History of First Congregational Church of Red Oak, Iowa

 [The following history narrative comes from a booklet published by the church in 1970.]

Our beginning was not auspicious for we were so few when in mid-1869 the Reverend Mr.

Cooley appeared in Red Oak Junction, seeking out all who were interested in the "Congregational Way". His activities sparked our express purpose of organizing a church; and so it was that we came into being as the First Congregational Church of Red Oak Junction in 1870. A constitution was written and signed by the following founders: Messrs. and Mesdames T. F. Willis and Lyman Banks, Mr. E. M. Carey, Mr. K. Humphrey and the Reverend Mr. Geo. C. and Mrs. Hicks. A Council of ministers and delegates from the vicinage then convened to assist in the solution of problems confronting the infant church.

In March, 1871, officers were elected as follows: Deacons: Lyman Banks and E. M. Carey. Trustees: V. D. Stoddard, Isaac Hall and Alfred Hebbard. Clerk: T. F. Miles.

That same year we were admitted to membership in the Council Bluffs Association of Congregational Ministers. At the next meeting, held in Atlantic, Iowa, our trustees were instructed to either build or rent a permanent meeting place. Many troubles were encountered during the years of 1871 and 1872 and irregular services were held.

In 1873, membership and financial support increased and a full time minister was called, who used the United Presbyterian pulpit for a short time until a decision was made to build our own church. The ground where our present church stands at 608 Reed Street, was purchased for one thousand dollars and in the autumn of 1873, a building fund of twenty four hundred dollars had been collected. A contract was then signed for the erection of a frame structure with dimensions of 52x36x18 feet, capable of seating three hundred in the sanctuary and two hundred in the vestry or lecture room. The total cost of thirty eight hundred dollars was paid in cash and the church began operating debt free.

Dedication Services occurred in January, 1874, and at this time a new creed was agreed upon to harmonize differences of religious opinion. Now the church was actively operating. Sabbath School began and a decision was made to hold Communion Services at two month intervals.

The church became self-supporting in 1874, graduating from its dependence on Home Missionary Society support. Their funds deposited with Mr. E. M. Carey drew ten per cent interest. The Society was prominent during the early days of our history, supporting both Home and Foreign Missions. Mrs. H. C. Houghton, mother of Mrs. H. L. Heckert, served as President for seventeen years. A Memorial Service honored her memory. The Society merged with the Women’s Fellowship in later years.

The successive resignations of two ministers again presented problems and it was not until 1876 that a full time minister could be found. The Reverend Mr. John Allender was called and came to us from our sister church at Glenwood, Iowa, and remained for a period of eight years.

The first fund raising project by the ladies of the church occurred during the fall and winter of 1876. A "Benefit Tea" was held and later they held a "Grand Fair and Festival". First organized as the Ladies Aid and now known as the Women’s Fellowship, they stand ready to do whatever, whenever the need arises.

 During the Christmas Season in 1876, a tragic event occurred in the church. The clothing of Santa Claus, portrayed by Mr. I. W. Brown, was accidentally ignited. He suffered severe burns which were later fatal.

The first parsonage was erected just east of the church in 1885, at a cost of thirty five hundred dollars. Due to its spaciousness it was also used to accommodate the social requirements of the congregation. After its abandonment as a parsonage many years later, the building was used as a night school. The teaching staff was comprised of Miss Hattie Worsley, Mrs. Geo. E. Wood and Mr. John Bryant; subjects taught were Typing, English and Bookkeeping. After a time the building was demolished and various houses served as our parsonages on a rental basis. In early 1940, a parsonage was purchased on Miller Avenue at Corning Street. This was later sold and the present parsonage at 611 Reed Street was purchased.

The minister's salary was increased to one thousand dollars per annum in 1886.

During the year 1889, a goal of raising four thousand dollars was set with which to repair the

church and to retire the mortgage on the parsonageThe church was transformed almost beyond belief by October, at an approximate cost of two thousand dollars.

An article in the Red Oak Independent described it as "One of the handsomest and roomiest churches in Red Oak" and Pastor Moulton as "The ablest minister, most fearless speaker, and most logical thinker in these parts".

