Canterbury Connecticut Church History

Having viewed the circumstances under which the settlement was begun and carried forward from a civil point of view, let us now look at the progress of the ecclesiastical history of the early town, which is so intimately associated with the other side of its life as to be inseparable from,, it. We have already noticed the organization of the church and the installation of the first pastor, Mr. Samuel Estabrook, at the same time, June 13th, 1711. Under the influence of a religious revival in 1721 the membership of the church was doubled within a few years. Mr. Estabrook was a man of wisdom and learning, and was much respected throughout the colony. The annual Election Sermon ” was preached by him in 1718. The ” Election Sermon ” was a religious service conducted by the minister on the day of the regular annual election in some towns, and was an introduction to the other public duties of the day. Records in many old towns show that during the last century such a custom prevailed with more or less regularity, but they are not sufficiently clear to give us definite information as to when the custom began or when it was abandoned.

After the death of Deacon Eleazer Brown in 1720, Timothy Backus and Thomas Brown were appointed deacons. Mr. Estabrook died June 23d, 1727, in the fifty-third year of his age. He left lands and buildings valued at £1,000, and a library of over two hundred volumes. An attempt was made to settle Mr. Samuel Jenison as pastor, but though he accepted the call, and agreed to the sentiments of the church, which were decidedly in favor of the Cambridge rather than the Saybrook code of church discipline, yet for some unexplained reason he was not inducted into the pastoral office. The next pastor was Mr. John Wadsworth, of Milton, a graduate of Harvard in 1723, who was ordained here September 3d, 1729, his call offering him a settlement sum of one hundred and fifty pounds, and a salary of one hundred pounds a year. The building of a new meeting house now excited considerable agitation, which was increased by other questions, of location, the formation of a new society on the northern border, and the division of the town into two societies. The new meeting house was built on the site of the old one during the summer of 1735. The size of it was about 50×45 feet on the ground and 22 feet high ” between joynts.” The church gained somewhat during the early part of Mr. Wadsworth’s ministry, but was weakened by later events. The location of the new meeting house was a vexing question, quite a number strongly contending for a new location more convenient for those living in the western part of the town. Then, again, a few of its members in the northern part were dismissed to help form the Second church of Pomfret. Elisha Paine, Sr., and Samuel Cleveland died in 1736; Deacon Thomas Brown in 1738; Deacon John Bacon in 1741. In 1741 the church suffered by a scandal, involving the minister, which resulted in his removal from his pastoral charge without making any attempt to deny the criminal charge which was brought against him by a female resident. In This weakened condition, while yet without a pastor, the great revival which swept over the country about 1740 found the church. This church, indeed, was one of the first to be awakened by it. At this time Elisha and Solomon Paine, two prominent citizens, were aroused and brought into new religious light, and engaged earnestly in religious work, devoting their energies to the promulgation of the new religious light which they had received. This religious awakening appears to have wonderfully pervaded the whole community, even the children in the schools being so filled or affected with it that they could hardly attend to their studies. This revival aroused a class of men to practical exercise of what they believed to be the teachings of the Spirit prompting them to exercise gifts of exhortation and public prayer, and the conduct of religious meetings and, indeed, religious teachings, without authority from any constituted human organization or system. This idea was not in accord with the ecclesiastical ideas of the people or the government of Connecticut, hence it aroused their attempts to oppose it. The more decided the attempts made to subdue this new inclination of the converts, the more determined and demonstrative became their action. The people of Canterbury church were largely given to this new idea. They listened to itinerants, held their accustomed meetings and continued to pray and exhort in defiance of the enactments of the general assembly declaring such conduct of meetings by others than the regularly ordained ministers of the standing churches an unlawful thing, and the action of associations and consociations against them. A few supported the government and protested against these unlawful meetings. A picture of the state of affairs is given in the following extract published in the Boston Gazette, on the authority of “A gentleman of veracity.” “Dec. 16, 1742. Canterbury is in worse confusion than ever. Their minister has left them, and they grow more noisy and boisterous, so that they can get no minister to preach to them yet. Colonel Dyer exerted his authority among them on the Lord’s Day, endeavoring to still them when many were exhorting and making a great hubbub, and ordered the constable to do his office, but they replied, ” Get thee behind me, Satan!” and the noise and tumult increased to such a degree. for above an hour, that the exhorter could not begin his exercise. Lawyer Paine has set up for a preacher, * and makes it his business to go from house to house and town to town to gain proselytes to this new religion. Consequences are much feared.”

