Litchfield County Sketches

By Newell Meeker Calhoun

Litchfield County University Club

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Two Country Parsons

A VOLUME could easily be written on the Litchfield County ministers, and if the work was as interesting as the men are it would be exceedingly readable. These two men, whom I have called country parsons, lived and wrought in the little town of Bethlehem, eight miles south of Litchfleld. Bethlehem had then within its borders but one church, and never ought to have had but one where there are now three. The population of the town was, by the last census, only 576, and has been decreasing for a number of decades. Why New England people should economize on everything else and be wasteful in religious matters must forever remain a mystery, unless we say that it is because of their love of liberty to worship God in the way they choose. There ought to be a Protestant Pope whose business should be to consolidate churches in the small towns and villages. This would be for the glory of God and the good of men.

Those who named this hill town Bethlehem probably had the Bethlehem of Judea in mind, since the region adjacent, now Washington and Roxbury, was once called Judea. The landscape is restful in the extreme, and the Woodbury hills to the south roll away much as the hills do about ancient Bethlehem. Five streets converge at a triangular, green, where stood the original meeting house with its “sabba day houses.” In these last the congregatkn on a Winter’s day thawed itself out in front of the open fire and drank its flip. This church called, in the year 1740, a young man then twenty-one years old, named Joseph Bellamy. Young Bellamy had been preaching for them about two years, having been graduated from Yale College at the age of sixteen, in the class of 1735. His salary was fixed at ninety pounds and fifty cords of wood a year. Besides this he cultivated quite a large farm, which was a part of the church holdings. To assist him in the care of this he had a negro servant who was undoubtedly a slave, as slavery still existed in Connecticut at the time. Some of Mr. Bellamy’s parishioners complained that their minister used words which the people could not understand, and suggested a simpler vocabulary. “Why,” said their learned pastor, “everybody can understand me.” To prove it he called in his negro servant and said, “Pompey, could you draw an inference?” Now, “inference” was one of the learned words to which they objected. The colored man stood respectfully with cap in hand and, rubbing his woolly head, replied, “Massa Bellamy, the old mare draw it if de tugs hold.” It was this same old negro who was asked which was the greater preacher, Dr. Bellamy or Dr. Backus. His answer was, “Dey both great preachers, but Massa Bellamy he make God greater.”

Immediately after the coming of Bellamy to Bethlehem was the Great Awakening, as it was called, followed by the visit of Whitefield to New England. This young minister, hardly old enough to grow a beard, threw himself into the work with flaming zeal, for he was a man of fervid piety. Not only did he lead in the evangelistic work in his own parish, but in two years he preached four hundred and fifty-eight times in two hundred and thirteen different places in New England. He was a pupil and friend of Jonathan Edwards, and was a man of majestic presence, expressive voice, vivid imagination and dramatic style. Having also a welltrained mind, logical and persuasive, he soon became famous as a preacher and an able writer on theological subjects. He was ranked by some with Whitefield himself in his power over an educated audience. A triumvirate of great preachers was often named in the same breath—Edwards, Hopkins and Bellamy. Bethlehem soon became the home of the first theological school in New England, taught in the home of Bellamy. Young men came from far and near to sit at his feet, and these afterward became the leaders of theological thought in their generation. Bellamy had a clear insight of religious truth, and was a forceful teacher in both the pulpit and the classroom. Some of his terse sayings are still told in Bethlehem, having been handed down with the traditions of the place. A student rea.d a sermon which was quite voluminous, whereupon Dr. Bellamy asked him if he expected to prepare any more sermons. The young man in astonishment informed him that he did, and ventured to inquire why such a question should be asked. “Oh,” said the doctor, "I was only wondering what you were.going to put into them." At another time a number of his students were about to leave him, and had gotten into the stage coach at the door, when the doctor came rushing out, telling them that he had forgotten something very important. They returned, and when they were seated, expectant of some important deliverance on the work upon which they were about to enter, he said, “Young gentlemen, when it rains, let it rain. You are excused.” Well were it for all young ministers, and old ones, too, if they would remember those words.

The sermons of Dr. Bellamy give one little idea of this side of the man. They rather hide his individuality and keep out of sight some of the marked peculiarities that characterized him as a preacher and teacher. Here, as always, it was the man behind the sermon that made it effective.

