The Congregational Church in Duluth (Early History)

In the early summer of 1870 Duluth was a straggling collection of frame houses surrounded by primeval forest, the ultima thule of the traveler to the Northwest.  The English speaking Protestant churches at this time were three: The First Presbyterian, !St. Paul’s Episcopal and the First Methodist, organized, if I am rightly informed, in the order named. St.

Paul’s church, however, was the first to build, completing their edifice in the summer of 1869; the location the same and the building, with some changes and improvements, the same as now. Tradition tells us that when Colonel Culver and his associates set the stakes to indicate the location of the building, they were obliged to crawl on their hands and knees through the dense underbrush to the spot selected.

It was at such a time as this that Maj. Luman H. Tenney and his wife began to stir up the descendants, lineal and otherwise, of the pilgrims in Duluth to organize a Congregational church.

Mr. and Mrs. Tenney were graduates of Oberlin, were earnest and warm-hearted, and Mr. Tenney’s business relatoiis with Jay Cooke gave promise of some substantial help in the proposed movement. The rapid growth of Duluth seemed so certain that the plans for organizing the new church grew apace; those who hesitated because of the “lions in the way” were won over by Mr. Tenney’s great persuasive powers.

The first formal gathering to discuss the question of forming a Congregational church was held in the rooms of the Young Men’s Christian Association over the office then occupied by C. H. Graves & Co., at 110 West Superior street. The record of this meeting as it appears on the church record is worth quoting in full. It is as follows: “The Congregational friends of the city of Duluth assembled at the rooms of the Young Men’s Christian Association the 27th day of November, 1870, to consider the question of organizing a Congregational church. The meeting was called to order by L. H. Tenney and formally organized by the election of William S. Woodbridge as chairman and George Spencer as secretary.

The object of the meeting was then stated by Mr. Tenney, and each person present was invited to express his views. All were 615  favorable to the formation of a church. A motion was then made by Mr. Tenney, seconded by Thomas Dewse, that the meeting proceed at once to organize a Congregational church, which was agreed to by a unanimous vote. A committee consisting of L. H. Tenney, O. K. Patterson, J. Kimball, William S. Woodbridge and R. S. Munger was appointed to draw up a church constitution and confession of faith and covenant. A committee consisting of Thomas Dewse, E. L. Smith, George Spencer, R. C.

Mitchell and 0. K. Patterson was appointed to arrange for calling a council and to take other necessary steps to perfect the organization.

By a unanimous vote Mr. Tenney was instructed to write to Rev. Charles Cotton Salter, of Brookfield, Mo., that it was the voice of this preliminary meeting to extend to him a call as soon as the church becomes permanently organized.” The new church, which chose as its name “The Pilgrim Congregational Church, of Duluth, Minn., ” was formally organized by council January 18, 1871. The council consisted of Rev. J. L.

White, pastor of Plymouth church, St. Paul; Rev. H. A. Stimson, pastor, and D. B. Barber, delegate of Plymouth church, Minneapolis; C. S. Bardwell and W. H. Hatch, delegates from Vine Street church, Minneapolis; and Rev. Richard Hall, of St. Paul, state superintendent of home missions. This gathering and all subsequent ones of the church for nearly six months were held in the west half of what was known as the Pendleton block, on the southwest corner of Superior street and First avenue west, a store room 22 by 60 feet, the use of which for these six months was given by the owner, Ira W. Pendleton. In the evening of that day, January 18, the members of the new church were publicly received, sixteen in number, as follows: Thomas C. Cain, Catharine Cochran, Thomas Dewse, Mr. and Mrs. J. Kimball, Mrs. R. S. Munger, Mr. and Mrs. O. K. Patterson, Rev. and Mrs. Charles C. Salter, Mr. and Mrs. Ezra L. Smith, George Spencer, Mr. and Mrs. William S. Woodbridge, all by letter; also J. P. Johnson, by profession. Mr. Tenney was called away from town by business, and he and Mrs. Tenney did not present their letters for a year.

