The year was 1844. As the American economy—fueled by the slave production of cotton—continued to grow at a staggering page, so too the United States barreled toward civil war. Many religious and political leaders turned to scripture to justify slavery and its expansion; but many others resisted.
In 1844, the First Congregational Church of Sycamore—our forefathers and foremothers—was four years old. That year, a man named David West and his wife Sarah moved to this frontier town and joined the church. With other members like Horatio Page, Jesse Kellogg and Henry West, they quickly became the vanguard in the local Abolitionist movement.
At a time of deep polarization in which many churches either supported or remained silent on the issue of slavery and the dignity of people of African descent, this church chose risky acts of generosity, compassion, and justice over fear and self-preservation.
In 1844, with no building of their own, First Congregational gathered for worship in the DeKalb County Courthouse. That summer, however, would be their last; their bold and public abolitionism, well-known throughout the county, got them kicked out and banned from meeting there in any form.
But that didn’t diminish their faith or derail their mission.
With no building and a future that was not at all guaranteed, this church and its leaders refused to cower in fear; instead, convicted and compelled by their faith, they became stations on the Underground Railroad. Even more, Deacon David West and others quickly became Conductors, transporting numerous escaped slaves through the end of the Civil War down Old State Road from Sycamore to St. Charles on their way to Chicago and freedom in Canada.
The question of slavery’s expansion or abolition continued to shape every realm of life throughout the nation, including churches.
In 1848, Illinois voters approved a new state constitution, which prohibited "free persons of color" from immigrating there and declared that slaves could no longer be brought into the state in order to be set free. Even as the stakes and risks rose, First Congregational Church continued to embrace the call of their faith to love their neighbor as themselves. Defying unjust laws, they continued to provide sanctuary to these so-called "fugitives"—these "illegals" whom they knew to be their sisters and brothers—and transported them to freedom.
But it didn’t stop there either.
In 1850, when the federal government passed the "Fugitive Slave Act" declaring it a federal offense to aid a runaway slave, Deacon David West and this church still chose to act boldly, to seek the shalom (the "peace" / "wellbeing") of this whole nation, beginning with those who had been rendered least and last. Indeed, they chose to act even though it meant the possibility of not only fines or imprisonment, but also being attacked by pro-slavery vigilantes.
At this crucial moment in history, this church did not choose the easy path of turning its focus inward in order to take care of itself and focus on numerical growth. Rather, it chose to be a church freed from concerns of power and status in order to be freed for the work of liberty and justice for all.
In 1927, members of First Congregational Church of Sycamore and the Sycamore Unitarian Universalist Church voted to join forces. Merging and strengthening each congregation's anti-slavery commitment, they became The Federated Church of Sycamore.
This story of our founding represents the kind of faith we seek to embody today.
We continue to gather to worship a God who comforts us where we need to be comforted, and who convicts us where we’ve become complacent. In a world of deep polarization and hostile divisions, we seek to bear witness to a faith that doesn’t cower in the face of fear and is willing to take risks to live out Jesus’ call to “love your neighbor as yourself.”
At Federated, you will not find easy answers to life’s complex questions. Instead, you will find a community asking hard questions and striving to live out this kind of bold faith in our world today.
Like our world, we are not even close to perfect. Thankfully, we worship a God who loves to create beautiful mosaics out of broken people and a broken world; a God who claims us and our world in our imperfections and transforms us into something new—for our healing, for the healing of the world. We'd love for you to be a part of what God is doing here in and through us!
Feel free to contact our Pastor, Rev. Eric Ogi, with any questions or to learn more. He'd love to take you out for coffee or tea or grab a beer and talk more!