Early Church History of Windham, Connecticut

The civil and ecclesiastical association of the people kept pace, each with the other, so uniformly that it is hard to tell definitely which one took the lead. We have endeavored to notice in the-preceding chapter the founding and growth of the town of Windham in its civil capacity. We shall now turn our attention to a brief review of its founding and growth as an ecclesiastical body. Having held its first town meeting June 12th, 1692, the town was not complete until a Gospel minister was settled among the people. This, in fact, was one of the most conspicuous conditions of the charter granted by the general court of Connecticut on the 12th of May, preceding, the language of which ran as follows: ” And the inhabitants are obliged to improve their utmost endeavor to procure and maintain an able and faithful ministry in the place, and bear all other town charges as the law directs.”

In pursuance of this requirement the town, at its first town meeting, after asking advice of a Mr. Fitch, probably Reverend James Fitch, appointed a committee to go to Milford and arrange, if possible, for the services of Reverend Samuel Whiting as a minister to the town. Pending such negotiations, religious services were conducted by Mr. Jabez Fitch, at his own house. After repeated applications Mr. Whiting was induced to accept the proffered position, and began his ministry on the first day of January, 1693. In appropriate harmony with the circumstances he began on the first day of the week, month and year by preaching from the first verse of the first book of the Bible. His stipulated salary for the first half year was twenty pounds in provision pay and four pounds in silver. Collectors were duly authorized by the town to collect the rate ” and if need be sue or distrain for it.” His labors seem to have proved satisfactory, and during the year it was determined to offer him, as a more permanent inducement to remain with them,- an allotment through the several divisions of land that should be afterward made, and fifty pounds salary, and to build for him a house two stories high and eighteen feet square, “said house in capacity like, Joseph Dingley’s, provided he would stay four years.” Mr. Whiting accepted the offer. In 1694 it was decided that services should be held three Sabbaths at the Hither Place and two Sabbaths at the north end of the town. Mr. Whiting was a young man, a son of Reverend John Whiting, of Hartford, and as yet unmarried. In 1694 the town agreed, among other encouraging inducements, to increase his salary if he would continue, so as to make it sixty pounds a year for three years, seventy pounds a year for the next three years, and eighty pounds a year for the following three years.

Up to this time the town had no meeting house. Early in 1695 an attempt was made to find a place to erect such a building. A committee was instructed to measure the town from north to south, ” where the path goes, and so to find the senter for meeting house.” Two settlements, ” four miles apart and with a bad river between,” were to be accommodated. The spot determined upon as most desirable was at the Crotch or Horseshoe, where a little settlement was then just commencing. Its prospective selection as the site of the meeting house drew other settlers to it and increased its importance. Here the minister’s house was built in 1696, and here also divine service was held during the following winter,-in the house of Goodman More. This arrangement was adopted in compliance with the request of Mr. Whitney. The ancient ” Crotch 7- in later years is known as ” Bricktop.”

The people of the southeast quarter objected to building a meeting house at the intermediate point, believing that they were able, or soon would be, to build a house of worship in their own locality. They therefore favored a division of the town into two parishes, at least as far as the erection of houses of worship was concerned, even though they should both unite in the support of the same minister. But the people of the northern settlement, who were not as strong as the former, desired to build the meeting house at the Crotch. The town, however, voted, January 14th, 1697, that each locality might build a meeting house as soon as it felt strong enough to do so, but not to be exempt from its obligations to the town until they should be set apart in two distinct societies. But after much discussion of the matter, a committee appointed for the purpose decided in December, 1697, that the town should not be divided, but that the original design of building a meeting house at the Crotch should be carried forward. Before the work was begun, however, the question was again opened,-and discussion followed which resulted in an agreement, March 16th, 1699, that each settlement should build a meeting house as soon as it could, at its own charge, the house to be large enough to accommodate the whole congregation, and that services should be conducted in each place one-half the time between the middle of March and the 25th of December, for seven years, after which each place should endeavor to support a minister by itself. By authority of the general assembly, a church was now formally organized. The organization took place at what was known as the Dingley House, a mile north of Windham Green, December 10th, 1700, the following being the names of original members, as far as the list can be read, names of two males and ten females being now illegible: Samuel Whiting, Thomas Bingham, Joseph Carey, Joshua Ripley, Thomas Huntington, John Backus, Joseph Huntington, Jeremiah Ripley, Jonathan Crane, Joseph Hebbard, Samuel Abbe, John Abbe, Robert Hebbard, Mary Hebbard, Hannah Abbe and Rebecca Huntington. The deacons at this time chosen were Thomas Bingham, Joseph Carey and Nathaniel Wales. Mr. Whiting had been ordained on December 4th, 1700, and the thousand-acre right reserved by the legatees for the minister was soon – afterward made over to him, -” for his faithful labors eight years in the work of the ministry.”

