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
THE principal recorded events of the early history of St. Peter's Church, Plymouth, are told in one of the Junior Auxiliary Round Robins, The Story of a Hilltop Parish, that being part of a sermon preached by Dr. Hart on the one hundredth anniversary of the consecration of the present church building, and to that I am chiefly indebted for the brief history contained in this sketch.
Dr. Hart says that he thinks "there is no other town in Connecticut in which the organization of 'the professors of the Church of England,' as they were called, followed so closely upon the settlement of the place and its organization as a separate community."
The present town of Plymouth was originally a part of Waterbury. In 1737 the people of that section were "granted winter privileges" and released from parish taxes for three months of the year, that they might "maintain the dispensing of the word in a place accessable." Soon they petitioned the General Assembly of the colony to make them a separate ecclesiastical society, representing that "to reach the only meeting-house in the town, they had to drive seven miles or more, cross the river nine times and take down bars or open gates at ten different places."
In consequence of this, in 1739 the Society called Northbury (now Plymouth), was set off. Very soon a controversy arose as to the location of the meeting-house to be built.
There is not time to go into the details of this dispute now, but the result was the organization in 1740 of an "Episcopal Society" consisting of eleven families under the care of the Rev. Theophilus Morris, a missionary of the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel. Although this disagreement might seem an unfortunate reason for the beginning of church life, it is said other causes were at work which made this "a readily accepted occasion for the breach."
Some of the settlers of Northbury were from North Haven, where there was already a church, and, in one family in the community was a Prayer Book, which we are told had considerable influence, the members of two other families being in the habit of meeting with the owners of the Prayer Book for the use of its services. Tradition says the same Prayer Book was afterwards taken to Pennsylvania and was the occasion of starting a parish there.
The year 1740 was a time of great religious excitement, during the preaching of Whitefield, when the teaching of the Church was all the more welcome to sober-minded people, and that this had influence with those who became Churchmen in Plymouth, we know from a letter which they addressed to the "Honorable Society" in England, in which they say: "We were prejudiced strongly against the Church of England from our cradles until we had the advantage of books from your reverend missionaries and others; and Mr. Whitefield passing through this land, and his followers and imitators brought in a flood of confusion amongst us, whereupon we fled to the Church of England for safety." Before the Revolution, three men of Connecticut birth, who are still remembered and honored served the parish as missionaries; the Rev, Richard Mansfield, for seventy-two years Rector of Derby, Rev. James Scovill, whose home was in Waterbury, and the Rev. James Nichols, the last Connecticut man to be ordained in England.
The parish possesses a Bible and Prayer Book bound in one volume printed at Oxford in 1738. Also another Prayer Book, in beautiful, large type, printed in London, 1742. Both volumes bear the seal of the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel with the words underneath, "The Gift of the Society for Propagating the Gospel in Foreign Parts."
The books will remain a valued reminder of the debt the parish owes to the Venerable Society through its missionaries.
In later years no less than five parishes were formed by people who went out from this one, two being in Ohio, and it may be said that, "St. Peter's, Plymouth, became in a sense of which it can be said of few other country parishes, 'a Mother of Churches.' "