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
IT was nearly sixty years after John Winthrop on a May morning in 1646 had led his company of settlers to the banks of the Pequot river, and there founded a town which he fondly hoped would be to the new world what London was to the mother country, that the first recorded service of the Church of England was held in New London. There had been, indeed, among the early settlers a clergyman in English orders, but he had become a non-conformist, and officiated as the first Congregational minister of the new settlement. There seem to have been very few, if any, Churchmen in New London until the eighteenth century. No effort was made by the Church at home to seek out Churchmen stranded among the Puritan colonists of New England, and it was not until the formation of the Propagation Society, that there was any systematic attempt to establish missions of the Church wherever there was any probability of growth and permanence.
To those brave missionaries of the Cross, those pioneers in the good work of the Catholic Church of Christ in the American colonies, the Rev. George Keith and the Rev. John Talbot, belong the honor of being the first clergymen of the Church to visit New London. They had undertaken for the Propagation Society a tour of investigation from New Hampshire to North Carolina. They were men of earnest zeal, great energy and persuasive eloquence. They were able to search out the land and from their reports missions were established and missionaries sent by the Venerable Society. To them the American Church owes a debt of real gratitude, although their work was not always permanent; certainly in Connecticut no result of their ministrations was apparent.
After a delightful visit to the Churchmen of Newport, they had crossed Narragansett Bay, that is still the glory of Rhode Island; they had passed through the "prodigious rocky country" around Stonington, and on Thursday, September 10th, 1702, crossed the ferry to New London. Here they were received with kindness and courtesy by all, and especially those in authority. Their own words can best give the record of that historic service on the following Sunday:
"September 13th, Sunday, Mr. Talbot preached there in the forenoon, and I preached there in the afternoon, we being desired to do so by the minister, Mr. Gurdon Saltonstall, who civilly entertained us at his house, and expressed his good affections to the Church of England. My text was Rom. viii: 9. The auditory was large and well affected. Colonel Winthrop, Governor of the colony, after forenoon services, invited us to dinner at his house, and kindly entertained us, both then and the next day." [Quoted on p. 10 of Hallam's "Annals of St. James's, New London," from Keith's "Journal."]
Dr. Hallam in his valuable "Annals" says of this service: "Thus it appears that the text of one of the first two Episcopal sermons ever preached in New London, probably in Connecticut, was this: 'But ye are not in the flesh, but in the spirit, if so be that the spirit of God dwell in you. Now if any man have not the spirit of Christ, he is none of His'; a not unpleasing preface to that protracted course of Christian teaching which has succeeded it, with a faithful maintenance of the same precious doctrine."
We have another glimpse of Mr. Talbot in the history of the Church in New London, for on October 24th, 1724, he baptized "Lauzerne, son of Richard and Elizabeth Wilson. Had he not found his life-work elsewhere, he might have been able to do for Connecticut what he did for New Jersey. His long rectorship of St. Mary's, Burlington, his pleading for the Episcopate, his visiting and strengthening all the parishes of the Church in that province, his gifts to his parish, which are still doing good, his probable consecration by the non-jurors as a Bishop in the Church of God, make him one of the most attractive as he certainly was one of the most fearless of the Colonial clergy.
In 1723 Mr. Pigot, a missionary of the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel, baptized in New London a little child, and the following year two more little ones were received into Christ's flock. Like the delicate, pure snowdrop that heralds the spring and the time of growth, these young lives gave token of a movement and awakening in things spiritual in a field which had hitherto lain fallow, but which was now to bear abundantly. Dr. Johnson in 1724 writes to the Society that he has preached in New-London to sixty hearers, with promise of increase if they had a minister. Dr. James MacSparran, missionary of the Society in Narragansett, extended his ministrations to the incipient parish in New London, and visited it from time to time, giving encouragement and advice. The early members of the growing parish were many of them Englishmen, who had come hither from England to engage in maritime and commercial business, and who were interested in establishing the mother Church in their new home.
September 27, 1725, was the birthday of the parish, the day that it took practical form in a written agreement signed by seven men. Negotiations were at once begun for building a church. A lot on the lower part of State street, called the Parade, was presented by a friend, and a church edifice was erected thereon of stout oak timber, 32 by 50 feet, with a bell. The original number of pews was twenty-two, and new pews were added as the congregation increased.
Samuel Seabury of Groton, a descendant of John Alden, and a Harvard graduate, ordained in England by the Bishop of London, was commissioned in 1732, by the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel, to exercise his priestly office at New London on a salary of sixty pounds, with an arrearage "from the feast clay of St. John the Baptist, which was in the year of our Lord 1730."
His ministry was wise and faithful, and there was a gradual and steady increase of strength in the membership. He remained in New London about eleven years, and was then transferred by the Society to Hempstead, Long Island, where he died in 1764.
