Carleton College's student newspaper since 1877

The Carletonian

The Carletonian

The Carletonian

Carleton’s connection to the church next door

<ir="ltr" id="docs-internal-guid-347f2d88-cf09-954b-e6d8-3ac08a63c5a6">When I began tour guiding last spring, all of the new guides were given a list of Carleton facts to mention during our walks through campus. While the packet included fascinating stories of name origins and famous alumni, I was most surprised to learn that the red brick chapel, which I saw everyday from the window of my political science class, played an integral part in the creation of Carleton College.

“Basically, this congregation started Carleton College,” said Reverend Todd Lippert of the First United Church of Christ, or UCC for short. He handed me a historical report issued by the church in the 1960s while we sat in his office after a rainy early afternoon. The church is practically on campus, positioned at the corner of Union St. and Third St., a mere 100 yards from the Weitz Center, but I prayed the gray skies would hold off until I was safely back in my Goodhue room. He continued, “Without the members that were a part of this congregation, Carleton would be somewhere, but it would not be in Northfield.”

According to the report, the Congregationalist organization in Minnesota — this church was initially Congregationalist — decided to sponsor a college in-state during the early 1860s. Many locations were considered, including Excelsior, Lake City and Cottage Grove. “Each [location] had its proponents, but none were as tireless and effective as Mr. [Charles] Goodsell,” stated the report. Goodsell, a prominent member of the Northfield church, was an integral part of the movement to bring a college to Northfield. “It was not the behind-the-scenes manipulation or wire-pulling by Goodsell that caused Northfield to be selected,” the report explained, “but rather years of dedication and hard work and careful planning to get both church and community support behind him.”

Goodsell’s work paid off. The Northfield congregation outbid the other competitors significantly. They pledged $21,029, roughly the equivalent of $327,000 today, along with 20 acres of land, half of which were donated by Mr. Goodsell himself. Carleton College was established soon after under the name Northfield College. The formal relationship between the church and the college did not last long. “The college separated by design about a year after it was founded officially, so it has not been a college of the church, in the way that St. Olaf is a college of the church, for almost all of its existence,” said Chaplain and UCC member Carolyn Fure-Slocum.

Even without a formal affiliation with the Congregationalist church, Carleton students and staff used the church building often for college events. For instance, before the Skinner Chapel was built in 1916, commencement was held in the church. Lippert added, “I’ve been told that Carleton’s first basketball games were in the basement of this church.”  

After a fire burned down the original church, the congregation moved to its current location in 1881. Within this new building, Carleton became embedded not only in the culture of the church but also into the physical structure itself. To explain this concept further, Lippert showed me into the sanctuary. After walking through the “secret” door at the back of his office that led towards the worship space, he directed my attention to the largest stained glass window in the back of the room. At the top was Carleton’s seal and, directly below, was a circle with “Carleton College” written inside.

Then, the Reverend asked me to take a close look at inscription in the seal. Being a student of French and not Latin, he pulled out his phone to search the unfamiliar words on Google. The first link listed was the Carleton Classics website, which stated, “What the seal shows, then, is the illumination of those dangerous yet attractive pagan texts in the holy rays of Christian Scripture.” In other words, “The Bible is beaming down over the classic texts of Greece,” said Lippert.

An interplay between Christianity and academia, as seen in the seal, is a long standing tradition in Congregationalism explained Lippert, as we slowly walked back to his office, and this ideal only magnifies with two colleges nearby. “As various academic fields were progressing from the 1860s on, they were progressing in relationship with the Christian tradition. Those academic fields were in conversation with Christianity as they were interacting with this church.”

“We are thinking very carefully about what we have learned about the world of science and through the study of history, then determining how our faith interacts with that and how God speaks in the midst of that,” continued Lippert.

After discussing theology with Lippert, I was still confused by the term “Congregationalist” versus “UCC.” During my pursuit for more information, Fure-Slocum told me a lengthy and messy tale of the transition from one denomination to the other. The history major in me just kept asking questions. To put simply, several Christian denominations, including Congregationalism, merged to create the United Church of Christ in 1957. Because the UCC emerged partially from Congregationalism, the UCC and Congregationalists share many values and theological beliefs.

