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 history of Christ Church, Tashua, is not merely of local interest, but must be interesting to the whole diocese, because Tashua was a part of the first parish in this colony.
In writing this short history, I am indebted to an old book of records, still in possession of the parish, dating back to 1787, and an old parish register, also to an historical sermon, preached by Rev. David B. Sanford, the rector, on the occasion of the twenty-fifth anniversary of the consecration of the present church building. From these sources I have endeavored to cull and present in the briefest form possible the most important facts connected with the life of this parish the hundred years and more since the first church building was erected and consecrated on these sacred grounds.
The first Episcopal parish was established in the village of Stratford in 1707, and this was the only church of our communion in this colony for some years. I will speak incidentally here of the new era that dawned upon our church in 1718, when friends in England sent a donation of books to Yale College. These books treated with great ability of Episcopacy and of other distinctive doctrines. They were eagerly read and the result was that the president, Dr. Cutler, the tutor, Mr. Brown, and a former tutor, Mr. Johnson, with one other minister, Mr. Wetmore, declared for Episcopacy, and soon went to England to take orders. Mr. Johnson returned and settled in Stratford as rector of the Episcopal church, in 1723. The town of Stratford then embraced the present towns of Stratford, Huntington, Monroe, Trumbull, and Bridgeport. In 1746 Rev. Dr. Johnson organized the parish of St. Paul's, Ripton, now Huntington, and he officiated there four Sundays in the year; and his son, a lawyer, read service at other times.
In 1748 they petitioned the venerable English "Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts," for a clergyman. I will state here that Rev. Dr. Johnson was the first president of King's College and his son the first president of Columbia College. In 1750 the society sent over to Ripton Rev. Christopher Newton. A letter of his to the Venerable Society, dated 1760, is interesting as containing the account of the founding of the parish at Tashua, then called North Stratford.
In speaking of his labors, he says: "I have reason to think there has been good effect on a number of families about eight and ten miles from Ripton, to whom I have often preached--and of late they have been more ready to hear than formerly--and seem to be religiously disposed and sensible of the importance of attending public worship. They have accordingly built a church thirty-six feet long and twenty-six feet wide and in about six weeks so far finished it that we met in it for public worship. A large congregation attended." This was the first of the three church buildings that have been erected here. It was seated with rough slab boards and probably never plastered, for twenty-seven years afterward a committee was appointed to attend to this, but probably nothing was done because measures were taken soon after for the erection of a new church. The first building stood within the present church yard near the north gate. The first grave was dug in the church yard in 1766, six years after the erection of the church. It was the grave of Mrs. Eleanor Morrow. The gravestone of black slate is still standing near the north gate. The grave was probably dug directly in the rear of the church.
Mr. Newton says: "These people live at a great distance from public worship; and others, it seems by their conduct, chose to spend the Sabbath in hunting and unnecessary visits, and these are not only dilatory in religious matters, so that many of them live but little above the Indians, and are destitute of the comforts of life. This melancholy prospect influenced some that were able to build a church--as one declared to me, who had been a professor of the church for some years, that he thought it his duty to expend part of his estate in building a church to prevent their becoming heathens. These people," he adds, "since have attended worship and seem very highly to prize the worship of the church, and have desired me to take the care of them and I have preached every fourth Sunday to them." The missionary asked of the Propagation Society, in conclusion, an additional allowance for the labor and expense of coming hither from Ripton every fourth Sunday. They granted him £10 per year, which was continued probably to the close of the year 1782, or twenty-two years, making the sum of £220, or about $750, which was bestowed upon this parish in its infancy by their Christian brethren across the Atlantic. Of the missionary himself, the Rev. Dr. Johnson, then rector of Stratford, writes in the highest terms as laborious and worthy. The first Episcopal clergy labored zealously to gather the neglected and scattered. They preached in school houses and private houses and visited from house to house. They catechized the children, distributed tracts, Prayer Books, Bibles, and other religious books received from the Society in England. They were very successful, for as early as 1760 there were in Connecticut thirty Episcopal churches and fourteen clergymen. Three of these churches and two of the clergymen were within the ancient limits of the town of Stratford.
In 1762 Rev. Mr. Newton writes to the Venerable Society in England that he has reason to bless God that seriousness, peace, and charity appear to prevail in two parishes; that he has at North Stratford and Stratfield about thirty communicants and about one hundred at Ripton.
