The Lyme Separatist Church
In 1745, there were enough Separates and Baptist sympathizers in Lyme to form a Separatist (Baptist) Church, which they did in spite of the strong opposition. The pastor was Joshua Rogers who had been ordained two years previously. He soon fell into disrepute and the tiny band was left pastor less. After a year or so they disbanded (in 1747) and this, the earliest Baptist Church in the township of Lyme, became extinct.
But the cause had not become extinct and sometime in the year 1748 ̶ or, to be more specific, sometime between the dates of 28 December 1747 and 30 December 1748 ̶ another Separatist Church was organized. Here we commence the actual history of the Flanders Church, which was organized not in 1752 but in 1748; and proof that this is so has been found and recorded. This Church was composed mostly of residents of the eastern parish of the township, and for the first four years of its existence was strictly Separatist. The leaders of the flock were Ebenezer Mack and Elisha Miller. On 12 January 1749 (new style) Ebenezer Mack was formally ordained as a Separatist minister over the struggling Church. We find a reference to the group dated May, 1752, stating that Elisha Miller "at Sundry times Officiates as a Publick Teacher Among ye Separates."
By the summer of 1752, the seeds of Baptist theology which had been sown by Valentine Wightman's preaching were ready to bloom. Ebenezer Mack, who was a close friend of Elder Wightman (preachers were known as "Elders" at this time), embraced the Baptist belief and was baptized by immersion. And as so often happened in those days, the Separatist Church of which he was pastor became Baptist also. It was only a step from one to the other, for there were actually only two denominations, Congregationalists and non-Congregationalists, and the Separatists banded with the Baptists. There were very few Separatist Churches which did not either turn Baptist or else become extinct be- fore they were able to.
The Lyme Baptist Church
And so the small band of Separates called a council to convene at Lyme on 20 August 1752, at the home of Silas Smith which stood near the present Stone Ranch, on the left side of the road going north from the Post Road. Delegates were present from established Baptist Churches in Connecticut and Rhode Island. With the meeting of this council the Church formally became Baptist and was so recognized by sister Churches. At this meeting three important matters were taken care of. It was decided that although Elder Mack had not been baptized prior to his ordination and consequently not ordained as a Baptist preacher, since he had subsequently adopted Baptist principles his ordination was deemed valid and he was accepted as a bona fide Baptist minister. Another very important decision reached was the agreement to hold open Communion, to allow all to partake of the Lord's Supper, although this was not in accord with the strict Baptist principles rigidly observed in neighboring Churches. The Church followed the policy of open Communion until 1795.
The last business done by the council was to nominate Nathan Marvin and Elijah Smith to serve as Deacons, which, next to the Pastor, was the most important office in the Church. After some consideration they accepted the office and were duly ordained as the Church's first Deacons on 23 February 1753. In addition to their regular duties of taking care of the poor, "propagating ye Gospel", and nurturing the spiritual life of the Church, the Deacons were to take care of the Church treasury. This latter function they held until the year 1818, when the first Church Treasurer was elected. The first trustees were elected in that year also.
This council meeting is the first dated entry on our Clerks' books. Records of the Church from 1748 to 1752, if any were ever kept, have all been lost. From 1752 on, however, a more or less complete record has been maintained. The earliest membership list is dated April 1753 and contains 66 names--31 brethren and 35 sisters.
The first meetinghouse stood on Meetinghouse Hill and was probably erected the summer of 1754. A tablet now marks the site. It was a most convenient place for the Church to be located. At that time what we now call the Meetinghouse Hill, Whistletown, and Lower Four Mile River Road sections were much more densely populated than at present. There the Post Road crossed the highways running north and south, making it a converging point to the people from a wide region round about. Folks used to walk to Church from Black Point and equally far distances, while those who could afford it drove a horse and wagon. The horse would be put into the horse shed by the side of the Church where he would have to remain until the afternoon service was over. Right near the site of the original meetinghouse there is a large fiat rock, a local landmark. In olden times the worshippers used to carry their shoes in their hands and, when they arrived at the rock, stop to put them on before going into the Church. Shoes were expensive items and were to be worn only on Sabbath days at Church.
