Early Church History of Killingly, Connecticut

The first movement in the direction of establishing the Gospel ministry in Killingly was in 1708, when the court granted liberty to the inhabitants of Killingly to survey and lay out one hundred acres of land within their township for the use and encouragement of a minister to settle there and carry on the worship of God among them.” A hundred acres of land for the first settled minister were also pledged to the town by Captain Chandler, in presence and with concurrence of the selectmen.

The first minister was Reverend John Fisk, of Braintree, Mass., a son of Reverend Moses Fisk and a graduate of Harvard. His work probably began about 1710, religious services being held in private houses, alternating between different parts of the town. July 16th, 1711, the town agreed to give Mr. Fisk three hundred and fifty acres of land for his encouragement to settle in the work of the ministry. Two hundred acres were laid out on French river, which were afterward proved to be beyond the bounds of Killingly. Seventy-five acres were laid out on the western slope of Killingly hill and seventy-five on Assawaga or Five Mile river. Stated religious services were probably held after this date by Mr. Fisk, though some years passed before his settlement, neighborhood ministers meanwhile being called in to administer baptism and other sacraments as occasion required.

In the summer of 1714, the meeting house was raised and covered. Its site was east of the Plainfield road, about one-fourth of a mile south of the present East Putnam meeting house. -Nothing is known of its size and appearance, or of the circumstances of its building. In the ensuing summer it was made ready for occupation, and preparations made for church organization. September 15th,-1.715, was observed in Killingly as a day of solemn fasting and prayer, preparatory to the gathering of a church and the ordination of a pastor. October 19th, 1715, a church was organized, and Reverend John Fisk ordained the pastor of it. The original members were: John Fisk, James Danielson, Peter Aspinwall, James Leavens, Sampson Howe, Ebenezer Balman, Richard Bloosse, George Blanchard, Isaac Jewett, Thomas Gould and Stephen Grover. Sixteen additional communicants were admitted into the church before the close of the year. December 29th, 1715, Peter Aspinwall and Eleazer Balman were chosen deacons. The first marriage recorded by the young minister was that of William Larned to Hannah, the first of the seven notable daughters of Simon Bryant. The only incident of his domestic life that has come down to us is the burning of his house and all its contents one Sabbath when the family were attending public worship. The ministry of Reverend Mr. Fisk was acceptable and prosperous, and large numbers were added to the church. His pastoral charge comprehended also the inhabitants north of Killingly. The hundred acres of land given by Captain Chandler to the first settled minister of Killingly were laid out to him in 1712, west of Five Mile river, a half mile east of the meeting house.

This church prospered for a while. A season of special religious interest in 1728-9 added sixty to its membership. Eleazer Bateman, Jr., was chosen deacon in 1730, and Haniel Clark in 1733. Mr. Fisk remained in the pastorate till July 8th, 1741, when he was dismissed at his own request. During his ministry he had performed 463 baptisms, and admitted 254 members into full communion and 148-to the ” halfway covenant.”

A protracted meeting house controversy followed the dismission of Mr. Fisk. It was decided to build a new meeting house, and at the same time a division of the First society into two was contemplated. The people of each prospective society wished to have the new meeting house located so that it would fall within their own bounds when the division should be made. The northern people wished it to stand near the old church, on Killingly hill, while the southern people wished it to be located on Breakneck hill. In October, 1743, the assembly, after hearing the case and reports of committees, decided that the latter site, which was nearly central to the society as then constituted, should be adopted. November 21st than society by a large vote refused to build on that site. The question was re-opened at a later meeting, in December, and a controversy in regard to the qualification of some proposed voters became so clamorous that the moderator dissolved the meeting, and most of the people went home. The southern party then having the field, reorganized the meeting and voted to build a meeting house on Breakneck hill. A committee was appointed for the purpose, and the work was immediately carried forward. The” Breakneck party.” though probably in the minority, had obtained the lead and were carrying things by storm. In the midst of the confusion and excitement that prevailed, a messenger was sent to report the irregular proceedings to the governor and council. On the day appointed for raising the meeting house frame, March 28th, 1744, a large company gathered on the ground. When the frame was partly raised the northern party arrived upon the ground, with a message from the governor and council expressing the opinion that it was irregular and ” high handed disorder ” for any party to carry forward the work of building, in defiance of the properly expressed determination of the society, even though the society had refused to do the bidding of the assembly. The opinion and advice was that it was the business of the assembly to see that its decrees were carried out, and was not proper for a part of the society to volunteer to act in that direction against the desires of the majority. The opinion and advice were not heeded by the builders, who went boldly forward with their work until the meeting house was raised and covered.