The present parish of St. John's, Bridgeport, and, of course, all of the Bridgeport parishes, grew out of the little mission station at Stratfield, which is here spoken of as containing together with this parish, then called North Stratford, thirty communicants.
North Stratford parish then embraced the ground now covered by Tashua and Long Hill parishes and part of the parish of Monroe. There was no separate parish at Monroe until after the year 1800.
The old Stratfield church stood about a mile and a half northwest of the present St. John's Church, Bridgeport, and near the old town line of Stratford and Fairfield. That church remained there until 1802. Soon after the Revolutionary War and the death of Rev. Mr. Newton, the station at Stratfield was connected with Fairfield church" and so remained until 1827.
In July, 1762, our parish sent to the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel a letter of thanks for their gift of a folio Bible and Prayer Book, for the use of their church, and also for small Bibles and Prayer Books and Catechisms, and for the frequent and very acceptable administrations of Mr. Newton, who, notwithstanding the distance of eight miles on a bad road, and the excessive cold in winter and heat in summer, has been very constant for several years, in administering the Lord's Supper to them once in two months, and performing divine service once in four Sundays, and in catechizing and instructing their children. The large Bible and Prayer Book are still in the possession of the parish, and are in good condition.
The Bible was printed in London in 1750, the Prayer Book in 1760. There are in the Prayer Book four petitions in the Litany, three for King George and one for "Queen Charlotte, Her Royal Highness the Princess of Wales, and all the Royal Family"; over these were pasted in later years the petitions "That it may please thee to endue the Governor and Rulers of this state with grace, wisdom, and understanding.
"That it may please Thee to bless and keep the judges and other magistrates, giving them grace to execute justice and to maintain truth."
There are also special services of prayer and thanksgiving: one "For the happy deliverance of King James and the Three Estates of England, from the most traitorous and bloody massacre by gunpowder; and also for the happy arrival of his Majesty, King William, on this day, for the deliverance of our church and our nation"; another to be used January 30th, "being the day of the martyrdom of the Blessed King Charles the First"; one for May 29th, a thanksgiving for the restoration of the Royal Family; and also one for the day on which his "Majesty began his happy reign." The constitutions and canons are specially interesting, showing the quaint customs of those days.
One on the dress of the clergy reads, "That all ecclesiastical persons shall usually wear in their journeys cloaks with sleeves commonly called priest's cloaks, without guards, welts, long buttons, or cuffs. And no ecclesiastical person shall wear any coif or wrought night-cap, but only plain night-caps of black silk, satteen, or velvet. In private houses and in their studies, the said persons ecclesiastical may use any comely and scholar-like apparel, provided that it be not cut or pinct; and that in public they go not in their doublet and hose, without coats or cassock; and that they wear not any light-coloured stockings. Likewise poor beneficed men and curates (not being able to provide themselves long gowns) may go in short gowns of the fashion aforesaid."
The canon on the duty of school-masters show how in those days they combined the religious and secular education of the children. It reads as follows: "All school-masters shall teach in English or Latin, as the children are able to bear, the larger or shorter catechism heretofore by public authority set forth. And as often as any sermon shall be upon holy and festival days within the parish where they teach, they shall bring their scholars to the church where such sermons shall be made, and there see them quietly and soberly behave themselves; and shall examine them at times convenient after their return, what they have borne away of such sermons.
"Upon other days, and at other times, they shall train them up with such sentences of holy scriptures, as shall be most expedient to induce them to all Godliness; and they shall teach the grammar set forth by King Henry the Eighth and continued in the times of King Edward the Sixth, and Queen Elizabeth of noble memory, and none other." The book concludes with the whole Book of Psalms collected into quaint English metre.
In 1764, Rev. John Beach writes from Newtown: "My congregation at Redding has increased very little for some years past, by reason that many who were wont to attend there, tho' living at a distance of six, eight, or ten miles, have lately built the small churches nearer to them, where they can more conveniently meet, viz, Danbury, Ridgebury, North Fairfield, and North Stratford, which has very much retarded the growth of the congregation at Redding. Formerly people attended church at Redding, from such a distance, that they were obliged to frequently come to the place on Saturday night and stay at the house of their brethren, in order to have the privilege of attending church on the Lord's day."
