Plainfield Connecticut Ecclesiastical History

We have already seen that the people of this town gave early and earnest attention to establishing a ministry and the worship of God in their midst. November 13th, 1699, thirty-eight persons signed an agreement to pay their proportion toward the support of the ministry. Twenty-six of these men resided east of the Quinebaug, and twelve of them on the west. A meeting house was built, so far as to be ready for occupancy by January, 1703. This house, which was supplied with a temporary floor and seats, was built on the summit of Black hill. In 1704 permanent floor, pews and pulpit were added. In the early part of January, 17705, a church was organized and Mr. Coit was ordained as its pastor. In 1708, Mr. Coit having married a wife, Miss Experience Wheeler,” of Stonington, his salary was increased to £60 a year, which was to be raised in “grain and provision pay,” but if any chose to pay in money they were to have the benefit of an abatement of one-third their rate. Between the years 1717 and 1720 a new meeting house was built. The size of this was forty by fifty feet on the ground and twenty feet high. Its location was for a long time a matter of contention, different claims being urged by different parties, even to appeals to the assembly to reverse the decision of the town vote. The idea of placing it on the country road that “goes from the south end of the town ” was generally agreed to, but various votes and claims were promulgated as to more . definite location. Once it was voted, ” That it shall , stand on the hill, north of Blodget’s.” Again it was voted that it should stand “east and by south from Blodget’s house.” A month later, however, the town declared that it should stand ” a few rods north of the house where Blodget dwells.” Notwithstanding many objections were urged to the indefiniteness of the relative positions of Blodget’s and the meeting house, the latter finally settled down to a location ” near Blodget’s,” and about half a mile north of the site of the present Congregational church in Plainfield, and was completed and ready for occupancy in September, 1720. The orderly character of the young people who attended divine worship in those politico-ecclesiastical times is not flattered by the fact that a man was stationed in the gallery to watch the young people below lest they should do damage to the house, “by opening the windows or anywise damnifying the glass; and if any”‘ (him or her), did profane the Sabbath by laughing or behaving unseemly, he should call him or her by name and so reprove them therefor.”

Mr. Coit remained in the pastorate until compelled by advancing age and infirmities to resign, and was dismissed March 16th, 1748, having been serving his people, either as supply or pastor, forty-nine years. During the last few years of his work it was necessary for the society to employ assistants a part of the time. He died in Plainfield July 1st, 1750, at a ripe old age.

The great revival of 1741-43 in Plainfield was followed by division. A minority were dissatisfied with the customs of the church, and withdrew and organized a church according to the Cambridge platform. Thomas Stevens, father and son, James Marsh and Joseph Spalding were active in this movement, which was accomplished in 1746. A very pleasing feature of the revival in Plainfield was its effect upon the remaining Aborigines. These docile and tractable Quinebaugs were greatly impressed by the vivid presentation of religious truths, and according to a contemporary there was wrought among them “the most evident reformation that hath appeared amongst any people whatever in these latter times, for they are not only filled with knowledge of ye way of salvation, and express the same to admiration, but are so reformed in their ways of living as to abstain from drinking to excess, which it was utterly impossible to bring them to any other way, and have their religious meetings and sacrament administered to them by ministers of their own nation.”

David Rowland, a graduate of Yale College in 1743, having been duly called by the town and church, was ordained and settled over this church March 17th, 1748. After being pastor of this church thirteen years he was dismissed April 23d, 1761, and removed hence to Providence. The pay of Mr. Rowland was £700 for settlement and £400 annual salary, and his firewood. The prices at which ” provision pay ” was to be received in making up the salary were: corn, 12s. per bushel; rye, 18s.; wheat, 24s.; oats, 8s.; beef, 1s. per pound; pork, 2s. per pound. Notwithstanding the fact that the Separatist faction, with the non-church faction, made a majority in the town who were opposed to Mr. Rowland, his call had been legally made at a meeting when many of his opponents happened to be absent, and now the town was obliged to carry out the contract, however unsatisfactory its terms to them. An appeal to the courts was annually necessary to compel the people to pay their ministerial rates.