The shift to UCC, however, was not universal. Each congregation could vote as to whether they wanted to change. The Northfield congregation voted to change their official denomination, hence their current affiliation with the UCC. Interestingly, some other churches that assisted in Carleton’s founding, including a Plymouth congregation, maintained their Congregationalist status. One critical aspect of the UCC today is its willingness to wrestle with large ideas and recognize a lack of finality in its answers. “It’s natural and normal for people to be wrestling with what does it mean to be a Christian and how do we live, how do we believe as Christians in the 21st century. This church tries to create a space for people who have questions,” said Lippert.

Fure- Slocum echoed this sentiment. “One of its sayings is, ‘Never place a period where God has placed a comma. God is still speaking.’ That’s one of the set sayings for the UCC, and I think that fits really well [at Carleton] too.” Both Fure-Slocum and Lippert can see tenets of Congregationalism and the UCC at Carleton. Beyond the willingness to tackle large issues and critically question religion, Carleton and its founders share political leanings.

“We often joke that we are the last door on the left when it comes to Christianity,”  said Lippert, acknowledging a long tradition of liberalism in the church, similar to the college’s commitment to liberal ideals. The Congregationalists were heavily involved in the abolitionist and women’s rights movements. In fact, the first female clergy ordained was in 1853 by the Congregationalist church.

Since then, “The UCC has been a leader in LGBT rights issues over time,” according to Lippert. In 1972, the denomination was the first to ordain an openly gay man. “We are proud to claim being out front on some social justice issues.” The current relationship between the college and this particular church centers  mainly around collaboration on these social justice issues. “As various movements were happening at the college, it was interacting with Christian faith here,” said Lippert.

One example of this interaction stems from a shared relationship with ISIAH, a faith-based community organizing project. According to Lippert, “There have been times when we have been doing work here, and Carolyn has been doing work with students connected to ISIAH. We have been together in that.” The student group IFSA, or Interfaith Social Action, interacts with Rev. Lippert and other members of the church often in community meetings, generally with ISIAH.

“Part of [IFSA’s] work has been on wealth and class on campus, but then part of their work has been on racial and economic justice on the state level, so we keep the connections going with ISIAH on economic and racial justice through IFSA on this campus,” said Fure-Slocum. Despite Carleton’s involvement with ISIAH, she added, “I’d say the connections to the church at this point are informal, through individuals.”

Throughout the interview with Lippert, I kept getting a feeling of familiarity. Initially attributing it to a longing for my hometown church, only after I left the interview and walked back through campus did I remember a critical fact: I had met Rev. Todd Lippert before. We met at a meeting sponsored by ISIAH. Just as Fure-Slocum had described, my relationship to the congregation, similar to my other peers at the meeting, was informal and through individuals.

Fure-Slocum attributes part of the the First UCC church’s current success to their engagement in social justice issues and this informal relationship to the college. “Unlike many places in the country, this church is booming. Most Protestant, mainline denominational churches are struggling as religious affiliation drops, but you would have no idea it was happening if you went to UCC. It has young families and kids galore. It’s a very vibrant church. And I think it is partly due to the college atmosphere, but I think it is also due to social engagement, as well as ecological engagement.”

According to Lippert, the college atmosphere in Northfield contributes not only to the church’s attendance but also to its very being. “The ethos and presence of Carleton definitely shapes who we are,” said Lippert. “I think that the relationship has really defined this church much more than the church has defined Carleton, so I think the strong relationship to the academy has shaped our theological perspective and our connection to the world, the way we live our Christian faith.” He clarified after a long pause, “Theological openness is appreciated. I was told four years ago when I started by a conference minister that the normal Christian clichés don’t work here.”

Moreover, the historical connection between this particular congregation and the college gives the church a sense of pride and empowerment. “I think the fact that this community founded Carleton is a really huge part of this church’s identity, that deep down this congregation knows we do big things, we have done big things,” said Lippert.

In addition to discussing the church as a whole, Lippert finished his interview with an anecdote about his personal connection to Carleton. While I collected my things for the short walk back to campus, he explained that his pastor, who was from his hometown in northwestern Iowa and who contributed to his decision to become a clergyman, graduated from Carleton. “In a way, Carleton shaped me before I even showed up.”

Though the relationship between the church and the college has receded, Lippert and Fure-Slocum were excited to share the story of Carleton’s beginnings and the attachment to the Congregationalists, because it is a tale often forgotten on campus. As Lippert said, “There are always these hidden stories that we don’t really know about, but they are shaping us all the time.”

Leave a Comment
More to Discover

Comments (0)

All The Carletonian Picks Reader Picks Sort: Newest

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *