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 is much to be regretted that the early history of this parish is so very meager, owing to the fact that the parish register and other records were cast away with his furniture, after the decease of the Rev. Mr. Punderson. Especially is this to be regretted at this jubilee anniversary, when, on account of its antiquity this venerable parish might stand in the front, with an interesting report of its early missionary work.
It is very difficult--almost impossible--in this age of broad and liberal thought, to realize the position of the followers of the Church of England in the colonies. The Puritans came here for "freedom to worship God,"--as the poet hath it, but it was freedom for themselves,--not for those who differed from them. Presbyterianism was, in fact, the State religion, and all the people were compelled to pay taxes for its maintenance. And no other ministry or Church could be entertained or attended by the inhabitants of any town or plantation, under penalty of a fine of five pounds for every offense.
This was previous to 1727, when a "Relief" law was passed by the General Assembly, exempting the members of the Church of England from such a fine, provided there was a regularly ordained minister established and performing the duties of his office. But little difficulty, however, was found in evading this exemption where public opinion was against the Church. One of our former rectors (Rev. Mr. Welton) compiled a fragmentary history of the parish from Church documents and letters, costing him much time and labor, and which form the basis of this sketch.
Mr. Punderson's letters to the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel tell of his trials and perplexities bravely met and endured. One to the Bishop of London describes the strange excitement and actions of the people who came under the influence of the "vagrant preacher," Davenport of Long Island, and the anxiety of some of them for his conversion,--as "he was leading his people down to hell," as they expressed it. After this period of wild fanaticism had passed away, and people came to their senses, it resulted in many of them conforming to the spiritual and sober ways of the Church. In a long letter to the Secretary of the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel he relates one of his missionary journeys in Connecticut, and sums up by saying that, "in the space of nine days I traveled near two hundred miles (a long and tedious journey at that time), baptized twelve children, preached nine sermons (probably of the goodly length of old times), and had near one thousand persons attend divine service in the several places." This is only one of many similar journeys.
It may not be amiss to mention here, that, during the absence of Mr. Punderson to obtain ordination in England, the Rev. Mr. Seabury, afterwards our first Bishop, had the care of Mr. Punderson's new converts: no parish having been organized at that time.
How interesting it would be if we could have some knowledge of the personal appearance of our first missionary, but no likeness of him has descended to us.
Probably he had the staid and solemn appearance of the ministers of that time; possibly he was awkward in his ways, and too frank in his manner of speech, for although a brother minister speaks of him as "an honest and laborious man " he laments his "want of politeness," which detracted from his work in New Haven.
It matters not if his manners were not those of a Chesterfield; like St. Paul, he endured hardships as a soldier of Christ, and has entered into his reward.
The following sketch of his life was written by the Rev. Mr. Welton, one of his successors at Poquetanuck. New England ecclesiastical writers have sometimes complained that missionaries of the Church of England "invaded," when these colonies were under charter governments, the home which the Puritans had made for themselves as the asylum of religious freedom. Yet this charge of "invasion" of privilege is a tacit confession that what they call religious liberty was real religious tyranny to all others than those of the dominant sect: for if all were to have liberty of the same kind and degree, there could be no invasion of privilege, or trespassing upon others' rights. Civil war is never called invasion in any true sense. A late apologist for the New England Puritans, says: "This is a point concerning which there has been a great deal of popular misapprehension and there has been a great deal of nonsense talked about it. It has been customary first to assume that the Puritan migration was undertaken in the interest of religious liberty, and then to upbraid the Puritans for forgetting all about religious liberty as soon as people came among them who disagreed with their opinions. But this view is not supported by history. It is quite true that the Puritans were, to a certain extent, chargeable with intolerance: but it is not true that in this they were guilty of any inconsistency. The notion that they came to New England for the purpose of establishing religious liberty, in any sense in which we should understand such a phrase, is entirely incorrect. It is neither more nor less than a bit of popular legend. If we mean by the phrase religious liberty, a state of things in which opposite or contradictory opinions on questions of religion shall exist side by side in the same community, and in which everybody shall decide for himself how far he will conform to the customary religious observances, nothing could have been further from their thoughts. There is nothing they would have regarded with more genuine abhorrence. If they could have been warned by a prophetic voice of the general freedom--or, as they would have termed it, license--of thought and behavior which prevails in this country to-day, it is not unlikely that they would have abandoned their enterprise in despair, and would have remained in England. . . . In such a scheme of theoretical government as theirs, there was no room for religious liberty"--Harper's Monthly, December, 1882, p. 116.
