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
NEW MILFORD was one of the earliest towns to be settled within the present county of Litchfield. In the person of John Noble of Westfield, Massachusetts, it received in 1707 its first actual settler. In 1712 it was organized as a town by twelve men of sterling character and abundant energy. In religion they were strict conformists to the polity and order of the Congregational societies of the colony. Daniel Boardman, who was a young man of great promise, became its pastor soon after its incorporation. He was faithful and beloved, and under him the church and society were prospered. He received, as was the custom of the day, a large tract of land as "a settlement."
There seems to have been no attempt by members of the Church of England who may have been in the little community to separate themselves, as was allowed to "sober dissenters" by enabling acts of the Colonial legislature. The well-informed Congregational minister of the town, the Rev. Stanley Griswold, in his "Century Sermon," declares there were Churchmen in the settlement in its first period. It is well known that after the conformity of John Beach to the Church and his settlement at Redding and Newtown, his missionary zeal caused him to extend his labors into all the surrounding country. It is known that he officiated at a marriage in New Milford in 1739.
It is probable that his visits to individuals and families brought about an informal organization, and the appointment of one of the small company of Churchmen to read prayer and a sermon to his associates on Sundays.
It is in 1742 that we first find any special notice of the Churchmen of New Milford as a distinct and separate congregation.
A letter of the Rev. John Beach to the Venerable Society from "Reading in New England, October 20th, 1743," mentions his perplexity concerning the persecution and prosecution of members of the "twenty families professing the Church at New Milford and New Fairfield, which are about fifteen miles." [Hawks and Perry's Connecticut Church Documents, I, p. 199. New York, James Pott & Co., 1863.] He speaks of preaching to them several times a year, but seldom on the Lord's Day. He says that "they frequently come to church at Newtown, but by reason of the distance they cannot attend constantly." On other Sundays "they meet together in their own town and one of their number reads some part of the Common Prayer and a sermon."
The Congregational Society were unwilling to release them from payment of the rate levied for the minister's salary, and as they had not been formally certified to be under the pastoral care of Mr. Beach, resolved in town meeting on February 6, 1743-4 "that the Churchmen shall be brought into the list to make up the minister's rate according to the directions of the law." Mr. Beach asked the Society that he might be accredited to New Milford and New Fairfield, thus relieving the Churchmen from fine and imprisonment for non-payment of ministerial rates. This was, after inevitable delay, granted by the Society.
In the spring of 1743 the town change its attitude and granted the petition of these twelve men of honest and good report among their townsmen:
HENRY GARLICK, DANIEL PRINDLE, THOMAS NOBLE, GEORGE MECUEN, JOHN WELLER, CHARES DUNCOMB, OBADIAH WHEELER, DANIEL PICKETT, JOHN PRINDLE, WILLIAM HUTCHINS, SAMUEL PRINDLE, PARTRIDGE THACHER,
"to grant them a piece of land in the street, east of Mr. Samuel Prindle's house upon the hill near where the old pound used to stand, sixty feet in length and forty feet in breadth, in order to build a Church of England upon and for no other purpose." The town appointed as a committee to lay out the land, Nathaniel Bostwick, David Noble, and Daniel Bostwick. A small church was built upon this plot and was well filled by the fifteen, or twenty families composing the congregation.
Mr. Beach speaks in 1750 of visiting three small congregations under his care at New Milford and New Fairfield. The work, however, was too much for him, and he sought to be relieved from the burden of all the churches in the upper part of Fairfield and all the towns of Litchfield County. The Rev. Solomon Palmer, who had been a Congregational minister at Cornwall and conformed to the Church, took charge of the mission in 1754. He was most earnest and persistent and went everywhere in the neighborhood. He was the first resident clergyman and secured the good will of his former co-religionists. After five years of constant effort he reported in August, 1760, that "the Church here was greatly increased. It is now in a good state and is continually increasing, for besides the three congregations to which I was at first particularly appointed I have three, viz., at Roxbury, Cornwall, Judea."
Mr. Palmer's health did not allow him to continue in this extensive missionary circuit. In the fall of 1760 he resigned the charge of New Milford and its vicinity to a "young gentleman who designed the next spring to come home for orders with a view to become a teacher in these parts, if the Society shall think fit to divide this mission." Thomas Davies was then a candidate under Dr. Samuel Johnson, He was remarkable for the depth and fervor of his religious convictions, his rare and persuasive eloquence in the pulpit, his ceaseless and well-directed energy, and his tact and skill in laying foundations. He went, as Mr. Palmer had done, beyond the limits of the colony into southern Berkshire and at Great Barrington brought into order as a mission the persecuted Churchmen of that town. After his ordination, in 1761, he continued to grow in favor with all who knew him and by his exertions the Church both in New Milford and other places was strengthened. The church building became too small, and in 1765 the frame of a larger one was erected, which was within a year finished and dedicated, not consecrated, for bishops had been denied, largely on political grounds, to the Colonies. Mr. Davies' life was brief and brilliant. He died at his home at New Milford on May 12, 1766. His memory should be kept green, for he was a skillful and wise master-builder upon the foundation of our Lord Jesus Christ.
The course of Church life ran smoothly under his successor, the Rev. Richard Clarke, whose incumbency of twenty years included the period when the political horizon was dark and lowering, patriots asserting their independence, and Churchmen who were inclined to sympathize with the mother country were harshly treated. His work here as parish priest ended in 1787. He was followed by the Rev. Truman Marsh, whose work was acceptable, and continued until the opening of the nineteenth century.
The parish of St. John's, New Milford, has shown in its whole history a commendable degree of activity and liberality. It has realized its duty to the Diocese and the whole Church, both at home and abroad, besides providing for its own necessities. From it went forth under the inspiration of Mr. Palmer and Mr. Davies a remarkable missionary, the Rev. Gideon Bostwick, a native of the town, who became lay reader and afterward missionary at St. James's, Great Barrington, Massachusetts. A sketch of his life would show that all heroic work is not done in foreign lands. He went everywhere through Berkshire, southern Vermont, eastern New York. His ministry of twenty-three years was passed in preaching, baptizing and confirming the churches. He baptized more than twenty-three hundred children and adult in his twenty-three years of active service, preached almost daily and established congregations in many places, some of which are strong parishes to-day. This is but an instance of the good work done by the Church in Litchfield County.