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(Published in the Seattle Times online on June 4, 2020
and in the PacificNW Magazine print edition on June 7, 2020)
Historic downtown church confronts Seattle’s ‘original sin’
By Jean Sherrard
This past Jan. 25, during an evening lecture at Plymouth Congregational Church, historian David Buerge spoke of the city’s “original sin”: 54,000 acres taken from the Duwamish Tribe without recompense, leaving Chief Seattle’s people, who had so warmly welcomed early settlers, landless and homeless.
In response, the Rev. Dr. Kelle Brown, Plymouth’s lead pastor, had a forward-looking suggestion. “We have been squatting on First People’s land for nearly 170 years,” she said. “We’ve been blessed with the beautiful asset of this property. It’s time for the church to begin paying down our debt.”
Only a week past the 150th anniversary of the church’s first Sunday service, her audience voiced strong support for initiating discussions with the tribe. Those familiar with Plymouth and its long history of civic engagement were not surprised. From women’s suffrage and civil rights to immigration and homelessness, the church has wrestled with thorny issues of every era.
Before the church’s founding in 1870, Mayflower descendants John and Carolyn Sanderson determined that Seattle, with a population of nearly 1,000 mostly single men, lacked ecclesiastical choice. Methodists and Episcopalians had established solid toeholds here, but Congregationalism (with direct links to the Pilgrims) might add the tempting solidity of Plymouth Rock.
Their choice of pastor, charismatic John F. Damon – also a prominent Mason – was propitious. Church historian Mildred Andrews notes that Damon was “skilled at playing upon the emotions of his hearers” and in high demand for both weddings and funerals (at which there was “never a dry eye”).
Becoming known throughout the region as the “marrying parson,” Damon soon drew crowds of 100 for both morning and evening Sunday services, a staggering 20% of the town’s population. Pioneer Arthur Denny, lured from the Methodists, was inspired to donate a lot at Second Avenue and Spring Street for Plymouth’s first church.
Church membership soared. Besides the Denny family, notable congregants included James Colman (builder of the original Colman Dock), engineer Hiram M. Chittenden, developer James Moore (whose Moore Theater still stands at Fourth and Stewart) and Seattle’s first female mayor, Bertha Landes.
This year also marks the 40th anniversary of the church’s most ambitious offshoot. In 1980, after witnessing men sleeping rough on the church’s doorstep, the Rev. David Colwell braced his congregation: “One homeless person is one too many.” Today, Plymouth Housing provides supportive dwellings for more than 1,200 people in 14 buildings across the city.
For her part, Brown envisions a vital role for the church in years to come: “We must never lose sight of the most vulnerable, the most disenfranchised, and make sure that as a church, the lens we use is one of justice.” Plymouth’s proposal to enfranchise the Duwamish people will take a pioneering step toward atonement.
And here’s our accompanying narrated 360-degree video of this column, as promised.