The disgraceful wrangle between the two parties was carried to- the assembly, and so well balanced were their counter charges against each other in respect to irregularities and unfairness that the assembly were at a loss to know how to decide between them, and postponed any action till October, when it decided that the meeting house should stand and be finished where it was. The Breakneck party were now in triumphant gladness, but the northern people, as well as those in the extreme south, were not disposed to accept the situation. Thus the Killingly First society was broken into many factions. There was the Breakneck party, who wanted the society to remain with a meeting house in the center. In the north and south ends of the society were factions striving for a division into two societies, so that each could be better accommodated with a meeting house near them. Then, to add to the complications, the Separate or New Light movements were raging at this time, and this made subdivisons of each faction.

In October, 1745, the assembly divided the society and made two distinct societies of it. Under this act each claimed the prerogative of being the First society, and with this dispute they again repaired to the assembly. This, however, was quickly set. tied in favor of the north society.

The First society and church now hastened to reorganize. The church at its reorganization, November 29th, 1745, was composed of the following members: Joseph Leavens, Sr., Joseph Leavens, Jr., Thomas Moffatt, Daniel Whitmore, Joseph Cady, David Roberts, Sr., David Roberts, Jr., Samuel Buck, John Brown, Ebenezer Brooks, Francis Whitmore, John Roberts, Andrew Phillips, Ephraim Day, Benjamin Leavens, John Leavens, Thomas Mighill. Reverend Pearley Howe was then pastor elect, and continued in that relation until his death, March 10th, 1753, being then in his forty-third year. His wife was Damaris, daughter of Captain Joseph Cady. He received the commendation of being ” a highly respectable and useful minister.” By consent of the town the First society in the last end of 1745 proceeded to pull down the old meeting house and to build a new one about a quarter of a mile north of it, on the 11 east side of the country road right against Noah Leavens’ dwelling house,” where an acre of land had been given for the purpose by justice Joseph Leavens. The house now erected was said to be superior to any other in the county. It had three great double doors, opening east, west and south; large square pews, furnished with lattice work; a high pulpit and sounding board; galleries, front and sides, with rising seats and wall pews in the rear, and two flights of broad stairs leading to them. Reverend Aaron Brown, of Windsor, was ordained January 19th, 1754, and soon after married the widow of his predecessor. The society was divided into three school districts, each district maintaining its, own school. The church and society were now prosperous. Reverend Emerson Foster, the successor of Reverend Aaron Brown, was ordained here January 21st, 1778, the society offering him £220 for settlement and £20 salary. Dissatisfaction soon arose, many withdrew to the Baptist society and it soon became difficult to raise the money. In July, 1779, Mr. Foster was dismissed, and for a time religious services were maintained somewhat irregularly by Russel Cook and others for several years. Reverend Elisha Atkins, of Middletown, was installed in the pastoral office here June 3d, 1787, the society granting two hundred pounds settlement, fifty-five pounds salary, and the cutting and drawing of the minister’s firewood. The house was repaired and a belfry added and a bell procured and placed in it. Sampson Howe was to be paid twenty dollars a year for ringing the bell and sweeping the meeting house. Mr. Atkins proved a most excellent pastor, and as a citizen was interested in all plans for public improvement.

The old church was becoming out of repair, and a new one was talked of in 1815, but nothing was done till the famous ” September gale ” damaged the building, so that repairs on it were no longer practicable. The remains of the old building were sold at auction, January 28th, 1818, and during the ensuing summer a new house was built on “that part of the ancient meeting house lot lying between Providence and Killingly Turnpike, and the road leading to the new factory, so called, near the east side of said lot.” It is said the ” spirits ” used in raising this frame cost twenty-five dollars.

Mr. Atkins continued in sole charge of the church on Killingly hill, until 1832, when, after nearly a half century’s service, he was compelled to employ a colleague. Reverends William Bushnell, Sidney Holman and Henry Robinson, were successively installed in office; the latter remaining in charge several years after the death of the venerable pastor in 1839. Reverend James Mather appears to have been in charge of the church in 1846. Later history of this church will be found in connection with Putnam, in which town it is now situated.

The society of Killingly being divided, as we have already seen, into two societies, meeting houses and churches were established in both ends of the former society, and the meeting house on Breakneck hill not being available for either, it was of but little further use. It was used for various irregular religious services and for public town meetings, and after a number of years was taken down, and some of its timbers used in the construction of the town house at Killingly Centre. A few mouldering gravestones on the rugged summit of Breakneck hill’ remain to mark the neighborhood of its site. The church and society were by the organization of others reduced to the merest remnants, which soon faded out entirely, the church records being destroyed by fire, so that the details of the Breakneck church are buried in oblivion. -The church appears to have maintained strength enough to have a minister more or less of the time until about the end of the last century.

