Before 1715, Tolland’s first settlers came here from several different towns, (mostly Windsor around 1713-1714); they began to build their homes, and to farm. By tradition they were Protestants and felt the need of a place of worship. The settlers voted in 1719 to build the Tolland Meeting House, and the Church of the Congregational Society in Tolland was formed soon after. Laws at that time decreed that a church could not be organized until a prayer or petition was read in the General Assembly, which occurred in 1722. The first structure, a meetinghouse, was built in 1723. Although this meetinghouse was never completed and furnished, it was used as a location for religious services, town meetings, and elections for 30 years.
Stephen Steel was ordained and called as the first minister. He was granted an 80-acre parcel of land near the town center and served as pastor until 1758. During Reverend Steel’s ministry, Tolland’s population expanded to more than 1,000 residents. A second meetinghouse was erected in 1755 on the town green.
In 1760, at the age of 25, Dr. Nathan Williams was chosen as minister, and served for 69 years. Reverend Williams was lauded as being the most significant factor in shaping the early character of Tolland and its residents. By 1792, the meetinghouse was renovated to include a steeple and bell. During this time, the church hired a bell ringer who rang the bell at noon, 9 p.m. (curfew), for funerals, and for the Sunday worship services that were two to three hours in duration. The town of Tolland was also the County Seat [The county was organized in 1785.] with a courthouse and jail.
When Reverend Williams died in 1829, Reverend Ansel Nash moved from associate pastor when there was a surge in membership (1816-1822) (having shared responsibilities with Rev. Williams since 1813) to become the sole pastor. He left in 1831, and Reverend Abram Marsh began as the new minister. Over the next decade, the center of town added new buildings, including shops, Baptist and Methodist churches, law offices, and two banks. As the County Seat, Tolland’s importance grew, and the name “First Congregational Society of Tolland” began to be used for the church. A third structure was built on the northern end of the Green and in 1838 it was dedicated. This building had a tower rather than a steeple, which housed the bell from the old church. Renovated several times, this building is still in use.
Women were not involved in church affairs until 1841 when the Ladies Charitable Society was organized with 32 original members. The Society focused on social interaction, fundraising, and during the Civil War, directed relief work to the soldiers. The western expansion of the nation led to farmers leaving New England in search of more productive land. In addition, the Industrial Revolution steered Tolland residents to factories in neighboring towns, and the church’s membership declined from 255 to 104 members. Reverend Marsh resigned in 1869, and several ministers served during the next 20 years. In 1880, the church basement, which had been used as town offices, for town meetings, and as a post office, was renovated to be used for Sunday school and prayer meetings.
Church membership continued declining at the end of the 19th century leaving the church with only 50 members and a building badly in need of repair. Tolland’s town population remained at 1,000 people, and it was called “The town that went to sleep.” Three church staff existed: the minister, the choir director, and the sexton. Repairs paid for and undertaken by the congregation began in 1893 under the leadership of Ratcliff Hicks, William Sumner, and Edward Fuller. Until the turn of the century, the congregation selected Deacons who served for life; thereafter, three-year terms were enacted.
From 1890 to 1920 women began to take on more of an active role in the church with three dynamic groups: the Ladies Aid Society, the Woman’s Missionary Society, and the Mission Study Club. Socials, suppers, and annual fairs increased women’s involvement and provided assistance financially. Five ministers served the church during this period of history, Reverend Robert French and his close friend Reverend Burt Case being the most significant. Reverend Case established the Christian Endeavor Society for youth.
By 1920 church membership had further declined to 25 people. The Methodist Church suffered a similar plight, including the Lee Methodist Episcopal Church that was also on the Green. The two churches agreed to merge and formed the Federated Church of Tolland. The Congregational Church building continued to hold worship services and the Methodist Church hosted youth group meetings. Reverend William C. Darby became the first pastor of the Federated Church in 1920. Reverend Darby greatly enhanced youth groups, and in 1923 he took charge of the 200th anniversary church celebration. Two years later electricity became available on the Tolland Green and at the church.
Despite the affirmative changes that were occurring in the church, including the celebration of a historic anniversary and the popularity of Reverend Darby, only 24 active Congregational members belonged to the church in 1930. Sunday worship at the Federated Church had 10 to 20 people attending. An organist played during services but there was no choir. During the Great Depression years of the 1930s, attendance slowly increased, particularly children, and women became more involved in the services and with Sunday school. A girls’ choir was formed as well. The upward trend in attendance reflected the increase in young people who were now settling in Tolland and raising families. Reverend Davidson (1930-1934) from Georgia brought the issue of segregation to the church for the first time and had an impact on a number of young members. Reverend Valentine S. Alison served as minister from 1934 to 1941. During his ministry, bulletins were first prepared for Sunday worship services.
At this time, as the only church in town, people from the center and young people of all religious persuasions attended the Federated Church. The church became very involved with aiding the war effort during World War II. Several ministers served during the war years of 1941 to 1946. Following the war, the church was growing and members were involved in a myriad of activities and community service, including Scouting and 4-H. Reverend Philip King became minister in 1946 but suffered a fatal heart attack in January of 1948; and Reverend Dr. William C.H. Moe was called to serve later that same year.
Dr. Moe strongly believed that the church should belong to all its members. At this time the church still belonged to an Ecclesiastical Society. During a particularly controversial sermon in 1955, Reverend Moe preached to the congregation that a church belonged to its members. Following much discussion over a period of two years, the Federated Church of Tolland became the owner of all church facilities in 1957 and would now oversee the budget, which also had formerly been under the oversight of the Ecclesiastical Society of Tolland. With this complete, Reverend Moe retired and was named Pastor Emeritus.