The North Fairfield church was the one afterwards known as the Gilberttown Church, since divided into the present parishes of Easton and Weston.
The parishes of Tashua and Easton are now connected under one rector. Rev. Mr. Newton wrote to the Venerable Society in 1766 that his parishes are increasing" notwithstanding the perils of the times." The perilous time to which he refers was occasioned by the Stamp Act and other measures of the British government which soon after caused the American Revolution. The attachment of the Episcopal clergy and people to the old country was strong, and they were much indebted there for assistance in the support of the Gospel, and so the difficulty of those times pressed most heavily upon the faithful in the historic church.
Another hindrance to the growth of the church at that time was the fact that candidates had to go to England to be ordained, and few were able to bear the expense, and as many as one in ten of those who undertook the voyage died before they could return. Petitions for a Bishop were unavailing because the Bishops of England could not consecrate a Bishop from abroad without the consent of Parliament, and that was withholden in deference to the remonstrances of the standing order of Congregationalists in New England. New York and Connecticut petitioned for Bishops in 1766, and one mentioned was Rev. Christopher Newton, of this church. It is needless to say that no Bishop was granted the American church until after the Revolution.
Rev. Mr. Sanford writes: "I have been able to find no report from Mr. Newton later than 1766, but he survived the Revolution and continued probably to serve this parish and Ripton until 1785, for in the parish accounts there is a record of the appointment of a committee to settle with the heirs of the Rev. Mr. Newton for services rendered. That committee was appointed in 1787, and Mr. Newton must have died in or before that year."
I will say here that we are indebted to Rev. David P. Sanford for many of the statistics furnished here, not to be found elsewhere. He must have had recourse to documents not now available. Soon after Mr. Newton's death, Rev. Abraham L. Clark, who was ordained by Bishop Seabury in 1786, came to this parish, and was engaged to serve one third of this time during his life.
In 1788, it was voted to build a new church by subscription and Capt. Abel Hall, Nathan Summers, and David Mallett were appointed to a building committee. Amos Van Nostrand was appointed to draw plans for the new church. It was not to exceed fifty feet in length and thirty feet in breadth and twenty-four feet in height. There were to be twenty-four windows of 6 x 8 glass, thirty panes in each window. The next spring they obtained land for the church on the north side of the highway. The church was built there and remained until the present edifice was erected. The same year it was voted to call this parish Trinity Church.
In June, 1790, the pew-spots were sold at auction, each buyer to build his pew within a year. The pews were to be in uniform style, as in the North Fairfield meeting-house. There were sixteen square pews next to the wall going around the building, except where there were doors, gallery stairs and chancel. There were doors on three sides, the chancel on the south side, and a tower and spire were built on the west end. In the body of the church there were long open seats free to all.
The original purchasers of the pew spots were Henry Beardsley, Josiah Sanford, Isaac Wakelee, Zachariah Mallett, Nathan Summers, Andrew Lyon, William Prince, George Chambers, Zachariah Beach, Joseph Mallett, John Edwards, Capt. Abel Hall, William Osborn, and Agur Edwards.
The church was completed in 1790. Rev. Mr. Clark continued in charge until 1792, when he accepted a call to St. John's Church, Providence, R. I. He was undoubtedly a man of note in his day. The first convention of this diocese of which there is any record was in 1792. This parish was represented by Capt. Abel Hall. After this Rev. Ashbel Baldwin officiated here every third Sunday for many years. He was one of the three ordained by Bishop Seabury at the first ordination held in this country in 1785. He was a talented man with a powerful voice, and was called a popular preacher. He was prominent in both diocesan and general conventions. He officiated here regularly until 1815, and at intervals until 1828.
A history that carries one into the remote regions of the past must ever be interesting to all men, and especially is it interesting to all Christians, when it recounts the triumph of Christianity from an early date to the present time.
The charm of this narrative lies in the fact that it portrays a continuous progress which the historic Church made in a time when there was a deep seated prejudice against her, amounting almost to hatred, on account of her connection with the mother country, then at arms against the American colony.
We are thankful to-day that she has weathered the gale, and that by her good works, her beauty and her holiness, she is making a steady advance in winning the love of the American people; and that she is constantly gaining ground and preparing to take her proper position as "The American Church."