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 Colonial history of Christ Church, Hartford, which I set out to write, appears upon Investigation not to exist, strictly speaking. Until a number of years after the Declaration of Independence there was no church building, no Rector, not even a regular supply, and only a very weak and temporary parochial association. The story of that association--such as it was--consists principally of a none too edifying struggle with the established Congregationalism. A struggle graphically depicted in a certain local legend concerning the erection of the first Church building. Even in Connecticut, after a scant three hundred years of occupation, we have our own legends, well worthy of preservation and far more easy to remember than the dislocated dry bones of historical details. Thus runs this story, told to me years ago by an old resident of Hartford:
Near the end of the 18th century the Episcopalians of our city became numerous enough to undertake building a church. They bought a lot on the west side of Main Street, including what is now the head of Church Street, as well as the site of the present church, and being too poor to, hire help, such of the men as owned wagons hauled stones all day to build a foundation. By evening enough for the purpose were deposited on the proposed sight, the volunteer teamsters retired to rest well satisfied, and planning to convert themselves into stone masons on the morrow. Then the outraged Congregationalists took their turn, hitched up their wagons, and spent the whole night in hauling the stone to the bank of the big river and dumping it into the channel. Next morning not one stone was to be found, and the intended builders deemed it prudent to postpone their design for a period of years.
This legend--like most others--while not strictly accordant with the facts of authentic history, does fully express their spirit, and that in a far more concise and picturesque form than the real story, which, nevertheless, I am here bound briefly to repeat.
Some have thought that almost from the first a few members of the Church of England were included in Hooker's colony, since some thirty years after its foundation certain citizens appealed to the General Assembly for relief; setting forth that inasmuch as the pastors of the neighboring churches refused alike to baptize their children and admit themselves to the Communion, they, the petitioners, prayed to be no longer obliged by law to contribute toward the support of said pastors, who were no pastors to them.
Whether they were so relieved I know not. Tolerated at least they were, since about an hundred years later, in 1762, they had gained sufficiently in actual numbers, and--even more essential point--in the estimation of their fellow townsmen, to contemplate the organization of a parish. At that time Hartford, notwithstanding her official prominence, stood numerically below many other towns in the state, the population dwelling within what are now the city limits numbering less than two thousand souls. A small village that would make to-day. Being so small and at the same time such a stronghold of Congregationalism, the S. P. G. declined to assist the infant association as it assisted the other parishes in the state, alleging that more good could be done elsewhere; so, although a church site had been purchased, a stone foundation prepared, two-thirds of the necessary support subscribed--and not only the few communicants but a number of dissenters as well were described as "very zealous" in the cause--matters progressed no further than occasional services held and sacraments performed by the missioners from Simsbury and Middletown.
Naturally enthusiasm waned, sympathizers dropped away, then, as the agitation against the mother country increased, political animosity joined hands with ecclesiastical against her church, until services ceased altogether, not only in Hartford but elsewhere, because it was judged too dangerous to hold them.
Now the famous stones had been left on that Main street lot much longer than overnight, so a certain well-to-do, influential, and bigoted Congregationalist, having acquired a doubtful title to a portion of the land, carted off, assisted by a mob, the building stone, not indeed to dump into the river, but to make for himself a cellar. This aroused some of the dormant churchmen: he was charged with trespass, the case carried to several courts, and, doubts having risen about the influence of the trespasser, finally decided in favor of the church.
Then, when the colonies were really free, and the Tories--amongst whom to be just one must number most American churchmen--no longer formed a danger to the state, public opinion became more mild, a larger association was established in Hartford, and, after considerable financial difficulty, a small wooden church was finished in 1795 and a resident rector secured in 1801.
That is now 100 years ago. In this century's time Christ Church has inhabited three houses of worship, each much larger than its predecessor, while substantially on the same ground; has given six of her rectors to the Episcopate, and is acknowledged the "mother church" of all the parishes in the city.
A century ago our dissenting neighbors carried off our building stone to make themselves houses thereof: now they adopt copious selections from our ritual to decorate their service withal; and imitation--ancient wisdom assures us--is the sincerest flattery.
[Facts taken almost entirely from, and in no case contradicted by, Dr. Russell's History of the Parish.--F. W. C.]
The beginnings of Christ Church parish date back to 1762, when the Rev. Thomas Davies, a graduate of Yale, and a missionary of the S. P. G., was invited to hold a service in Hartford, This he did some time between January and April, and in October of this same year certain adherents of the Church of England associated themselves together, and for £80 bought a piece of land on what is now the northeast corner of Church street. Stones were purchased, and a foundation was laid for a church, but a period of depression set in, and the few Episcopalians found themselves unable to raise money sufficient to erect a church. Further, they had to contend with the bitter prejudice of Congregationalists and Presbyterians, who were strongly opposed to what they deemed "prelatical" churches, and hindered their establishment by all means possible. To add to the distress of this little band, one of them illegally sold the lot that had been bought, and the purchaser, relying on his legal rights, entered the property, "broke up the foundations of the church, and carried away the stones, which he used for the foundation of a house he was then building." The land eventually was restored in 1785 to the "professors of the Episcopal Church," but not until they had paid £60 additional for renewed possession.