all kinds of places. He is also known to have  preached in Pownal and Williamstown, Mass. The city of Asbury Park, N.J., among other things, is named in his honor.

Still, it was 32 years before a permanent organization of Methodists formed in Bennington. This came about when a young man named James Pitts Godfrey, of East Bennington, a stoneware distributor, became interested in Methodism. He invited a local preacher named Merritt Bates to preach in his home. Bates is described as a "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 members and probationers, thereby rooting the first of the Methodist Faith in Bennington soil. This organization occurred on Thursday, May 6, 1827," according the newspaper article.

This meeting is commemorated by a wooden sign next to the front door of the Methodist Church on Main Street. There was no Methodist church building at that time, however. The congregation met once every two weeks in Bennington at a place called the academy, served by Bates and two other circuit preachers.

In their 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 — and 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 Christian who worked there. If I reproved them for swearing, they would threaten to whip me. 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 head or in my face. I finally asked the privilege to eat alone in the woodshed, which was granted."

About that time, the Methodist congregation of 15 to 20 members went to a camp meeting at a place called Oak Hills.

"Under a sermon by Asa Kent the Holy Ghost came down in great power. From that time, Methodism began to make a great stir. Some 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 offender, and a church elder named Weaver was assigned to control him. Ayres pledged to be quiet during services.

"But some influence would come on me, and before I knew it I would be shouting and praising God." Rather than being angry, Weaver "wept and said, 'Brother Ayres, do the best you can, I don't believe you can help it.'"

Methodism grew in Bennington, to the point where a church needed to be built immediately. On July 28, 1831, the first preparations were made to build a church on Main Street. The new church was dedicated on Aug. 15, 1833.

Unfortunately, a large unpaid debt was incurred during the construction. One man stepped up to the challenge, Mason C. Morgan, who mortgaged his own farm to save the church. "This mortgage proved an embarrassment to the church for many years," the historical account notes.

The next major event happened in 1856, when the Protestant ministers of Bennington visited everyone in town to talk about the sin of disrespecting the Sabbath, about the importance of attending church and about personal religion. They gave out religious tracts on these subjects during their visits.

"While this was in progress, a gracious revival broke out, and hundreds were converted to the churches. The Methodist Church received 220 persons on probation."

This led to churches being built elsewhere in the area, including the Old Stone Church in North Bennington, now the Capstone Baptist Church.

Decades later, in October 1905, the official board of the church adopted plans that resulted in a new Methodist church building on the site of the old church on 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. In April of 1909, the Rev. W.W. Brunk was appointed pastor of the church, and he inherited a project $13,600 in the red. People were very discouraged. However, an interdenominational reception in May for the new pastor had good results. "By a proposition made by Judge Bates, a member of the Baptist Church, it was decided to make an offering to apply towards completing the Methodist 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 festive dedication services for the finished facility on Nov. 21-28, 1909. The greatly expanded new church included electric lighting and the installation of stained glass windows, including a large one of Jesus as The Good Shepherd at the south end of the worship space.

The photo of the front of the new church on the 1909 official program of events looks just like the front of the church today.

Each day of the dedication services could be found written up in detail on the front page of the next day's Bennington Banner. The Monday, Nov. 22, 1909, Banner told of a point in Sunday's morning service when "the whole audience turned toward the great window put in by the Morgan family and recited the 23rd Psalm, the subject of the window being The Good Shepherd. This part of the service was very impressive. The public is invited to step into the church and see this splendid piece of art."

In the mid-1960s, a $110,000 renovation project took place to adjust the facility to the needs of the time. Now, 40 years later, a greatly reduced congregation can no longer afford to run the building and recently moved its services to the Bennington Free Library.

The 16,780-square-foot church is for sale for $550,000r. On three floors it holds a diverse array of worship spaces, meeting rooms, classrooms, storage spaces and kitchens. With multiple Sunday services it could easily serve a congregation of 1,000 people. It's unlikely, though not inconceivable, that the facility will be used as a church again. It costs about $24,000 a year to heat the building.

For the time being, however, the unused church remains a landmark on Main Street. Some perhaps see 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 glass window filtered streams of light into the dark and empty sanctuary as cars and people moved along Main Street a few feet away outside.

(Photo: The Good Shepherd window in the sanctuary of the former Methodist church in Bennington, Vt. Mark E. Rondeau)