January 30th, 1700, the front part of William Backus’s home lot at the southeast quarter was purchased for a meeting house plat or common. This was the nucleus of Windham Green, and the first meeting house was soon after erected upon it. This was completed and opened for worship in April, 1703. The building was 11 clabboarded from sill to girths ” around the inside, and furnished with a pulpit and seats and pews. Then a committee was appointed to designate the particular places in the house to be occupied by the several attendants upon service

Deacon Bingham in the right hand seat below the pulpit, and his wife in the pue answerable thereto; Deacon Cary in the left hand, and his wife in the pue adjoining; Joshua Ripley and Lieutenants Fitch and Crane in the foremost pue; Abraham Mitchell at the head of the first, and Josiah Palmer of the second seat, with their wives against them-and the remainder of the congregation in due order.” The Green around the meeting house was now enlarged and appropriated; the town voting December 23d, 1702, ” That the land east from Goodman Broughton’s, south from Thomas Huntington’s, north of the road by Goodman Broughton’s, extending to three or four acres of land onto Stony Plaine, should lay common to perpetuity.”

The division of the town having been effected, the Windham church prospered and rapidly increased in strength. The Mansfield people, not finding it convenient to support a minister by themselves, continued to worship with the Windham people until the year 1710. After the adoption of the Saybrook platform in 1708, as the established form of church government in Connecticut, Windham, by provisions therein contained, was included in the North Association of Hartford county- Mr. Whiting continued to retain the affection of his people, neither his land operations nor his interest in public affairs interfering in the least with his ministerial duties and usefulness. As his family increased his salary was proportionately enlarged, although the yearly allowance of eighty cords of wood which had been given him was gradually reduced to forty, each man being required to provide according to his list or forfeit six shillings a cord. This allowance was finally superseded by a ten pound rate for ministerial fire-wood. The meeting house was supplied in 1708, by vote of the town, with the luxury of a ” pulpit cushion.” During the same year a committee was also appointed ” to agree with workmen to finish the galleries, repair the underpinning and the breaches in the seats.”

The growth of the society demanded more room, and in 1713 it was resolved to enlarge the meeting house, but before the work was done it was decided to build a new house altogether on the site of the first. Deacons Cary and Bingham, and Lieutenant Crane were a committee to conduct the work, which was speedily accomplished. The house was much larger than the former one, and on its completion the usual designation of seating places was secured. Messrs. Ripley and* Fitch were honored with the chief seat in front. The venerable Joseph Dingley was allowed to sit in the pulpit because of his deafness. Mr. Whiting was allowed to build at his own expense such a pew as he saw fit for his family to occupy ” by the east door.” Several of the young men, Joseph Crane, Josiah Bingley, Zebulon Webb, Jeremiah Ripley, Jr., Jonathan Huntington, David Ripley and Ebenezer Wales, were allowed to build a pew for themselves, probably in the gallery, on condition “that if they removed out of the pue they should deliver it to the town without demolishment.” To modify the temperature of the unwarmed house as far as possible, it was ordered that in cold and windy weather the windward doors should be kept shut, leeward ones only opened. Two pounds, provision pay, were allowed annually for sweeping the meeting house.

In 1720 and 1721 the church enjoyed a season of revival, a circumstance quite remarkable by contrast with the generally cold condition of surrounding churches at that time. Residents of neighboring towns were drawn to the meetings, and young men were converted who were among the most prominent actors in the religious developments of a later period.