The first election of officers took place on January 26, when J. Kimball and 0. K. Patterson were elected deacons, George Spencer clerk and 0. K. Patterson treasurer. Mr. Patterson declined to serve as deacon and William S. Woodbridge was elected in his place on February 2. The first board of trustees, elected January 31, consisted of L. H. Tenney, R. S. Munger, 0. K. Patterson, J. D.. Ensign and E. L. Smith. A live church must have a Sunday school, but it was hard to see just what material we could find in the way of children, for the new church was made up of people with generally two in the family. A gray or a bald head in our congregation in those days was a rarity, for Duluth in more ways than one was young. But a Sunday school we must have, so, at the close of our first Sunday morning service, the school was started with eight children in attendance and three times as many adults.

Those who were at all acquainted with the first pastor of Plymouth church, that man whom Duluth holds dear, Rev. C. C. Salter, can imagine something of the energy with which he went to work to build up the new church. He was here, there and everywhere, and one of the first things he moved us to do was to put up a building. Everybody seemed to catch the contagion of his enthusiasm, and on February 21, 1871, it was voted to secure the two lots on the northeast corner of Second street and First avenue east, valued at $2, 700, as a building site. We were offered lots free in another section of the city, but preferred to pay this high price and get what seemed to be the most desirable lots for our purpose. On April 1, 1871, the plans for the chapel, as it was called, were adopted, and a building committee, with R. S. Munger as chairman, was appointed. Early in June the building was so far advanced that a sociable and flower sale was held amid much enthusiasm, which was greatly needed to counteract the chill from the damp plaster and the cold northwester which prevailed that night. Net results of that evening were about $300 and some serious colds. On July 16, 1871, the chapel, which cost $2, 800, was dedicated, and while it lacked many of the modern church features, it was for seventeen and a half years very dear to those who called it their church home. Everyone knew everybody else in those days, and the personal sacrifices, made cheerfully, proved the fact that we prize things in proportion to what they have cost us.

And what a host of friends we had in those days! Over a page of our register is filled with a list of gifts from friends abroad, the principal items being as follows: March 9, 1871, received the following telegram from A. B. Nettleton, Philadelphia: “Jay Cooke and other friends give $1, 100.” The same evening a letter was received from Dr. C. L. Ives buying lot given us by Western Land Association through Luther Mendenhall for $500. Received sixty books from American Sunday School Union; ten books from young ladies of Bradford Seminary; fifty Bibles from American Bible Society; three six-light burner chandeliers from Congregational Church, Anna, Ill.; $114 from Congregational Church, Auburndale, Mass.; $25 from Lyman Band, Chicago; $25 from Miss A. Phelps, Hartford; $100 from Deacon Ezra Farnsworth, of Boston; $200 from President J. Gregory Smith, of the Northern Pacific railroad; $50 from Mr. Loomis; $50 from George L. Davis, North Andover, Mass.; $20 from Mrs. Olmstead, Hartford, Conn.; organ worth $300 from friends in Boston; communion service, consisting of tankard, four cups and two plates, also baptismal font, from young ladies of Bradford Seminary; communion table from J. D. Edmands; desk from Thomas F. Nixon; $50 and a lot, sold afterwards for $250, from J. D. Ray, Duluth; chandelier worth $100 from Dr. Charles L. Ives, brother-in-law of Rev. C. C. Salter; also from Dr. Ives a bell which weighed, with the mountings, 1, 200 pounds and cost, including freight charges, $365. This bell rang for the first time on September 25. 1872, and was given by the church, after we had moved into our new edifice, to Plymouth Church, West Duluth, in 1889.

On the first Sunday in January, 1872, ten persons united with Plymouth Church, bringing the number of resident members to forty-two. The year was one of business activity in Duluth.

The congregation, drawn together largely by personal love for Mr. Salter, steadily increased, and in December of that year the church, with a total membership of fifty-six, voted to cut loose from the American IHome Missionary Society and to add $200 to the salary of the pastor, making it $1, 700 per annum.

