By Doug Schroder


It’s pretty amazing that one local church has survived around here to celebrate a 175th anniversary, considering the area was just settled only about 180-or-so years ago. Somehow the church has thrived and survived during all that time.

This Sunday, Nov. 6, Seward Congregational Church, in Seward, will observe their 175th anniversary of founding with a special service and potluck fellowship afterwards. This service will feature testimonials for former ministers and long time members, special music by the Rockford barbershop quartet “Voicebachs”, and a special media presentation on their last 175 years.

This homecoming-style event is open to the entire community, to share in the celebration. A special invitation is extended to anyone who has ever been involved with the Seward Church family.
The meal after the service will feature pork chops and several potluck style dishes and desserts. Please RSVP to the church at 815-247-8612 as soon as possible, so that they may have enough food.

Luckily a lot of the history of the church has been preserved over the years ands was recently compiled by church member Peggy Whitney.

I was able to meet up with Peggy recently, as well as current Pastor David Bordy. They took me on a tour of the facilities and provided me with much information about the church and how it has changed to provide community needs over the years.

The following is a compilation of what Peggy has been able to come up with in a booklet printed by the church.


History of Seward Congregational Church

175th Anniversary

The State Road (Hwy. 20) opened in 1836. Joseph E. Vance and his family located in the grove, 12 miles west of the ford on Rock River. This place became a station on the stagecoach route, called Vanceburg (Vanceboro). Other settlers came, established claims, and built log cabin homes.

On March 27, 1841, thirteen people gathered at the home of Truman Judd in Lysander (now Pecatonica) township to “form themselves into a church”. This new society was named First Congregational Church at 12 Mile Grove. Article of faith and covenant were presented and accepted. Charter members were: Austin Andrews, Eliphalet Whittlesey, Truman Judd, Joel W. Thomson, Emily Thomson, Harriet Thomson, Laura Ann Thomson, Harvey Woodruff, Calista Woodruff, Mary E. Simpson, Elizabeth Lewis, Mary J. Vance, Putnam Perley. (More details of settlers found in Seward Congregational Church history United Church of Christ, written for 150th anniversary.)

The Rev. John W. Morrill and the Rev. Ebenezar Brown guided this small group of wor-shipers who met on alternate Sabbaths at the Grove (12-mile) and at the Judd home in Lysander, a 5-mile distance. In December of 1844 the Congregational Church of 12 Mile Grove called Rev. E. W. Hewitt as its first permanent minister. In January 1846, R. K. Town was appointed delegate to attend the next meeting of the Beloit Association and request admission of this church.

Rev. Hewitt reported to his sponsors, the Home Mission Society, about the difficulties of this work: the hard life of his parishioners and the cold, uncomfortable homes and meeting house. In 1848 he reported a building 30’ x 40’ had been erected for school, worship, and Sab-bath schools, and a Temperance Society organized. (This was a stone building. At the funeral of Mary Ellen Whittlesey Burch, wife of C. Randall Burch, in June, 1878, held in the stone church, a loud crack was heard. The next day the building fell into ruins. The current Union Church stands on the same foundation. Restoration of this church was begun by the Seward Historical Society in 2002, and completed some time later.)

In 1850 or 1851, the little church divided and members left to form the Congregational Church of Pecatonica. “Eleven women, of the remaining members, met at the home of Harvey Woodruff for the purpose of organizing a “Sewing Society”, the society being for the purpose of raising funds to aid in building a “Meeting House”, according to a Rev. Johnson’s record book. Money was laboriously earned by hand sewing overalls and shirts while one of their number read aloud. The ladies earned somewhere around 8 or 9 dollars a year. Money was very scarce and the sewing was all hand work.

Also, about this time, Solomon Whittlesey of Oberlin, Ohio paid a visit to his relatives in the area and was disturbed by the lack of church facilities. Upon his return to Ohio he sent $100. to help build a new church. In the course of time “the little white church” was built on the southwest corner of the Needham farm on Comly Road.

When it was almost completed, a disastrous wind storm tore off most of the roof but work was resumed and the church was completed in 1853. The Ladies’ Aid bought 5 yards of carpet and 30 yards of oil cloth with money they had earned.


Harriet Short Neely recalled, “I can remember the call of the whip-poor-will in the vari-ous sounds of the outdoor night as we gathered for the evening services in that little white church at the edge of the grove on the north side of the road. I can remember the high pulpit with the stairs leading up to it, the little door that the minister carefully fastened before he sat down in the small box-like place, the outside door, the seats for the choir, the high seat in the rear, one step raised from the main floor, where the boys sat, and later the young men’s Bible class.”