Mr. Whiting died suddenly, of pleurisy, while on a visit to Enfield, September 27th, 1725, being then in the fifty-sixth year of his age. He left a widow and thirteen children, the youngest, Nathan, then being but little more than a year old. The sudden death of their beloved pastor filled the people of Windham with mourning, and they appointed a day of special humiliation and prayer for guidance in the work before them of securing a minister to be his successor. The labors of the committee were successful in securing the services of Reverend Thomas Clap, of Scituate. Mass., a graduate of Cambridge in the class of 1722. After a trial of his gifts the town gave him a call, which was accepted, and he was duly ordained August 3d, 1726. The call to settlement offered him three hundred pounds for settlement and an annual salary of one hundred pounds and fire-wood. The church had received three hundred and eighty-three members during the ministry of Mr. Whiting, and had dismissed colonies to Mansfield and Windham Village (Hampton) and still numbered two hundred and sixty-four. The recent revival had increased its strength and spirituality, and Mr. Clap began his ministry under the most favorable auspices. New deacons were now chosen-Eleazer Cary, Joseph Huntington, Nathaniel Wales and Abel Bingham, with whom were also elected to act in advisory counsels three others; Joshua Ripley, John Fitch and Jonathan Crane.

The church was now prosperous. Mr. Clap developed remarkable administrative capacities, and brought all ecclesiastical affairs under stringent laws and discipline. In 1728 it was voted, ” That all baptismal persons have a right to hear confessions for public scandal, and that no such confessions shall be accepted unless made before the congregation on the Sabbath, or some public meeting wherein all baptized persons have warning to attend.” These confessions were very frequent. The number of delinquents arraigned under the strict regimen of Mr. Clap was very large. Though not brilliant or eloquent, he was a forcible preacher, and greatly impressed the community by his earnestness and strength of character. He was married November 23d, 1727, to Mary Whiting, daughter of his predecessor. He was called from this field of labor to the presidency of Yale College, and the reluctant people allowed him to be dismissed from this pastorate, December 10th, 1739,-and April 2d, 1740, he was installed as president of Yale. He had served Windham fourteen years. And in return for having taken their pastor from them, on whom a settlement had been made by the Windham people in expectation of his life services, the general assembly, in May, 1740, voted to reimburse Windham to the amount of three hundred and ten pounds, in the then depreciated currency of Connecticut, which was equal in value to about fifty-three pounds sterling. –

Another pastor was now secured in the person of Reverend Stephen White, of New Haven, a graduate of Yale in the class of 1736. He was mild and gentle in character, and rather deficient in that administrative capacity which had been so marked in his predecessor. He nevertheless appears to have been acceptable to the- people. A settlement of six hundred pounds, and an annual salary of two hundred pounds were given him, and he was ordained December 24th, 1740. The membership of the church was then two hundred and eighty-seven, and such was the excellent condition of the society that every head of a household was connected with the church, either by profession of faith or by owning the covenant. Family prayer was observed in every household, and every child was consecrated by baptism. Profane swearing was but little known, and open violations of the Sabbath were very rare. Soon after his settlement Mr. White was married to Mary, daughter of Major Thomas Dyer. The management of ecclesiastical affairs by the civil town was no longer the custom, but an organized society, connected with the church, had control of its material affairs. The deacons then in service were Joshua Huntington, Ralph Wheelock, Eleazer Cary and Nathaniel Wales. –

In the time of the great revival and the Separate movement, which took place soon after the settlement of Mr. White, the church of Windham received large accessions, and on the other hand suffered somewhat from the withdrawal of some to join in the Separate movement. During this period over one hundred members were received. A number of these converts a little later withdrew and organized as a Separate church in 1747, ordaining their brother, Elisha Marsh, as their pastor. It does not appear that this church was ever very thriving or vigorous. The mild temperament of the pastor prevailed among the church to restrain the more rigid disciplinarians from exercising their extreme authority toward the-Separatists, and they apparently allowed the seceding brethren to retire without resistance. The Separate church, thus left to itself, without any breeze of opposition to fan its energies into a flame, soon fell to pieces. Its pastor became a Baptist, its more moderate members returned to their allegiance, while others were absorbed into the more vigorous churches of Mansfield and -Scotland parish.

