Pre-Revolution Episcopal Church Bristol CT


A History of Bristol, Connecticut
By: Epaphroditus Peck
Printed by: The Lewis Street Bookshop, Hartford, CT

THE last chapter related the dramatic secession of eight men from the ecclesiastical society, declaring themselves “of the Church of England and under the bishop of London,” and the addition of six others to their number in the three years following. The record names only the men, but of course the seceding. group included a corresponding number of women and young people; and there were doubtless others who sym pathized with their action and preferred the Episcopal ritual and doctrine to that of the Congregationalists, and who became attendants at the Episcopal church when its services were established.

The first settlers of New England who came in the Mayflower and formed the colony of Plymouth were “Separatists” or Congregationalists, belonging to the group which had quitted the established church, and had been hunted into prison and into exile (and a few, of them to the gallows) by the intolerant authorities of the state and church of England. But the later corners, who established the Massachusetts Bay Colony in and about Boston, stil claimed membership in the Church of England, though they were of the Puritan minority of that church, and had suffered from the hostility of the church authorities.

But’ the first few years in New England, wholly separated from the church at home and in neighborly relations with the separatists of Plymouth, and the ever-increasing bitterness between the high-church party and the puritan party in England, which soon broke out into civil war, the beheading of the King and establishment of the puritan Commonwealth under Cromwell, brought the Pilgrims of Plymouth and the Puritans of Boston into practical accord; and eventually the Puritan clergy of Massachusetts became so extreme in their theology and so domineering in their rule that the Pilgrims at Plymouth and the seceders to Connecticut became by comparison the liberal party.

Before Bristol was settled a century had elapsed. The first zeal of Puritan orthodoxy had somewhat abated. Many had come to America to make a better living or from a spirit of adventure rather than from religious motives. They were accustomed to the stately ritual of the English church, and the simple services of the New England churches seemed to them barren and uninspiring. The Anglican system made the sacraments central in religious worship, while the Puritans emphasized the importance of sound religious teaching and therefore of the sermon. As time passed on many longed for the ritual and sacramental service of the old church at home, and tired of the theological preaching and the strict regulation of personal life which was characteristic of puritanism. This element made a fertile ground for the labors of the Anglican missionaries who began to come to New England and seek to build up “the church” here.

These missionaries were sent by the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel, the missionary agency of the Church of England, and New England, as missionary soil, was placed under the episcopal care of the Bishop of London. These Anglican missionaries were naturally young men of energy and zeal. Most of them served several parishes, or had a central church from which they established missions in smaller communities, and they were firebrands of zeal for “the church.”

Naturally the situation in Connecticut was such as to stimulate to the utmost their zeal for their church, and their opposition to the dominant Congregationalism. In England they had been officials of the state church, whose secular head was the King, whose bishops sat in the House of Lords, and whose services were carried on with great pomp and splendor at the public expense. There Congregationalists were despised “dissenters,” who had no social or official status at all, and toward whom a contemptuous toleration was the most favorable treatment they could expect. And the temporary domination of the “Independents” under Cromwell and the beheading of King Charles I had added hatred to the feelings of contempt which the leaders of the church felt for the dissenters.

To these general causes of ill feeling between the Church of England missionaries and the Puritan churches was added a particular fact of some importance. The Congregational churches, which at the beginning were the sole church of each community and did not regard themselves as denominational, were in every sense established by law; their proceedings were minutely regulated, as we have seen, by the General Assembly, and their expenses were paid by taxation. These taxes fell upon the just and the unjust, the orthodox and the unbeliever, alike. When a minority left the established church and sought to attach themselves to some other religious body, the legal authorities were very reluctant to grant them exemption from payment of ecclesiastical taxes.

