History: The Beginning
It was in 1620, on the twentieth of December, that the Pilgrims made their landing at Plymouth. By one of the interesting paradoxes of history they and the Puritan settlers who followed them, all of whom theoretically were at least in part seekers for religious freedom, proceeded at once to make their civil and ecclesiastical policy one. They now had religious freedom, but this freedom which they valued so highly and for which they had paid such a price they did not grant to others. The Church and state were identical. The Churches were organized by law, and political suffrage was dependent upon Church membership. Taxes were levied on all citizens for the support of these Congregational Churches, and all were compelled by law to conform to their doctrine or suffer the penalty of disfranchisement, imprisonment, public whipping, or banishment.
In all of New England there was but one colony which allowed religious freedom, and that was the colony of Rhode Island. It had been settled by Roger Williams, a Baptist clergyman banished from Massachusetts, and the first Baptist Church in North America had been founded there. Baptist sentiments were not slow in creeping over the border into southeastern Connecticut. The first baptisms in this state were in what is now Waterford, in 1674. The event created great excitement at the time and the General Court was invoked to put a stop to this innovation.
The first Baptist Church in Connecticut was established in 1705 in what was then Groton. Its membership was composed of the few scattered Baptists in the southeastern part of the colony. A petition sent to the legislature the year before for permission to' form a Church had been ignored, but the small group proceeded in spite of the tremendous opposition to organize. Valentine Wightman, a young preacher from Rhode Island, became their first pastor.
Five years later another Baptist Church was organized in what is now the town of Waterford. For twenty-five years these were the only Baptist Churches in the state. Several members of this second Church resided in Lyme, and gave impetus to the growth of Baptist work in that town. In 1727 they invited Rev. Valentine Wightman to come from Groton to Lyme to preach to them.
Before commencing the actual history of Baptists in Lyme, it is necessary to understand what the town of Lyme consisted of in the middle of the eighteenth century. The township of Saybrook, of which Lyme was originally a part, was first settled by the English in 1635, and claimed land along the Sound from what is now Clinton to what is now Niantic village, a distance of about twenty miles, and extended northward into the country for several miles; the boundaries were quite vague. In 1664 the township of Saybrook was enlarged, upon the condition that two plantations or towns be made within three years. Consequently the following winter the township of Saybrook was divided into two distinct townships, Saybrook and Lyme, with the Connecticut River the boundary between the two. The township of Lyme, then, contained practically all the territory now included in the towns of Lyme, Old Lyme, and East Lyme, as well as parts of East Haddam, Hadlyme, and Montville. As usual the new town, considering itself a Congregational parish, built a house of worship, settled a minister, and taxed the inhabitants of the town to pay his salary.
The town of Lyme being so large for a single parish, it being so difficult for townsfolk residing in the northern and eastern parts to attend the Church which stood in the southwestern section, in 1719 the eastern section was formed into a separate parish, and in 1724 the northern section was constituted a separate parish. Thus there were three ecclesiastical parishes within the town of Lyme: the first society, the second or eastern society, and the third or northern society. In general, the first society comprised what is now Old Lyme; the east, East Lyme; and the north, Lyme.
About 1740 the religious revival known as the Great Awakening swept over New England. Thousands were brought out of their spiritual apathy by the near-fanatical preaching of Edwards and Whitfield, and, disgusted with the cold deadness of the state religion, they set up their own congregations. They were known as "Separates" because they had separated themselves from the legal Congregational Church. Separates were considered practically identical with Baptists, and both were adjudged to be dangerous radicals. It was the opinion of Connecticut colony that "loathesome Hereticks, whether Quakers, Ranters, Baptists, Adamites, Separates, or some other like them" had no place in the colony. Action was soon taken by the Congregationalists, who had the law behind them. In February 1744 a Separatist meeting was being held at Saybrook, with several Lyme sympathizers present, when suddenly the local magistrates descended on the gathering and took them to court. The charge brought against them was: "For holding a meeting contrary to law, on God's holy Sabbath Day." They were arraigned, tried, fined, and driven on foot, through deep mud, to New London, a distance of twenty-five miles, and thrown into prison, without fire, food, or beds, w here they remained, enduring dreadful suffering, for several weeks, and probably would all have perished had not some local Separates brought them provisions.
Section 2 - The Beginning