After order and the usual even tenor of life were restored the church began to consider the question of enlarging and rebuilding their house of worship. This work was begun about 1753, and completed in 1755, the new church being large and elegant, with a lofty and beautiful steeple, in which was hung the first church bell of Windham county. This latter accessory was purchased by a legacy of twenty pounds left for that purpose by Mr. Jonathan Bingham, who died in 1751, having already greatly aided and encouraged the erection of the new house of worship. It is also stated by Doctor Samuel Peters that this church had a clock in its steeple. Eighty members had been added to the church between 1746 and 1760. Mr. White was greatly respected for his amiability and uprightness of character, but had no very marked influence upon the-community. The senior deacons, Joseph Huntington and Ralph Wheelock, died in 1747 and 1748. Deacons Eleazer Cary and Ebenezer Wales died in 1757, and their places were filled by Joseph Huntington and Nathaniel Skiff. The latter died in 1761. Jonathan Martin and Elijah Bingham were chosen: junior deacons in 1765. – Now, we are told, there followed a time of religious declension, which lasted for many years. During the period covering the revolution, and for several subsequent years, Universalism and infidelity had come in and drawn away multitudes from the religious faith of their fathers. A reaction seemed to have taken place. Free-thinking and free-drinking were alike in vogue, and a looseness of manners and morals had replaced the ancient Puritanic strictness. Any sect or church within the state was allowed the privilege of worshipping according to its–own notions, but still the state insisted that every man should worship somewhere, or at least bear his part in maintaining some religious worship. The Saybrook Platform was dropped from the statute book in the revision of 1784, but the society organization was retained. Every man within the limits of a stated society was taxed for the support of its religious worship, until he lodged with the clerk of the society a certificate of membership in some other society.

The Reverend Stephen White died January 9th, 1793, in the seventy-fifth year of his age, closing with his life a pastorate of nearly fifty-three years, It is related of him that his gentle and lovely character, consistent Christian life, and faithful ministerial service, had won the regard of all “whose approbation was worth possessing.” He was succeeded in the ministerial office by Elijah Waterman of Bozrah, who was ordained -here October 1st, 1794. He at once devoted himself to his work with great earnestness, and by his faithful labors and pungent exhortations soon aroused a new religious interest in his church, which soon received encouraging accessions to its membership. He, like his predecessors, found a wife among his own people, Lucy, daughter of Shubael Abbe. Mr. Waterman was prominent in progressive movements in religious, educational and literary matters. Among other enterprises in the latter directions he collected materials for a history of Windham county, which materials, unfortunately, were in subsequent years allowed to become scattered.. His pastorate however, was not altogether a peaceful one. As might be expected, his vigorous crusade against vice and irreligion aroused against him a spirit of opposition, and some with whose unlawful sports he had interfered, and others whom his aggressiveness had offended, withdrew and organized an Episcopal society, thus evading the payment of rates for the support of Mr. Waterman. This weakened the finances of the society and made it difficult to raise the minister’s salary. Added to this the society was still further weakened by the sudden death of Sheriff Abbe, one of its chief supporters, which occurred April 16th, 1804. In view of the circumstances Mr. Waterman was dismissed, at his own request, February 12th, 1805. Eighty-nine members had been admitted to the church during his pastorate, and- two deacons had been elected, viz., Samuel Perkins, Esq., and Captain Eliphalet Murdock. Deacon Samuel Gray died in 1787; Deacon Jonathan Martin in 1795; and Deacon Elijah Bingham in 1798.

Reverend Mr. Andrews was ordained pastor of this church August 8th, 1808. He was a very serious and devout Christian, and was distressed and discouraged by the lack of religious earnestness among his people. To such an extent was he affected that he asked for dismission in 1812, and though at first opposed, he obtained it in the-following year. He was succeeded by Reverend Cornelius B. Everest, who was ordained November 22d, 1815, and whose ministry happily allayed all storms and had a most invigorating and healthful influence. Many new members were added to the church. Mr. Everest was dismissed in 1827, after a peaceful and prosperous ministry. He was succeeded by Reverend R. F. Cleveland, whose ministry of three years was equally successful and acceptable: This church lost considerable of its strength by the withdrawal of members to form the church at Willimantic in 1828, among whom was Deacon Charles Lee. Deacon Thomas Welch was also dismissed about the same time, to unite elsewhere. Reverend J. E. Tyler of East Windsor, was ordained and installed October 11th, 183 7. Abner Follet was chosen deacon in 1840.