The division and opposition of sentiment and action which had for several years marked the history of this town in regard to its ecclesiastical affairs, were happily terminated by a union of the two religious factions and the ordination of Reverend John Fuller as pastor of the church in Plainfield February 3d, 1769. He had been preaching for the Separate church of Bean hill, Norwich, and some concessions being made on both sides he became acceptable to both Standard and Separate factions of Plainfield After a pastorate here of eight years and eight months, he died October 3d, 1777. In the latter part of 1775, when the Eighth regiment of Connecticut was formed for service, he became its chaplain, and doubtless contracted disease in the service of his country which ended his days. The legend on his tombstone on Burial hill is as follows: ” John Fuller, after watching for the souls of his people as those who must give account, fell asleep, Oct. 3, 1777, -,E. 55. Following this there was no settled pastor for several years. The old church became poor and was inconvenient. Occasional services were had and the brick school house was used. Different ones were called, but no one accepted. A Mr. Upson preached five months in 1778, a Mr. Judson a while in 1779, and Mr. Solomon Morgan nine months in 1782. A new meeting house occupying the site of the present one, was built in 1784, and on its completion Reverend Joel Benedict, who had been pastor of the church at Newent, was installed over the flock December 22d, 1784. Under his influence and instructions, the party lines that had so long existed in the church were gradually obliterated. The radical element was drawn to the Baptists and Methodists, and the First church of Plainfield resumed its old position among the churches of the county, though not accepting consociation. It had so far conceded to the ecclesiastic constitution of the state as to consent in 1799 to the formal organization of a religious society. Reverend Joel Benedict attained the position of one of the prominent pastors of this church, and from outside he received the title of D. D.. an unusual honor in his day. In the old town burying ground we read this record of him: ” The good man needs no eulogy: his memorial is in heaven. The Rev’d Joel Benedict, D. D., Born at Salem, State of New York, January, 1745, Died at Plainfield, Feb. 13,1816.” In the old village street still stands the parsonage which-he occupied. It is now occupied by Mr. Theodore Wing, proprietor of Wing’s medicines. In front of the house stands a mammoth elm, which is said to be the largest tree of the kind in the county. The trunk is about fourteen feet in circumference. The pastorate of Mr. Benedict extended through a period of more than thirty-one years.

A terrible hurricane, which has ever since been known as ” the September Gale,” swept over this part of the country with great violence, damaging and destroying many buildings and uprooting fruit and forest trees. It is said that spray from the ocean, thirty miles away, was dashed upon the houses here like sheets of rain before the blast. This occurred in September, 1815. The meeting house of this church was demolished by the tempest. In 1816 the present stone church was erected, the design of its projectors evidently being to raise a structure that would not be so easily thrown down. The house was at first furnished with galleries on three sides, but in 1851 these were removed and the rooms for church services arranged as they are at the present time, with a large audience room above and a vestry below.

Orin Fowler, a graduate of Yale, in the class of 1815, was installed pastor of this church in February, 1820, and dismissed in January, 1831. He removed hence to Fall River, Mass., and died September 3d, 1852, aged 61 years. He was succeeded here by Samuel Rockwell, who was installed pastor of this church April 10th, 1832, and dismissed April 16th, 1841, and died at New Britain, December 25th, 1880, aged seventy-eight years. He was a graduate of Yale College and Seminary. Andrew Dunning, a graduate of Bowdoin College and Bangor Seminary, was installed pastor of this church May 24th, 1842, and dismissed January 26th, 1847. He died in Thompson March 26th; 1872. aged fifty-seven years. His successor was Henry Robinson, of Yale College and Andover Seminary, who was installed here April 14th, 1847. After a pastorate of nine years he was dismissed April 10th, 1856. He died in Guilford September 14th, 1878, aged ninety years. William A. Benedict became acting pastor in September, 1857, and resigned in March, 1863. He was afterward engaged in teaching and preaching at Orange Park, Fla. Joshua L. Maynard was installed pastor of this church March 30th, 1864, and dismissed October 25th, 1865. James D. Moore was installed pastor of this and the church at Central Village in March, 1867, and was dismissed in October, 1868. William Phipps was installed here June 9th, 1869, and after a seven years’ pastorate died in Plainfield June 13th, 1876, sixty-three years of age. Asher H. Wilcox became acting pastor in December of that year, and resigned May 1st, 1883, closing a service of seven years and four months. Abram J. Quick became acting pastor August 1st, 1883, and remained until 1886. Reverend H. T. Arnold, the present pastor, began his services here in 1887. The church numbers at present about sixty members. The deacons who have served this church, with the dates when they were elected and when they closed their service by death or dismission, as far as are obtainable, are as follows: Jacob Warner, 1705- -; William Douglas, 1705-1719; Joshua Whitney, 17191753; Timothy Wheeler, John Crary, — -1759; Jacob Warner, 1749- -; Samuel Stearns, 1749-1769; Elisha Paine, 1769- -; Benjamin Crary, 1769-1796; Samuel Warren, 1774-1815; Joseph Fitch, 1784- -; Thomas Douglas, 1784- -; Jeremiah Leffingwell, 18051814; David Knight, 1805- –; Abel Andros, 1816- -; Rinaldo Burleigh, 1817-1863; John Douglas, 1820-1824; Benjamin Andros, 1824-1846; John Witter, 1840-1859; Vincent Hinckley, 1840-1848; Elisha L. Fuller, 1847-1881; William B. Ames, 1859; Robert Fowler, 1886- -.

