Pomfret Connecticut Church History

After receiving confirmation of bounds in 1713, one of the first things Pomfret did was to settle religious worship. The town, October 28th, voted to give an orthodox minister one hundred and fifty pounds toward buying land and building himself a house, and fifty-five pounds annual salary, until the town should contain sixty families. A committee was appointed to look for a minister. Reverend Ebenezer Williams was secured for six months. He boarded at the house of Captain John Sabin. in the northeast corner of the town. Religious services were held in some convenient private house. February 16th, 1714, the town gave Mr. Williams a call to settle permanently, offering him one hundred and seventy pounds for settlement and sixty pounds salary. He accepted the offer and entered upon the work. Two hundred acres of land that had been reserved for the encouragement of preaching were made over to Mr. Williams in June, 1714, by the Mashamoquet proprietors. Work was now begun upon a meeting house, which the town in December previous had voted to build “with all convenient speed.” The frame was raised April 27th, and it was covered during- the summer. It stood on the east side of the road, about a quarter of a mile south of the spot where the present Congregational church stands. A burial plot was set apart adjacent to it. The house was completed so far as to be opened for public use in autumn. Privileges were granted to build pews in specified parts of the house. Mr. Belcher was granted the privilege of building a pew on the west end of the pulpit, next to it, which privilege he probably never exercised.

A church was organized with eleven male members, October 26th, 1715, and Mr. Williams was at the same time ordained pastor over it. An ordination dinner was ordered for the occasion, sufficient for forty guests from abroad. The expense of the dinner was ten pounds. In 1716 the meeting house was fenced in, and the privilege was granted Nathaniel Gray to build a “Sabba-day house ” in the highway near the meeting house, for himself and his family. The `, Sabba-day house” was an institution of that period, common in many parts of New England, though this is the only instance of any record of them in Windham county which we have discovered. It was a small house with a good fireplace and chimney. in which a few persons could sit and warm themselves, and eat their lunch, when they had come a long distance to church and wished to stay through both morning and afternoon services. A good fire was kept up, and from the coals thus accumulated their ” foot-stoves ” were filled to carry into the meeting house to help them keep warm during the long service, there being no fire kept in the meeting house other than what was carried in in the foot-stoves. Sometimes a single family owned a “Sabba-day house,” and sometimes a few families joined in building one. Sometimes a number of them might be seen in the neighborhood of a single church. In 1722 the inhabitants were given liberty to build stables for themselves near the north side of the meeting house. In 1719 Mr. Jonathan Belcher appears to have offered the town a bell for their church, and straightway they vote ” That there shall be a bell cony built at one end of the meeting house.” But for some unexplained reason the bell did not arrive. In 1729 the church had fifty male members. Mr. Williams was greatly respected at home and abroad, and his counsel was sought in many difficulties throughout the colony. In 1731 he was chosen Fellow of Yale College.

The religious disturbances which attended the Separate movement in the middle part of the last century seemed to make but little if any impression upon the First church of Pomfret. No record is left of any agitation or loss to this church during that period that can be attributed -to the elements spoken of. Mr. Williams died March 28th, 1753, thus closing a term of pastoral service with this church extending through nearly forty years. This blow came to the people at a time when they were somewhat discomforted over the removal of much of their former strength by the division of the town into three distinct societies. A re-organization of the society and church, and the building of a new meeting house and settlement of a minister were questions which confronted them.

