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 first date in the history of St. John's Parish may be said to be in the year 1722--when a few families met in the house of one Ebenezer Blakeslee, a blacksmith--in accordance with the following resolution, "Agreed on by ye society that they will accept of ye house of Ebenezer Blakeslee for ye publick worship of God, until ye major part of ye society shall see cause to lay it aside."
This society was only carrying on the work begun by the Rev. James Wetmore, who had been pastor of the Congregational Church in North Haven, but together with Cutler and Johnson had declared for Episcopacy in 1722, and gone to England for orders.
In 1740, North Haven, Wallingford, Cheshire, and Northford founded a "Union Church," and a rude building was erected at "Pond Hill", about a mile from North Haven center. For about seventeen years the worshippers gathered here, and then disbanded--not for lack of interest, but because the growth of Episcopacy warranted the organizing of parishes in Wallingford and North Haven.
In 1759, St. John's Parish was organized, with Ebenezer Blakeslee as senior warden. The first church was erected the following year under the ministry of the Rev. Ebenezer Punderson. The dedication took place on St. John's Day, December 27,1761, and the church was elaborately decorated with evergreens, an unusual custom then in these staid New England towns.
The church was not established in North Haven without struggles and difficulties. The Churchmen were sadly in the minority, but bravely withstood the opposition which the Church of England had to fight against at that time.
The Rev. Isaac Stiles, father of Ezra Stiles, Yale's well known president, spared the Churchmen here the serious troubles experienced elsewhere, on account of his conservatism.
Dr. Benjamin Trumbull, Connecticut's historian, his successor, was not as lenient, though he showed his feelings of enmity in words, not deeds. Many of his sarcastic remarks rankled in the breasts of St. John's parishioners. He it was who remarked, when he heard that the Episcopal church was to be built on some land he wanted, that "it did not matter much, he would soon have the church for a barn."
It was he who called attention to the fact that the reason for the continuance of the Episcopacy was the size of certain Episcopal families. There were eighty, three persons in the ten families representing St. John's Parish.
The Rev. Samuel Andrews was really the founder of Episcopacy in North Haven and the surrounding towns. He went to England for ordination, returned in January, 1763, and delivered his first discourse, February 14, at St. John's Church, North Haven, to an audience of one hundred people.
The music of the church at that time was most remarkable. It was under the direction of Titus Frost, a lame chair-maker, who proved himself worthy of the position. He made for the church the first piece of chancel furniture, a chair; on the day it was presented he, together with a few friends, put it in its place, and coming back down the aisle, Titus Frost limping at the head of the procession, they all sang "Praise God, from whom all blessings flow." This was the first processional hymn in the history of St. John's Church.
The first Episcopal visitation was by Bishop Seabury, for confirmation on October 3, 1786. This is the oldest preserved exact date of any confirmation in the United States.
The most trying period in the whole history of St. John's Church was from 1785 to 1790, after the Revolution. The Rev. Samuel Andrews and many of his parishioners were Tories, and this fact aroused a bitter feeling against the church here and elsewhere. As there were but fourteen Episcopal clergymen left in Connecticut, it was impossible for the parish to secure the services of a clergymen even for an occasional Sunday. So "lay services" were the necessity for five long years, and it was just here that Titus Frost and his choir came to the rescue and took a large share in brightening the services and keeping up the interest of the people. We are told that the music of St. John's, North Haven, was unsurpassed in the State. Chanting was introduced in 1820, and in 1832 the first organ was purchased from St. Paul's, Wallingford. It was the second of its kind brought into the State and was imported from England in 1762.
Since then St. John's has prospered in spite of the hardships with which it has had to contend, and this prosperity is due, not only to the clergy, but to the interest shown by the laity and the harmony with which they have worked together.