Two parties grew up, one in which the revival element prevailed, and this included a majority of the church; and another, favorable to the maintenance of the civil authority over the spiritual, and this was dominant in the society. Hence there was discord between the church and the society, and as the concurrence of both was necessary to call a minister, the church was a long time without a pastor while this conflict of sentiment was in progress. In the early part of 1744 the troubled waters had become so far quieted that a call was extended to Reverend James Cogswell to become pastor, the church and society agreeing in the call. He accepted the call, and all parties were pleased with his personal accomplishments, and listened to him for a brief period with apparent satisfaction. But the preaching and views of Mr. Cogswell did not prove agreeable to the revivalists, and after a few months’ trial. they abandoned the meeting house and the stated Sabbath worship, and held separate meetings in private houses under the leadership of itinerants and exhorters. Then followed another period of decided hostility between the two factions. Finally, on the 7th of August, 1744, the church formally withdrew from the society and adopted the house of Samuel Wadsworth as their place of meeting for religious worship. Here services were conducted by Solomon Paine or some other lay member. In the controversy which followed; Mr. Elisha Paine and Mr. Benajah Douglas were arrested and imprisoned for short terms in the Windham jail for the decided and aggressive part they took in the defense of their views. The few members of the church who remained in accord with the society now called themselves the church and joined with the society in extending a call to Mr. Cogswell, and the council called for the purpose, concurring in that view of the matter, proceeded to ordain him as pastor of the Canterbury church and society. This was done December 28th, 1744.

After the withdrawal of the revivalists and the ordination of Mr. Cogswell, the standing church (as it was called) increased in numbers and enjoyed a fair degree of prosperity for many years. Mr. Cogswell, though so obnoxious to the Separatists, was very acceptable to that part of the church and society which had put themselves under his care, and was greatly respected abroad for prudence, piety and learning. In 1746 Stephen Frost was made deacon in place of Timothy Backus, who had gone out with the Separatists. A partial recognition of each other was affected between the two bodies, by which the Separatists kept the records of the original church, and the communion service was divided between the two bodies. Further particulars in regard to the course of the Separatist church will be given in another paragraph. Let us now notice the course of the body which succeeded to the name of the Church of Canterbury.

The aged parents of Mr. Cogswell removed to Canterbury after his settlement here, and died in a few years. Reverend James Cogswell married Alice, daughter of Doctor Jabez Fitch. Like many ministers of his day, he was accustomed to receive pupils into his family, fitting young men for college and the ministry. Naphthali Daggett, afterward president of Yale College, enjoyed for half a year `1 the faithful grammar instruction of Mr. Cogswell.” A later pupil was one Benedict Arnold, of Norwich, then a bright little fellow, full of play and pranks, the recipient of many letters of counsel and .warning from his excellent mother. While Mr. Cogswell continued in charge of this church the celebrated preacher, George Whitefield, came through the country. Mr. Co-swell said of him that he “rode in his chariot with a gentleman, had a waiter to attend on him, and Sampson Occum, ye Indian preacher, who rode on one of the horses, there being three to ye chariot.” Mr. Cogswell, after much hesitation about the propriety of such a step, decided to ask him to preach, but Mr. Whitefield declined doing so. The visit of Whitefield, which occurred in 1764, was an event which excited great attention from the people.

The First society of Canterbury was again weakened by the withdrawal of members to form the Westminster church and society. Under a charter granted by the assembly in October, 1769, the society soon organized, and a church was organized about a year later. A considerable of bad feeling was stirred up in the course of settling the different matters in which the two societies were involved, such as the custody of previous records and settling the minister’s salary for the current year In the midst of other discouragements the salary of Mr. Cogswell was found to be falling in arrears, and the church was obliged to consent ” to his quiet and peaceable dismission.” After this the Canterbury church remained for many years without a settled pastor. Nathaniel Niles, of Norwich, preached for a season, but declined a call to settlement. Samuel Spring, Job Swift and Ephraim Judson also served as supplies during this unsettled period. Eliashib Adams succeeded to the deacon’s office on the removal of Deacon Huntington in 1769. Jabez Fitch, Jr., was elected deacon in 1771. Though destitute of a settled pastor, public worship was maintained with considerable regularity. In 1773 the resources of the society were somewhat enlarged by the annexation of Black hill, the lands in possession of Timothy Backus, Isaac Allerton, William Underwood, joab Johnson, Curtis and Ezekiel Spalding, Jabez Fitch, Jr., William Bingham, John Hough, Elkanah Cobb and Obadiah Johnson being by act of assembly “with the First Society of Canterbury for society and ecclesiastic privileges, but not for schooling, military and other purposes.”