The year 1873 opened auspiciously, but clouds were gathering on the financial horizon, and by early fall they had overspread the whole sky. On September 16 the news came like a thunderclap that the banking house of Jay Cooke & Co., the financial agents of the Northern Pacific railroad, had closed its doors, and panic reigned supreme. Duluth felt the full force of the blow.

Railroad work was reduced to the minimum, dock work was suspended, trains were laid off, and a population of 5, 000 began steadily to diminish until it reached the 2, 500 mark. From 1873 to 1878 was a time that tried men’s souls in Duluth and tested the strength of the churches.

Who, now, would imagine that the great First Methodist Church had ever considered for a moment the question of uniting with the Congregational Church? But such a suggestion was made and actually favored by some, though nothing ever came of it. The following memorandum in regard to this proposed union appears in the minutes of our annual meeting, held January 19, 1875: “A long discussion as to what should be done in the matter of the Methodist Church uniting with this church resulted in a committee of three being chosen to confer with a committee from the Methodist Church with a view to the union of the two churches while the latter were without a pastor.” Such was the stress of the times that the Baptist Church was obliged to give up its services for years, and Pilgrim Church united for nearly three years with our nearest Congregational neighbor, the church at Brainerd, 115 miles distant, one pastor serving both churches.

In September, 1874, our annual report to the state conference showed our number of resident members to be fifty-one; number of children in Sunday school, 100; amount of benevolent contributions for the year, $125.

Through these troublous times of 1873, 1874 and 1875, our pastor, Mr. Greatheart, otherwise known as Rev. Charles C.

Salter, bore up bravely working unceasingly for the good of the church and the community, and endearing himself especially to the poor and the afflicted. In November, 1875, in order to lighten our financial burdens, he assumed charge of the Brainerd church, preaching there every other Sunday, and continued this until he resigned, nervously exhausted, on March 22, 1876, his formal dismissal occurring April 11. It was during these days, on April 10, 1876, that the church passed this vote: “Decided that this church shall continue, ” and at this same meeting Rev. C. A.

Conant, of Amherst, Mass., was requested to preach here two Sundays, with a view to settlement. On June 15, Mr. Conant was called as pastor, Pilgrim Church uniting with the church at Brainerd, as it had done during the last few months of Mr.

Salter’s pastorate. He was installed by council on November 21, served faithfully and acceptably for over two years, resigned August 27, 1878, and was formally dismissed by council, which met at Brainerd October 29 of that year. The church at Brainerd felt that the time had come for them to have a minister’s entire services, and this seemed to necessitate Mr. Conant’s resignation.

619  Rev. E. C. Ingalls followed Mr. Conant, commencing work on September 1, 1878, under an engagement for one year, but his health not being good, he was, at his own request, released on July 17, 1879, cheerfully commended by the church “as a humble and devout Christian and an earnest and faithful minister of the gospel.” After taking some time for deliberation, the church extended, on September 29, 1879, a call to Rev. M. M. Tracy, of Detroit, Minn., which he accepted, and he was installed on October 28 following, but his pastorate continued only until January 1, 1881.

His house was destroyed by fire on December 8, 1880, and there were difficulties between himself and his wife, which led finally to the calling of a council for his trial as a member of the church nearly three months after his resignation as pastor. Pilgrim Church had, up to this time, always been remarkably harmonious, and this harmony has existed since that occasion, but a church trial is never conducive to peace, and this was no exception. On the council was Rev. E. S. Williams, then of Minneapolis, whose Christian common sense was used to restore concord and bring the vexed question at issue to a final settlement. On January 11, 1881, a unanimous call was given to our first pastor, Rev. C. C.

Salter, to again assume the pastorate, and he accepted with the understanding that no aid should be asked from the Home Missionary Society, and no aid has been received from that society since that date. Mr. Salter commenced his work again Sunday, May 1, 1881, a day long to be remembered, for there were tears of joy on many faces. Mr. Salter’s health gave way, and on November 28, 1881, under the imperative orders of his physician, he resigned his charge and we were again without a pastor.

