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Sketches of Church Life in Colonial Connecticut
Being the Story of the Transplanting of the Church of England into Forty Two Parishes of Connecticut,
with the Assistance of the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel

Written by Members of the Parishes in Celebration of the 200th Anniversary of the Society

Edited by Lucy Cushing Jarvis

New Haven, Connecticut: The Tuttle, Morehouse & Taylor Company, 1902.

Christ Church, Stratford
1690 (1707).

ABOUT the year 1690, there were in the town of Stratford "a considerable number of professors of the faith of the Church of England and desirous to worship God in the Liturgy of their forefathers." But there was no clergyman in the State, so no one was found to minister to their spiritual needs. In 1702 an application was made to the Bishop of London for a missionary, but without success. Not meeting with any response, in September, 1705, a request was sent to the Rev. William Vesey of Trinity Church, New York, that he would visit them "to preach and administer the rite of baptism." The distance was so great that he did not personally comply, but the request bore fruit; for one year later, on the second of September, 1706, there came riding into the town two men, whose coming aroused the greatest hostility among the Congregational element. The one was the Rev. George Muirson of Rye, N. Y., a man, we read, having a very happy way of preaching, and considering his years (but 31), wonderfully good in argument, and his conversation without blemish, held by the people in great esteem for his piety and virtue. The other, the Hon. Colonel Caleb Heathcote, a leading man in the Province of New York, a member of the first vestry of Old Trinity, ever active in promoting the interests of the Church at large.

Though threatened with prison and hard usage, Mr. Muirson preached to a considerable assembly, and baptized about 35 persons, principally adults. This visit was followed by two or three others in the space of a few months. We read with amazement of the open hostility of those who, while advocates of religious freedom, were unwilling to extend it to those who walked not with them; of how, on the second of Mr. Muirson's visits, a member of the council, on the Lord's day, "stood in the highway and empowered several others, to forbid any person to go to the assembly of the Church of England and threatened them with a fine of five pounds." The parishioners subsequently complained that their members had been seized and imprisoned in the county jail for refusing to pay the sum demanded for the support of the Congregational minister. About the first of April, 1707, the parish was organized by the election of wardens and vestry, and in 1708 the S. P. G. granted their request that the Rev. Mr. Muirson be appointed their missionary, but before the intelligence reached this country the loved priest of God had rested from his labors. In 1712, the Rev. Francis Phillips was sent out by the Society to take charge of the parish, but remained only a few months, "being," wrote Colonel Heathcote, "of a temper very contrary to be pleased with such conversation and way of living as Stratford affords." In 1718, the vestry again wrote the Society, bewailing their sad condition without a shepherd, concluding with these words: "As to our outward estate, it may very well be said we are inconsiderable, but as to our number, we have had at least one hundred baptized into the Church, and have had thirty-six at one time partakers of the holy communion of the Lord's supper, and have several times assembled in our congregation between two and three hundred persons." After four years more of waiting, the long desired minister of God came among them in the person of the Rev. George Pigot, and a brighter period dawned for the struggling parish. The good seed sown by Muirson and the preaching of Pigot awakened a spirit of inquiry among the Congregational ministers of the State, two of whom--the Rev. Timothy Cutler, Rector of Yale College, who for ten years previously had been the minister at Stratford, and the Rev. Samuel Johnson, then a minister at West Haven--gave up their positions (in 1722) and went to England for Holy Orders.

Great was the consternation. "I suppose," wrote President Woolsey, 150 years later, "that greater alarm would scarcely be awakened now, if the Theological Faculty of Yale were to declare for the Church of Rome, avow their belief in transubstantiation and pray to the Virgin Mary." In 1723, the Churchmen petitioned the town for leave to erect a church, which petition the town "found clothed with great difficulty."

Timbers, however, were prepared for raising on Meeting House Hill, and one dark night they were drawn to the foot of the hill--the site of the church burying ground--and there the church was erected with its "Sabba-day House" near by for the midday rest, refreshment, and interchange of ideas, spiritual and temporal. Meantime, Rev. Mr. Johnson had been stationed at Stratford, and under him the first church building in Connecticut was completed and opened for service on Christmas day, 1723. In 1724, wardens and vestry were chosen for Stratford, Fairfield, Newtown, and Ripton (now Huntington)--two wardens for the home parish and one for each of the other towns. Notwithstanding the organization of Fairfield as a distinct parish, "so mightily grew the Church of God and prevailed" that a larger edifice was necessary, and in 1743 measures were taken to erect a more commodious building and a sum representing about $10,000 was subscribed for that purpose. The church was opened July 8, 1744. The weathercock was placed in position at this time and our famous rooster," bearing scars inflicted by British soldiery, has faced the tempest to this day. About this time a clock was placed in the tower. The bell was the gift of the Rector, Dr. Johnson, was cast in Fairfield and cost 300 pounds. For five generations it has summoned the people to worship, added its jubilant tones to those of the general rejoicing over the news of the Declaration of Independence, rung Its benediction over those "whom God had joined together," and tolled a requiem for those "departed hence in the Lord," and to-day is a priceless possession of the old parish.

In 1754, Dr. Johnson, having been chosen the first President of King's (now Columbia) College, N. Y., resigned the parish and was succeeded by Rev. Edward Winslow. The only clergyman for some years in the State, finding but one parish organized and no church building completed, Dr. Johnson left ten or eleven clergy and twenty-five small churches; justly has he been termed "the Father of Episcopacy in Connecticut."

An agreement was made in 1756 with Mr. Gilbert Delbois of Boston, Mass., for the purchase of an organ, costing sixty pounds and "payable in six annual payments without demand of interest." The organ was the first instrument of its kind in a place of public worship in Connecticut. So good was its construction, that it was used till 1879, a period of almost 125 years. In 1766, Dr. Johnson, who had resigned the presidency of King's College and was living at his home at Stratford, again took charge; four years later Mr. Kneeland, a son-in-law, was chosen assistant to the venerable Rector and succeeded him when Dr. Johnson passed to his rest in 1772, just as the clouds of the Revolution were gathering ominously. When the storm broke, came troublous times for the ministers of the Church, who were bound by an oath of allegiance to loyalty to the king. Having prayed so long for our "excellent King George," they found it difficult to leave off the familiar supplication. In Stratford Church, the old prayers were cut short by an arbitrary patriot who had no notion of uttering "Amen" to such heresies. On the Sunday after the battle of Lexington, when the prayer was read for the royal family, Mr. Benjamin rose in his pew and declared no such prayer must be uttered in Stratford--that the name of George III. was the name of the worst enemy of every one in the colony. Mr. Kneeland closed his Prayer Book, rose from his knees, pronounced the benediction, and the church was closed till the end of the war, the Rector dying in 1777. After the consecration of the Rev. Dr. Samuel Seabury, his first Episcopal visitation, and hence the first administration of the rite of confirmation in America, was in the historic church at Stratford.

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