In this condition President Dwight found the church, when in his ” Travels,” he reported it as suffering much from lack of clergymen, want of harmony and declension of morals. In 1784 a fruitless attempt was made to unite both First church and Separate church in worship under the ministrations of Reverend Solomon Morgan. He was then installed, September 30th, 1784, as pastor of the First church. The deacons of the church at this time were Eliashib Adams and Daniel Frost; Joseph Moore was added to the number at a later date. The efforts of Mr. Morgan to conciliate and unite the churches were so far successful that in 178$ about thirty of the more prominent Separatists returned to the First society. The spirit of discord, however, had so fully taken possession of the people that it was difficult to hold the First church and society together. The orthodox principles and staid, conservative practices of their fathers were a burden to the younger members, who wanted a wide latitude of freedom in the church, a new meeting house, new minister, and improvements in church music with the use of musical instruments. The action of the society being in some measure unfavorable, a movement was set on foot to organize an ” Independent Catholic Christian Society,” similar to one that had just been formed in .Pomfret. Fifty of the leading men of Canterbury gave their names to support this new organization, but before they had proceeded beyond recall the First church made concessions and induced them to return to their former connection.

Church and society now began a work of general renovation. Mr. Morgan was dismissed from his charge; five choristers were appointed and a committee “to promote psalmody: a bell was procured by voluntary subscription, and its ringing regulated by the society committee. The agreement between factions, which was the signal for these new departures, was effected December 26th, 1797. In 1799 it was voted to build a meeting house with a steeple, but the subscriptions did not sustain the vote, so _the project was delayed awhile. The liberty granted by the assembly, of raising fifteen hundred dollars by a lottery, encouraged the society to continue its efforts. Other sums were procured by private subscriptions, and in 180.5 a new meeting house was completed to the satisfaction of all parties. Daniel C. Banks and Thaddeus Fairbanks had supplied the pulpit during this interim. The pastoral vacancy was finally filled to the satisfaction of a unanimous people by the call of Reverend George Leonard, of Middleborough, Mass., who was ordained here February 3d, 1808. Owing to feeble health and an inclination to Arminianism, he remained but a little more than two years, when he sought and obtained dismission.

His successor was Reverend Asa Meech, who was installed October 28th, 1812. He enjoyed the favor of the people for a while, but his earnest religious spirit was not able to look with complacence upon the loose and immoral practices of many of the people, and as a consequence he fell into disfavor with the party who were absorbed in sensual and vicious amusements. He was succeeded in 1822 by Reverend Thomas J. Murdock, who is spoken of as ” a model of a man, a scholar, a Christian, and a minister.” His pastorate was terminated by his death in 1826, to the great grief of both church and society. Reverend James R. Wheelock was installed in 1827, but only remained in charge two years. Reverend Dennis Platt was settled here March 31st, 1830, and continued to January 1st, 1833. He was somewhat noted as a revivalist, and during his stay received many into the church. The pastorate of Reverend Otis C. Whiton followed, extending from June 20th, 1833, to January 17th, 1837. Reverend Charles J. Warren served this church as pastor from September 13th, 1837, to April 1st, 1840. Reverend Walter Clarke became pastor May 18th, 1842, and continued until May 23d, 1845. He was followed by Reverend Robert C. Learned, who came December 22d, 1847, and remained until November, 1858. Reverend Charles P. Grosvenor was settled here March 9th, 1559, and remained to July 5th, 1871. He was the last regularly settled pastor the church has had. It has been supplied part of the time by students from Hartford Seminary, and other temporary supplies for short periods. Since the fall of 1858 it has been supplied by Reverend Mr. Hanks, of the Protestant Methodist church at Canterbury Plains. During the interval of supplies the more conspicuous ones were: John R. Freeman, about three years; Andrew J. Hetrick, two years; Reverend Parmlee, two and a half years; John Koph, two and a half years; and Hezekiah Reid, six months in 1888. The following deacons have served this church, the date given with each being that of his election: Eleazer Brown, 1711; Timothy Backus, 1719; Thomas Brown, 1720; Deliverance Brown, 1737; John Bacon, 1737; Stephen Frost, 1746; Samuel Huntington, 1753; Eliashib Adams, 1769; Jabez Fitch, Jr., 1771; Daniel Frost, –; Joseph Moore, 1792; Joseph Simms, 1521; Lucius Bacon, 1821; John Francis, 1824; William Kinne, 1824; John M. Francis, 1844; Thomas G. Clark, 1847; George Sanger, 1867: Charles L. Ray, 1886. The society owns a parsonage. The membership of the church is about fifty at the present time.