The First Twenty-Five Years
The history of the Church for the first twenty-five years is one of struggle and questionable success. One period of over five years, 1760- 65, and another of about a year and a half, 1766-68, are left entirely without record. Those were trying days. The members not only had to support Elder Mack but had to pay taxes for the support of the Congregational minister in this east parish of the town of Lyme as well. In 1761 and again in 1767 they petitioned the County Court to be released from this odious taxation but their petition was refused. About this time the large emigrations from Lyme to New Hampshire, Vermont, New York, and Nova Scotia started, and with no new people to replace those lost the membership dwindled.
As evidence of the lack of interest and the attempt to overcome it, I quote a resolution passed by the Church 23 November 1765: "Voted that for the time to Come that If any Brother Neglects to attend Church Meetings when Legally worned they Shall be Looked upon as offenders Till they give Satisfaction there for." A similar resolution was passed concerning those who failed to attend the public worship and Communion.
But more trouble was brewing for the struggling Church. In June of 1768 Elder Mack requested to be released from his pastoral office on account of ill health. The Church discussed it and suspiciously asked if there were any other reason for the request. Mack replied no, and added, "I shall know my friends, for they that are my friends will be fur releasing me." After much talk and many questions the Church agreed to release him from the pastorate, but retained him as a member. His true reason for resigning the pastorate became evident the following year (1769), when Mack informed the brethren that he did not think it consistent for a Baptist Church to have open Communion, to allow the Congregationalists to partake of the Lord's Supper with them, and that inasmuch as this Church followed that policy he no longer desired to remain a member. But the Church refused to dismiss him. So he and some of his followers simply stopped coming to Church. The next year a committee was sent to enquire their reasons, and reported that Mack and his followers would stay away from the Church as long as the Church admitted unimmersed members to the Communion table. Then abruptly in 1772 came news that he had joined the Baptist Church in Groton, over which his friend, Valentine Wightman, had been pastor. The news that their former pastor had united another Church without a letter or their consent grieved the Lyme Church, and it proceeded to discipline and finally to excommunicate Ebenezer Mack. A number of Baptist Churches were called together in October to meet at the Lyme Church, and in conference decided that the Groton Church had done wrong in receiving Elder Mack when he was under discipline by this Church. At a second council meeting held the next month at the Groton Church, the action of the Lyme Church in excluding Elder Mack was condemned, and it was agreed that the conscientious scruples he entertained should have had weight with the members of this Church; that is, although they had the right to exclude him, they ought not to have done it. This council was the start of the Stonington Union Association, which therefore was founded in this Church.
But before this the pastorless Church had lost several of its members who withdrew over the open or closed Communion controversy. There remained only nine members to keep the Church alive. The condition of the Church was so low that there was talk of disbanding. However, a few steadfast souls held together and fought bravely on, keeping up their meetings and laboring with offenders and delinquents. Preachers from neighboring Churches occasionally preached, and a few members were added.
The Church felt sorely in need of a pastor, and this became such a burden to them that 6 June 1772 was set apart as a day of fasting and prayer that God would send them a "watchman". Before the day closed they began to consider whether the man who should lead them was not already in their midst. In a few months it was freely talked in their meetings that Brother Jason Lee was fitted for the work, although it was more than a year later when they gave him a formal call, and an- other year before they called a council to ordain him (7 December 1774). Jason Lee was the son of Elder Joseph Lee, pastor of a Church on Long Island.
Times were still poor for the Church, discouragement still ruled them, and they were face to face with extinction. They had sent Elisha Miller to the Stonington Union Association, asking for advice. In the records of the Association we find, "And after weighing and considering the case, the association determined to leave them to the freedom of their own minds, either to unite (i.e., remain) together as a Church, or to put themselves under the government of any of the Churches in fellowship, as they liked best."