The rebuilt edifice, free of legal encumbrances, was rededicated in February, 1890.

The Christian Endeavor Society, composed of the youth of our church and their friends, was organized in 1891. It continues today as the Youth Fellowship.

The minister's salary was increased to twelve hundred dollars in 1891, and he was allowed use of a rent free parsonage.

Membership enrollment increased to two hundred fifty two that same year. Average attendance at the Sunday morning worship services was one hundred twenty, and eighty four at the Sunday evening services.

Plans for a new church began in 1914. The old church was sold to Mr. Edw. West, who moved it to a farm near Stanton, Iowa, where it is still in use. Until construction was completed, services were held in both the high school and the old theatre buildings. The new brick edifice was completed and dedicated in 1915 under the leadership of the then pastor, the Reverend Mr. Royal J. Montgomery, who gave us the vision and initiative to accomplish the project. The total cost was in excess of twenty five thousand dollars. A beautiful pipe organ was installed as a memorial to his late wife by Mr. H. C. Houghton, Sr.  Many have expressed regret and disappointment over the removal of the pipes, when the organ fell into disuse many years later. Lining the rear wall of the altar, they made an impressive background.

Our per capita tax per member, per annum, was one cent for association expense in 1918.

During 1920 our Golden Anniversary was appropriately observed.

Since the merger with the Evangelical Reformed Church in 1961, with whom, despite differences, we share a common heritage, we are recognized as the First Congregational Church of Red Oak, Iowa, a member of the United Church of Christ, (the united, uniting church). Thus we have become one of the youngest denominations in America, yet, paradoxically, our background makes us one of the oldest denominations in American Protestantism.

Our congregation consists of one hundred seventy-one communicant members of whom the following are fifty year communicants: Mesdames Charles Reese, C. L. Butler, T.F. Tomsen, N. J. Carder, H. C. Hughton, H.L. Heckert, G.H. Hall, G.C. Hawkins, F.A. Bazar, Charles Barton, C.M. Ratliff, Archer Payne, F.J. Boll, Laura Rathbone Beardsley, Messrs. William West, J. R. Loomis, Dr. Spicer, Mr. and Mrs. Geo. E. Wood, and the Misses Maude Heckert and Nelle Barton.




We have been served by twenty three ministers. Since 1920, the list includes A. L. Eddy, Carl A. Glover, Grant B. Wilder, Robt. A. Edgar, Harold C. Bradshaw, Roger E. Biddle, Philip Van Luven, Scott S. Libbey, Curtis H. Lindahl, Wm. G. Burns, W. Phil Gruenke and Gayle V. Strickler. Mr. Wilder served the longest tenure, twelve years, and Mr. Biddle the shortest, but a few months.


Philip Van Luven passed away during his Pastorate; a compassionate, humane man who numbered his friends in all walks of life. His widow still resides in Red Oak pursuing a teaching career.


There have been many inner church groups within the congregation, social and otherwise. One of the most outstanding was the Men’s Forum, a dinner and discussion group of church and fellow townsmen. The Under 40 club was organized and popular for many years; much later the Couples Club.


The Junior Senior Banquet, which was served for many years, was an all congregation, profitable project, as was the All State Banquet, held at the Armory and open to the public for a few years.


We are honored to have numbered in our congregation an ordained minister, Mr. Charles West, now Dean of Student Affairs at Lincoln Memorial University in Harrogate, Tennessee; a Missionary teacher, Miss Bernice Davies, now retired; a State Moderator, Mr. Edw. Wearin; and a speaker of national reputation, Mrs. H. C. Houghton, also retired.

   We held the state Frisbee Cup for several years as the outstanding Sunday School in the state. There was an incentive of additional high school credits being earned by attendance, under the supervision of an accredited teacher.


               The first Boy Scout Troop in southwest Iowa originated in our church, with the then pastor, The Reverend Mr. Geo. E. Wood as scout master. He came to us in 1911 but resigned after one year to accept the Presidency of Tabor College.