To those who were sincere adherents of the Anglican Church this was no theoretical or slight grievance. The Rev. William Gibbs, the first man to conduct an Episcopal service in Bristol, says in a report to his society in England in 1749: “The dissenters do oblige them to pay to the dissenting minister, and which they have refused and for the refusal were, four of them committed to the Hartford gaol, in a place where they keep malefactors, upon which they then paid . . - six more are now threatened.” Six months later Mr. Gibbs writes that, these men having paid, he himself “demanded the money of the collector, which refused the same, and which put me upon sueing him before one of his Majesty’s justices of the peace in Simsbury town, for my Church-warden’s rate of Caleb Matthews, but was cast, and for my refusing to pay the cost , . I am . . . brought to Hartford gaol . . where I now am. Thus presumptuous and bold are these men in these parts.” Mr. Gibbs was also compelled to pay taxes from his own scanty income to support the Congregational ministry.

Perhaps as a result of his outraged feelings or of the hardship of his imprisonment, he became insane and remained so until his death twenty-five years later.

The grievances of the "churchmen" was so evidently just that the General Assembly in 1727 had granted them a degree of relief. Episcopalians were recognized as "sober dissenters," in contrast to some other religious bodies of an extreme type; and the statutes provided that if one was a regular attendant at a church having "a Person in Orders according to the Canons of the Church of England Settled, and Abiding among them, and Performing Divine Service, so near to any Person that hath Declared himself of the Church of England, that he can conveniently and doth Attend the public Worship there," his ministerial taxes should be paid over to such Anglican minister. In 1729 Quakers and Baptists were also granted this degree of toleration.

It is rather evident, however, that the administration of this law would provide abundant opportunity for friction. Those who had no real religion at all were likely to profess adherence to the church in which membership was cheapest. In 1798 a special committee of the New Cambridge Society reported that in their opinion "in order to Exempt a Person from being taxed by the Located Societies there Must be not only a joining to Some other denomination of Christians but a Common & Ordinary attendance of the public Worship of God with such denominations of Christians," and that eight persons named who had filed certificates of exemption "do not come Within the Meaning of the Statute." "But as Lenient mild & forbearing Measures are always Preferable to More Harsh and Coercive and as we Earnestly wish for peac and Harmony among all the Inhabitants of this society We beg Leave to recommend it as our Opinion that it is best to Cancel all the Taxes that are already become due from all or any of the above named Persons and at the same time we would let them know that We mean to Consider them to be holden for the payment of all Taxes Which may be Come due at any future Period all Which is Humbly submitted by your Most Obedient humble Servants."

In view of their bitter feeling that they were persecuted by the majority party and by the colony authorities, we can hardly yonder that when the American Revolution broke out, and the colonies refused further allegiance to the King, the effort to establish independence was bitterly opposed by the Episcopal clergy, and that practically all of the "churchmen" were loyalists, or "tories" in the polemic language of the day.

This was the result of the domination of New England by those who were in opposition to the ruling powers of church and state in England. In the southern colonies where the emigration to America was not the result of religious persecution, and where the colonists were mostly "churchmen," the situation was entirely different. George Washington himself was as loyal to the Church of England as he was opposed to the King and Parliament.

The little group who had announced their adherence to the Church of England in 1747 immediately sought and obtained the ministration of a priest of that church, for the list of baptisms, still in existence, begins in 1747. To those brought up in the sacramental traditions of the Church of England, it was doubtless a cherished privilege to have their children christened with the ritualand by a duly ordained priest of that church. Probably they first procured the Rev. William Gibbs to come from Simsbury for this ceremony. This clergyman graduated from Harvard in 1734, and was ordained to the priesthood in England, there being then no Anglican bishop in America. He had been authorized by the Bishop of London "to perform all ye Offices of his sacred function at Cymsbury in Connecticut in the province of New England in America," and had been granted "an annuity" of thirty pounds, "in consideration yt ye sd Wm Gibbs doth without delay—Transport, or cause himself to be transported to Cymsbury aforesaid."

He regarded New Cambridge as a mission of his church ?t Simsbury, and the natural claim of his parishioners here to be excused from paying taxes for the support of Parson Newell, because they were supporting their own minister, led to inevitable conflict. The society voted in January, 1749, that "our collectors shall collect the rates of those that call themselves of the church of england amongst us and we will defend them." The protest of Mr. Gibbs already quoted shows that four of the churchmen were committed to jail, "upon which they then paid," and that six more were threatened with the same penalty. But Mr. Gibbs had pluck enough to demand that the churchmen's taxes should be paid over to him, and tried to enforce that demand by suit, with the tragic result already narrated.

