Finding new places, meeting new people and discovering new things, are three of the biggest reasons Chris and I continue this journey. With that being said, we have never come upon something that ‘nobody’ knows about, but I will go out on a limb and say, I don’t think too many people are aware of the Megiddo Church, right here in Rochester, NY. The Megiddo members actually are aware that they are “not very popular” (their words, not mine) and are small in number, but their history in Rochester is over 100 years old and the argument could be made that the Megiddo Mission was instrumental in the establishment of the 19th Ward, where they continue to have a strong presence.
I myself first became aware of the Church several months ago as I was spending one of my aimless nights on the computer trolling the internet for new religious sites to see (yes, that’s what I do for fun). Now if you read the article about us in the Democrat and Chronicle, you already know that we have been cautious in our approach of contacting the Megiddo Church. Chris and I go to great lengths whenever we write a blog post to give an objective account of our experience and to try not to allow any personal bias to any faith system come through, but I must admit, we had some preconceived notions about the Megiddo Church. However, after seeing our guardedness in print, it really motivated us to finally attempt to make contact. I finally called the Megiddo Church directly and feeling a bit surprised at how friendly and welcoming the woman who answered the phone actually was, I began to ask myself, “Why have we been so paranoid about this place?” Chris and I were instantly given an invitation to come to a service and a tour of the grounds.
Chris and I arrived at the Megiddo Church at 500 Thurston Road at 10:15 am and of course started to take some pictures of the exterior. Admittedly, the Megiddo Church is a bit plain and…well…a little boring from the outside (especially after last week’s post). Directly across the street from the Church, is the Megiddo compound (commonly referred to as the Megiddo Mission), which is more or less an entire city block completely owned by the Megiddo Church and during its early times in Rochester, is basically where all of the members of the Church lived. Today, there are several signs marking the fact that the driveway and streets (yes, actual city streets) owned by the Church are private property, plus one gigantic sign that arches over the driveway that says “Megiddo Church: I AM COMING UNEXPECTEDLY SO BE READY ALL THE TIME – Jesus.”
Since they were already expecting us, Chris and I just walked right into the Church, through the vestibule or narthex, and through a second set of doors into the main sanctuary. We walked down the central aisle, sat down in a pew about a third of the way in, and within seconds, were welcomed by a woman who introduced herself (we unfortunately forgot her name), who made sure we had the correct hymnal’s in our seats. It was quite obvious to us (and we had previously been told when I called) that because the congregation is small, we would be instantly noticed as the newcomers…which we were. I asked the woman who greeted us if Pastor Ruth was available, and the woman pointed to where the Pastor was sitting. However, sensing that Pastor Ruth was preparing to start the sermon, we remained where we were seated.
The inside of the Megiddo Church is very simple, unadorned and plain, and so was the dress of its members. In total there were 24 people in attendance, and all of the women wore very unassuming neck to ankle length dresses, while every man (except one) wore a suit and tie. The windows are a very simple stained glass pattern, with the sections of wall between each window having a Bible verse stenciled on it. There is no alter at the front of the Church, and instead there is a literal stage, with a small one step-up daises coming from the end of the stage out into the pews, and on this there are two chairs and a podium. Off to the right side of the sanctuary is a moveable organ and also what appeared to be a large keyboard. As the service started, one man walked onto the daises and sat down, while six individuals who were sitting on the stage began to play a song using several instruments, such as a trumpet, tuba, and kettle drums, and Pastor Ruth played the organ. I knew from reading ahead of time, that this was the Megiddo Band and that this band is an essential part to the Megiddo Mission and Church in general. Eventually, singing from the people on stage, as well as those of us sitting in the pews also commenced. Once the music stopped, the man sitting down on the daises stood up to the podium and began to give a sermon. For the next hour or so, portions of the sermon were read partly by this man and eventually also by Pastor Ruth discussing the topic of ‘Promises from God,’ plus periodically singing hymns as the band played on stage. Interesting tidbit, we later found out that the instruments that the Megiddo Band actually play are purely left up to the Band’s members, meaning if they feel like playing a tuba, an electric guitar or a harp, they are free to do so!