But if it could be conceded--as it certainly cannot--that the country belonged exclusively to them, and that therefore no Churchman, Quaker, or Anabaptist, had a right to settle here; the coming of the missionaries of the English Church was only the administration of the ordinances of Christ, by natives of the country, most of whom had been ministers of the established order, or candidates for that ministry, educated in Puritan colleges, and if it were right, for conscience's sake to separate from the Church of England, who will say it was wrong to return to that Church--for conscience's sake?
It is a matter of interest in the history of the mission at North Groton, that the first two dissenting ministers who, in eastern Connecticut conformed to the Church, viz: Samuel Seabury, Sen., and Ebenezer Punderson, had both preached as Congregationalists in that parish; the former as a temporary supply, the latter as the first settled pastor. Mr. Punderson began his work as missionary of the "Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts"--a voluntary society dispensing only voluntary contributions--in the latter part of the year 1734. It is but fair to state that those who went from America for ordination, had been led to believe through the reading of the scriptures, and ancient authors, that "from the Apostles' days there had been" and therefore there ought always to be, "these three orders of ministers in Christ's Church," commonly called "bishops, priests, and deacons"; and that themselves had no right to administer the sacraments of Christ without having been Episcopally ordained.
Mr. Punderson was a native of New Haven, and a graduate of Yale College in the class of 1726. He was (Presbyterially) ordained at North Groton, at the age of twenty-one. On the first of January previous to his dismission, (after less than five years' service) he made a communication to the Society, avowing himself a conformist to the Episcopal Church of England. This communication was received, it is said, with amazement and sorrow; and a committee chosen, "consisting of Robert Geer, Christopher Avery, and Benjamin Gallup, to reason with him, and see if he might not be persuaded that his ordination was good and that he might return to his people again." They also sent a petition to the General Assembly in May , asking them "to do something for their relief"--though what they could have done is beyond the comprehension of this generation. In this petition "they mention their happiness under Mr. Punderson for about two years and a half; when it pleased God in his providence to leave him to believe and hold some things which they thought erroneous; and notwithstanding many private conferences, associations and counsels of Rev'd ministers in the neighborhood, 'together with fasting and prayer for his recovery,' Mr. Punderson still persisted in his views, and ten or twelve of the people of the parish and heads of families had signed his papers and contributed money to bear his expenses to England." It seems to have been a surprise to his old parishioners generally, that, he, an educated and trained theologian, who had examined carefully the question of ministerial authority, was not convinced by a committee of layman who had not. One of the committee of three, Robert Geer, followed his pastor into the English Church.
The Rev. Mr. Seabury, who was then stationed at New London, officiated statedly in North Groton, for Mr. Punderson's new converts, while he was absent in England. He returned in orders in the autumn of the same year , and immediately entered upon his mission. It is said that a church was built there "soon after"; but there is no certain date of its building. We only know from his report dated June, 1739, that a church had been built, for it was used on the preceding Christmas day  when, he says, he had a congregation of four hundred persons, but does not state what proportion of them were his stated hearers. It is not probable that his people waited four years for a house of worship. The building stood on what is still called "Church Hill," a mile and a half northeast of the meeting house at the centre, and some three miles from the head of Poquetanuck cove, where it was re-erected in 1785, on "Shingle Point."
Mr. Punderson's house stood at the foot of "Church Hill," nearly opposite the present "Bill Parsonage," where the cellar walls, and some fragments of the building are still to be seen. This was the first Church parsonage in eastern Connecticut. In it Bishop Seabury was born, November 30, 1729.
Among the State papers at Hartford, there is a nearly full list of all the male members of the Church of England in Connecticut, over sixteen years of age,--six hundred and thirty-six in all,--one hundred and four of whom were under Mr. Punderson's pastoral care in North Groton and Norwich. There are five each of the names of Williams and Rode [Rood?], three each of the names of Ames, Geer, Hide, Minor, Park, Rose, Pelton, Spicer, Starkweather, Stoddard, and Waterman; two each of Capron, Crouch, Forsec [Forsyth?], Killam, Lee, Turner, Wilkinson, and Willoughby. The single names are: Allyn, Ashcraft, Barker, Bassett, Barnard, Bennett, Bordish, Button, Cleveland, Cramer, Davis, Dean, Dickinson, Dood, Downing, Doyle, Fanning, Fountain, Frink, Gray, Grist, Hancock, Holdridge, Holly, Houghton, Hutchinson, Larkin, Lancaster, Leeds, Malason, McCloughton, Meach, Norton, Nuton [Newton], Parish, Randal, Ranger, Raynolds, Rouse, Samson, Thiton, Utley, Welsh, Wickwire, and Weeks.