The inhabitants in South Killingly were permitted, on account of their remoteness from the Killingly hill meeting house. in the winter of 1734-35 to employ a minister to preach to them during the winter season, though they were required to pay rates to the regular minister the same as before. In April, 1735, the assembly granted the South Killingly people, who then numbered about one hundred and fifty souls, liberty ” to hire an orthodox minister five months in the year, and freedom from the ministerial tax during that period.” This temporary exemption from rate-paying did not become their permanent privilege until 1755, when they were released by the assembly from further charges to the South society, in which they were embraced in the division of 1745. This happy result was secured from the colonial government only by an appeal first to the throne of Great Britain in the reign of George II. The petition from South Killingly was the first to gain a favorable hearing in the colonial assembly.

The same year in which the church worshipping on Breakneck hill was instituted (known as the South church in Killingly) a Separate church was organized in South Killingly, December, 1746, with Stephen Spalding as clerk. In the early spring of the next year Stephen Spalding and John Eaton were chosen deacons. April 27th, 1747, Samuel Wadsworth was elected pastor. His installation occurred June 3d, 1747, some of the most respected Separate ministers being present to assist in his ordination-Reverend Matthew Smith, of Stonington, Reverend Joseph Snow, of Providence, Ebenezer Cleveland, of Canterbury, Isaac Backus, the church historian, and Oliver Prentice, of Stonington.

During the successful ministry of Mr. Wadsworth several of the remaining Indians were led to reform their lives and to unite with the church. Mr. Wadsworth’s pastorate was terminated by his death in 1762, and in November of that year a call was extended to Reverend Thomas Denison. ‘This relation was an unhappy one, lasting a little less than two years; to be followed by the very able and acceptable ministry of Eliphalet Wright, who was inducted into the pastoral office May 16th, 1765. An important work accomplished under his leadership was a revision and a re-signing of the church’s articles of faith and covenant. The faith and covenant of the Plainfield Separate church were voted ” a good and wholesome system of our faith and practice and agreed to as our covenant, by which we will walk for the future looking for more light.”

In 1776 the Divine Spirit was sent down upon the people like gentle rain, which lasted for more than two years, in which time about fifty persons were received into the church.. This “beloved pastor ” met his death August 4th, 1784, from the effects of an injury received while leading a fractious animal. His burial place is in the old cemetery, as is also that of his predecessor, Samuel Wadsworth. The headstones of each are legible and in a good state of preservation. Mr. Wright was an ardent patriot, shouldering his musket on one occasion and marching as far as Plainfield to repel the invading British.

June 1st, 1785, Israel Day assumed the office made vacant by the death of Mr. Wright, Reverend Ebenezer Bradford, of Rowley, Mass., preaching the installation sermon. Forty-one years Mr. Day went in and out before this people, resigning his charge in 1826, May 23d. In his ministry the church enjoyed two seasons, of special religious interest and joyful ingathering of souls. In 1788 forty-nine were added to the church, and in 1800 and 1801 sixty-four. A narrative of the latter remarkable revival from Mr. Day’s own pen was published subsequently in the Evangelical Magazine. This man of God received a fatal injury in the barn of his grandson five years after he had laid down his charge. His loss was mourned through all the region round about. December 10th, 1831, was the date of his decease. His funeral sermon was preached by Daniel Dow, D. D., of Thompson, from Psalms 1, 5. Like his predecessors, Mr. Day was buried with his own people. In his long ministry he attended 756 funerals.

For the six years succeeding the resignation of Mr. Day, the pulpit was supplied only with occasional preaching by different ministers, whose names have not been preserved, as there are no existing church records of this period. A Reverend Mr. Wheelock has left the strongest impression on the minds of those then living, and perhaps preached longer than any one else. Reverend Mr. Nott, son of the venerable Doctor Samuel Nott, of Franklin, and Reverend Mr. Holt, supplied for several months each.

In April, 1832, John N: Whipple, a theological student from Bangor Seminary, began to labor with the church, and was here ordained as an evangelist May 5th, Reverend Philo Judson, of Ashford, preaching the ordination sermon. Mr. Whipple continued in the field until the spring of 1834. He again was acting pastor of the church in 1840-41. One of the fruits of his first ministry was a revival that added 40 persons to the church. He was the first mover for a new church edifice. His other ministerial service was in Maine, Rhode Island and Ohio, where he died in the town of Lodi, December 29th, 1865.

For the the year 1834-35 Reverend Alvin Underwood was the stated supply; of whose subsequent life and labors nothing has been ascertained.

The. years 1835-1840 constitute the second broken period of the history of the church. Reverend Thomas Williams, who had been ordained as ” an evangelist to go out as a missionary ” in the old church by Windham Association flay 16th, 1804, preached during 1838. Mr. Williams died at the home of his son, Reverend N. W. Williams, in Providence, September 29th, 1876, at the great age of 97, giving no indication of disease. He preached for the last time in his 93d year. He was a voluminous author and a man of eminent abilities.