The service lasted for approximately one hour and admittedly was not the hellfire and brimstone I was expecting…and kind of wanted to hear. Once completed, many of the Churches members approached us and introduced themselves, including Pastor Ruth. Eventually most people left, but a small core group of five individuals remained with Chris and I, and we all entered into discussion. Chris and I only briefly explained who we are and what we do, and instead were more encouraged to start asking them questions about their belief system and their history, which of course we did and here’s what we learned:
The Megiddo Church was founded by a man named L.T. Nichols. Nichols was originally born in Indiana in 1844, but primarily raised in the state of Wisconsin through his adolescents. In 1874, Nichols packed up his family and moved to Oregon, which is where Nichols became involved with a sect of Christianity, known as the Christadelphians. (The Christadelphian movement is something Chris and I are aware of but do not feel we can adequately supply the reader with enough information to elaborate further on, but we are doing our research and hopefully someday there will be a post about it in the future. In the meantime, we highly suggest you look it up, it’s pretty interesting stuff). By 1880, Nichols began to deviate in his beliefs and started to preach a different message than the Christadelphians, with one of the many points of contention being ‘what one must do to be saved?,’ with the Christadelphians believing in atonement, while Nichols believing people must actually live holy lives. By 1891, Nichols and his new followers formally split from the Christadelphians, identifying themselves as the Christian Brethren. In 1901, Nichols determined that the only way he and his followers could live truly holy lives was to spread the Word, and the best way to do this was by boat. With his own personal wealth, which came from some of Nichols’ inventions, a 53 stateroom boat was built and named Megiddo. (There is no documentation of why the name Megiddo was chosen, but Megiddo or sometimes Tel-Megiddo, is an ancient city where many Biblical battles and also a battle during World War I occurred and is sometimes better known by its Greek name of Armageddon). With approximately 90 residents on board, the Megiddo then traveled up and down the Mississippi River spreading the Word for the next two years. While this boat was quite extravagant for its time, it eventually got stuck on some sandbars and the cost of repair became too costly. The Megiddo was eventually sold and ultimately sunk. As leader of the Christian Brethren, Nichols made the decision to relocate the group to Rochester, NY, where Nichols had some relatives.
Through the Rochester media, Nichols’ Christian Brethren started to be referred to as the Megiddo Mission, or the Megiddo Band, since instrument playing was a common past time aboard the Megiddo boat and is something the Megiddo members have continued up to this day (hence our experience of listening to this “band” play at the beginning of the religious service). The Megiddo Mission became a bit of a fascination for the City of Rochester when they arrived in 1904, and a few months after arriving, Nichols purchased five acres of land on Thurston Road, which at the time was not within the Rochester City limits. The land already had three buildings on it, but additional buildings and homes were slowly added to the property. Initially, the Megiddo Mission rented space at the former Plymouth Avenue Church for services, but this building was eventually purchased by the Spiritualists (see our blog post on March 18, 2012 to learn more about this), a population of people Nichols ironically often preached against. As a result of this, Nichols began construction on his own church, which was eventually completed in 1907 and has existed ever since across the street from the Mission on the corner of Thurston Road and Sawyer Street, which is the same church Chris and I attended. It was after the establishment of the church that the Christian Brethren officially became known as the Megiddo Church.
Nichols bought up much of the land around the Mission and started to build dozens of houses. It is directly because of Nichols’ investment in the Thurston Road area that the New York State Railways extended their trolley lines to Thurston Road and the City of Rochester extended water and sewer lines to the area and paved the streets and sidewalks, resulting in several small businesses and stores coming to the area, aiding to Thurston Roads original prosperity. It was always the Missions purpose to live in the houses they built, but to also be able to rent out some of the properties as well for additional income. Today, some of the Megiddo members still live in a few of these houses, including Pastor Ruth, while many of the other homes continue to be rented, supplying the Megiddo Mission with income.
Nichols unexpectedly died in 1912 at the age of 67 in Battle Creek, Michigan, where he was seeking care at the local sanitarium. Nichols body was returned to Rochester and after laying in state for one day, eventually buried in the Megiddo plot in Mt. Hope Cemetery. Cemetery officials suspended their policy against the playing of music in the cemetery, so the Megiddo Band could pay tribute to their leader. This suspension of allowing music to be played continued for the Megiddo Church until approximately 1960. Every year, members of the Megiddo Church celebrate Founder’s Day and go to Mt. Hope Cemetery to the plot of land they own and celebrate the life of L.T. Nichols. More importantly though, the Megiddo members affirm their beliefs that one day Nichols and other members will rise from the dead and be rewarded by Jesus when he returns to establish his kingdom. Today the Megiddo cemetery plot contains more than 150 burials.
