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A Visible Church in an Invisible Town

Looking at a map of Lower Michigan, one will see it is shaped like a mitten on the left hand, with a distinctly marked Thumb. The Thumb-Nail is Huron County, the county town being Bad Axe, and the old railroad terminus being Grindstone; the nearness of the two places inspiring obvious pleasantries. Four miles east of Grindstone is Huron City, once a fairly large and prosperous lumbering village, and now so small that strangers drive through it without seeing it. Many have motored on ten miles in the vain endeavour to find it.

Mr. Langdon Hubbard, of Bloomfield, Conn., founded the town in the ‘fifties, made roads through the forests, and built the first pier. Eighty years ago he made it possible to have regular services. For a long time the schoolhouse served this purpose, but in 1885 Mr. Hubbard made provision for a church edifice, which has been open since that date.  The Methodist minister assigned to this 'charge' preaches in three places; in the morning at Redman, eight miles away, in the afternoon at Huron City, and in the evening at Port Hope, where he lives.  In the days of horses, this was a serious undertaking; for the roas were never good, even in the best of summer weather, and for the rest of the year they were almost incredibly bad.  But with the advent of the Ford Car, all this has been changed.  Now we have excellent roads, and the Huron City Church is easily accessible to those who live within a radius of a hundred miles or more.

I wish the following account of a successful experiment might induce summer visitors from city to country elsewhere not to be content with merely taking rest and recreation, but to give as well as receive – to identify themselves with the life of rural communities, and if they have any talent for usefulness, to employ that in summer service. Browning says,

God uses us to help each other so, Lending our minds out.

Many religious people dream of a genuine Christian Community Church, where devout people from various denominations and sects will worship together without any self-consciousness; that is, without being aware that they are doing anything unusual. What ought to be common is extremely rare.

Yet in our Huron City Church, to use Kipling’s phrase, ‘the thing that couldn’t has occurred.’ Representatives from all the churches, together with many others, come cheerfully to Huron City every Sunday afternoon in July, August, and September.

The automobile had made it unnecessary to seek a good or convenient location for a church; any location will do; if the services are interesting and beneficial, people will come.

Attending Church in Huron City in the 1920s

I have been asked, ‘Why do you preach to such a collection of sects? Do you give a literary lecture or a moral talk?’ My answer is that I preach only the simple gospel and nothing else; and there being so many members of so many sects in the audience, I leave out non-essentials and dogmas peculiar to individual churches (winds of doctrine) and stick close to the central theme of the New Testament.

No member of the congregation enjoys this church more than I. As I go into the pulpit and look over that audience of hard-working farmers, their wives and babies, and know that they and many others have given up their Sunday afternoon and motored many miles to be present, I feel a thrill unspeakable.

There is no formality about this church and there is no one to greet visitors with a professional smile and handclasp; people enter this building as they enter their own home, knowing there will be neither coldness nor officious effusiveness. Nor are they ever urged to come again; they will come again when they feel like it.

On one occasion immediately after the service, when nearly everyone had gone outside, an over-enthusiastic gentleman came up to the pulpit and said emphatically, ‘I want you to know that I’m a Unitarian! I don’t care one whoop for the damn dogmas you people believe; but I like this church; it’s the first time I’ve been here; and I want to give fifty dollars to it; so long as you understand that I am a Unitarian!’ Although his excitement had an alcoholic foundation, he showed his interest in a practical way; for the collections taken during the summer support this church during the barren winter months. He wrote his cheque in a firm hand; I thanked him, and saw him no more. Before adding it to our contributions, however, I made enquiries to see if he could afford it, as I did not wish him to regret his good impulse after his zeal had cooled. I found that he was abundantly able to spare the fifty dollars.

Then I sat down and wrote a letter to the most ardent Unitarian in America, Chief Justice William Howard Taft. ‘There was a Unitarian in our Methodist Church last Sunday; he seemed abnormally excited, but he was a thorough gentleman, for he contributed fifty dollars.’ I immediately received a reply: ‘I am not surprised there was a Unitarian in your Methodist Church; and I am not very much surprised that he was excited; but I am amazed that you got fifty dollars out of him. I never knew any Unitarian who was that much ahead.’

William Lyon Phelps - 1939

Click here to read a newspaper account of Prof. Phelps preaching at Huron City:  Green Pastures