A Narrative History of Redeemer
In 1852 The Church of the Redeemer was founded as the second Episcopal Church in Morristown, New Jersey, by a group of people who left St. Peters Episcopal Church Morristown. The reason for the departure was the proslavery and pro-Oxford position of the old church and its unwillingness to change. These founding members of Redeemer wanted a church and worship service reflective of their values and concerns. Today, people still attend Redeemer for the same reasons.
Over time, Redeemer became one of the largest parishes in the Diocese of Newark. The parish campus contains three separate stone structures: a Norman Gothic church seating 375, a two-story Parish House, and a twelve-room rectory. In the 1940’s, average Sunday school attendance was over 200. There were several choirs, some containing as many as 60 members. The church was filled to capacity for Sunday services.
As years passed, Redeemer lost its sense of mission and purpose. Attendance declined. Budgets became stagnant. Needed maintenance was deferred. The parish leaders began to ask themselves, “Who are we and why do we exist?” The one sentence that most clearly revealed the state of Redeemer was written in the parish profile when the church searched for a new rector in the 1980’s. It said, “We are at the crossroads of our church; we will either die or grow.” And it was this statement that most attracted the Rev. Phillip Dana Wilson as the fifteenth rector in 1987. He felt that any parish that knew it was at the crossroads of life and death would be open to the amazing possibilities of resurrection.
Redeemer was close enough to death that one could almost see the resurrection. It was Phillip Wilson’s job to help the parish understand in what direction to move. Clearly Redeemer had to change or die. Forty to sixty people were attending church on Sundays. Pledging totaled $40,000, hardly enough to pay for the insurance and utilities.
Phillip Wilson’s vision of Redeemer as a liberation community committed to justice began to come into focus when Eric Johnson, the son of lifelong members of the parish, contracted AIDS and came home to live out the last year of his life. The parish realized that AIDS was no longer about “others; It was about them. Members of the parish began to take AIDS Buddy Training. This training soon found a home in the parish. The parish then conceived the idea of converting the stone rectory into an AIDS Residence. The present Eric Johnson House for people living with AIDS was opened in 1993. An AIDS chapel was created in the church, containing Redeemer’s AIDS quilt. The resurrection of the parish began with this concern for people with AIDS.
The vision of liberation and justice began to affect all of Redeemer’s commitments. Members of the parish made a commitment to name and attack their own racism, and a Racial Dialogue Group was established. Martin Luther King, Jr. Sunday became a major holy day in the parish. King’s picture and the Black Liberation flag were placed in the nave of the church. Eventually a five-week liturgical Reconciliation Season, built around the songs and images of the Underground Railroad, was created to call the congregation to look at both racism and wider liberation issues.
In 2002 Dr. Sheryl A. Kujawa-Holbrook of the Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge, Mass., featured Redeemer’s model of diversity as one of six faith communities featured in her book, A House of Prayer for All Peoples.
Committed to ending the language of sexism, the rector and vestry made a commitment to inclusive language in the words and songs used in the liturgy. This meant selecting an inclusive language hymnal and seeking the efforts of talented hymn writers in the congregation to ensure that Redeemer’s music would speak to its vision of liberation.
Gay and lesbian people were fully welcomed into the parish family. Redeemer performed the first same-sex blessing in 1991. Today at Redeemer, an equal number of same-sex and opposite-sex marriages are performed. In 1999 the Vestry voted to use the language of “sacramental marriage” for all unions blessed at Redeemer. The vestry’s position was clear that, though the state can define what is legal, it cannot define what is holy.
Worship at Redeemer began to reflect the vision of liberation; new liturgies were crafted. Special Sundays and seasons were created, including Recovery Sunday, Holocaust Remembrance Sunday, Gay and Lesbian Liberation Sunday, Celebrating Women’s Journeys Sunday, Creation Season, and Reconciliation Season. In order to welcome fully all people at the Eucharist, grape juice was offered along with wine.
Redeemer is committed to radical hospitality, welcoming all people just as they are. At worship on any Sunday, the congregation might include both Christians and non-Christians, believers and agnostics, as well as black, white, gay, straight, and transgendered individuals.
Redeemer has been recognized for its model of what it means to be a community of faith. Its vision and purpose are immediately evident to visitors. In 1996, the parish was designated the Church of the Year in the Diocese of Newark, and in 2001 it was listed in Paul Wilkes’ book, Excellent Protestant Congregations, as one of the 300 outstanding Protestant parishes in the nation.
