State Street Church, 1852 through the Present
Throughout its rich history people of State Street Church embraced and challenged the social assumptions of their times and chose to speak and act deliberately to make the world a better place. Beginning in 1852 a long tradition of compelling oratory was initiated espousing abolitionist and other broad Christ inspired points of view. Members illustrated that “the way of faith is the way into life.“ They wrestled with the challenges of the wars and moral challenges of their eras, made evolving contemporary programs relevant to meet basic human needs such as food and clothing, intellectual and spiritual growth and by serving the broader community. In the 1960s and ‘70s the Church sponsored “The Gate,” a coffee house, a friendly melting pot to meet the needs of lonely, alienated, rebellious people and be a “church without walls.” During the 1990s State Street became an open and affirming congregation welcoming GLBT members. More recently we’ve maintained open doors to the growing immigrant community of Portland providing some with a new church home. State Street is a congregation that welcomes people from all walks of life to create a spiritual home.
Music has always been an important part of our church community. Our Roosevelt organ was installed in 1892 by a New York Firm of the same name. A succession of talented and dedicated music and choral directors made music featured expressions of faith. For example, Seldon T Crafts of Bates College commuted weekly to State Street from 1909 to 1947 to play some 2,000 services. Our music and performances have helped shape the musical life of Portland in many venues. Dr. David Maxwell, our current Minister of Music, provides concert quality experiences at every service, has inspired our choir to render professional level anthems, has brought many professional musicians for special services to our chancel, featured talented musicians from our congregation, and welcomed a newly formed blue grass ensemble “No Strings Attached” to enrich selected services and events.
Varied programming has always been a part of our church life and growth is always exciting. The Men’s Group, the Women’s Guild, the Women’s Home Missionary Circle, the Foreign Missionary Society, the Junior Guild and Bible Study were all part of this tradition. Several of these groups with different names continue to make State Street a rich and vital place. Church membership more than doubled in the 1920s, pew rental was abolished, and State Street became the State’s largest mission donor. In the 1950s seven classrooms were added to the Sunday School. In the 60s and 70s the Church community worked to actively engage with the social unrest of that era e.g., the Vietnam War, women’s and human rights, and substance abuse. There was a 50 year history of direct radio broadcasting of church sermons. Three younger church members enrolled at graduate theology schools and State Street housed the 40,000 volume General Theological Library of New England and the Portland Campus Center of the Bangor Theological Seminary.
The move of people to the suburbs and the challenges of church relevance to the main line churches are part of our history as well. In recent decades several renewal campaigns were launched with notable success in membership and capital. All of our spaces are fully occupied by others who are meeting people’s needs where they are be it in preschool formation, traversing the turbulent teen and young adult years, struggling to escape life crushing addiction or seeking another cultural spiritual journey.
We are weathering a decline in membership since our Golden Years by welcoming and engaging new arrivals in the many different ways that are comfortable for them. Our Interim-pastor Rev. Dr. Scott DeBlock makes everyone welcome, helps them become a part of something larger than themselves and experience God’s unconditional love. He infuses our lives with hope, optimism, belonging and new reflections on our life experiences grounded in age old wisdom. Recently it was asked as part of a Bible Study “Is it possible that “faith” is less about asserting the existence of a hypothetical Being called “God” than it is about simply accepting and being shaped by experiences of deliverance and goodness coming to us from some source “out of this world?” Could the “resurrection” at the heart of Christian faith be not an assured ticket to an afterlife that enables us to “avoid pain” but rather a call to renewed life now that lives fully, daringly and hopefully towards the unknown? Is “trusting God” less a secure answer to life’s central problems than it is an empowerment to deal with them courageously? Welcome to the journey of State Street Church.
This historical overview by Jared Clark is based upon the following:
“125 Years of State Street Church,” Eleanor Johnson, Editor
“The Golden Candlesticks, 150 Years of Faith and Service, 1852 – 2002”
Franklin Talbot Archivist, Martha Mater, Editor