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
TO understand the local situation at the time this parish of the Church of England was formed, it is necessary to go back still earlier in the history of the town, and if I mistake not, we shall find reasons leading to this almost revolutionary action of our ancestors, which date years before its actual occurrence.
The town was first settled in 1704, and as usual in New England communities, among the first things was making provision for a church and school. The progress of the settlement of the town was remarkably slow, owing to difficulties arising from rival claimants to the land and the consequent difficulty in getting titles that were unquestionably sound. A petition to the General Court in 1708 recites that there were but nine families in town, and another in 1712 complains that then the families were few and scattering.
Nevertheless the town, in 1712, appointed a committee to procure a regular minister, and occasional preaching had been enjoyed earlier than this, though the General Court did not authorize them "to gather a church and ordain an orthodox minister amongst them" till October, 1716. But when the location of the meeting-house for the town came up for decision, then arose the beginning of the factional war which continued for thirty years or more and resulted in a division of the town into four religious societies of the standing order, and the organization of a parish of the Church of England whose early history is the subject of this sketch.
The Rev. John Bliss, Yale 1710, was ordained minister of the town on Hebron, November 19th, 1717, and evidently sympathized with those who wished the location of the town's meeting-house changed, known as the "Northern Party." Says an early historian, despairing of being able to reconcile the differences, he resigned his charge and was dismissed by council in 1734. He had been accused by his enemies of sundry immoralities, chiefly intemperance, but was acquitted of the charges by the Hartford County South Consociation which met in Hebron, November 16th, 1731. How far this cause contributed towards his final dismissal it is of the Northern Party, adhered to him and met at his house for religious services, claiming that the action of the council in dismissing him was illegal and that he was consequently the only regularly ordained minister in town, in fact his successor was not ordained until December 16th, 1735. This holding of schismatic services was not to be tolerated by the town authorities, and Mr. Bliss and five of his most prominent supporters were presented before Hartford County court, June 17th, 1735, charged with having "carried on divine worship contrary to the statutes of this Colony." They were found not guilty, but the costs of court were taxed against them, amounting to about five pounds to each person. They appeared before the General Court, 1735, for redress, and one-half the costs were remitted.
I have been somewhat lengthy, perhaps, in relating these occurrences, but it seems necessary in order to understand the causes that lead up to the organization of this ancient parish of the Church of England, the sixth one in the colony according to Dr. Beardsley.
There was now but one thing for Mr. Bliss and his friends to do, to put themselves under the protection of the Church of England, and tradition says they did this in 1734, but it is hardly probable that it was done until 1735, for had it been done in 1734 they would not have been prosecuted for holding schismatic meetings then. It cannot be supposed that all were influenced by the desire to have their own way, contrary to the wishes of a majority of their neighbors; but as many of them were born in England it is very likely that such were influenced by genuine love for the Church in which they were educated.
Here then, was the beginning of St. Peter's parish, how formally organized at that time we know not, but tradition says they put themselves under the care of the Rev. Samuel Seabury, missionary of the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel at New London. He writes home to the Society August 11th, 1736, that his success was "something remarkable at Hebron," where he visited June 20th, of that year, and that there were twenty families who professed adherence to the Church of England.
The church building was begun in 1735 upon land deeded to the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel by Mr. Bliss himself, but it was many years before it was thoroughly finished, in fact it was in 1766 that the missionary reported it finally completed.
In 1738 a petition was preferred to the General Court in behalf of the members of the Church of England throughout the colony, and thirty-two names from Hebron are found among the signers, representing themselves as "under the pastoral care of the Reverend Mr. Samuel Seabury of New London." Mr. Bliss continued to read services as a lay reader under Seabury's supervision for several years and died on the eve of his departure for England to receive Episcopal ordination, February 1st, 1741-42.
In 1743 Mr. Seabury reports to the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel that "the prospect at Hebron was not so good as formerly, because the followers of Mr. Whitefield do extremely abound there."
In 1746 the care of the parish appears to be in the hands of Rev. Mr. Punderson of North Groton, who visited them twice a year and reports forty communicants, and six baptisms during the year, also that the parish had "purchased thirty acres of exceedingly good land for a glebe."
In 1748 Rev. Mathew Graves reports having spent a fortnight at Hebron, preaching nine sermons, etc., and in 1751 he writes that "Mr. Thompson, a man of great estate, will give a glebe of twelve acres of good land and build a house for a minister."
These offers of land for the support of the ministry indicated their strong desire for a settled clergyman, but still more significant was the fact that they sent four candidates to England to receive Holy Orders, before they succeeded. Barzillai Dean, Yale 1737, was ordained in 1745, but the ship was lost at sea on the return voyage. Jonathan Colton, ordained 1752, and died of smallpox on shipboard. James Usher, sailed for England in 1757, the ship was captured by the French and he died in captivity. A Mr. Fairweather, of Boston, went to England soon after and was ordained, but returning by way of the West Indies, died there.
But the church still persisted in their efforts, though regarded as no better than madmen by their neighbors, who looked at these repeated failures as demonstrations of divine interposition to prevent the growth of prelacy in this western land. At last, hearing that their townsman, Samuel A. Peters, Yale 1757, then a tutor in a New York College, had decided to take Holy Orders, they elected him as their Rector. He sailed to England in 1758, was ordained Deacon March 11th, 1759, and advanced to the priesthood August 5th, of the same year. After a serious illness in England he returned and took charge of the parish in 1760. Financial aid was given them by the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel and a church library sent them, remnants of which remain to this day.
Peters write to England, April 13th, 1761, returning thanks from his people for the care of the Society, and for the books, and reports that the church building, 58 by 30, is repaired in part. December 27th, 1764, he writes that ninety pounds are subscribed to finish the inside of the building, which now only needs plastering and is to be done in the spring. May 12th, 1766, he writes that the church is finally completed by help received from a legacy given by will of Mrs. Cursell, of Boston some years before, the existence of which had been lately discovered, and notes that eight of his flock have been lately prosecuted and fined for working upon the fast day appointed by the civil authority during Easter week.
As events occurred foreshadowing the War of the Revolution, we can easily imagine that the situation of this old parish became less pleasant, for Peters, their Rector, was a pronounced loyalist, and doubtless many of his flock sympathized with him. In those troublous times all our ancestors were men of stern convictions who never allowed comfort or convenience to interfere with their principles. At last, after several visits from the "Sons of Liberty," who threatened vengeance on him for his loyalty, Rev. Mr. Peters left the colony in the early fall of 1774 and fled to England, leaving the church without a rector.
The history of their struggle for existence during the War of the Revolution is a sealed book, no records remain, tradition even is silent, but that they did exist is only known by their existence to-day--the old parish of St. Peter's, Hebron, a sketch of whose colonial history I have the honor to present.