On April 10, 1882, the church invited Rev. J. W. Hargrave, of Brooklyn village, Ohio, to supply the pulpit for one year from June 1, at a salary of $1, 000 a year and house rent. The invitation was accepted and Mr. Hargrave remained with us for a year.

The church requested him to serve another year, but he declined.

During his pastorate the parsonage was built and the system of weekly offerings was instituted. June 1, 1883, found us looking once more for a pastor, and Mr. R. S. Munger made the suggestion that, as he was going to New Haven, he thought he might find some young man just finishing his seminary studies who would recognize the great work to be done in Duluth and have the courage to undertake it. Mr. Munger did find the man, who, for eleven years, was the courageous, successful and beloved pastor of the church, Rev. Edward M. Noyes.

Mr. Noyes preached for us two Sundays, June 24 and July 1, 1883, and on July 5 the church voted with great heartiness to call him as pastor. He commenced his work on September 1, and was ordained and installed on September 26 following. At this date, of the 166 members who had joined Plymouth Church since its organization, only fifty were residents of Duluth; death had claimed eleven, sixty had been dismissed to other churches, and forty-five were noted as absent. Courage and hope came with the new pastor, business was reviving and the outlook grew brighter and brighter. In 1885 the Young People’s Society of Christian Endeavor was organized, one of the first in the state, Mrs. Noyes having been a member of Dr. F. E. Clarke’s original society in Portland, Me. The average attendance of the Sunday school, which in 1883 was seventy-six, rose to 117 in 1884 and steadily increased.

In 1886 it became clear that we needed a new building, as it was often impossible to seat all who came, and on October 7 of that year a committee of seven was appointed to consider plans for a new building and report at the coming annual meeting.

This annual meeting, held January 11, 1887, voted “to erect a church building, beginning within a year, to cost not more than the amount subscribed.” On February 3, the church appointed a building committee of five-J. W. Norton, J. F. Patton, R. S.

Munger, C. H. Clague and W. S. Woodbridge. On March 17 the church instructed the building committee to adopt plans as soon as possible, and voted to sell the old church site to Munger & Markell for $14, 500. They had already authorized the trustees to buy a new site. Work was commenced in May and on November 26, 1887, the exterior of the building was finished. The next day, on Sunday, at about 5 o’clock, the building caught fire through stoves put in to dry the plastering, and only the walls were left standing. The direct loss to the church was about $3, 500, but it caused a delay of nearly a year in getting into the new building, and was a sore disappointment. Nothing could be done during the winter to the blackened, ice-crusted walls, and it was not until the following May that work was recommenced.

It was February, 1889, before the auditorium of the new building was used, though the basement was used for church 621  services some weeks earlier. The total cost of site, building and furnishing was reported by the building committee as $55, 828.

The year 1890 saw the largest additions to the church, seventysix new membrs being received as compared with fifty-four in 1891 and forty-five in 1892. But the years 1890 and 1891 also brought their peculiar trials and difficulties. The church debt, funded and floating, was a burden. The movement of population from the immediate center of town to the new residence sections took from the church some of its most active workers, and tended to decrease the regular church attendance. The typhoid fever epidemic that commenced in the fall of 1890 and continued into the spring of 1891 was a severe hindrance to church work and cast its shadow over many homes, especially that of our pastor, who lost his little daughter and later his wife.

The report of the clerk at the annual meeting, January 17, 1893, showed a total membership of 364. At this meeting it was voted to undertake the raising of $5, 000 to purchase a site for a new Congregational church in Endion division. The outgrowth of this movement is the Morley church in the eastern part of the city. In the fall of 1893 Mr. Noyes received an urgent call to the Central Congregational Church of Jamaica Plain, Mass., and the inducements for him to go were very strong. But we felt that we could not spare our pastor, and in a full meeting of the church on November 9 we endeavored to express our appreciation of his work. On November 19 Mr. Noyes read to the church a touching letter announcing his determination to decline the call to Jamaica Plain, and the decision was received with great joy.

