The Guilford Community Church, United Church of Christ, (known for most of its life as the Guilford Congregational Church) has quite a story. Founded in 1767/68, it is indisputably the fifth oldest church in Vermont, and may even be the third oldest. Its first minister, the Rev. Abner Reeve, called in 1770 and shared with the neighboring town of Brattleboro, was a 62-year-old reformed alcoholic who came to this area with his third wife and five small children, seeking to “start over again.” His personal life would become a kind of paradigm for the church itself, which, after surviving the upheavals of the American Revolution, went through two major periods of near death in the 19th century, only to be brought to life again through the dedication of local residents and the encouragement and support of the larger fellowship of Congregational Churches in Vermont. The original meeting house, built in Guilford Center in 1773, was abandoned in about 1820 and eventually was torn down. A new, smaller building was erected in 1856 in East Guilford during a time of revival, and then, after a few years sat unused again until 1899, when a small band of Guilford residents, with the help of a cadre of women missionaries from the nearby Northfield Training School (founded by evangelist Dwight L. Moody), re-organized the church, re-affirmed its Congregational heritage and began a journey unbroken to this day. During much of the 20th century, it struggled to support a resident minister, sometimes yolking with nearby churches and receiving annual grants from the Vermont Conference. In 1948, two significant actions were taken: the church voted to approve the national merger of the Congregational-Christian denomination with the Evangelical and Reformed Church to form the United Church of Christ, and a few months later changed its own name to “The Guilford Community Church,” in an effort to broaden its appeal. The next year, a fire starting in the wood furnace weakened the roof and necessitated that the steeple be dismantled. But the congregation rallied, redecorated the blackened sanctuary, and moved forward again.
A new era began in 1976 when the church called Shirley Crockett to be its pastor. Shirley began as a part-time lay minister, but her warm, caring and vigorous pastoral ministry, assisted by her husband, the Rev. Larrimore Crockett, which welcomed all persons with the embrace of unconditional love, built up the congregation to the point that, in the early 1990s, it was bursting the seams of its building. A long-range plan was developed, fund-raising went into high gear, and in 1994, the 1856 meeting house was moved to its present location 100 yards east and greatly enlarged, with the help of over 200 volunteers and no indebtedness! Just before that move, Shirley was finally ordained in a joyful and spirit-filled service in nearby Christ Church.
After 22 years of devoted ministry, the Crocketts retired in 1997; but just a few months later, on May 24, 1998, Shirley’s sudden and untimely death resulted in an outpouring of grief. Allyson Platt was interim minister for a year, followed by pastor Noreen Carter for about a year, followed by a year with the laity leading worship. In 2001, Lise Sparrow was called as pastor. For two years, the congregation struggled with the question of whether the church would welcome gays, lesbians, trans- and bi-sexuals to full life and privileges in the church. In 2003, a vote was taken and the church affirmed its openness and commitment to welcome and bless all who come with the intention to deepen their relationship to Christ, the church and this community.
Being part of Guilford Community Church history means being part of a long and inspiring story of renewal, of overcoming failure and death, of “starting again,” of being open to God’s work in our lives as God leads us into the future. In the larger UCC church this is called the “God Is Still Speaking” Initiative, a phrase which continues to invigorate and inspire us.
The full story of the Guilford Community Church is told in a 451-page history, Safe Thus Far (Black Mountain Press, 1998), written by Larrimore Crockett and dedicated to Shirley. An overview of that book is linked to this site. Two other books, The Mended Cup: 52 Stories for Children of all Ages (Black Mountain Press, 2002) and Be Present Here: Pastoral Prayers of Shirley Harris Crockett (Black Mountain Press, 2008) draw on an archive of tapes of Guilford worship services and help preserve the amazing legacy of Shirley’s ministry.