These names are signed to a petition to the General Assembly, asking for the Church of England and her schools, their rightful proportion of certain public moneys accruing from the sale of three townships in the western part of the colony; and which, it had been proposed, should be appropriated for the benefit of the Congregational [or Presbyterian] Churches and schools. The petition was not granted: but the vigorous protest of the Connecticut Churchmen resulted in the setting apart of the whole sum as a fund for common schools.
Mr. Punderson, in the first of his reports that have been published in this country, dated June 18, 1739, says that there has been a great increase in the number of his parishioners, and a corresponding change in the temper of dissenting brethren; many of whom, he says, from being haters and revilers of the Church and her clergy, have been brought to occasionally attend her services. On the preceding Christmas, and on a Lord's Day afterwards "more than four hundred persons of sober and devout behavior, were present in Church, many of whom had been bitter enemies." No description of the first church edifice can be found. It was probably nearly square, perhaps forty by sixty feet--with galleries, and without a steeple. Probably also it had arched windows, as it certainly had after it was removed to Poquetanuck.
In 1741, the missionary says his labors were greatly increased in consequence of the surprising disturbing results of the preaching of Whitefield and his followers; the parish of North Groton [or that part of the town of Groton now Ledyard] being for the time, the centre of the excitement. Soon after Whitefield's visit, says Mr. Punderson, a number of wandering [itinerant] preachers--the chief of whom was one Davenport, of Long Island--went about the country, boisterous in manner, uncharitably denouncing the Church and her clergy. Those who were "struck" were first seized with horror and distress. There were screamings, faintings, convulsions, visions--apparent death for twenty or thirty hours; and, as some afterwards confessed,--actual possession by evil spirits. The spirit of all was remarkably bitter against the Church of England. The New-Light preacher and his followers declared that Mr. Punderson and all those under his pastoral care, were unconverted, and going straight down to hell. There were from twenty to thirty of these preachers or exhorters within ten miles of his residence. Incredible pains, he says were taken to seduce the members of his congregations, but with little success. Some were lost, but more were added. His labors for a while became so incessant, in consequence of the popular frenzy, that he was scarcely allowed a whole day with his family. Mr. Punderson seems not to have doubted that some persons were actually "possessed"; and, in another letter he says that one such, while thus possessed, actually burned about £1,200, probably in paper currency. On one occasion he says, "the dissenting teacher, Mr. Croswell, came, with a number of attendants, singing to my house--pronounced me unconverted--yet confessed that he did not know me guilty of any crime. I assured him, that in my opinion, it was a greater crime for him thus to murder my soul, usefulness, and reputation, than for me to attempt his natural life."
The Rev. Mr. Tuttle in his "History of the Ledyard Church and Society," says, "Mr. Croswell was a man of ardent temperament, coinciding readily with the 'New Light' movement, in sentiment and action; upholding and defending by his writings, the enthusiastic wanderings of Davenport."
In 1750, Mr. Punderson's labors as an itinerant were greatly extended. The members of the Church of England in Middletown, North Guilford [then called Cohabit], Guilford, Wallingford, and other places, submitted themselves to his pastoral care; and whatever ministerial taxes they had been assessed to pay, he ordered to be applied towards the building of churches and maintaining lay-readers, . . . without appropriating any part thereof to himself. In October of the same year, he sent a letter to the Secretary of the Society, which contains the following summary of his ministrations on one of these journeys, which may be presumed also to represent many others: "The 5th of September, rode to Middletown [forty miles] and preached there next day: the day following at East Haddam, on Sunday at Middletown (whose church was unfinished), in the townhouse, it being quite full, and administered the two sacraments; . . . the next day in a small church in Wallingford: the day following gave private baptism to a poor weak child, as I went to my native place, New Haven; the Sunday after the Commencement, preached in the State House in that town, to a numerous assembly. . . . The day following, at Branford; upon Tuesday, in the church at Guilford to abundance; the next day at Cohabit; upon Friday at Millington (a part of East Haddam), added there two more to our communion:--the next day, christened three children. I travelled in this journey about one hundred and sixty miles, preached eleven sermons, christened seventeen children. The Sunday before last, was at Charlestown (in Rhode Island), and the last, at Norwich. The Church greatly increases at both these places." (Beardsley, I, 166-7.)
His stipend from the S. P. G. in England, as Missionary at North Groton and Norwich, was seventy pounds sterling. Ten more were added on account of his labors as an itinerant--in all about three hundred and forty dollars. What he received from the people is not stated. The currency of the colony being in paper, varied considerably in relative value at different periods. In 1761, £40 of it was equal to £30 sterling.