The next minister was Rev. Rufus Patch. We have him to thank for his interest in pre-serving early church records, and the following record of the settlement of 12 Mile Grove village, written in 1857: (sic)

Statistics of the Early Settlement of Twelve Mile Grove & Vicinity 1836 to 1844

  • The State Road was opened through the grove during the summer of 1836, just 21 years pre-vious to the insertion of this record. Oct. 18, 1836, Joseph C. Vance from Clark County, Ohio, located with his family in the grove, near the present site of the stone tavern, on the state road 2 miles south and half a mile east of the present village of Pe catonica.
  • His nearest neighbors were Ephraim Sumner who lived two miles north on the flat near the river, and Thomas Williams, who occupied the present location of Sumner’s mill 3 miles distant.
  • Mr. Vance was accompanied by Edmond Whittlesey and Austin Andrews who afterwards became his sons-in-law.
  • During the spring and summer of 1837 Eliphalet Whittlesey and Richard Robinson joined the settlement. The Messrs Whittlesey and Robinson located adjoining farms on the south side of the Grove, which embraces also a portion of the prairie.
  • Mr. Andrews selected a site upon the state road, due south of the centre of the present vil-lage of Pecatonica, and touching on the south the north border of Edmond Whittlesey’s farm. These all, except Mr. Andrews, commenced improvements during the fall of 1837.
  • John Vance (son) and Daniel Vance (brother of Joseph C.) came to the Grove in the spring of 1839. The former located upon the height of the land just east of the Grove upon the State Road. The latter crossed the Grove and chose the quarter section lying upon its south-east border, south of that occupied by Joseph C. It is now the residence of John Hollenbeck.
  • At about the same time, Morris Pierce located near the NW corner of the Grove, 1839. In Oct. 1840 Harvey Woodruff joined his brothers-in-law (the Whittleseys) on the south side of the Grove. For several years from this date the accessions to this immediate settlement were few.
  • Thomas Williams removed to the Grove about 1841. J. Smith Judd located south of Daniel Vance Nov. 6, 1843.
  • In 1844, David Weld selected for his future home the unoccupied strip of Grove and prairie lying between Harvey Woodruff on the west and Daniel Vance and Judd Smith on the east.
  • Amos Durbin and Sullivan Daniels joined the settlement about this time. The latter located upon the State Road between J.C. Vance and A. Andrews, due north of David Weld. The former, west of Richard Robinson. Porterfield Harrison had also entered a claim between Austin Andrews and Morris Pierce and at this date had sold to David Paul. This settlement, in 1844, after about 8 years, embraces 15 families. The Grove was nearly all claimed. No farm was located entirely upon the prairie. There was no residence away from the Grove. On the south side of the Grove there were seven adjoining farms, embracing both Grove and Prairie, six of them crossed by a living stream of water.
  • This date, 1844, was the era of the erection of the log school house.
  • The above items are liable to inaccuracy, as the undersigned has obtained them only by referring to the recollections of the surviving early settlers.


In 1863 the name of the church was changed from Congregational Church of 12 Mile Grove to the Congregational Church of Seward. (There are also references to this change being made in 1853 when the church was built at the Needham farm.)

After the Civil War, building a new church was discussed, one to be located in the center of the community, since many members now lived south of the grove. However, on Feb, 20, 1868, a new house of worship was built and dedicated near the center of Seward Township on the northeast corner of the intersection known as Fenton’s Corners on the Robert Smith property. The present dwelling of Don Brocker (2016) was erected as the parsonage. It was a beautiful white country church surrounded by large shade trees and enclosed with a white picket fence.

After the Illinois Central Railroad was built through the township in 1887, the village of Seward developed near the tracks. Stores, a blacksmith shop, elevator, post office, and homes were built. Some people of the church thought they should leave Seward Center and move the church. On March 20, 1899, a church business meeting of great importance was held. The question of whether the church shall be moved from its present location will be discussed and voted on. After much discussion, resulting 23 in favor of moving the church over 8 negative, the decision was made.

In January 1901, the church was moved to the village of Seward. This was accomplished by using planks and rollers obtained from a Rock-ford firm which specialized in moving buildings. The church was pulled by a capstan powered by twelve horses (a capstan is a revolving cylinder with a vertical axis used for winding a rope or a cable, powered by a motor, but in this case 12 horses).

A cable attached to the church was wound around the capstan thus propelling the build-ing on its way. The men, including the minister, moved the logs and kept the church on course. The distance of approximately one-half mile was covered in one week. The cost was one hundred dollars. And that is how the church was moved to its present location.

A basement was dug by using slip shovels pulled by small mules. A belfry, a large lamp at the entrance, and a balcony inside were added at this time, also. Sheds were built at the rear of the church to shelter horses and carriages. July 14, 1901, the building was rededicated.

In 1910 a workday was held to shingle the barn and parsonage and to make new cement walks at the church. In 1912 the church purchased the house, built by John A. Fry, located next to the church, from Sam B. Baker to be used for the parsonage. Hugh S. Smith purchased the old Congregational Church parsonage at Fenton’s Corners for $1500. in Jan. of 1913. In 1914 the balcony was removed to make room for the stained glass window “Hoffman’s Christ” in memory of Deacon and Mrs. William J. Cleveland. The sermon, “Behold, I stand at the Door and Knock” was delivered during the dedication of this window.

There is more that could be added from Peggy’s historical compilation of the church. For now we will leave it at here.

Many good wishes to those in the Seward Congregation and may the church survive for many more years to come.

Information gathered from:

  • The Historical Booklet Commemorating the Centennial of The Seward Congrega-tional Church, Seward, Illinois, 1841 – 1941. Organized March Twenty-Seventh, Eighteen Hundred Forty One Written by Harriet S. Neely
  • Newspaper article June 25, 1966 Pastor’s Record Book Warns of Dangers in Sun-day Work
  • 140th Anniversary Program Book, Historical Highlights of Seward Congregational Church
  • 150th Anniversary Program Book
  • 160th Anniversary Program Book, Seward Congregational Church
  • Church News Article “Way Back When” found in Seward Historical Society File
  • Original Annual Church Reports found in safety deposit box.


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