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
AS, when we look for the beginning of the Christian year, we must find on what day of the week falls the Feast of St. Andrew; so, when we would know of the Colonial Churches in the inland regions of Connecticut, we must turn, first, to old St. Andrew's earliest of them all.
Details as to the formation of the parish are meagre, but it is believed that the organization was effected in 1740 with six members. In 1741 the Rev. Mr. Morris of Derby, who visited it, reported about thirty families, and added that they had prepared some timber for a church.
In 1742 members of the Church of England in other places helped them to raise funds for the purchase of a glebe of fifty acres, and the land was deeded to the infant parish with the stipulation that it should never be alienated.
In 1743 the church was built. It is said that it was never finished; but, for the remainder of the century, it served the congregation, gathered from all the region round as a place of worship.
The chosen site was under the hills of the Talcott range and near the Tunxis or Farmington river, which made its way over a rocky course with a dull roar.
One wonders what the worthies engaged in hewing the massive beams for the building would have said to any man who had foretold that, in this present year of grace, steam-driven trains would pass the spot, and that the neighboring river would be made to furnish for Hartford, ten miles away, power to propel its cars and light its streets, to say nothing of offering to heat its houses, cook its food, and freeze its ices?
Giant oaks and chestnuts, left from the primeval forest, guarded the rustic temple and threw their broad shadows over the green churchyard which still serves as a "God's Acre." For more than a century they waved their branches over the sacred spot, and then yielded to a blast of the north wind that might not longer be withstood.
Application had been made to the Venerable Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts for assistance and promises had been made, on condition of their acquiring a glebe.
In 1744 an arrangement was made with Mr. William Gibbs of Boston, a graduate of Harvard, to take charge of the struggling parish and he crossed the ocean to obtain Holy Orders.
Among some letters to his home friends, found last year in Simsbury, where they had probably lain since the settlement of his estate, is one describing his voyage and telling of his ordination, in which he mentions that the Society had made a formal appropriation for his support and had kindly added a goodly sum for his expensive journey.
He was sent as Missionary to "Simsbury and Parts Adjacent." Each of the ponderous folios--standard theological works--sent over by the Society, as a gift to the Mission, bears to-day that inscription with the book plate of the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel.
Now in 1744, Simsbury, which had been quaintly described as "an appendix to the town of Windsor," whence its first settlers migrated, embraced the towns of Bloomfield, Canton, Avon, Granby, and East Granby; and the "parts adjacent" easily included Hartford, Windsor, and Farmington, not to mention portions of Fairfield County as well as of Berkshire and Hampden counties in Massachusetts.
The territorial extent of the field was indeed wide, though the number of his people could not have been large.
The change from Boston to a region where fields were more numerous than aught else must have been a marked one for the young clergyman.
His sister, Miss Elizabeth Gibbs, came to share his home and staid with him to the end.
For ten years he ministered to his scattered flock and then, because of his refusal to pay a tax laid for the support of the Congregational minister in Simsbury, he was arrested and taken to Hartford jail, thrown across a horse with his hands and feet so bound together as to make a human girth for the animal.
His wardens paid the tax and procured his release, but he never recovered from the nervous shock, and for the well-nigh twenty-three remaining years of his life, he was mildly insane and unable to officiate. A portion of his stipend was continued by the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel, and till death gave him release he remained at his post.
He died amid the stormy days of the Revolution and was buried under the chancel of the church at whose altar he had ministered.
The insanity of Mr. Gibbs made it necessary to have an assistant and Mr. Roger Viets, a Simsbury man and a graduate of Yale, after officiating as lay reader for four years, went in 1763 to England and was ordained. Returning, he took up the work of the parish and for twenty-four years went in and out among its people.
He, too, saw the inside of Hartford jail, being arrested on suspicion of aiding in the escape of some Tories who were confined in the dungeons of Newgate. By way of emphasizing the suspicions he was put in irons. He was doubtless made of sterner stuff than Mr. Gibbs, for he eventually came out without permanent injury.
Of Mr. Gibbs's official acts no written record remains, but a portion of the one kept by Mr. Viets is in existence, and a perusal of it shows that he made many visits to the "parts adjacent," officiating frequently in Granby, occasionally in Hartford, where in the Court House he administered the communion to six or to nine communicants, sometimes in Westfield, Springfield, and Great Barrington, sometimes in Litchfield, New Milford, and Danbury. In all these places he evidently found children of the church who gladly availed themselves of the opportunity to have their children baptized.
In 1787 Mr. Viets removed to Digby, Nova Scotia, and I was intended that his nephew, Alexander Viets Griswold, should accompany him. Something prevented and the young man remained to become the first and only Bishop of the "Eastern Diocese."
At the time of his departure, Mr. Viets issued a "Serious Address and Farewell Charge to the Members of the Church of England in Simsbury and Parts Adjacent," copies of which are still in existence, from which may be gathered a summary of his work. He gives the number of Church families in the mission in 1759 as 75. In 1787 there were 280 "exclusive of the many that had emigrated and the few that had apostatized." He had baptized 122 adults and 1,749 infants, a total of 1871, giving an annual average of nearly 67.
During the ministry of Mr. Viets a church was built in the northern art of his field, now North Granby, called St. Ann's. This was, later, given up, and in its stead St. Peter's was built at Salmon Brook, somewhat nearer the mother church. Still later, this became a separate parish, though they were unable to support two incumbents, and it was generally under the care of the Rector of St. Andrew's, until 1845 or thereabouts.
The second St. Andrew's was built soon after the beginning of the nineteenth century, and was located nearly two miles south of the old site; but after a score or more of years it was moved to its present position only a few yards from the spot hallowed by the first one, and where, like that, it guards the last resting place of the generations of Churchmen "laid away in holy trust."
The earliest inscription in the churchyard was placed on a tiny stone to mark the resting-place of "Robin, son of John," a little Indian boy; and one wonders whether John was the earliest red child of the Church.