One-hundred-and-fifty years after its founding, the Church of the Redeemer is strong and healthy, with a clear understanding of its mission and its vision. The parish consists of 400 members, with an income nearly ten times that pledged fifteen years ago. People come from great distances because Redeemer’s worship, just as it did in 1852, clearly reflects its mission and vision.
History of the Church of the Redeemer by Year
1852: Group leaves Morristown St. Peter’s to found the Church of the Redeemer. First wardens: William Duer, former president of Columbia College in New York City and Alfred Vail, who worked with Samuel F. B. Morse on the invention of the telegraph.
1853: Parish constructs first Church of the Redeemer, a wood building, at Morris Avenue and Pine Street in Morristown.
1885: 1853 church moved to South Street where Parish Hall now stands.
1917: Second church, large enough to seat 400, constructed of stone near 1853 building. Original church razed in 1920.
1919-1952: With Fr. Thomas Attridge as rector, Redeemer becomes one of the largest parishes in the Diocese of Newark.
1926: Stone parish hall constructed. The parish hall gymnasium becomes a community center.
1935: Stone rectory built at rear of lot on South Street.
1940: First Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) meeting at a New Jersey church held at Redeemer.
1970s: Civil Rights and anti-Vietnam War groups meet at Redeemer.
1974: The Rev. Nancy Wittig of the “Philadelphia Eleven” is the first woman to celebrate the Eucharist at Redeemer.
1987: Phillip Dana Wilson becomes fifteenth rector of Redeemer.
1988: First annual Martin Luther King Jr. Sunday celebrated as a major liberation event at Redeemer.
1990: Creation Season developed at Redeemer. Has since been adopted by other Episcopal churches and dioceses. Vestry and rector make commitment to use inclusive language in all aspects of the larger second service each Sunday, while retaining use of Book of Common Prayer for 8 a.m. service.
1991: First Blessing of a same sex union at Redeemer.
1993: Redeemer rectory becomes an AIDS residence. First annual Celebrating Women’s Journeys Sunday on Mother’s Day as a major liberation event at Redeemer. First annual Gay and Lesbian Pride Sunday as a major liberation celebration at Redeemer.
1994: Gay and straight members of Redeemer march in NYC Gay Pride Parade for the first time. First annual Recovery Sunday as a major Redeemer liberation celebration. Grape juice, as well as wine, offered at communion.
1995: Creation of AIDS Chapel and Redeemer AIDS Quilt in the church.
1996: Redeemer designated Diocese of Newark Church of the Year.
2001: Redeemer named one of 300 outstanding Protestant parishes in America in Lilly Endowment study at University of North Carolina.
2002: 150th Anniversary of founding of the Church of the Redeemer.
2003: Redeemer included as a chapter in A House of Prayer for All Peoples by Sheryl A. Kujawa-Holbrook for its program of racial dialogue and healing.
2004: Shower of Stoles is displayed at Redeemer. Each liturgical stole contains the story of a GLBT person who is active in the life and leadership of their faith community in some way: minister, elder, deacon, teacher, missionary, musician, administrator or active layperson.
2006: Redeemer becomes an official Peace Site.
2006: B. Preston Root turns 100 years old and his life is celebrated at Men’s Group Dinner.
2007: Seven members of Redeemer visit Good Shepherd Home in Cameroon and parish gives $80,000 to support Water for Life project there.
2007: Redeemer performs Civil Union of Cindy Meneghin and Maureen Kilian and many others.
2011: Cynthia Black becomes sixteenth rector of Redeemer; we begin “church exchanges” with Bethel A.M.E., worshiping in each others churches for MLK day and the feast of Absalom Jones/Richard Allen.
2012: Redeemer inaugurates the “Season of Sacred Story” during the time after Pentecost as away to bring alive scripture and faith stories of lesser-known heroes.
2013: Six month observance of the 150 Anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation takes place, concluding with Juneteenth party with Bethel A.M.E. on the front lawn.
2014: First RedeemerFest held, incorporating Juneteenth party, and sharing some of our vision and values with the neighborhood– under a big tent on the front lawn.
1852-1857 James H. Tyng
1858-1861 Thomas F. Cornell
1862-1863 John Bolton
1863-1866 John G. Ames
1866-1868 T. G. Clemson
1868-1870 Charles C . Fiske
1870-1872 William Graham Sumner
1872-1880 Samuel Hall
1880-1886 George H. Chadwell
1887-1909 William M. Hughes
1910-1917 Barrett P. Tyler
1919-1952 Thomas W. Attridge
1952-1970 H. Brevoort Cannon
1970-1986 F. Sanford Cutler
1987-2009 Phillip Dana Wilson
2011-Present Cynthia L. Black