But morepeaceful and Christian counsels prevailed. On
December 28, 1749, the society meeting was adjourned a week "to see if our churchmen and we cannot agree with respect to their rates," and at the adjourned meeting the following vote was passed, and accepted by the signatures of the eight churchmen named. "At ajoyrned sosiaty Meeting held Jenerwary 1749 It was agreed upon and voted Between the present Churchmen that are amongst us viz capt caleb Matthews Stephen Brooks Abel Royc Benjamin Brooks Neamiah Royce simon Tuttel danil Row john Hikox and our sosiaty that they the sd capt Caleb Mathews stephen brooks &c Paying all thir menistearel Rates to us for the year past and half their minestearel Rates for the futer untill they have a lawful minester acording to the Canons of the Church of England which may requir and recover thir Rates by laws of the goverment set over them we the sosiaty would forgive or relinguish to them two Rates which was laid the year past viz a two shiling rate and a four shiling rate and all other charge that shall arise for finishing the Meeting house and mr newls wood—Caleb Mathews Benjamin Brooks Abel Royce Simon Tuttel Neamiah Royce John Hikox Stephen Brooks danil Roe."

This compromise seems to be based upon the fact or claim that Mr. Gibbs had not yet become fully established as the legal rector of the New Cambridge church. Perhaps he never did, as in 1751 the Rev. Dr. Samuel Johnson, "the father of episcopacy in Connecticut," speaks of the New Cambridge church as having "put themselves under the protection" of Mr. Mansfield of Waterbury. This was the Rev. Richard Mansfield, a Yale graduate of the class of 1741. After some apparently rather fitful services by Mr. Mansfield, Episcopal services were conducted by Messrs. Camp and Newton, who some years before had been candidates for the Congregational pastorate.

In 1759 Rev. James Scovil, Yale 1757, was appointed a missionary to Waterbury, Northbury now Plymouth, Westbury now Watertown, and New Cambridge; and he continued in charge of those parishes, officiating in New Cambridge every fourth Sunday, until in 1774 Northbury and New Cambridge voluntarily "agreed to support their own minister," and Rev. James Nichols, Yale 1771, entered on what proved to be a turbulent pastorate. New Cambridge seems to have been the larger of the two parishes, since the two societies voted him sixty pounds sterling for his salary "and a glebe of forty acres of very good land," and New Cambridge voted to pay him forty pounds "for our part of his stated salary." Mr. Scovill reported thirty-two church families in New Cambridge in 1760, and thirty-three in 1772.

Naturally the churchmen needed a church building, and Stephen Brooks, one of their number, deeded to the Episcopal Society four acres of land adjoining the Congregational meeting house lot on the east. This amount of land provided the site for the church, and also ground for a churchyard, a portion of which, with a few gravestones still standing, has been enclosed and cared for by the Daughters of The American Revolution, and is still visible just east of the Federal Hill school house, and north of St. Joseph's Roman Catholic cemetery. The four acre lot included a part of what is now Stearns Street and of the house lots south of that street; during many years of neglect, during which this old graveyard was used as a pasture, many graves were obliterated, and the graveyard was contracted to its present small limits. The north part of the Federal Hill school house probably covers the original site of the church. It was opened for services on June 10, 1754, Abel Royce and Stephen Brooks having been elected church wardens, and Caleb Matthews clerk.

When the Episcopal Church had thus become an established institution, the relations between it and the established society seem to have been reasonably friendly. The practice of the society was to elect one of the churchmen a collector "to collect the churchmen's part" or "Mr. Nichols's rate," as it was variously called, and the churchmen took part in society meetings as to secular matters. On March 29, 1776, Mr. Scovil wrote in the society record book a receipt in full of "all demands for ministerial rates," and Mr. Nichols for "my ministerial rate for the year 1774."