The late Mrs. B. B. Clark, grandmother of Mrs. Charles Reese, was the first to learn of the Boy Scout movement in England and its anticipated spread to America. She "sparked" Pastor Wood in his efforts to organize a local troop.


We received a one hundred dollar award for showing the most original float in the Montgomery

County Centennial Parade, which was due, in the main, to the imagination and persistent efforts of lifelong member, Mrs. C. L. Butler.


Blanche Griffith LeRoy received national recognition for her outstanding work in the Campfire Girls organization.


            Mr. and Mrs. Otto Koenneman converted several small rooms on the first level of the church into a beautiful chapel as a memorial tribute to his son Howard in 1946.


            Mrs. Jay R. Inman later presented the Jay R. Inman Memorial Room to the church, which serves as a multi-use room. It is located on the third level of the church.


            A reading-meditation room on the first level of the church has been dedicated to the memory of his late wife by Mr. Carl V. Lagergren.


            Mr. Wm. E. Johnson is deserving of recognition for his long and faithful stewardship as church treasurer from 1946 to 1969.


The Reverend Mr. Scott S. Libbey is now Conference Minister for the State of Nebraska.


Our choir at one time was rated the most outstanding in southwest Iowa. Membership numbered approximately forty. Mrs. R. D. Morris and Miss Mabelle Reimers served as director and organist for many years. Concerts given periodically drew a large attendance from the entire area.


            The Reverend Mr. Royal J. Montgomery who, because of his very obvious talent, was often referred to as "The Builder", eventually served for a number of years as State Superintendent of the Iowa Congregational Conference. He also originated and founded the Mayflower Home for the Aged at Grinnell, Iowa, and resided there after his retirement. The widow of former Pastor A. L. Eddy also resides there.


            The glass encased flag in our reception room was awarded to the First Scout Troop by President Wilson in recognition of its accomplishments in the sale of War Bonds during 1917 and 1918.


            Use of our building has been loaned for worthy purposes such as nursery schools, etc. At the present time it serves as the activity center of the Montgomery County Association for Retarded Children.


We are proud of the history of our church and the contributions it has made to help build the

freedoms in the early days of America. To mention a few noteworthy achievements, Congregationalists founded the First College; the first Theological Seminary; the first Religious Newspaper; the first Home and Foreign Missionary Society; published the first Hymn Book; established the first Public School system, and held the First Town Meeting. We are the oldest Protestant denomination in the United States of America. 

Our church is now beginning the second century of its existence with indication of yet another merger, and under the leadership of the Reverend Mr. W. Phil Gruenke. His wide background of experience includes his rearing in a religious environment, ten years of military service as an instructor in electronics, a pastorate served prior to his present commitment and working with an Afro-American congregation in the St. Louis, Missouri, "Inner City" area. He presents a well-rounded service, and a new type of religious education and interpretation to which even the young respond, by effective use of Seminar type discussions with various age groups. A discussion period follows the formal Sunday morning worship service, where he gives special meaning to his Scripture readings by placing the text in its time and historic background. He has further qualified himself to render help to an individual or the community with consulting and counselling services, which is an appreciated adjunct to his preaching ministry. He is deeply interested in "short term" counselling and plans to eventually devote much of his time to it. 

We acknowledge our appreciation of his efforts and those of all the dedicated men who have labored in our vineyard; their memory lingers on long after they are gone. 

A century of service to God and man. One hundred years of our history has ended and as we stand at the threshold of a new century we are inspired by these words from the pen of William H. Boddy, D. D.:


My church calls me to her heart,

She asks my service and loyalty,

She has a right to ask it.

I will help her do for others what

she has done for me.

In this place in which I live

I will help her keep aloft the torch

of a living faith.

              We are indebted to the late Clifford Powell and to Mrs. Charles Reese for major assistance in compiling this history of the First Congregational Church, a member of the United Church of Christ. We ask forgiveness for any and all unintentional omissions as we also voice our gratitude to the many who have contributed bits and pieces to the foregoing narrative written by Mrs. Robert E. Johnson


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