But the coming of Jason Lee as their pastor began a new era in the life and progress of the Church. He was the strongest pastor this Church has ever had, and turned its path from destruction to prosperity. When he became pastor there were about twelve members. Two years later he had increased it to 20. As his experience as a preacher grew so did his abilities. In 1778 he added 28 to the membership and the next year 46. By 1780 there were 61 members, which, in the next decade, he quadrupled to 240. When he died in 1810, the Church numbered 431. He was pastor for 36 years, and in all those years there was only one in which he did not add to the membership by baptism. Discipline was vigorously maintained and the influence of this Church was felt not only in the east parish of Lyme but throughout the State. There was hardly a Church council called in this section of New England to which Elder Lee was not asked. Seven men were ordained in this Church body and three daughter Churches were formed.
Within the first few years of Elder Lee's ministry Elisha Miller, a wealthy and childless man whose broad acres and hospitable mansion stood near the Church and who had been an active member since its founding in 1748, died, leaving his estate to be divided, one half for the support of the schools in the east parish or society and the other half for the support of the ministry of this Baptist Church. That the prudent Jason Lee had a careful eye to this windfall is proved by an entry in the record book of the east society of Lyme, wherein he is voted certain shillings "toward what he paid to get Captain Miller's will established." The heirs for a while disputed the bequest and took the matter to court, but the case was settled in favor of the Church and they came into full possession of it. In 1784 Jason Lee was given a life lease to the farm. This then was the Church's first parsonage, and it stood on what is now known as Dean Road (the former and correct name of it is the Jason Lee Road) near the vicinity where it connects with Lovers Lane.
Further, now that this Baptist Church was so powerful it was at last able to stop the odious taxation for the support of the Congregational minister. They became more numerous than the Congregationalists in the parish and the latter were no longer able to tax them for the support of the state Church, for when they met to vote on it the members of this Church banded together and voted that only Congregationalists should be taxed, and being in the majority always carried their vote. As the Baptist Church at that time did not tax its members, membership in it meant exemption from all tax for the support of the Gospel. People might disagree on the subject of infant baptism and be hazy all along the line of Calvinistic theology, and yet have a clear and harmonious conviction that it was well to leave a Church which could seize your property for arrears on the minister's rate and connect yourself with one that exercised no such prerogative. Thus the Baptist Church flourished while the Congregational Church grew weaker and weaker, until, it is said, there' were but two aged women left members.
Three daughter Churches were formed. One was in what is now Waterford, near the present Lakes Pond Church. It was a branch of this Church from 1780 to 1813, when it was constituted a separate Church under the name, "The Waterford and Montville Church", with 24 members. Rev. Jonathan Ames was the only pastor, from 1813 to 1830. It grew very weak and dissolved about 1837. The number of members never exceeded 56.
A second daughter Church was formed in a section of the north parish of Lyme later called Chatham, about the same time as the first. (This is not to be confused with Chatham in Massachusetts or New York, for this Church never' had a branch in those towns.) It was constituted a separate Church in 1784, and Christopher Minor, an evangelist ordained here two years previously, became pastor. It became extinct about 1831.
The third was formed about 1781 in Marlow and Lempster, New Hampshire, to which district a huge colony had emigrated from Lyme. (Before emigrating they met at this Church and organized both as a Church and as a town.) It was constituted a separate Church in 1800, and Nathan Champlain, an ordained member of this Church, was sent to be their pastor. In 1821 they sent one of their number to Lyme to be ordained in the mother Church.
In 1788, repairs were made on the meetinghouse. One of the members did the work and was paid £24 for the job. In 1804, it was plastered for the first time. The Church goers of an earlier day had none of the comforts of this modern age. Plush pews, heated and ventilated buildings were unknown in that era. In winter the women used to bring bricks heated in their ovens on which they would rest their feet during the morning and afternoon services. During the latter part of Lee's pastorate a small stove was put into the Church.
