Tuesday, July 4, 2017

Blossoming (A July 4th Meditation)

"Early in the spring of 1673, fifteen members of the Second Church of Stratford, Connecticut, and their families left their comfortable homes in that community to set out for “the wilderness of Pomperaug” Gothen’s History of Ancient Woodury tells the familiar story. They were to follow the Pootatook [Housatonie] River to t.he point where a large stream, the Pomperaug, flowed into it from the north and then travel up that stream a short distance to their destination; but thinking the Pomperaug too small to answer the description given them, they went on to the Shepaug. Tuming north at that point, they soon found themselves in rugged country quite different from the valley they were seeking, and they realized that they had overshot their mark. There was nothing to do but to turn back east. This they did and so reached Good Hill from which “they perceived the valley of the Pomperaug lying below in solitude and silence.” Cothren goes on to tel] 115 that at this point. Deacon john Minor fell on his knees, leading the weary but thankful little band of pilgrims in prayer, “invoking the blessing of Heaven upon their enterprise, and praying thattheir posterity might be an upright and godly people to the latest generation.”

[Retelling by Marion Kilpatrick in her history of the First Congregational Church of Woodbury]

PHOTOGRAPHER’S JOURNAL: Puritan values settled Connecticut, and evolving struggles of Puritan values governed it from the meeting house of each new outpost the Congregationalists settled. The Puritans who came to America in the 1630s came in search of a place where local congregations of the elect might purify religion by freeing it of control by a remote church hierarchy. They sought to live where their church would be run by the congregants rather than the minister. Even the General Court of the Colony of Connecticut might advise local Congregations but not overrule them.

The descent of “daughter" congregations blazed a trail into wilderness Connecticut where pioneers cleared the land for cultivation, as they also built the first meeting house and school. At the outer edge of colonization the pioneers were drawn by the opportunity of new, prime land; at the inner edge they often left the mother congregation out of differences on issues of governance or doctrine. As trees were felled a culture and values evolved.

The first meetinghouse was built in Woodbury in 1681 by Puritans from Stratford. The success of the Woodbury settlement brought newcomers just as it had done in Stratford. A half century later the newcomers quest for new land would give birth to daughter churches in Southbury (1731), Bethlehem (1738), Washington (Judea, 1741) and Roxbury (1743). However, from the beginning newcomers brought questions of who was eligible to receive the rights of and membership in the purified congregation. Among the newcomers there were Anglicans, Baptists, Sinners and Scoundrels; occasional Quakers and Jews, and a few “indians” and “negroes,” and some sought the church’s sacraments and spiritual guidance. 

Who among these new immigrants would be admitted into the community of “the elect”? Stratford was settled c.1639 by Puritans from England, and it was the question of new membership that divided them. A minority faction favored something called the Halfway Covenant. It offered Baptism and membership to those who failed to convince the church members of the truth of their conversion. However, it refused them voting rights, wine, wafer or admission to the community of the elect. 

The First Church of Woodbury began life in 1670 as the Second Church of Stratford when they were unable to either resolve their differences or to share the existing meeting house. Although granted the right to build a second congregation and meeting house in Stratford, by 1672 the leaders of the minority faction were also granted "liberty to erect a plantation at Pomperoage,” establishing the First Church of Woodbury. From the earliest days of colonization the question of newcomers has divided us.

[My thanks to Rev. Howard Mayer and to Maria Platt for allowing me to photograph inside the First Congregational Church of Woodbury and for the excellent history of the church written by Marion Kilpatrick, published by the church in 1994.]