An Early Twentieth Century Reflection of the Inner Workings of an Old New England Congregational Meetinghouse

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SUMMER 2005

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The following excerpts are from a handwritten manuscript, undated and unsigned, found among family papers of the Julian Eddy family of West Hartford.  It is likely a draft report c. 1918 by Julian Eddy’s father, Sherman W. Eddy (1877-1952) to the Ecclesiastical Society of the Avon Congregational Church on which he served.  Ecclesiastical societies were established by the state (this one in 1818) to oversee church, school, and burial grounds through tax revenue on property within the society’s boundaries.  These excerpts provide an early-20th-century reflection on the inner workings of an old New England Congregational meetinghouse.  (Note: Avon was part of the town of Farmington until 1830.)

The church manual of the East Avon Congregational Church just published [1915] contains many quaint and interesting items of history connected with the church and Ecclesiastical Society….  The church is nearing its 100th birthday, and it is of note that the Ecclesiastical Society has with exception held its regular annual business meeting in December of each year since its organization.

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In the manual of the church printed in 1869 is a brief account of the establishment of the church as follows:  “In consequence of a division of the Society of Northington, relative to the location of a new meeting house, the former one having been consumed by fire in 1817, two houses were built, one at present occupied by this church, and the one in West Avon.”

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In October 1818, [a subscription]paper was circulated among the residents of the northeast portion of the Town of Farmington [for the purpose of raising funds for a new church].  Fifty-four persons subscribed to this fund, and a total of $5,183.34 was raised.  Individual subscriptions ran as high as $500.  One worthy brother who was one of the largest subscribers, was later greatly incensed when it was decided to charge rent for the pews; and thereafter each Sabbath brought his chair with him to church and sat in the aisle during services.  One of the present members of the Society’s committee says he can well remember when the day of auctioning the church pews was one of the most exciting of the year.  Bids ran high; all the pews in the body of the church were disposed of to the last corner, and authority was given to sell the gallery seats.  No rent is charged for the pews at the present time and looking in upon the few scattered worshippers here and there on a Sunday morning one can but ask the reason for such a lack of Christian zeal in the latter days.  And a picture comes up before the mind’s eye of the church and gallery full of people, men, women, and children, sitting through the long order of services as prescribed in the manual of 1869:  Public worship at 10:30 a.m. followed by Sabbath School; a second preaching service at 1:15 pm; and prayer meeting Sabbath evening.  It was custom for those coming from a distance to bring their dinner with them, and attend all the services.  There was also a prayer meeting on Thursday evening.

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Other records which have been preserved … deal largely with the disciplining and excommunication of members, fourteen in all having been excommunicated from time to time, including the first deacon of the church, Isiah North.  The following is a typical example of the procedure in such cases:  On May 31, 1838, a committee was appointed to visit — — “for the purpose of leading him to make satisfaction to the church” for certain specified sins.  On June 12, the member appeared … and made the following confession:  “I, — — have for a long time absented myself from the public worship of God and from the Lord’s Table.  I have also been frequently guilty of using profane language.  I now feel sensible that in each of these particulars I have greatly sinned against God.  I do now, with penitence and humility, confess these my sins.”  In this case the church voted to accept his confession and restore him to fellowship; but in case a back slider was obdurate, excommunication followed.

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Early in 1853 a book called “Shadyside” was written by the wife of the pastor then in charge, Rev. Stephen Hubbell (1840-1853). The book dwelt at length on the trials of the country parson and his family and set forth as some of its principal characters those high in church authority at Avon under so thin a veil, and for the most part in such uncomplimentary colors; that an Ecclesiastical Council was called May 18, 1853 to consider the matter of dissolving the official relation between the people and their pastor.  The council was full in the opinion that the ground presented on which the dismission was desired was not to be admitted as a valid and Christian reason for such a serious and responsible result, yet there had grown up a dissatisfaction on the part of the people with their pastor with little prospect of any good coming from a continuation of the relation.  It was, therefore, voted that the relation be dissolved….  This incident was recalled among the town people last summer when Rev. William Hubbell of New York, son of Rev. Stephen Hubbell, visited Dr. E. W. Kellogg at his summer house here.  The two however, recalled only the pleasant happenings of their boyhood days when they were fast friends as “Ed” and “Bill.”

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With the passing years, great changes have taken place in the entire church life yet it strives to perform the same mission in the midst of changed economic, social, moral, and religious conditions.

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