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
CHRIST CHURCH was gathered under the blessed influence of the Venerable Society that we commemorate this year, and received ministrations from its missionaries and laymen as a part of their field of labor. Guilford was never a distinct mission, nor received financial aid directly from the Society.
Mr. Samuel Smithson came to Guilford about 1707, and, though a member of the Church of England, he worshipped here with the Church of New England. In the same church was a youth of studious habits, and to him in 1716, Mr. Smithson loaned his Book of Common Prayer. This we believe was the means of directing Samuel Johnson to the strong course of his later life, and the establishment of our parish. We look back to Samuel Smithson as, in a real sense, its founder.
With such a man as Samuel Johnson, a native of and frequent visitor in Guilford, it may seem strange that a church was not gathered here earlier; but we find a strong desire on his part, sympathized with by many of the "Dissenting ministers," for a general adhesion to the Church of England--a comprehension of the colonists under Episcopal government, but "without all the ceremonies and constitutions of our Church"; and we can easily believe Samuel Johnson would hope thus to be in fellowship with the Church and pastor of his boyhood, rather than to promote a separation from them. The Guilford Congregational Church had also accepted the "half-way covenant" whereby the sacraments of baptism and the Lord's Supper were made accessible to many, who at earlier times and in some churches even now had been denied them.
In 1738 three Guilford men were enrolled as members of the Church of England, under the care of Mr. Jonathan Arnold of New Haven, whose cure was virtually New Haven County, and it is quite certain that he ministered in Guilford that year. Mr. James Lyons of Derby, and Dr. Samuel Johnson of Stratford, held services here before there was a parish. In 1744 Mr. Lyons reported to the Venerable Society that there were eight families in Guilford who had declared their conformity, and on September 4, 1744, he organized this parish at the house of William Ward, Nathaniel Johnson being "appointed" warden and Samuel Collins clerk to lead or make the responses and lead the singing. Until a church was built, services were held in private houses, some of which are still standing. With ministrations from clergymen, who included Guilford as part of their charge, occasional visits from others, and the constant services of faithful and zealous laymen the worship of God and religious instruction were maintained in the parish for almost a century, without a clergyman of its own.
In 1746 it was decided to build, and in 1747 the "Proprietors of the Town" voted to allow a church to be built on the Green. Some money was given by non-residents, notably the sum of £113, from friends in Trinity Church, Newport, R. I., in response to an appeal from Nathaniel Johnson, who rode to Newport on horseback to make it! But the expense of building was principally borne by the parish. Of the missionaries of the Venerable Society, and the lay-readers who ministered to the Colonial Church in Guilford there is time only to speak their names. Mr. Lyons of Derby, who, being with them at the organization of the parish was regarded as their minister; Ebenezer Punderson--the first to preach in their church in May, 1751, (though it was not opened for service till March, 1751, when Dr. Samuel Johnson preached from the text, "O worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness"); Samuel Andrews, Wallingford--who was faithful in his frequent ministrations till his loyalist sympathies limited his journeys; and Bela Hubbard. Mr. William Samuel Johnson (son of Dr. Samuel Johnson, who later became the accomplished American statesman), Mr. Edmund Ward, Peter Beers, and John Tyler, were lay-readers.
Of the ministers who have been reared within the territorial limits of "old Guilford" at least one--third have taken Episcopal orders. Those most notable from the Colonial Church were Dr. Samuel Johnson, Rev. Bela Hubbard, Rev. Bethuel Chittenden, Rev. Andrew Fowler, and much earlier, the two sons of John Hoadly, who after their return to England took orders in the established Church. One of them, Samuel, became the father of two Bishops--John, who died Primate of Ireland, and Benjamin, who was a still more distinguished man.
Of these, Rev. Bela Hubbard was our only resident minister in the eighteenth century. Returning from England in 1764, he came to Guilford, but not as a missionary of the Society. The one mark of its favor which Mr. Hubbard probably brought with him, was the folio Prayer Book which we have among our interesting relics. His cure consisted of the two Guilford parishes, and that of Killingworth (now Clinton).
The ministry of Bela Hubbard, a native of Guilford, must have more than passing notice. He was lay-reader for both Guilford and North Guilford parishes from 1761 to 1763, while preparing to take orders, and was invited to return to them as priest. At this time there were fifty families of the Guilford conformists, and as many communicants--the North parish probably being the larger.
When in 1767 he took charge of the mission in New Haven, his Guilford people were heart-broken.
Repeated appeals were made to the Venerable Society for the establishment of a mission at Guilford, but the Society was inexorable and refused to respond--partly on the ground that the parish had no parsonage or glebe.
Loyalist sympathies prevailed in this congregation to its detriment; but when the war broke out some Episcopalians were found among the patriot soldiers.
During the war the parish must have lost ground, and it is said the church building suffered from lawless violence. But the services on Sunday never ceased!
The lowest point of depression in the life of the parish must have been during the last decade of the century, when, tradition says, only two families were left to sustain the services of the Church. But in 1798 we find Dr. Hubbard again visiting Guilford, and from that time the church seemed to revive, and in 1806 our parish numbered forty families.
Having outlined our history to the beginning of the nineteenth century, I must leave the blessed record of the past one hundred years untouched.