The two little churches at the north end of the Green and the school house on the east side had already made this hilltop something of a civic center; and the establishment of the entire Green as public land is evidenced by a society vote of December 6, 1773: "voted that the Society Shall take the Land that was purchased for a place of perade South of the Meeting house and pay to those that Bought ad Land the sum of ten pounds two shillings and Let sd Land be for the benefit of the Society of New Cambridge."

Besides the two churches and the school house there were other structures which would not be found in a modern park, nor required for the use of a modern church Services were then held, at least by the Congregationalists, in the morning and in the afternoon. Many of the people came to church from a considerable distance, and had no automobiles to take them quickly to their homes and back for the afternoon service. The church was unwarmed, ex cept for a few footwarmers which might help out a little, and the comfort of the congregation required a place where they might warm themselves and eat lunch together be tween the two services. It may be imagined that this interval was the social hour of the week. To supply this need there was a little row of "sabbath-day houses," probably looking more or less like the bath houses at a modern shore resort, but, in some cases at least, equipped with stoves. In 1754 the General Assembly authorized Stephen Smith and others to erect a row of sabbath-day houses ten feet wide and sixteen rods long in the highway east of the meeting-house. There were probably also some horsesheds near the two churches, though they are not mentioned in the records.

The friendly or at least tolerant relations which existed between the two congregations when the differences between them were mere matters of theology or church organization came to an end when the War of the American Revolution began. The Congregationalists, with Parson Newell at their head, were strong supporters of the colonial cause, while Rector Nichols did his utmost to keep his people loyal to the King. The record book of his parish has boldly written on its title page the text "Fear God, Honour The King." Each party regarded the others as traitors, on one side to the King, on the other to the cause of American liberty. Very much the same situation existed wherever in the state there were Episcopal churches. The puritan government was not one likely to be beloved by those who were out of sympathy with its theology and practice, still less by those who devoutly believed it to be both schismatical and heretical, and who constantly felt the weight of its oppressive hand upon them.

But the churchmen had always the crown, and the powerful mother church at home, to look to as their backer and defender; and though neither church nor crown seem ever to have interested themselves much in the lot of their co-religionists here, the distinguished connection there was at least a matter of pride and fervent loyalty to the ostracized churchmen here. And, naturally enough, they believed that the fear of the wrath of the powerful church at home was all that restrained the Puritans here, and feared a withdrawal of all privileges, and an attack on the very existence of their churches, if the Puritan colony should succeed in establishing its independence.

Nineteen days after the Declaration of Independence the Episcopal clergy of the state met to determine their course. One point of peculiar difficulty was the prayer for the King, and that he might be victorious over all his enemies, in the prayer-book.

At least one Congregational minister in Massachusetts suffered embarrassment from a similar cause. He had prayed so long for "our excellent King George" that after independence had been declared he inadvertently inserted the familiar phrase in his prayer, but, recollecting himself in time, he added: "0 Lord, I mean George Washington."

But the Church of England clergy could not so readily interpret away their prescribed prayer for the King. They could not omit it without disobedience to the canons of the church, nor include it without incurring the wrath of their neighbors, and the accusation of open disloyalty. They, therefore, resolved to suspend public services until the storm of revolution should blow over; which they probably thought would be but a few months.

One old man, Rev. John Beach of Newtown and Reading, absolutely refused his consent to this resolution, and declared that he would "do his duty, preach and pray for the King, till the rebels cut out his tongue." The doughty old loyalist kept his word, and yet died peaceably in his bed in the eighty-second year of his age, just in time to escape the bitter news of Cornwallis's surrender.

But he had some exciting experiences in the meantime. While officiating one day in Reading, a shot was fired into the church, and the ball struck above him and lodged in the sounding-board. Pausing for the moment, he uttered the words: "Fear not them which kill the body, but are not able to kill the soul; but rather fear him which is able to destroy both soul and body in hell." He then proceeded with the service without further interruption. At another time a party of men entered his church and, as he was about reaching the prayer for the King, pointed their muskets at his head. He calmly went on and, whether they did not fire or missed, he escaped injury.

