Both Harry Suttner and Bruce Van Blair had served the local church while being active participants in UCC. They had both served as moderator of the Southern California Conference of UCC and had been in a position to appreciate the value of being part of the denomination. They could see that a strictly independent church cuts itself off from the stimulation and inspiration of fellow churches in striving for major goals. They agreed with the tenets of UCC that to follow the teachings of Jesus we must take responsibility for our fellow beings in feeding, healing and nurturing those in need, and were aware that the larger church organization can accomplish more and have greater influence toward achieving this goal than small individual groups.
Other benefits of belonging to the UCC denomination included: The resources of publications for use in Christian education, interchange of ideas and program material among churches, help when calling a pastor, use of Pilgrim Pines Camp, retirement benefits for ministers, affiliation with worldwide agencies in the mission field, and many other advantages.
A large number of the officers and lay leaders in the Redlands church were involved with UCC activities and recognized the benefits of being a part of the denomination. They felt very strongly that this was the direction the church should go. Since its founding in 1880 the Redlands church had been a member of the Congregational denomination. When the merger of the Congregational and Christian denominations took place in 1931 there was no noticeable difference in the status of the local church.
Always, the First Congregational Church of Redlands had been a leader of churches in community affairs. It was supportive of liberal and forward-looking action and projects promoting the welfare of Redlands and the greater community. Many members of the congregation had been active community leaders.
Before the date set for a vote to be taken on the issue, a letter was mailed to all members stating: "THE FOLLOWING MEMBERS OF THE FIRST CONGREGATIONAL CHURCH OF REDLANDS affirm our belief in the historical Congregational way of Faith and ask you to support our reunion with our nearly two million brethren in the UNITED CHURCH OF CHRIST. We believe that our church has an important destiny in that denomination, that we have been isolated and ingrown too long, and that our church will benefit from the renewed Christian relationship. We are confident that God is leading us to take this step." The signatures of one hundred and ten members of the church followed this statement.
A flurry of mailings from deeply disturbed individuals and groups of individuals on both sides of the issue preceded the date of the election. A great many meetings took place, some of small groups and others including all the congregation. A few members were in favor of joining the National Association of Congregational Christian Churches and they worked hard to push that as an alternative. A series of scheduled meetings were arranged by the deacons to present all sides of the question. In particular, there were arguments pro and con on the subjects: 1) of remaining independent of any denominational affiliation, 2) of joining UCC and, 3) of joining NACCC.
Much thought was given to the wording of the vote. There was a question whether to ask for a choice between UCC and NACCC, or simply "yes or no" on joining UCC. The latter was eventually decided upon with a favorable vote of not less than two-thirds if the motion was to carry. A secret ballot was to be provided and members were asked to register if they wished to vote. A strong campaign was organized by the opposition to make sure all members, including those less active, were informed of the election and what was perceived to be its possible impact on the church. Regrettably in a few instances some highly unethical methods were used to reinforce the negative points of view.
The election on May 18, 1975 showed that 221 members preferred to have the church remain unaffiliated with UCC and 186 favored the union.
There was much consternation among those who had voted in favor of the merger. The rift between the factions was deep. It was felt by many that unfair and misleading tactics had been employed to influence the voting. Feelings were so strong there seemed little hope of unifying the congregation. Numerous prayerful meetings were held by concerned individuals. Bruce Van Blair made it clear that he could not continue as minister to such a divided congregation.
Gradually the possibility evolved that a new congregation could be formed of those who wished to belong to a church that was a part of UCC. Although he had an attractive offer from another Southern California church, Bruce Van Blair promised to stay with these people if they decided to go ahead with forming a new church. He pointed out guidelines as to what he considered minimums in numbers of family units and financial support if a new church was to be formed. Richard Blakley, who had been serving on the ministerial staff, was appointed to head a task force to study the matter.
On May 21 there was a meeting at the home of Louis and Kathy Lingren to discuss possibilities. Another meeting was held May 28 at the home of Aaron and Helen Arth, and on June 4 there was a meeting at the home of Joel and Barbara Hauser. On June 26 the new congregation met at the home of Curtiss and Phyllis Allen (the Morey House) for their first service of worship. Guideline numbers for the minimums for both numbers of family units and financial pledges had been exceeded. Bruce Van Blair had submitted his resignation to First Congregational Church effective July 3, 1975. It was arranged that those who wished to become members of the new church would have their membership in First Congregational terminated as of July 1, 1975.
The decision to leave the church was not an easy one. It meant creating rifts between friends and even within families. Some had been members of First Congregational for over 50 years. Parents and grandparents had been part of the church since its early years. There were memorials and cherished family history incorporated in those familiar walls. In some cases these factors outweighed the reasons for leaving. Some who had voted in favor of joining UCC felt these ties were too strong to break, and decided to stay with the church. But in a large number of cases the strong spiritual pull to break the bonds that were so restricting was felt to be the right direction to take.
Over 100 members of Redlands First Congregational Church, along with a goodly number of non-members who admired Bruce Van Blair and were attracted to the principles of the newly formed church gathered in close fellowship to lay the foundations for what was to be called Redlands United Church of Christ. Charter members numbered 139.
Numerous churches in the community were supportive of the infant UCC organization and offered to share facilities, equipment, and a place to meet. The First Presbyterian Church offered the use of their Addressograph plate-making machine, and various offers were made by other churches. The most practical solution to the housing problem was offered by First United Methodist Church of Redlands - across the street from First Congregational.
On June 29, 1975, the newly formed congregation met in Weeks Hall of the Methodist Church for a 7:00 p.m. Service of Worship. The July 10 issue of the Methodist newsletter, "Soundings", contained the following quote by their minister, David Beadles: "A new church is having its beginnings in Redlands. The Redlands United Church of Christ began meeting last week. They are using our Weeks Hall for worship and meetings and have their offices in the Education building. I have many good friends in this great denomination. I am most pleased and thrilled that we were able to open our doors to them. This church will be a great addition to the religious community of Redlands in the years to come."
Submitted 1994 by Barbara K. Hauser, former member and clerk of
First Congregational Church of Redlands and charter member and
clerk of Redlands United Church of Christ.
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