Reverend Noadiah Russel, of Middletown, preached through the summer of 1753, and October 16th, was’ called to the pastorate. The pay offered him was £1,500 for settlement, and £650 a year salary. These figures look large for that period, but their magnitude is easily explained away by the recollection that the currency at that time was highly inflated. At that time it took three pounds ten shillings to be equal to a dollar in value. Mr. Russel accepted the terms, but before ordination took place a disagreement arose in regard to church discipline, and in the early part of 1755 Mr. Russel withdrew. Reverend Aaron Putnam was next called, and he was ordained March 10th, 1756. The frame of a new meeting house, after long discussion in regard to its site, was raised September 5th, 1760, on the home lot of Zachariah Waldo, where two acres had been purchased for the purpose. The size of the house was sixty feet long, forty eight feet wide, and twenty-four feet ” stud.” It was probably completed during that and the following year. Galleries were built around the sides of the house, a high pulpit and massive canopy was erected, and the outside of the house ” cullered ” in the most approved fashion of the day. The main body color was orange, with trimmings of chocolate on the doors and bottom boards, and white on the window frames, corner boards and barge and eaves boards. A preliminary lecture sermon, when the house was all completed, was given by Mr. Putnam, Thursday, January 20th, 1763. The old meeting house and training field adjacent were sold by order of the society, and liberty was granted .to build sheds on the east line of the common, within four rods of Reverend Mr. Putnam’s house.

While yet in the prime of life Mr. Putnam was in a great measure disabled by a failure of voice and physical weakness, which obliged him to seek the aid of a colleague. The young man invited to act in this capacity was Oliver Dodge, of Ipswich, a recent graduate of Harvard. While on probation here Mr. Dodge manifested at times an alarming license in speech and conduct, and unfavorable reports concerning him came from abroad, so that some objection was made to his ordination, on chares of disregard to truth, neglect of duty, irreverent application of Scripture, and unbecoming levity. The council called April 19th, 1792, to ordain him, refused to do so, and later another council was called to consider the charges against him, which they found sustained. But despite the decision of the church court, the people had become so much attached to him that many refused to give him up, and a division was made in the church. A majority, both in church and society, were strongly in favor of Mr. Dodge. When the church was called together to concur with the society in making out a constitutional call, Mr. Putnam, exercising what was called the negative power,” which the Saybrook Platform allowed to ministers, dissolved the meeting without permitting a vote to be taken upon the question. Thus by a strategic manoeuvre the desire of the majority was defeated.

But the majority were not to be so easily silenced. Thus debarred from further expression and action, they indignantly repudiated all connection with the First church and society and straightway organized in a new form as the Reformed Christian Church and Congregation in Pomfret. A satisfactory covenant was hastily drawn up and adopted, and divine service instituted in friendly private houses. The young minister, thus released from previous restrictions, was more eloquent and fascinating than ever. Crowds flocked to the new places of worship, and the old meeting house and minister were almost deserted. Only twelve male members were left. These were Reverend Aaron Putnam, Oliver, Asa, Seth, Ebenezer and John Grosvenor, John and John H. Payson, Caleb Hayward, Josiah Sabin, Simon Cotton and Jabez Denison. Conflict of sentiment now ran high, over this occasion and the Ecclesiastic Constitution of Connecticut and the principles of Saybrook Platform, which gave the occasion its destructive force. A recriminative war of words, from platform and from press, was waged, not only in Pomfret, but throughout the county and state.

The first public act of the new society, December 28th, 1792, was to invite Mr. Oliver Dodge to settle as its minister; and in the following February he was ordained over it. So strong was the feeling against him that ministers of good standing shrank from the responsibility of introducing him into the ministry, and of many invited only the Reverend Isaac Foster, his sons and son-in-law-all of doubtful orthodoxy-assisted in the ordaining services. This ministerial reprobation only increased the fervor of his adherents. His personal friends clung to him with unwavering fidelity. His levities and indiscretions, which all were forced to acknowledge, were but the irrepressible exuberance of a free and generous spirit, and were more than compensated by his ingenuous confessions of wrong and great social attractions. The newspaper controversy and Swift’s avowed championship gave him great notoriety, and attracted many hearers from abroad. The old Grosvenor House, in which his church now worshipped, could hardly contain the congregation. No minister in the county had so wide a popularity. Some of the most respectable families in Brooklyn, Abington parish, Woodstock, Thompson and Killingly left the churches “of their former attendance and united under the Reformed church of Pomfret.