Chippens Hill in Bristol seems to have become a center
for the Tory activities of the state. Near the highway which runs north from Terryville in the town of Harwinton, a mile or two north of East Church, is a large cave among the rocks, which is not in sight from the highway and is still difficult to find, which is traditionally known as the Tory Den. Here it is said that the loyalists of the state used to meet in conference; here soldiers were enlisted for King George, officers chosen, and information gathered to be sent to the royal headquarters at New York; here the tories of the neighborhood hid themselves when raids from the "Sons of Liberty" were expected.

An article in the Hartford Courant of April 25, 1907, says: "The staunchest friend of Rev. Mr. Nichols was Stephen Graves of Harwinton. It was upon or near his property that the Tory Den was located. His log house was the meeting place of the Tory leaders. Upon high ground, in the very ledges themselves, it was the safest council chamber that could be found. The Tory Den in fact was much used as a refuge from this place, and was probably first hit upon for this purpose. Ruth Graves, a bride not more than nineteen years old, furnished food for the men of the den, clambering nearly a mile through the wooded crags. As her husband became more and more suspected, he was compelled to resort oftener to the den. Once returning from Stratford he escaped from his captors near Pine Hollow hill and spent some time in the cave before he dared enter his home.

The traditions in the Graves family give us the best information of any about the 'Sons of Liberty,' and it is probable that the Graves homestead was the most frequent recipient of their unwelcome raids. 'Captain Wolson's Sons' they are in one place called. Who Captain Wilson was is left to conjecture, but Wilson is a Harwinton name, and a name found to fit the description is that of Captain John Wilson, who during these troublesome times was Harwinton's deputy to the General Assembly. From thel Graves family may be learned the precautions that the Tory families were compelled to resort to; how, while the men worked together on the farm of one of their number with their guns near at hand for protection, the woman each with her children at home listened for the sound of a horn and watched for a glimpse of the 'Sons'; how upon sight of the marauders she blew a loud blast upon a conch or horn and then laid it in its hiding place, prepared to receive the band, or how, when she heard a blast sounding in the air, she blew an even louder one herself, that thc signal might pass along to her neighbors. The story is told that Captain Wilson once presented his pistol to the head of a young girl in the Graves household and threat ened to shoot. her if she did not tell him where the noisy conch was concealed."

The arrest and execution of Moses Dunbar which will be more fully related in the next chapter must have increased the hatred of the two parties in Bristol to faver heat; but his tragic fate may have cowed the less resolute of the churchmen into silence.

The records of the General Assembly of Connecticut for May, 1777, two months after the execution of Moses Dunbar, contain the following entry: "On report of the committee appointed by this Assembly to take into consideration the subject matter of the memorial of Nathi Jones, Simon Tuttle, Joel Tuttle, Nathaniel Matthews, John Matthews, Riverius Carrington, Lemuel Carrington, Zerubbable Jerom Junr, Chauncey Jerom, Ezra Dormer, Nehemiah Royce, Abel Royce, George Beckwith, Abel Frisbee, Levi Frisbey, Jared Peck and. Abraham Waters, all of Farmington, showing that they are imprisoned on fruspicion of being inimical to America; that they are ready and willing to join with their country and to do their utmost for its defence; and praying to be examined and set at liberty, as per said memorial on file, reporting that the said committee caused the authority, etc., of Farmington to be duly notifyed, that they conveyed the memorialists before them at the house of Mr. David Bull on the 22d instant May and examined them separately touching their unfriendliness to the American States, and heard the evidences produced by the parties; that they found said persons were committed for being highly inimical to the United States, and for refusing to act in defence of their country; that on examination it appeared that they had been much under the influence of one Nichols, a designing church dergyman who had instilled into them principles opposite to the good of the States; that under the influence of such principles they had pursued a course of conduct tending to the ruin of the country and highly displeasing to those who are friends to the freedom and independence of the United States; that under various pretenses they had refused to go in the expedition to Danbury; that said Nathaniel Jones and Simon Tuttle have as they suppose each of them a son gone over to the enemy; that there was, however, no particular positive fact that sufficiently appeared to have been committed by them of an atrocious nature against the States, and that they were indeed grossly ignorant of the true grounds of the present war with Great Britain; that they appeared to be penitent of their former conduct, professed themselves convinced since the Danbury alarm that there was no such thing as remaining neuters; that the destruction made there by the tories was matter of conviction to them; that since their imprisonment upon serious reflexion they are convinced that the States are right in their claim, and that it is their duty to submit to their authority, and that they will to the utmost of their power defend the country against the British army; and that the said committee think it advisable that the said persons be liberated from their imprisonment on taking an oath of fidelity to the 'United States:—Resolved by this Assembly, that the said persons be liberated from their imprisonment on their taking an oath of fidelity to this State and paying costs, taxed at £22, 7, 10; and the keeper of the gaol in Hartford is hereby directed to liberate said persons accordingly."