Methodists have had some hold upon Canterbury for many years. This was a preaching station visited more or less frequently before any organization or building existed. They have, however, never gained any great strength. A building at Canterbury Green was erected by job Angell, many years ago, for the use of the Universalists, who were then coming into notice for a short time. This building was used for purposes of trade and business after the Universalists subsided. It finally fell into the hands of Hiram Waldo, who sold it April 1st, 1859, to a board of trustees, to be used for a Methodist church. The Methodist people at that time, were using it for a house of worship. The building is 32 by 42 feet in size, and has a basement under it in which a store was kept, while the upper part of it was used for purposes of worship. About 1870 a division of sentiment grew up in regard to the location of a proposed new house of worship. Some desired to retain. the old site, while others wished to build a house on the “Plains.” The latter party became strong enough to carry their desires into execution, and for two or three years maintained worship in the town hall at the Plains. A house of worship was erected about the year 1872. Since that time the church there has grown stronger, and has maintained a regular ministry, the body choosing to connect themselves with the New York Conference of the Protestant Methodist church. This is the only church of that denomination in Windham county. It has at present about sixty-five members. Since about 1572 this church has been in charge of pastors Reverends Kelly, A. B. Purdy, D. H. Chappell, Thomas Tisdale and W. Hanks, Mr. Purdy being here two or three times. After the establishment of the church on the Plains, the remainder of the old church were unable to hold together and maintain worship, and the old meeting house has therefore been abandoned, and is now falling to pieces.

The Separate church of Canterbury, of whose origin we have already spoken, was the first in the colony to come out boldly and squarely adopt ” new light ” principles, and renounce fellowship with the established churches. On January 6th, 1745, the principles of this church were subscribed to by its adherents, fifty-seven in number and representing some of the oldest and most respectable families in Canterbury, among them the names of Paine, Backus, Cleveland, Adams, Johnson, Fitch, Bacon, Hyde, Bradford, Brown, Parish and Carver. The separation of this church from the ” standing order ” was attended by a bitter and lengthy controversy. The Separates were not exempt from taxation to support the church from which they had withdrawn, and which had the strong arm of civil authority in its favor. They were taxed for Mr. Cogswell’s settlement, ordination and maintenance, and for repairing the meeting house, which had been seized and held by their opponents. Refusing to pay these rates, their cattle, goods and household furniture were forcibly taken, and in default of these they themselves were cast into prison. Their appeal to the assembly for relief was also without avail.

Under these burdens the body of Separates, still contending that they were ” the regular Congregational church of Canterbury,” went boldly forward and proceeded to call a minister. After considerable time given to two or three fruitless attempts, they succeeded in securing the acceptance of Solomon Paine, who was duly ordained September 10th, 1746. March 25th, 1747, Thomas Boswell and Obadiah Johnson were solemnly ordained to the office of deacon. The communion service and records of the Canterbury Congregational church being in their hands, they regarded the smaller part of the church who held with the society as having gone out from them, but they generously consented to divide the communion service with that body, though they determined to hold the records, and did so. After a time a meeting house was built on the high land west of Canterbury Green. The membership, when the church was fairly established, reached one hundred and twenty. The church was extremely zealous. Its members professed the utmost devotion, and under color of preserving the purity of its membership, kept up a constant and scrutinizing watch upon the conduct of its members. The most trivial derelictions from duty were noted and reported, and unbending exactions marked their dealings with offenders. The Canterbury church, with all its glowing fervency and affection, within three years suspended or cut off more than one-third of its approved membership. No plant could long withstand such vigorous pruning, and it is not wonderful that the Separate church was not permanently successful.

