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
IN the commonwealth of Connecticut, as late as 1818, those who worshipped after the same manner as those of the Church of England were subject to fines and imprisonment.
The town of Fairfield in those days covered a much larger area than it does at present, and until 1727 there was no settled Rector of our communion within its confines.
Occasional services were held in private houses by missionaries sent over at different times by the Venerable Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts.
Of those who came to Fairfield were the Rev. Messrs. Muirson, Talbot, Sharpe, and Bridge. Among those who were baptized during Mr. Sharpe's visit, in the year 1712, which lasted nearly a month, was an aged man said to have been the first white person born in the colony.
About the year 1722 the Rev. George Pigot who had become Rector of the parish at Stratford began to hold regular services at Fairfield. After Mr. Pigot resigned the charge of the Stratford parish, services were still carried on in Fairfield by a devout layman, Dr. Laborie, a Frenchman, who, previous to his arrival in this country, had conformed to the Church of England.
The Rev. Samuel Johnson, of famous memory, who had left the Congregational Church, and had crossed the ocean to enter Holy Orders, followed Mr. Pigot at Stratford.
Shortly after his return Mr. Johnson described himself "as being alone, and surrounded by enemies."
His house in Stratford had been branded, and for sometime he was obliged to send to Long Island for the actual necessities of life.
While Rector at Stratford, Dr. Johnson did not fail in his ministrations at Fairfield.
As a result the first Church edifice was built on Mill Plain, which was the second Church of our communion in the colony.
This building, the first home of Trinity parish, was set apart for divine worship November 10, 1725, Thanksgiving Day, and was followed in a few years by a much larger edifice, which had become necessary for the increasing congregation.
One of the features of this later edifice was a goodly-sized bell, which was a decided novelty, for up to that time all religious and other meetings were called together by means of a drum.
The Rev. Mr. Caner followed Rev. Dr. Johnson as the first Rector. He settled in Fairfield in 1727, and according to Dr. Trumbull, a noted historian of that period, he was the son of the Mr. Caner who built the first college and Rector's house in New Haven.
By this time the parish had extended until it was fifteen miles in length and six miles in width.
In 1747 the Rev. Joseph Lamson succeeded Rev. Mr. Caner as Rector of the parish, and it is due to his missionary spirit that services at Stratfield were begun which have resulted in the establishment of St. John's Church in what is now styled Bridgeport.
The towns visited by the Rectors of Trinity Church in those early years were Stamford, Norwalk, Greenwich, Redding, Ridgefield, Easton, Wilton, New Canaan, and Stratfield (now Bridgeport).
About twelve years before the Revolutionary War a large number of these towns had their own churches and rectos which greatly reduced the missionary labors of the parent parish.
It was at this time that it was proposed that those of the Church of England in Fairfield should devote a part of their money by will to the perpetual endowment of Trinity Church. Already several small sums had been left by devoted communicants who had departed, which were followed later by several bequests of much larger size.
Rev. John Sayre became Rector upon the death of Mr. Lamson in 1773.
Shortly after his appointment to the parish by the Venerable Society for the Propagation of the Gospel the first service of induction ever held therein took place.
According to the custom of the time the Church door was closed and locked with the key outside.
One of the prominent parishioners, very likely the senior warden at that time, after declaring Mr. Sayre to be the Rector duly commissioned and appointed, opened the door for the new incumbent, after which the Rector rang the church bell, and the regular service followed. The Rev. Mr. Sayre then declared himself to be Rector, and renewed his allegiance to the doctrine and teaching of the Church of England. This was an important epoch in the history of Trinity Church and of the country as well, for the Revolutionary War was already at hand. In conducting divine service during that trying period Mr. Sayre felt himself bound to omit the prayer for the King in the Liturgy.
This begot great opposition from the majority of the people. On the eighth of July, 1779, Gen. Tryon's fleet appeared off the Fairfield coast.
A large force of troops were landed, and during the night many houses and stores were burned, and by the next morning the conflagration had become general.
In a letter of that time it is said that Mr. Sayre had implored Gen. Tryon to spare the town. Especially the two places of worship, the Episcopal and Congregational, but everything was destroyed, including the Church records previous to that time.
After the burning of Fairfield Mr. Sayre departed for New York with his family for a much needed rest; this he shortly afterwards concluded to make final, so far as Fairfield was concerned, by resigning.
He finally settled in New Brunswick, Nova Scotia. Soon after the Rev. Mr. Sayre's departure, a prominent Churchman of Greenfield, Mr. Hull Sherwood, called a meeting at his residence.
A resolution was passed to the effect that having heard that Mr. Philo Shelton was purposing to enter Holy Orders he be appointed "to read and to officiate" for Trinity parish. Mr. Shelton accepted the invitation and after his ordination was Rector from 1785 to 1825, a period covering forty years.
The work of the Venerable Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in the United States ended upon the Declaration of Independence. After the great fire services were held at private houses until a more convenient time when the use of the town house was secured, and used until 1790, when a meeting was held to vote upon the site of another Church.
The result of this was the erection of the third Church edifice on Mill Plain, not very far from the site of the first building, which had been dedicated as was stated above by Dr. Johnson.