A comparison of this list with the record book shows that at least fifteen of these seventeen names were adherents of the Episcopal Church of New Cambridge. Mr. Nichols is said to have been several times shot at, and to have been once tarre and feathered.

Rev. X. A. Welton, afterward rector of St. Peter's Church at Plymouth, became much interested in this ckurch and in the reports of Mr. Nichols to his society, and we are largely indebted to him for the preservation of its history. But one curious fact shows how easily errors creep into history, even if based on written documents. Mr. Welton writes that Mr. Nichols four times performed baptisms in a cave, which seemed to point to the Tory Den, and recalled the services of the early Christians in the catacombs of Rome. But the critical eye of James Shepard of New Britain, a devout Episcopalian but a very accurate student of local history, discovered that this statement was based on reports in the handwriting of Mr. Nichols of baptisms "in my cure," the phrase which he constantly used in mentioning his fields of labor. Thus a pardonable error in reading manuscript which created a fictitious cave received a cure on a more careful reading.

The popular indignation at the political attitude of the churchmen was so markedly shown that many of them left New Cambridge for more congenial neighborhoods. Mr. Nichols himself stayed in the western part of the state, and his loyal people continued to collect their separate taxes and send them to him,. These were received by him in 1778 at Salisbury, and in 1779 and 1780 at Litchfield. The society refused to recognize these payments of taxes to the absent rector as a sufficient discharge, and made some collections by legal process. Of course this revived the bitter feelings between the two parties, and the Episcopal services were suspended for several years.

After the Revolution Mr. Nichols returned to 'New Cambridge, and the church in 1784 reorganized with twenty-nine members. The deserted church building had received hard treatment, and was found to be unfit for use. In 1784 the reorganized fragment of a church voted "that we are willing to meet again in the church which hath lain desolate on account of the persecution of the times"; and "voted that we would repair the church house." But the burden was too great, the remaining Episcopalians of Bristol were too few to carry on alone, and in 1790 they voted "that we was desirous of having the east part of Northbury (now Plymouth) and the south part of Harwinton to join with us in making up a society." This plan was carried out, and the new union parish built the church which is still standing in East Plymouth. This church was consecrated by Bishop Seabury on October 21, 1795, and on the same day Rev. Alexander V. Griswold was ordained priest. Beside the church was opened a churchyard, and both church and graveyard are still in fair condition; but the church has not been regularly used for services for many years.

The petition to the General Assembly from this new Episcopal society was signed by Caleb Matthews as clerk of the New Cambridge church, and by seven inhabitaants of Herington (Harwinton) and fifteen residents of North bury (now Plymouth). In the original roll of its fifty-eight members, about thirty were residents of New Cambridge. The New Cambridge church building was sold to Abel Lewis, a neighboring farmer, who made it over into barn; and after serving for a while in that humble capacity it was destroyed by fire. No Episcopal services were held in Bristol until 1834, when Trinity Church was newly organized, having no corporate connection with the tragic pre-revolution church.

Rev. X. A. Welton says that Mr. Nichols went to Vermont and that "in 1790 he was excluded from the churches in Vermont for intemperancce. In 1819 he renounced the ministry and was deposed by Bishop Griswold. He died miserably in 1829."

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