The Separate church of Plainfield, having organized, as we have seen, from members who had withdrawn from the standing town church, about 1746, ordained one of their own number, Thomas Stevens, to be their pastor. Having thus withdrawn from the standing church, they refused to pay rates for the support of its minister, but this they were compelled to do by law. They, however, were able to support their own minister, and also proceeded to build a meeting house in the northern part of the town. They appear to have been less bitter and radical than the same sect were in some other towns. The following remarks in regard to them made by Reverend Mr. Rowland, one of their chief antagonists, are worthy of preservation:

“Although some things appeared among them at first very unwarrantable, yet considering their infant state it must be acknowledged by all that were acquainted with them, that they were a people in general, conscientiously engaged in promoting truth, and Mr. Stevens, their minister, a very clear and powerful preacher of the Gospel, as must be acknowledged by all who heard him.”

After the death of Mr. Stevens, the Separate church was for three years without a pastor, but continued to meet together and maintain public. worship. After that the church was for a time associated with the Separate church of Voluntown, under the pastoral care of Reverend Alexander Miller. In 1760 a division of the town into two ecclesiastical societies was effected, by which the ministerial taxes on the Separates were somewhat reduced, but still the objectionable principle existed and they stoutly fought against it. Their numbers -were increasing and those of the standing church diminishing. This led to conciliatory negotiations; Mr. Miller was allowed to preach in the town church, the principle of taxation for support of minister was abolished, a pastor of Separatist inclinations was called by the united factions, and the Separate church as a distinct organization ceased to exist.

Several of the manufacturers from Rhode Island, who established these industries in this town, were of the Quaker sect. Under their patronage a Friends’ meeting house and school were started, which for several years enjoyed a considerable degree of prosperity. At the time of the ” September Gale ” of history a house was in process of erection for this purpose on Black hill. but the work was demolished and materials scattered by that tempest. The loss, however, was soon made good, and a simple house was erected for their worship. Forty-five acres of land on Black hill were conveyed by John Monroe to Sylvester Wicks and Deacon Howland, in presence of Rowland Greene, to whom was committed the charge of establishing a Friends’ boarding school. Some forty or fifty pupils from some of the most influential Quaker families of Rhode Island were received into this quaint and primitive family school, under the fatherly care of Doctor Rowland Greene, aided by his good wife and his brother, Doctor Benjamin Greene. The Quaker school and worship seemed to lend a calm and tranquil radiance to this ancient hill. This school was maintained for a number of years, giving a peaceful home and competent instruction to many willing pupils. Gentle and serene, even beyond ordinary Quakers, Father Greene and Master Benjamin maintained excellent discipline, and exercised a marked and salutary influence. Susan Anthony, Phebe Jackson, Samuel B. Tobey, Elisha Dyer, and many others famed in public life or benevolent enterprise, were trained in this Quaker school. First-days and Fifth-days they marched in pairs to the plain meeting house, the boys first and the girls at proper distances behind them, and there enjoyed a quiet session. The use of the meeting house has long since been abandoned, and in the early part of the present year (1889) it was sold to private parties, who, it is said, propose to convert it into a tenement house. But a few of those inclined to the faith and practice of this sect remain in the town.

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

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