But while the masses were carried away by the fascinations of the popular preacher, a small but powerful minority were banded together against him. This minority were supported and encouraged by the ministry of the county and sober men in the neighboring towns. An attempt made by the Reformed society to obtain possession of the house of worship was unsuccessful, the Windham county court deciding “that Mr. Putnam’s adherents were the First Ecclesiastic Society and had a right to the society property.” This legal action and decision only made the controversy more bitter. Friendly intercourse between the contending parties was wholly suspended. The controversy was carried into town elections. Opponents of Mr. Dodge were excluded from office. Josiah Sabin, who had served as town clerk for many years, was defeated, and, in vacating his office, he wrote in the record, ” Here ends the services of a faithful servant of the public, who was neglected for no other reason than because he could not DODGE.”

This breach and controversy continued till near the close of the century. For more than six years Mr. Dodge maintained his ascendency, and his church grew and flourished, while the old church withered and wasted. Even some of the faithful eleven were lost to it. The family of Captain Seth Grosvenor removed to New York state. Through these weary years, however, the faithful few maintained the stated Sabbath service in the great desolate meeting house, the deacons praying and reading the sermons prepared by the speechless pastor, who cheered them by his presence and silent participation in their worship.

The conduct of Mr. Dodge grew at length more and more scandalous, until he became openly profane and drunken, even entering his pulpit in a condition of intoxication. The eyes of his most ardent followers were at last opened, and the tide of popularity was suddenly and strongly turned against him. He was tried by his own church July 4th, 1799, and found guilty of drunkenness and profanity, and was forthwith excluded from the rites and privileges of the church until by his reformation he should be restored to their charity. The restoration never came. Like Jonah’s gourd the Reformed church of Pomfret now withered and died. Their last meeting was held November 4th, 1799, when they determined to return to the First church and society. No obstacles being in the way, they readily effected a union with the old church, and Mr. Asa King was now engaged as assistant to Mr. Putnam. After a reasonable probation Mr. King was approved, and May 5th, 1802, he was duly installed pastor of the First church of Pomfret, Mr. Putnam having been dismissed from the position which his physical disabilities would not permit him to fill. Mr. King gradually led his people to a higher sense of the duties and responsibilities of life and the demands of Christian character upon them. Material things of the church were not overlooked. The meeting house was repaired, its back seats replaced by fashionable pews and an additional sounding board suspended under the massive canopy over the pulpit. His pastorate was harmonious and fruitful. A special revival season was enjoyed in 1808, when seventy members were added to the church. An imposing addition, a lofty tower or steeple, was now added to the meeting house. An unfortunate casualty marks the history of that improvement. Barnard Philips, a youth of nineteen, who was assisting in raising the structure, was thrown from the top of the frame and so injured by the fall that he died in a few days. This was done in 1810. With the completion of the improvements a bell was placed in the towerr by the generosity of Mr. Benjamin Duick, which served the purpose of a town clock, being rung three times a day. Mr. King was dismissed from his charge in 1811. An interval of three years followed, after which Reverend James Porter was inducted into the pastorate. He was a very active man, setting forward every good work that came to his hand. He established the first Sabbath school in this region; began the first monthly concert for prayer, and took the first collection at such meetings for foreign missions; was one of the most earnest promoters of the temperance cause, and helped organize in Pomfret a Moral Society, having for its aim the suppression of gambling, lottery dealing, Sabbath breaking and the excessive use of liquor.

Always forward in culture and worldly refinements, it was in keeping with the character of this church that it should be among the first to introduce the grand church organ. This was done during the second decade of the present century. Deacon Sweeting’s son, Nathaniel, was the first organist, and” many were the comments called forth by his orchestral performances. The plain old Quakers and the Methodists of the town were much scandalized by this culmination of worldly vanity. Still the church seemed to go forward, engaging with much interest in any progressive movement. A Duick Charitable Society was organized in 1817, having for a permanent fund a legacy left for charitable purposes by Mr. Duick. A Bible class met every week at the parsonage. In 1819 the Sabbath school was organized with one class of boys and two of girls and Major Copeland for superintendent.