Once, in 1746, Mr. Punderson went as far as Litchfield, to preach. In September, 1747, he says, "they are building a church in Norwalk, the largest and most flourishing town in this Colony. There are about thirty families of conformists. This town has always had the character of the most rigid Congregationalists in the government. 'Tis really surprising how much their dispositions are softened toward the Church; and indeed 'tis so almost everywhere." (B.I, 232.)
In 1750, after sixteen years of missionary work, he first speaks of the oppression of his people, who were compelled to pay taxes for the maintenance of the Congregational or Presbyterian ministers, and for the building of meetinghouses. The original law, which established the Presbyterian order, enacted that in opposition to this order, there should be "no ministry or church administration entertained or attended by the inhabitants of any town or plantation, upon penalty of the forfeiture of five pounds for every breach of this act."
In 1727, in response to the earnest petition of Churchmen, backed by the danger of losing their charter, the General Assembly enacted the following relief law:
"All persons who are of the Church of England and those who are of the Churches established by ye laws of the this government, yt live in the bounds of any parish allowed by this Assembly, shall be taxed by ye parishioners of ye said parish, by ye same rule and in ye same proportion, for ye support of ye ministry in such parish: but if it so happens that there be a Society of the Church of England, where there is a person in orders according to ye Canons of ye Church of England, settled and abiding among them, and performing divine service so near to any person yt had declared himself of the Church of England, that he can and doth attend ye public worship there, then the collectors, having first indifferently levied the tax, as aforesaid, shall deliver ye taxes collected of such persons; which minister shall have full power to receive and recover ye same, in order to his support in the place assigned to him, . . . and the parishioners of ye Church of England, attending as aforesaid, are hereby excused from paying any taxes for ye building meeting-houses for ye present established Churchs of this government."
This law seems sufficiently plain; but in practice, after the fear of losing their charter had measurably passed away, the acting magistrates found little difficulty in evading it where public opinion was to sustain them. Mr. Punderson undertook to have it enforced in favor of some of his parishioners, by suing the collectors for his rates; but was "cast" and compelled to pay costs. He gave as a reason for undertaking these suits, that he looked upon his parishioners as his children; and that, if it be the duty of the true pastor to give his life for his flock, it must be his duty to give his money freely for their defense. At some of his stations, his rates were paid, as he had ordered, to his lay-readers and others, but in some other places, he says, "they have been in the most vile manner distressing and, imprisoning the members of the Church of England: while the Quakers and Baptists fare better, being universally exempted from paying taxes to their establishment."
After the removal of Mr. Seabury from New London, which station was for some years thereafter vacant, Mr. Punderson was the only missionary in the county, having charge also of Charlestown in Rhode Island.
It cannot be precisely determined when he removed to New Haven; but, in a letter written not long before his death, he alludes to the fact that he had been in the Society's service upwards of nine years at New Haven, Guilford, and Branford; which would bring him to his charge in that vicinity before the close of 1752. The proceedings of the Society in 1753 contain the following record: "The Rev. Mr. Punderson, the Society's itinerant missionary in Connecticut, having petitioned the Society to be settled missionary, with only part of his present salary (which was seventy pounds sterling), to the members of the Church in New Haven, the place of his nativity (where a new church is built, to which Mr. Punderson gave the greatest part of the timber) and to those of Guilford and Branford, the Society have granted his request."
It is quite possible he was made to feel, at New Haven, the truth of our Lord's saying that "a prophet is without honor in his own country;" for his congregation increased but slowly, while at other points there was encouraging growth. Dr. Johnson of Stratford, writing to the Archbishop of Canterbury in 1760, says, 'Mr. Punderson seems a very honest and laborious man; yet the Church at New Haven appears uneasy under his ministry, occasioned, I believe, partly by his want of politeness, and partly by his being absent so much, having five or six places under his care. I wish he was again at Groton, and some politer person in his place." (B. I, 198.) So his friendly critic himself confesses that he was sufficiently "polite" for Groton. He was transferred to Rye, New York, where, notwithstanding his "want of politeness," his ministry was "eminently successful." There he died in 1771, aged sixty-three. After his death, his widow returned, to spend the remainder of her days amid the scenes of his earliest ministry. A table--monument erected to her memory stands in the yard of Christ Church, Norwich. The grave of her son Ebenezer is in Poquetanuck cemetery. But of the devoted and laborious missionary, who, in troublous times, laid the foundation of this spiritual edifice and labored upon it almost a score of years, there is in the parish,--neither sepulchral monument, window, or mural-tablet. To him it matters not, for his record is on high; but might it not be good for us of the present generation,--if we cannot build a Memorial Church,--at least to remember him in a chancel window? A new church was built in 1896, in this old parish, but its first missionary was not thought of.