The minutes of the General Association of Connecticut declare the church ” vacant ” for 1837 and also in 1839.

From July, 1842, to April, 1844, Reverend George Langdon was the acting pastor. He is now living in Lakewood, N. J., preaching as opportunity offers. A licentiate, Isaac C. Day (grandson of Israel), was employed to preach in April, 1846. May 28th, 1847, an ordaining council set him apart to the ministry- of the Word, Reverend T. T. Waterman preaching the sermon. From physical causes Mr. Day was compelled shortly to leave the ministry, and is now living in Providence.

May 28th, 1849, Reverend Joseph Ayer was invited to the pulpit left vacant by the retirement of Mr. Day. After supplying over a year, Mr. Ayer accepted a call to settle, and `vas installed January 22d, 1851, Alvan Bond, D.D., giving the installation sermon. This pastorate closed by the dismissal of Mr. Aver March 25th, 1856, by a council that convened in the Westfield church. Mr. Ayer’s subsequent labors were with the churches at East Lyme, Voluntown and Sterling. He continued to preach till he was 77 years old. He entered into rest from the home of his son (Reverend C. L. Ayer) in Somersville, December 26th, 1875. It was in his pastorate that the creed and covenant of the Westfield church were adopted by this church as its faith and covenant.

The church was now so reduced in numbers and strength that the meeting house was loaned in 1856 to the Free-will Baptists of the place and the vicinity, who organized a church that maintained its ordinances for ten years; after which time most of its membership became identified with a new organization-the Free Baptist Union church of Foster, R. I. Believing that its work was not yet done, some friends of the ancient church made the attempt in 1866 to revive its life. Reverend David Breed (now over the church in West Stafford) was engaged to supply the pulpit one year, from April, 1866.

April 1st, 1867, Reverend Ezra D. Kinney became acting pastor. In the summer of his first year the church united with him in an invitation to Reverend John D. Potter to engage in evangelistic service. Mr. Potter came the 4th of August and remained through the 9th, holding 16 meetings and preaching 13 times. His labors were attended with a great blessing, nearly 40 expressing hope in the pardoning mercy of God. From this revival 24 came into the church. April 18th, 1869, Mr. Kinney preached his farewell sermon and then labored for a year at Sayville, L. I., when he removed to Darien, Conn., where he was formerly pastor for 21 years. He died October 2d, 1873, aged 74. He was a large and successful worker in revivals, wrote much for religious newspapers, and was the author of a volume entitled “The Great Supper.”

Reverend William W. Atwater was employed as stated supply July 25th, 1869. Pulmonary disease seriously impaired his health in the fall of 1K72, and in February of the next year he removed to New Haven and became the librarian of Yale Law School, in which position he died March 14th, 1874.

In June, 1873, Reverend William H. Beard, of Andover, Mass., was engaged as acting pastor. Two seasons of special religious interest have. been experienced-the first in the winter and spring of 1880, and the second in the winter and spring of 1887. In 1876 Mr. Beard prepared a centennial sermon from Psalms 48: 12 and 13-” Walk about Zion and go around about her; tell the towers thereof. Mark y e well her bulwarks; consider her palaces, that ye may tell it to the generation following,”-giving a comprehensive history of the church. Two Sabbaths-July 16th and 23d-were occupied in its delivery, the people manifesting their appreciation of these historical discourses by a large attendance.

There have been two meeting houses used by this church. The first stood for nearly a century on the north side of the turnpike, a few rods west of the present building. In 1837 the old church edifice. gave way to the present one. When set apart to sacred uses, January 2d, 1838, Reverend Sidney Holman of North Killingly (Putnam Heights), preached the sermon of dedication. This second church has several times undergone repairs. The outlay and changes upon it in the summer of 1868 were sufficient to justify a re-dedication. The ceremony took place August 19th, 1868, Reverend C. L. Ayer preaching the sermon from Exodus 25: 8, and Reverend Ezra D. Kinney offering the prayer of consecration. The bell that has summoned the people together for more than a half century was the gift of Alexander Gaston, the father of ex-Governor Gaston of Massachusetts. For many years he was the principal merchant of the entire region, having his home and place of business near the church.

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

1 thought on “Early Church History of Killingly, Connecticut”

  1. Hello, the brother of a forebear of mine, Samuel Growse from Suffolk, took a ship to the American colonies in 1636 (the Elisabeth of London from Gravesend) and I wonder what became of him (he is spelt Growce on the passenger lists). The ship was bound for Virginia but I suspect he got off early in Rhode Island or the Connecticut coast, as there were people by the name of Growse/Grows in Brunswick and Killingly in the late 18th and 19th centuries (and a Growstown just outside Brunswick) – and none in Virginia. Would you be able to shed any light on this? Who were the Grows/Growse family of Connecticut and could they descend from Samuel Growse? I would be very grateful for any help.

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