In the days when doctors of divinity were very rare even in our large cities, and almost unknown in country places, Aberdeen College, in Scotland, conferred upon this Bethlehem pastor the degree of D. D., because of the great learning shown in his theological writings. This shows not only the estimate put upon the man by the religious thinkers of the times, but how widely read were the writings of this minister of an obscure town in Litchfield County, Connecticut. About this time, or soon after, the only Presbyterian church in New York City gave Dr. Bellamy a call to become its pastor, and, having failed the first time, afterward repeated the call. But it was unable to draw him away from his country pulpit, his students, his farm and his study, whare he was engaged in his great thoughts. His fame as a preacher brought people from far and near to hear him, and many students to sit at his feet. Take it all in all, safe to say that Dr. Bellamy was the greatest preacher the county has ever had settled within its boundaries.

There came one day to this school of the prophets at Bethlehem a young man of brilliant intellect and fine presence. He was no less a personage than Aaron Burr, the son of President Aaron Burr of Princeton College, himself a warm friend of Dr. Bellamy. He could hardly have come to study for the ministry, but was undoubtedly sent by his father with the hope that the young man might be led by the famous teacher to see and accept the claims of the Christian faith. It has been hinted that such were the audacity and self-confidence of Aaron Burr that he thought to show Dr. Bellamy that his faith was groundless. The result was that the pupil did not change the faith of the preacher nor the preacher win his pupil to accept the claims of Christianity. If this last had been accomplished, how different had been the future of this brilliant young man, saving his name from infamy and his country from this blot on the fair pages of her history!

Dr. Joseph Bellamy served the church in Bethlehem for fifty years, resisting all the persuasions of those who would have his light shine in more conspicuous places. A hilltop country town was high enough for him. Dr. Bellamy and the Rev. John Langdon, third in the pastorate of this church, are the only ministers buried in the cemetery at Bethlehem. All others have chosen to listen to the invitations to larger fields of service, or have been dismissed by the church, desirous of a new voice in the pulpit.

The other country parson, who came on the death of Dr. Bellamy, in 1790, was Azel Backus, Yale, 1787. This was his only pa.storate, since he began his preaching here, and was called from Bethlehem to become the first president of Hamilton College, Clinton, New York, in 1812. Dr. Backus was given the degree of Doctor of Divinity by Princeton in 1810. How great an honor this was is seen by the fact that before 1818 Yale College had conferred this degree on not more than two or three individuals. This parson was a brilliant classical scholar, and to help in the support of his large and growing family, and assist young men into the Christian ministry, lie established a classical school in his own house. When Dr. Backus left the town and church, the school passed into the hands of the Rev. John Langdon, who kept it until his death, in 1830. Mr. Langdon was also a rare scholar and a successful teacher. To him was sent Henry Ward Beecher, from Litchfield, at the age of twelve years. Bethlehem was thus an educational centre of considerable note for nearly one hundred years.

Dr. Backus was a different type of man from his predecessor. He was not so great a preacher, nor so eminent a theologian. He was pre-eminently a scholar, although no mean preacher. As a teacher he inspired his pupils with the loftiest ideals, and turned many into the ministry. Dr. Backus was a wit, dry and caustic, and these witticisms still live in Bethlehem, where the writer has often heard them repeated. A farmer brought a load of hay to the parsonage barn, the cart drawn by four pairs of oxen, the leaders being a pair of yearlings. Dr. Backus looked them over and asked why those little fellows were put on. “To draw,” said the farmer. The reply came quick and sharp:
“Draw? Why. they could not draw ‘Watts’ Hymns for Infant Minds’ down hill.” When asked afterward if he said any such thing, he replied, “Very likely; it sounds just like me.” When told that that part of the town known as Carmel Hill, which was notoriously bad, had been up to some new deviltry, the doctor remarked, “They had best fence off that neighborhood and have a little hell of their own.” Dr. Backus began his work at Hamilton in a vigorous and hopeful way, but after a service of only four years was gathered to his fathers at the age of fifty-two. It is admitted, however, that he left his impress on the college, and greatly helped to make it the power for good which it has been for nearly a century.

What privileges the people of this little hill town of Bethlehem had in those days, in the hearing of these brilliant and learned men, and in having these princely schol55
ars and world-famous preachers live among them! One can but wonder if they appreciated them, or often found them dry and uninteresting. They are all gone, pastors and people. The old meeting house in which their voices rang out these sublime Gospel truths is also gone, and a new one which is now old has taken its place. The pulpit in which they preached remains, and the chair with its wide arm in which Dr. Bellamy sat and wrote out his great sermons on “Divine Sovereignty” and “The Freedom of the Will.” Do pulpits of pine and oak last longer than people, with their strength of intellect, aspirations after the unattainable and dreams of immortality? How pertinent the words of the Master, “God is not a God of the dead, but the living.” So we may believe that these two country parsons still live and enjoy their good parishioners, whom they led in green pastures and beside the still waters.

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