Subsequent events have made it a matter of unusual interest that an additional word should be given to Reverend Richard Fally Cleveland, who was ordained here October 15th, 1829. He was a native of Norwich, Conn., and a graduate of Yale College. After remaining here three years he was dismissed in October, 1832. He was the father of ex-President Grover Cleveland, and two of his children were born during his pastorate here. These were a daughter, Ann, now Mrs. Hastings of Ceylon, and a son, William, afterward a minister. During Mr. Cleveland’s pastorate thirty-one persons were added to the church. He removed hence to Portsmouth, Va., and -was also stationed at different times at Caldwell, N. J., and Fayetteville, N. Y. After his pastorate in Windham different ones occupied the field for short periods, but no pastor was settled until the installation of Mr. Tyler in 1837. He was the son of Reverend Bennet Tyler, D.D., president of East Windsor Seminary, also known as the Theological Institute of Connecticut. On account of failing health Mr. Tyler was dismissed at his own request December 2d, 1851. During his pastorate the church was removed from Court House square to the site at present occupied. The last sermon in the old church was given March 20th, 1848. The house- was torn down and a new house built, some of the materials being used in the new building. Reverend George Ingersoll Stearns, a native of Killingly, was ordained here September 22d, 1852, and after a pastorate of nearly ten years he died here March 13th, 1862. Samuel Hopley began serving this church January 21st, 1864, and was dismissed January 26th, 1866. Hiram Day, the eleventh pastor of the church, followed him. He was settled May 23d, 1866, and resigned, his resignation being accepted March 24th, 1869. The next pastor, Adelbert Franklin Keith, was ordained and installed October 26th, 1870. During his pastorate the church was prosperous and the meeting house was enlarged by being cut in two and lengthened. A chapel was also built under his moving hand about 1874. He was dismissed June 29th, 1874. His successor, Reverend Frank Thompson, was installed June 8th, 1875. The church prospered during his pastorate, a revival occurring meanwhile, and about forty members were added during his pastorate. He was dismissed November 23d, 1880. The church was then a little more than three years without any regular pastor, being served by stated supplies. Reverend Frederick A. Holden was here from the spring of 1883 one year. Reverend William S. Kelsey, the present pastor, a graduate of the Hartford Seminary, was ordained May 27th, 1885. During his pastorate thus far sixty members have been added, twenty-two of which were added during the year 1888. The present membership is about one hundred and twenty. A disastrous fire, originating in the store of William Swift, which adjoined the church, occurred May 5th, 1886. The church was burned down. It was rebuilt on the same site without delay. The present handsome and commodious structure was dedicated June 16th, 188 7.

Thus the institution which in 1693 was an essential and coordinate part of the town, and then included members of the whole body politic, is now a local institution known as the Congregational Church of Windham. From this, which may emphatically be called a “mother church,” other churches have been formed as follows: Mansfield church, organized October 18th, 1710; Hampton church, organized June 5th, 1723; Scotland church, organized October 22d,1735; ” Chewink Plains ” church, organized 1780, existed sixteen years, and after its dissolution thirteen members returned to Windham church; Willimantic church, organized January 22d, 1828, and South Windham church, organized December, 1885. . The following is a list of the deacons of this church from 1700 down to the present time, with the dates when they were elected: Joseph Carey, Thomas Bingham and Nathaniel Wales, 1700; Abel Bingham, Joseph Huntington, Ralph Wheelock and Eleazer Carey, 1729; Nathaniel Wales, 1741; Ebenezer Wales, 1748; Joseph Huntington and Nathaniel Skiff, 1754; Jonathan Martin and Elijah Bingham, 1765; Samuel Gray, 1777; Eleazer Fitch and Hezekiah Bissel, 1787; Thomas Tileston, 1790; Samuel Perkins, 1796; Eliphalet Murdock, 1802; Charles Lee, 1815; Thomas Welch, 1824; Abner Follet, 1840; De Witt C. Lathrop, 1853; William Swift and Eliphalet Huntington, 1862, and Joseph B. Spencer and Casper Barstow at later dates.

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

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