Elijah Kellogg Church choir members practice before the 2024 Heritage Sunday service. Laura Sitterly / The Times Record

On July 7, the Elijah Kellogg Church members gathered for worship in the 18th-century meetinghouse across the road from the congregation. 

The national historic landmark dates back to 1757, when the American colonies were part of the British Empire. In 1776, locals first heard the Declaration of Independence when a messenger read it aloud from the front steps as the colonies surged toward revolt and independence. 

The meetinghouse was used as a town hall until the mid-20th century. While still used for community programs, the Harpswell Historical Society recites the Declaration of Independence each Fourth of July on its front steps. Then, on the closest Sunday, the clergy gathers for worship.

“Harpswell is a town where democracy happens,” said Pastor Joseph Connolly, noting that in 1749, Harpswell and Sebascodegan Island were set off from North Yarmouth by the Massachusetts General Court as a separate precinct and later incorporated as a town. “The church was organized by Reverend Elisha Eaton. At the time, by local law, a town could not incorporate until it had a congregational pastor.”

The Rev. Joseph Conolly stands outside the 1757 meetinghouse. “We are all held responsible to love, respect, cherish and uphold each other on our life journey,” he said. Laura Sitterly / The Times Record

Once the Rev. Elijah Kellogg took the helm in 1843, the second meetinghouse was built across the street.

Kellogg, a Bowdoin College and Andover Newton Seminary graduate, gained notoriety for his theological work and his publications in young adult literature, including “Lion Ben of Elm Island,” “The Cruise of the Casco” and “Young Ship-Builders.” 


David Hackett, president of the Harpswell Historical Society, mentioned that Kellogg and Joshua Chamberlain — Civil War general and governor of Maine — were fishing buddies.

According to Connolly, attendance spikes on Heritage Sunday, drawing visitors from Canada to California into the square pews. He said the venue, the tithingman and the sermon contribute to the program’s allure. 

This year’s liturgy, “In Pairs,” focused on interpersonal connection, whether fostered through friendship, like Kellogg and Chamberlain, or intellectual pursuit, like the co-authors of the Declaration of Independence.

A view from the preserved gallery and bookshelves on the top floor of the 1757 meetinghouse. Laura Sitterly / The Times Record

“What does democracy mean?” asked Connolly; the parish sat quietly. “It means we rely on each other. Unlike the Constitution, the Declaration of Independence was not about structure. It was about people’s responsibility to people. I would argue the opening lines about life, liberty and freedom aren’t the most important. Those at the end are … They delineate a mutual pledge to embrace communal responsibility.” 

Connolly argued that, like classic New England town meetings, democracy invited all members of society to participate. Now, more than ever, he said, it’s crucial to embrace unity. 

Historically, the tithingman was a parish officer tasked with preserving order during worship and collective tithe. They carried a long stick with a soft deer tail at the top; one end was used to bang on the floor to summon attention at the start of service, the other to tickle those who dosed off to sleep. 

“Back in the day, the sermon could last up to three hours,” said Eric Wohltjen, honorary Heritage Sunday tithingman for the past 21 years. “The previous pastor asked me to take on this role, and I couldn’t refuse. It’s important to keep the tradition alive.” 

Sharon Kirker, another longstanding member of the church, joined the congregation at the age of 16, making this year her 61st in attendance. 

“When I was young, we used to call Heritage Sunday ‘Old Home Sunday,’ ” Kirker said. “Those who had moved away would come back for service. It’s neat to see the message — to embrace unity — rings true even decades later.” 

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