At this time, retired minister, Reverend Allison Ray Heaps became the interim pastor. He served in this capacity until 1959, by which time membership grew to 382, and the church budget increased. On a typical Sunday, 103 people attended services. In the same year, the Reverend Frank C. Van Cleef, Jr. was called to be minister in February and the Lee Methodist church was dissolved by action of the Methodist Regional Board in June. Methodist members were invited to join the new Congregational Church or affiliate with a nearby Methodist Church, which many did. It was also in 1959 that a new parsonage was built on the site of the former parsonage (80 Tolland Green). A committee was formed and charged with reorganizing the church and creating new by-laws that would be agreeable to existing federation members and other Protestants in the Tolland community. As a result of this reorganization, the Federated Church was dissolved, and in 1960 the church was renamed The United Congregational Church of Tolland. By 1961, the church became affiliated with the United Church of Christ, which was newly formed from merging several denominations in New England and the Midwest. Within this new organization (UCC), local churches had full control of the hiring (and firing) of clergy and staff, of the budgets, and of theological and political stands. The Board of Trustees, Board of Christian Education, and Board of Deacons were formed in accordance with the by-laws. Soon after, a Church Council and Board of Missions were organized. In the early ‘60s, under Reverend Van Cleef’s leadership, expansion of the church facilities began being considered, a goal of $151,000 was established for a Christian Education Building, but was turned down. Reverend Van Cleef retired in October, 1963 and Reverend Heaps returned for a second time as the Interim Minister.
Reverend Donald G. Miller was called to serve as pastor in 1964, beginning April 12. Reverend Miller quickly became involved not only with the congregation but also with the Tolland community. He was the last chaplain of the Tolland jail, which closed in 1968. His two major focal points were to expand the facility and set up programs for new members. The Christian Education Building fund was established in 1965 and the Christian Education building was completed and dedicated in 1967. Repairs of existing facilities occurred, but by the 1970s expanding the sanctuary became a priority. Completed and dedicated in June, 1977, seating capacity increased from 120 to 300 as a result of the expansion. Church offices and the church parlor (later named the Miller Room) were added. Church staff increased to keep pace with the growing membership, including the addition of Reverend Jean Schnabel as Minister of Religious Education from 1969 to 1971, Reverend Betsy Reed from 1972-1974, followed by Reverend Douglas V. Maclean as Minister of Visitation in 1974. Under Reverend Miller’s leadership, Pilgrim Fellowship grew considerably, and Bible Studies began as part of the Educational Ministry. The Women’s Fellowship was renamed from the Ladies Aid Society. The Office of Tenebrae began to occur during Lent on Maundy Thursday. The 250th church anniversary was celebrated in 1973 and a balcony in the Sanctuary was added in 1987.
Once renovations to the church were completed priorities transitioned to church programs that served its members. An Associate Minister position was approved in 1985 and filled by Reverend Jonathan Green from 1985 to 1988. Reverend Hannah Weaver (who later became Reverend Hannah W. Howe), served as Minister of Visitation beginning in 1988, and she was installed in 1990 as Associate Minister. Existing ministry programs expanded, including Music Ministry, Spiritual Ministry, Education Ministry, Mission Ministry, and Fellowship Ministry. The 275th church anniversary was celebrated in 1997.
Reverend Miller retired in 1997 and Reverend Howe became Acting Senior Pastor. An extensive search occurred culminating when Reverend Dr. Robert J. Wright, Jr. was called to be Senior Pastor in 1999. Reverend Howe, who had retired in 1998, returned from retirement to become Minister of Membership, initially in June, 2000 on a part-time basis, becoming full-time following the resignation of Reverend Munshower. By 2005 Tolland’s town population was 14,000, and church membership totaled 1,260. The United Congregational Church of Tolland had become one of the larger Connecticut Conference congregations and one of the larger congregations nationally within the United Church of Christ.
A major expansion of the church was completed in 2004 and dedicated that November. Renovations included enlarging the sanctuary with more seating, extending the chancel, improving and relocating the organ chambers, and adding a new grand piano. New waterfall end pews and new carpeting were placed throughout the enlarged sanctuary, resulting in a much more open chancel. New church offices, a choir room, classrooms, and air conditioning were also part of the renovations.
Reverend Howe served until 2008. Following Reverend Howe's retirement, Reverend Joyce Crutchfield was called to serve as Interim Associate Minister, while the search for a permanent Associate Minister was conducted. The Church Council established a search committee in January 2009, and the committee created a new church profile. Reverend Crutchfield served until March 2010, when Reverend Judith C. Medeiros was called to serve as Associate Minister. On October 17, 2010, Reverend Medeiros was officially installed as Associate Minister of United Congregational Church of Tolland.
Reverend Wright retired at the end of 2012 leading to the formation of a search committee for a new Sr Pastor. Reverend Ineke K Mitchell was selected to serve as Interim Sr Pastor in early 2013.
As the church continues to move forward in Tolland, many programs emphasize its mission, outreach, and teachings through the Called To Care Ministry, Volunteer Ministry, Mission work trips, and local community programs. At the United Congregational Church of Tolland, a vibrant spirit continues to reflect the motto of the United Church of Christ that “God is Still Speaking".