After the death of Solomon Paine, which occurred October 25th, 1754, the church was for some time unable to find an acceptable pastor, and diminished in numbers and influence. In 1757 Joseph Marshall, of Windsor, was chosen to be their pastor, but was not ordained until April 15th, 1759. In its weakened condition the church could no longer support itself and pay rates toward the support of the legally recognized church, and in May, 1760, a number of them, with other citizens, asked for society privileges, thus yielding the proud position they had formerly taken in spurning the idea that the civil government had any right to grant authority or privilege to an ecclesiastical body. This action gave great offense to some of their number, who repudiated it, though exemption from payment of minister’s rates to another society had been secured by it. Mr. Marshall was dismissed from the care of this flock by a council held May 29th, 1768. After this the church, losing its members by death, by disaffection and by emigration, grew steadily weaker, and was not again able to secure a pastor. Some returned to the First society, being allowed by that body to make contributions to the support of the ministry instead of being taxed for that purpose, which system was so repugnant to them. The Separate church, however, still held its organization and occasionally had preaching by some itinerant of their own color or by the Baptists. Efforts were made to unite them with the First church in 1784, but without success. In 1788 they removed their meeting house to the north part of the town, about thirty of their number having gone back to the First church. In its new location a congregation was gathered, and William Bradford, having been previously ordained, assumed charge of the flock. After his death the church maintained a feeble existence, its members carrying on the services, but during the early part of the present century its life went out and the meeting house was left to fall to pieces.

Before the revolutionary war Baptist sentiments were promulgated in this town by Ebenezer Lyon, and many of the “standing order,” as well as Separates, were drawn toward their acceptance, much to the annoyance and grief of Mr. Cogswell and others. These Baptists held to what was called “mixed communion,” and often joined with the Separates in worship and ordinances. Captain Ephraim Lyon was one of their leaders for a time, but he turned to the Methodists, while the preacher, Ebenezer Lyon, embraced the doctrine of universal salvation, and the Baptist faction fell into obscurity.

Soon after the revolution there were many Universalists in Canterbury who despised and flouted Mr. Morgan, and seemed likely to do much damage. Several united with the Universalist society of Oxford, then under the pastoral care of Reverend Thomas Barnes, who frequently held service in Canterbury and other Windham towns. So much interest was excited that meetings were advertised in school houses ” to discuss whether the doctrine of universal salvation could be proved from Scripture.”

Episcopal service was frequently performed by Reverend George S. White after his removal to Canterbury, and in 1827 “St. Thomas Parish ” gained a name, but scarcely a “local habitation.” Its existence was, however, recognized for several years, but has long since become a thing known only to history.

The Packerville Baptist church was organized in October, 1828, with twenty-two members, of whom nine were males and thirteen females. Levi Kneeland was ordained as its pastor at the organization. During his pastorate, which ended with his death in August, 1834, the church received three hundred and sixteen members. At the date last mentioned, the membership of the church numbered two hundred and twenty-seven. Mr. Daniel Packer, from whom the village took its name, was instrumental in establishing the church, aiding it both by his judicious efforts and large expenditures in building a house of worship and providing a parsonage. A meeting house, built in 1829, is still in a good state of preservation. A nice chapel was built in 1875 at a cost of eight hundred dollars. The church also has a good parsonage and several acres of land belonging to it, and a small invested fund. The present membership of the church is ninety-three. Manufacturing in the village having ceased, the congregations are necessarily small and the members considerably scattered. The pastors succeeding Mr. Kneeland have been as follows: Tubal Wakefield, 1536 to 1842; Martin Byrne, 1843 to 1544; D. D. Lyon, 1844 to 1847; Silas Hall, a short time from April, 1847, he being excluded and deposed; John B. Guild, 1848 to 1853; Alfred Gates, 1853 to 1858; John Payne, 1858 to 1863; Percival Mathewson, 1863 to 1867; George R. Northrup, 1867 to 1870; W. N. Walden, 1870 to 1875; Otis B. Rawson, 1875 to 1879;-J. F. Temple, 1879 to 1885; A. A. Robinson, 1886 to the present time.

Source: History of Windham County, Connecticut, Bayles, Richard M.; New York: W.W. Preston, 1889

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