About ten years later a new church edifice was built. The site was secured from Doctor Waldo, on a lot east from the former site, the ladies of the church paying for the same by knitting a hundred pairs of stockings. Materials from the old house were used as far as it seemed advisable in the construction of the new one, which was completed and dedicated in October, 1832. Mr. Porter asked to be dismissed in 1830. Reverend Amzi Benedict was installed pastor in 1831. The organ was retained in the new church, being now played by Miss Elizabeth Vinton, the only person in town, it was said, who was competent for the service. A deep and powerful revival was experienced by the church during Mr. Benedict’s time, bringing many into the church. His successor, Reverend Daniel Hunt, was ordained April 4th, 1835, and most worthily filled the place of his esteemed predecessors. At this time two brothers, Zephaniah and Job Williams, served as deacons. Lewis Averill was elected to that office at a later date. Reverend Daniel Hunt enjoyed a pastorate of nearly thirty years, and was succeeded by Reverend Walter S. Alexander, who was ordained here November 21st, 1861, and was dismissed January 17th, 1866. Reverend Henry F. Hyde was installed April 24th, 1867, and dismissed June 20th, 1872. Reverend William A. Benedict was acting pastor from January, 1873, to flay, 1874. Reverend W . S. Alexander returned and served as acting pastor from August, 1874, to August, 1875. Reverend Charles E. Gordon was acting pastor from January, 1876, to May, 1877. Hamilton M. Bartlett was installed as pastor in May, 1878, and dismissed in February, 1883. Reverend Frank H. Palmer was installed in February, 1884, and dismissed in May, 1885. Reverend Egbert N. Munroe was acting pastor from December, 1885, to May, 1889. The membership of the church in 1889 was one hundred and eight. A parsonage was built in 1883, at a cost of $3,000, not including the lot upon which it stands, which was given by Mrs. C. Comstock. The church was repaired and an organ purchased in 1878, at an expense of about $1,800, and further repairs and improvements to the outlay of $800 were made in 1886.

During the year 1776, a Baptist society was organized in Pomfret. The Baptist element which had then spread considerably in different parts of the county came by the way of Canada parish, Abington having furnished many adherents of that sect to the Grow church of the former locality. In Pomfret public religious services were held by. Mr. Manning at the houses of the Thurbers and other friends, which excited much interest. Baptist sentiments for a while gained strength and a branch was also established in the Quinebaug valley, including members from the eastern part of Pomfret and from Killingly. The Reverend Mr. Kelly labored for a time with the Pomfret Baptists, holding services at convenient residences, which were attended by large numbers. Hitherto the Baptists of Windham county had been mostly of the lower and uneducated classes of society, and their ministers had been men of little or no education. Now, men of higher standing were entering the ranks and a different ministry was demanded. President Manning urged the importance of education and endeavored to influence the people to attend to having their children educated. The society here maintained its organization and held services occasionally for many years, even though they had no minister and no house of worship. After a number of years, in 1803, the people on the Pomfret and Killingly line were constituted a branch of the Woodstock church. Under the preaching of James Grow, of Hampton, or Canada parish, their numbers were multiplied.