Before many months of 1894 had passed Mr. Noyes could not resist the conviction that his health imperatively demanded a change. His physician advised him so strongly to that effect that when a call came to him from Newton Center, Mass., in July, 1894, he felt it was best to accept it. On August 5 he read his letter of resignation, which the church accepted and, by a council called on August 15, he was dismissed, to take effect September 10. His farewell sermon on September 9 and the farewell reception on September 21 will long be remembered by Plymouth Church. Before the church again was the task of finding a pastor, and after some months of earnest searching the church gave a call to Rev. C. H. Patton, of Westfield, N. J., which was accepted.

The ministry of Rev. C. H. Patton, which commenced in February, 1895, lasted until August, 1898, or three and a half years. During all these years Duluth was passing through a period of unusual financial distress, in which the Pilgrim Church had its full share. Its loss in membership, owing to the removal of members from the city and the straitened financial circumstances of others, was heavy. But Mr. Patton was a man of many resources, of great courage and of genuine convictions. His worth in the Sunday school and among the young people was unusually wise and efficient; his interest in missions, at home and abroad, was deep and unselfish, and his plans for the growth and development of church life were well laid and thoroughly carried out. His call to the First Congregational Church of St. Louis, Mo., was a call to a wider field of usefulness, and the Pilgrim Church felt that it ought to rejoice in it, even though it meant a great loss to the congregation. When Mr. Patton left the membership of the church was a little over 400, with 275 scholars in the Sunday school.

Mr. Patton was succeeded by the Rev. Alexander Milne, who is still the pastor of the church, and under whose ministrations the same progressive spirit has been manifested as characterized that of his predecessor. During the year 1909 a handsome and commodious parsonage was bought by the church at East First street and Twelfth avenue east, one of the most desirable residence localities of the city, at a cost of $9, 000. The work of the various church societies has been well maintained, the Sunday school showing a membership of 223, the Christian Endeavor Society of thirty-four, while the Ladies’ Union and the Men’s Brotherhood are both important and energetic factors in the life of the church. The receipts of the church from all sources during the past year were $14, 839, and its total disbursements $14, 063.

Of the foregoing $2, 178 was paid out for missionary purposes.

The officers of the church as as follows: Trustees-Oscar Mitchell, Alexander Anderson, C. W. Ericson, W. G. Hegardt and A. W. Frick. Deacons-W. S. Woodbridge, T. H. Hawkes, Albert Baldwin, W. W. McMillan, A. G. Strong and E. W. Matter. Standing committee-Pastor, deacons and clerk, ex-officio; Mrs. John Drew and Mrs. H. L. Paddock. Treasurer general fund, H. W. Nichols; treasurer benevolent fund, W. W. McMillan; clerk, Brewer Mattocks, Jr.; president of the Brotherhood, George A. Gray; president of Ladies’ Union, Mrs. S. W. Clark; president Women’s Missionary Society, Mrs. C. E. Holt; superintendent of the Sunday school, Andrew Nelson.

The sittings in Pilgrim Church are all free and unassigned, and the entire expenses of the church are met by voluntary offerings.

The church maintains a missionary pastor at Cesarea, Turkey, the Rev. Herbert M. Irwin.

There is one other Congregational Church in Duluth, which is practically an offshoot of Pilgrim Church. This is located at West Duluth, and is known as Plymouth Church. It has a membership of sixty-two, and its pastor is Rev. Daniel G. Cole. To the support of this church Pilgrim Church has for a number of years been a regular contributor, and at its yearly meetings votes a certain sum of money which is used at the discretion of Plymouth Church.


  • Woodbridge, Dwight and John Pardee, eds. History of Duluth and St. Louis County Past and Present Vols. 1 – 2. C. F. Cooper & Company, Chicago: 1922.
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