One of the more popular characteristics of the Megiddo Church in the City of Rochester was the fact that they did not and still do not celebrate Christmas on December 25. Instead, the Megiddo Church celebrates the season of Abib (Jewish New Year), which starts with the New Year and celebration of the Birth of Christ on the evening of the first new moon after the vernal equinox. The Megiddo Church members believe that the placing of Christ’s birth of December 25th is in line with pagan celebrations and nowhere is such a date written in the Bible, therefore making it untrue. Plus, they also make the point that if Christ’s birth created the change from BC to AD, then it should not take a week to get to New Years before the year starts, they should be on the same day. The Megiddo Church members first celebrated Abib (Christmas) on March 24, 1906, and for the next several years, it was a local custom for Rochesterians to travel by the Megiddo Mission to look at all of the festive decorations they had on display. Other holidays the Megiddo Church celebrate are Independence Day, Founder’s Day (Nichols’ Birthday, described above), Thanksgiving and Self-Denial Week.
It is important to reiterate that the Megiddo Church consider understanding of the Bible to be central to their faith. However, we were also told by Pastor Ruth that there are parts of the Bible which they consider to be metaphor and allegory, mainly the first three books of the Old Testament (minus the story of Noah’s Ark, which is in fact true). Members of the Megiddo Church reject the doctrine of original sin, they do not believe in the Trinity and consider Jesus Christ to only be the Son of God, they do not believe in the Devil or Hell, they do not practice water baptism, they believe all humans are moral and that there is no such thing as an immoral soul, they do not believe in a 6,000 year old Earth, and all of those people who have died are unconscious in their graves but those who have served God in their lives will have their lives restored to them during the second coming of Christ. While Nichols did not originally preach it, through continuous reading of the Bible, Nichols arrived at the conclusion that the Prophet Elijah will be returning to Earth before the second coming of Christ, mainly to prepare the way. This belief in the return of the Prophet Elijah has become a defining characteristic of the Megiddo Church.
With the death of Nichols, leadership was quickly assumed by the Nichols’ “right hand” Maud Hembree. It was under her management that the Word continued to be spread and the Megiddo Church launched the Megiddo Message, a periodical originally published on the grounds of the Mission on Thurston Road (but no longer is), and continues to be published to this very day (Chris and I received several free copies!). Maud Hembree also attempted to spread the Word by re-creating Nichols success on the water by launching Megiddo II and eventually Megiddo III, on the Lake Erie, the Hudson River, the Finger Lakes and Lake Champlain, with varying success. Through these missionary activities, the Megiddo Church continues to have followers in other states and even other countries to this day…but they have only one Church, right here in Rochester, NY.
We learned that since Nichols, there have been seven Head Pastors of the Megiddo Church, with Ruth being the current. Chris and I and a few of the Megiddo members continued to talk for quite a while, but were then briefly shown around the Church. Eventually everyone started to leave and Chris and I were then escorted across the street by Ruth and a woman named Margaret, to the Mission. I jokingly asked if we were going to take the secret tunnel under the road and much to my surprise, learned that the tunnel had been filled in decades ago and was no longer accessible!
Once across the street we were first shown the fountain, which was under a lot of snow and is flanked by two large signs with Bible verses written on them. We were told that the fountain is now shut off permanently since kids in the neighborhood come by and dump soap in the fountain, which then decorates the neighborhood in bubbles! From there we were then taken into what appeared to be the largest house on the compound and were told it was where their assembly room is located. Once inside we were shown around the house, which contained a few old photographs of Nichols, the Megiddo boat, and Maud Humbree. After this, we were then taken back outside and shown around the property. It was quite apparent to us that the land the Megiddo Mission owns is extensive and also probably much prettier in the summer time. Ruth and Margaret were incredibly friendly and very willing to spend as much time with us as we wanted, but since we were getting cold we decided to call it a day. We thanked Margaret and Ruth for their time and willingness to share their faith system with us and departed with the word “maranatha,” which Margaret and Ruth taught us was the way members of the Megiddo Church say goodbye and it means “Our Lord, come!” Chris and I got in the car and then drove around the Megiddo Mission block and came out on Genesee Park Boulevard, and were a bit surprised to almost be right in front of where a mutual friend of ours lives. We wondered for a minute if this friend of ours knows what is literally on the other side of the street from him…