Regular services were held in the Gary school house at Pomfret Landing. Here, on September 18th, 1805, James Grow was ordained to the ministry, by a council of elders and deacons from the neighboring Baptist churches. In April, 1806, a distinct church was organized here, the members of which were dismissed from the Woodstock church as follows : Elisha Sabin, Artemas Bruce, James Grow, Pardon Kingsley. Smith Johnson, Thomas Bowen, Charles Robbins, Guy- Kingsley, Stephen Chapman, Alvin Easting, Lucretia Cady, Mary Brown, Hannah Sabin, Patty Bruce, Phebe and Sarah Stone, Azubah Bowen, Pollv M. Spalding, Orpha Easting, Susanna Kingsley, Katharine Ashcroft, Sabra Withey, Hannah Kent, Betsey Leavens, Hannah Fling, Celinda Copp, Lucy Goodell. Services were still held in the Gary school house and at other convenient points. A great revival visited this church in 1813-14, and many were added to its numbers. Services were held in the Gary and the Brick school houses. Soon after this a meeting house was built on Pomfret street. The branches at Pomfret Factory (now Putnam) and the Killingly border, were rapidly increasing in strength. Soon after this the Pomfret church seemed to have reached its zenith and began to decline, while its branches grew stronger. It, however, maintained services and pastors for several decades, but was finally absorbed into its former branch at Putnam. Among the last of its pastors were Bela Hicks, Warren Cooper and Isaac Burgess, the last of whom closed his service here about forty years ago.

Episcopalians in Pomfret worshipped with the church at Brooklyn in the ” Malbone ” church, until the year 1828, when the parish of Christ church was organized. A church edifice was built during the following year. Reverend Ezra Kellogg officiated in this as well as in Trinity church at Brooklyn. Reverend Roswell Park assumed the sole charge of Christ church in 1843. At the same time he opened a select school, which gained a very high reputation. Doctor Park was a thorough scholar, a strict disciplinarian, and his nine years’ incumbency left abundant fruits. Reverend H. C. Randall was in charge of the church a few years after that. The church is at present without a rector. The last one in charge was Reverend Fred. Burgess, who came to the church in May, 1883, and left it in May, 1889. The old site is occupied by a new and elegant church, which was erected in 1882, and consecrated in May, 1883. It occupies a beautiful site in a grove of evergreens, and is in part surrounded by an ancient but well kept burial ground.

The “Friends” gained a name in this town about the end of the last century and in the early years of the present century. Unobtrusive as their principles require them to be, their presence was asserted by no booming demonstrations. A few Quaker families resided in the town at the time of which we speak, and a plain house of worship was erected for them by the Smithfield Conference. This worship was maintained in a quiet way for many years, but it has now long since died out.

Methodism, though nominally belonging at one time to Pomfret, made but little headway except in the eastern part, where it joined other towns, and the history of its movements there will appear in connection with Putnam and Killingly, where the resulting churches centered. As early as 1793 a class was formed in the northeastern part of the town, then known as Cargill’s mills, which grew until 1795, when the Pomfret circuit was formed, which included that and a number of neighboring stations in northeastern Connecticut, the circuit comprehending altogether a membership of 169. Daniel Ostrander and Nathaniel Chapin were then preachers, and Jesse Lee presiding elder. In 1801 this circuit was included in the New London district, and in the following year in the New York Conference. In 1804 it was joined to the New England conference. Daniel Ostrander had then become presiding elder, and John Nichols and Samuel Garsline were preachers on this circuit. Meetings were held in the press rooms of Cargill’s mills and in the Perrin House at what is now Putnam. The Methodists, true to their reputation, were active and alive. Meetings were held in private houses. Mr. and Mrs. Elijah Bugbee, Noah Perrin and Mrs. Lucy Perrin were prominent leaders and exhorters. George Gary, a nephew of the last named, began preaching at an early age. The first Methodist camp meeting in Windham county was held in Perrin’s grove in 1808, and was largely attended.

Beginnings of Roman Catholic worship were made in Pomfret a few years ago. Mass was said in Pomfret Hall previous to the erection of a church. A Sunday school was also held. In the early part of 1885 the foundations of a new Catholic church were laid in the northeastern part of the town, a mile or more from Pomfret street. In 1886 this region was made a part of the parish of Mechanicsville, and placed under the pastoral care of Reverend Father Flannagan. The church was so far completed that services were held in it on Easter Sunday in 1587, and it was dedicated a few months later.

