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
AT the extreme southern part of Litchfield County, stretching out over the beautiful valley of the Pomperaug to the hills beyond, lies one of the oldest parishes in Connecticut, St. Paul's, Woodbury.
It is supposed that services were held in the town as early as 1722 or 1723, by Rev. Mr. Pigot of Stratford, and Rev. Dr. Johnson, missionaries of the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel. This early date does not seem strange when we remember that ancient Woodbury was settled by people from Stratford and it is not at all improbable that there should have been among the early settlers, members of the Church of England, or that they should have desired church services held in the town where they were living.
In the year 1732, a Congregational minister in the south part of Woodbury, now Southbury, engaged in a controversy with the Rev. Dr. Johnson; that was carried on for some time. It excited much inquiry among those who investigated the question, and several families were convinced by Dr. Johnson's arguments, and were led to connect themselves with the Episcopal Church. These scattered families were organized into a parish by the Rev. Mr. Beach of Newtown, about the year 1740.
The church was built about that time. Most of the church families living in the south and west part of the town, the church was built on the hills west of the village, in what is now Roxbury, then Woodbury; the people of the valley going up to the hill to worship--there being no place to hold service in the center of the town until the year 1747. The Congregational Society having then (to quote the words of the clerk, informing the General Assembly at New Haven) "set up a meeting-house, that for its bigness, strength and architecture Does Appear Transcendantly Magnificent," had no use for the old meeting-house and from that time on it was used as the town hall and by the church people as a place of worship until the church was erected in 1785.
From 1740 to 1771, occasional services were held by the clergymen of surrounding parishes. These were notably the Rev. Thomas Davies, that noble young missionary who did a great work for the Church in Litchfield County; and the Rev Mr. Clark of New Milford, with others. In the autumn of 1771, the Rev. John Rutgers Marshall became the first Rector of St. Paul's, Woodbury. Rev. Mr. Marshall was born in New York in 1743, reared in the Dutch Reformed denomination, but came into the Church and prepared for the ministry under Dr. Johnson. The Rev. Mr. Marshall was the last but one of those candidates from Connecticut who went across the ocean for Holy Orders, being ordained Deacon by the Bishop of London, July 25, 1771, and ordained Priest on the 28th day of the same month. He received from the Bishop a testimonial that he had obtained "License and Authority to perform the office of a Minister or Priest at Woodbury, or elsewhere within the province of Connecticut in North America." On his return from England he went to Woodbury in the autumn of 1771, as a missionary of the Society for Propagating the Gospel in Foreign Parts, and commenced his ministry in St. Paul's parish. The church in the western part of the town was united with it, both churches together constituting one parochial cure.
We know very little of the first few years of Mr. Marshall's ministry--no records of that time existing at the present day. From a scarp of a letter, found long ago, we learn that a convention was held in Woodbury in 1774. For Mr. Marshall in a letter to his aunts in New York, dated April 12, 1774, writes:
"The Convention is to be held at my house this spring, Aunts promised me some wine, if Aunts intend sending any, there can be no better opportunity than this."
Soon after Mr. Marshall came to Woodbury a glebe was purchased and occupied by the Rector, but afterwards he bought a home for himself and the glebe was sold, the proceeds being used for building the church. The eighteen years of Mr. Marshall's rectorship were trying years to the country and the Church. He was a staunch American as well as a staunch Churchman, as events afterward proved. At the time, however, he was regarded with such animosity by many townsmen, because of his connection with the Church of England, that twice he was left in the road beaten--so his assailants supposed--to death. Tradition says that the man most instrumental in this affair, repented and united himself with the Church. At last Mr. Marshall became so suspected he could not leave his house in the day time, except on Sunday; the old Puritan law forbidding arrest on the Sabbath being his protection. He would hold service on Sunday, and on Monday the Committee of Patriots would go to the glebe to arrest him, search the house, but could never find him. Where he could be hidden was a great mystery to the people who so carefully searched for him. Years afterwards it became known that the old glebe contained a secret hiding place; a sliding panel in a closet, moving so as to afford direct entrance to the cellar. There Mr. Marshall was obliged to spend many days, leaving his hiding place only at night. This entrance may be seen now at the glebe house in Woodbury.
When the war cloud broke and the colonies were severed from England, the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel withdrew its aid from the parish; notwithstanding this, Mr. Marshall labored on, holding services in many parishes, from Milford on the south to Great Barrington on the north.
In 1785 the present church was built, Mr. Marshall furnishing the glass and nails. On March 25, 1783, a most important meeting was held at the old glebe house, by ten of the fourteen clergymen of Connecticut. "The meeting was kept a profound secret even from their most intimate friends of the laity."
No records even of that meeting were kept, for Mr. Marshall well knew that in holding that meeting he took the life of himself and even of his family in his hands. In consequence of this there is no mention of it even among the family letters. The only account we have of it is in a letter of the Rev. Mr. Fogg, Rector at that time of Trinity Church, Brooklyn, who was one of the ten clergymen present.
The church has not an official record, but it has the result of the meeting; for there was elected the first Bishop of Connecticut, and the first Bishop of the Church in America, Rt. Rev. Samuel Seabury.
The church in Woodbury still treasures the first communion set, the semicircular table that was used for the altar, and at the Marshall home in Woodbury may be seen the first communion linen spun and woven by Mrs. Marshall. There also, may be seen a chair in which probably the presiding officer of the secret convention of March, 25th, 1783, sat, and in which tradition says all of the Bishops of Connecticut from Seabury down, have since sat; and most interesting of all, the Prayer Book, used in the church in which, before the Prayer Book was revised and the revision adopted, Mr. Marshall made all the alterations in use. These alterations are in his own handwriting and correspond with the accepted Prayer Book, which would go to show he had something to do with the alterations, even if he did not originate them. He died before the convention which revised the Prayer Book was held.
Hard work and cruel treatment had undermined Mr. Marshall's health, and in January, 1789, he "laid down his armor and went to his rest." With the death of Rev. John Rutgers Marshall ends the colonial history of St. Paul's, Woodbury, and the work of a faithful missionary for the Society of Propagation of the Gospel.