The parish was first designated as St. James's parish in 1741, having previously on the records been called the Episcopal Church of New London.
Four years elapsed after the departure of Mr. Seabury before the parish had again a settled minister. Occasional services were held in the meantime by Dr. MacSparran and others. The wardens sent earnest appeals to the Society already mentioned, that they might not be left as "sheep without a shepherd," and by the desire of the Society a lot was secured, the gift of one Samuel Edgecomb, and a parsonage built. In 1747, the Rev. Matthew Graves was sent from England by the Society, and he ministered to St. James's parish for about thirty years. He was a man of zeal and devotion, genial by nature, but at times somewhat hasty, and when the whole country was stirred by the War of the Revolution, the problems he had to face were greater than his wisdom in dealing with them. He did not recognize the momentous hour of the birth of a republic, but thinking only of himself as an Englishman, and perhaps also of the indebtedness of the parish to English aid, he faltered in patriotism, and incensed his parishioners by his obstinate disregard of their dearest convictions. In a final painful scene he was driven by them from the parish, never again to return. He was ultimately sent, under a flag of truce, to New York, where he died in 1780.
Such a crisis, so far-reaching in its relations, could not be passed over in a month, or in a year. But as time went by, and the independence of the United States became more and more a fixed fact, the parishioners of St. James, longing to renew the Church services, sought for a leader who should be both a pastor and patriot. And such a one they might have found, had peace been restored, but fire and sword were still laying waste the land; and by the treachery of Arnold and the burning of New London, September 6th, 1781, St. James's Church was reduced to a smouldering heap in the general conflagration. The parsonage, situated at a distance, and not in the track of the troops, escaped.
The church had never been formally consecrated, for as yet there had been no Bishop no this side of the Atlantic. But when, a few years later, a new "St. James's Church" was built, on a new site near the parsonage, it was consecrated by Bishop Seabury, who had already become a resident of the town, and had begun to hold services in the court house. He was the second son of the first settled clergyman, Rev. Samuel Seabury. He had gone to England for ordination, and had returned to America as a missionary of the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel. After the Revolution, received Episcopal consecration in Scotland and came home to America as Bishop of Connecticut.
The foundation stone of the new church, on Main street, was laid July 4, 1785, and the church was consecrated by Bishop Seabury, September 20, 1787. In 1790 his Diocese was enlarged to include Rhode Island, but New London remained his home, and his parochial labors here continued until his death in 1796. He was buried in the old churchyard at New London.
His remains now lie under the chancel of the present "St. James," and on a brass plate above the tomb is a Latin inscription which, translated, is as follows:
"Under the pavement of the altar, as in the final place of rest until the judgment of the great day, now repose the mortal remains of the Right Reverend Prelate, Samuel Seabury, D.D. Oxon., who first brought from Scotland, into the Anglo-American Republic of the new World, the Apostolic succession, November 27, 1784. His diocese, never forgetful of the labors and trials of so dear a person, in the new Church of St. James the greater, of New London, formerly his see, now at last, after so long a time, have taken care to place this monument to his honor, in the year of our salvation, 1849."
He was succeeded in 1796 by his son, the Rev. Charles Seabury, who discharged the duties of the parish until May 26, 1814, when he resigned his charge and removed to Setauket, Long Island. The Church services were now for a period conducted by a lay reader until, in 1815, the Rev. Solomon Blakeslee became Rector, and so remained for three years. During his ministry, an organ was for the first time placed in the church. The music before this time had been simply vocal. The people sat during the singing and rose only at the "Gloria Patri."
Two important anniversaries have been observed. One, in 1896, was the centenary of the death of Bishop Seabury, in thanksgiving for the work he did, both in his parish and in the Diocese. There was, on this anniversary, a Diocesan celebration, Bishop Williams being celebrant. Bishop Coleman of Delaware preached in the morning, and Rev. Dr. Seabury of New York, a great grandson of Bishop Seabury, in the evening. More than forty of the clergy were present, and the choir was assisted by the choir of Christ Church, Westerly, in recognition of the fact that Bishop Seabury was Bishop of Connecticut and Rhode Island, his Diocese including both states.
In 1900, on St. Barnabas's Day, the fiftieth anniversary of the consecration of St. James's Church was observed. A number of the clergy were present. There was an early celebration, Rev. Dr. Binney, assisted by Rev. Mr. Punnett, a former assistant, being celebrant. There was later a full choral celebration, Rev. Dr. Grint being celebrant. The sermon was preached by the Rev. Dr. Grosvenor.
Thus, St. James's parish looks back over great periods of time--fifty years to the consecration of its present church building, one hundred years to the death of its third Rector, Bishop Seabury, one hundred and seventy-eight years to that first baptism of a little child by Mr. Pigot, missionary of the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel, and one hundred and ninety-nine years to the preaching of the first missionary of the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Connecticut.