Genesis Church of the Brethren

The Church of the Brethren bears an historical relationship to the Quakers and the Menonites, as one of the three main branches of brethren-related churches which have grown from colonial and early American communities organized in Pennsylvania. Here in Putney,

In 1981, in late summer, three families moved to southeastern Vermont to establish a Church of the Brethren. They purchased a large New England farmhouse [the old Bentley house, out West Hill Rd] in Putney which they renovated into three separate apartments. The family had met several years before at Bethany Theological Seminary. Through their three years of study they formed a House Church. It was during that time that the idea of planting a Church and sharing a common ministry was born. They envisioned going into an area where the Brethren had never been, [hoping] to establish a church based on their best understanding of the New Testament and historic Brethren values, yet…far…from…modern cultural Brethrenism.
-Carl Bowman, mailed to Paul Grout, May 29, 2001

The three families—Grout, Shreckhise, and Coffman—had presented their proposal to denominational leaders in the Southern Pennsylvania District, which agreed to sponsor the effort for the next several years, and a salary was divided between the three families, who were also to find work within the community. They chose the name of Genesis, based on the account of creation found at the beginning of the Gospel of John, and began to hold meetings for worship at the Putney Central School.

The very first ‘Brethren love feast’ was held at the West Hill residence in October of 1981, with communion around the tables, a simple meal, and washing of one another’s feet, as a commitment to service of others. They met for a short time at Solar Hill, in Brattleboro, and then back in Putney, in the Central School, where they would sit in a circle to worship, and hold potluck dinners in the gym. The congregation was growing quickly (P. Grout, Sept. 5, 2002). By 1984 Dorothy Grout and Don Linden, who had come to Putney to join the community, were teaching at Putney Central School.

In 1984, the congregation purchased the old Stromberg home on Kimball Hill, and members began to meet there, in the (crowded) main room; a membership covenant was established, as well as a traditional board structure, and an Elder Body to “oversee the spiritual life of the Church” (Bowman, p.1). All major decisions were to be made in unity, without taking votes. Soon after establishing themselves on Kimball Hill, Dick Shreckhise and Dennis Coffman moved on to other positions, and Paul Grout remained as pastor from 1986 to 2000.

There has been a necessary disquiet, at times, in the hearts of members, for the Church of the Brethren is one that embraces ideals of peace, social activism, and simple living, all of which require self-examination in practice. As Paul says, there is “an inward journey that is reflected in outward practice…something is lost in the power of witness if the inward is sometimes lost.”

One issue has involved the property ownership on Kimball Hill, which brought a regrettable sense of significant material attachment to some, after the beauty and simplicity of meeting in existing buildings, on the floor or around folding tables for simply prepared meals. 1991, when the sanctuary was built in back of the Kimball Hill home, was undoubtedly “a high time” for the congregation, as they enjoyed the beautiful space for worship which had been built through the efforts of Genesis families of the period, such as the Coles, the Hutchesons, the Honsackers, the Lindens, and the Fletchers. Central to the construction effort was the work of builder and church member Jimmy Zellmer, and his family. The simplicity of the structure fit well in its beautiful, New England environment.

During that period, Sunday night volleyball was a highlight, and interpersonal problems were still dealt with in an informal way, through positive projects and volleyball. There were many young families, with a lot of children. As the next few years passed, boards and committees were created, volleyball faded, and the church became successful, and perhaps too busy, as volleyball faded, and fewer meals were taken together. Still, the congregation came together for yearly trips, when they would close the church and travel to worship in places like the (Menonite) Bruderhof in Tilson, New York, or Weston Priory in Vermont.

In the area of community service, Paul has always been active, serving as “part of the original working groups which developed Putney Cares, Putney Family Services, and the Putney Recreational League in the early 1980’s” (Reformer article, Oct. 28/29, 2000). He has volunteered at the Brattleboro AIDS Project and for the local Diversion Board in Brattleboro. Many others in the congregation serve the community on a volunteer or paid basis—though it is true that when they first arrived, Paul Grout and the other founding families half expected to find a following in Putney more “typical in an activist sense” than they have, considering the history of Windham College, and of secular liberalism in Vermont. Perhaps the Putney Friends had knit that group a bit already. Still, the Church remained active in many ways, both as individuals and in concert with communities elsewhere: forming impromptu committees to ensure ongoing involvement with community service, and bringing work groups and many visitors, to Putney both to worship and to perform sizeable labors quickly in places where they are much needed. (P. Grout, Sept. 5, 2002). Workgroups have come from Church of the Brethren work camps all over the U.S., helping the people of Putney by collecting and chopping firewood donated by Lee Crocker, David Mulholland and others to the community wood shelf which the Genesis church maintains; by cleaning up the roadside in the town of Putney; by painting the community center, more than once; and by painting the Genesis church itself. On one recent occasion the work group was of Menonite families, who found their work at Putney Cares with the assistance of Laura Heller. The church also maintains a community food shelf, and has in the past offered temporary residence for families in need (R. Coffmann, Sept. 30, 2002).

In 2000 Paul became a denominational moderator for the Church of the Brethren, on a national level. The pastor, as of this writing, is Libby Kee.

Thanks to Paul Grout and Reba Coffman, for interviews and review.

Documents on file, Putney Historical Society.
Interviews of: Paul Grout, at Stuart Strothman’s residence, Sept. 5, 2002
Reba Coffman, at the Putney Public Library, Sept. 30, 2002

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