In the southeastern part of the town lies a settlement which gives evidence of business in earlier days, but which evidences are fading into the appearances of desertion, while in other directions new life is springing up. A large building stands in the heart of the settlement known as Pomfret Landing, which was once a cotton factory, but for long years has been abandoned as to that use, and a part of it is still used as a grist mill. A store and a few houses, and a handsome school house, make up the appearances which art has given to adorn a landscape which nature left in so rich a condition of beauty as to need but little more to make it one of the enchanting nooks of this almost fairy land. We might dwell at length upon the beauties of Pomfret Landing-a rich, cool glen in the green valley of the rippling, rambling, laughing Mashamoquet. But while the din of the cotton mill is no longer heard, and the rock ribbed hills no longer give echoing answers to the shrill whistle of the ” brick steamers ” plying the river, yet new signs of business life and social prosperity are not wanting here. A creamery was started here in 1885, which is now in a flourishing condition, its success fully warranting all the sanguine expectations which were put forth in regard to it. The cream is received into large vats, holding 300 gallons each, where it is brought to the desired temperature, and thence it goes into swing churns run by steam, in which it is converted into butter. A wagon is run out daily, which gathers the cream from about 400 cows. About 1,800 pounds of butter a week are made during the best part of the season, and the market demand for this butter is ahead of the supply, at good prices. A 12-horse power steam. boiler is used to run the machinery and regulate the temperature.

Religious services have within the past year been inaugurated at the school house, no denominational organization existing, but a sort of union service being maintained.

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

3 thoughts on “Pomfret Connecticut Church History”

  1. Very interesting reading. I am currently looking for more information on James Whistler’s mother , Anna McNeill Whistler, who apparently was born in Pomfret and lived in Pomfret for a number of years. Interested to know if there is evidence that the famous painting of her, “Whistler’s Mother”, was done while in Pomfret. If so, where was the home. Also looking for more information on the Christ Church Hall School which James and his brother attended In approximately 1849.

    Thank you for any additional information .

    1. Hi Nancy, This is a belated reply since it is January 11, 2023, and I only just saw your request for information on Anna McNeill Whistler, Whistler’s mother. I’m writing an article about her time in Pomfret. I was working on the 1850 census for a different historical research project and found Anne M Whistler living on Pomfret Street across (I believe) from the Christ Church Hall Academy. Anne arrived in Pomfret in 1850 after her husband, a railroad engineer, died of cholera in St. Petersbeug, Russia. George Washington Whistler had attended West Point and became a civil engineer. He built several railroads and canal systems in the northeast, and built the famous keystone bridges on the railroads as well. Consequently, the family moved around according to his work. They lived in Stonington, CT while he worked on the RR from New London to Boston. Ann’s sister lived in Stonington. Three of their children are buried there. In 1842 he was hired by the Tzar to build a railroad across Siberia. In Russia, they lived an opulent life and developed many friends who were engineers and diplomats. Their sons were educated in St. Petersburg. After his death in 1849, Ann returned to Stonington with her two sons, James and William. She buried her husband in the Stonington Cemetery. Living on a stipend of $1,500/year plus stocks in the RR from George Whistler, Ann was determined to find a decent private school for her boys. A classmate of George Whistler from West Point, Roswell Parks, happened to be the headmaster of the Christ Church Hall Academy as well as the Episcopal Priest for Christ Church. He managed to find her a rental which according to the census appears to be on the Eldridge Farm where the Catholic Church is. It was two stories and had enough bedrooms for Ann, the two boys, her servant, Mary Branna, and her mother when she came to visit in the summer. I am trying to locate the house, myself, for my article. It may or may not be standing, or it could have been a two0story el on the Eldridge house. Her sons did attend the Christ Church Hall Academy from 1850 – 1852 when Roswell Parks left to open a seminary in Wisconsin. James Whistler was admitted to West Point in 1851 and dismissed in 1853. The painting was not done in Pomfret. After James Whistler left West Point, he moved to London and his mother joined him there. He painted the portrait in his London studio. Ann and James are both buried in London.

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