I have not been able to find out very much about the structure of the first meetinghouse. It had doors on three sides and the pulpit was in the center of the main room and was elevated a good distance above the floor level, so that the minister towered above the heads of his congregation. A spiral staircase led up to the pulpit from the floor. The pews had straight backs and were un-cushioned, although several families used to leave small cushions in the pews which they rented. Each pew had a door to it and a shelf below the seating ledge. Here the family would store a blanket and eating utensils which it would use for the dinner it had brought to eat between the morning and afternoon services. In summer the blankets were spread on the lawn behind the meetinghouse under a grove of large chestnut trees and they would have a regular picnic. The ladies would gossip and the men discuss the affairs of the week, for they would not meet again until the next Sabbath. This was not only their Church; it was their newspaper, radio, and telephone.
During these years of prosperity there was at times a lack of "Gospel order" and time and again Congregationalists had sat down, invited and uninvited, at Communion, to the dismay of those who wished to maintain the character of a Baptist Church. Finally in 1795 it was voted to have closed Communion. As a result a group of Baptists in Saybrook who had formerly looked askance at this open-Communion Church now united with it. "All hearts were now united in brotherly love," we are told, "and consequently in the years 1798-99 and again in 1806 this Church enjoyed the most powerful revivals it has ever seen." Eighty were baptized during the revival of 1798-99 and 69 in the revival of 1806.
The First Baptist Church of Lyme
But the strenuous work of these meetings and his labor told on the health of the pastor, and in the year 1810, on the 14th of March, he passed away. The following entry on the records shows the esteem in which this man of God was held:
"Died-At Lyme, on the 14th inst. Elder Jason Lee,-pastor of the baptist Church in the 2nd Society of that town. After a most disstrissing illness of three months which was borne with exemplary patience and Christian fortitude, he resigned his breath, firm in the faith of a crucified Redeemer, and in earnest expectation and well grounded hope of a glorious immortality. .In the seventieth year of his age, the fortieth of his ministry, and thirty sixth of his pastoral office, he was gathered like a shock of corn fully ripe. As his years were lengthened to a good old age, so were they adorned with numerous graces and virtues, and stained with fewer errors than generally fall to the lot of humanity. At once a pious christian, an agreeable neighbor, society bas lost a valuable member, the church a brilliant ornament, the flock of his charge a successful teacher, his disconsolate wife and afflicted children a tender husband and affectionate parent. A large concourse of people at- tended his funeral on the 16th inst. when a pertinent and affecting discourse from 2d Timothy. 4th Chapter, 7th and 8th verses, was delivered by Elder Asa Wilcox, and the solemn attention of the audience in paying the last sad rites to their departed friend, exhibited the highest evidence of their attachment to him when living"
We are told that over a thousand people attended his funeral. He was buried in the Old Stone Church burying-ground in this town. To Jason Lee this Church owes more than it does perhaps to any other single person. He came into leadership over a tiny band of about twelve, wracked by controversy, discouraged, close to extinction; and he built it into one of the most flourishing Churches in the state, 431 strong, with three daughter Churches founded, seven men ordained for the ministry, a parsonage and a farm of 7S acres; and then, worn out from working for this Church, he left it for the Church Eternal.
Elder Asa Wilcox, who had preached the funeral sermon for Jason Lee, was called to be his successor. Lee's influence was still present and the Church continued to grow. The membership was 431 at the time Elder Wilcox became pastor, and although 2S members were dismissed to form the Waterford branch already mentioned and others to the newly established Second Baptist Church of Lyme (later the North Lyme Church) the Church had a roll of 441 members at the close of his pastorate, in 1818.
The pews at this time, and in fact up to the present century, were always rented, the money thus raised being used to pay the pastor's salary. In addition to the pew rent and money raised by contributions, Elder Wilcox was given a five year lease on the Church parsonage and farm.
In 1814 it was voted that "the singing in futer at time of public worship be carried on without lineing." In the early days hymn books were so expensive that the Church could not afford to have copies distributed among the congregation, and so when a hymn was announced the Deacon who had care of the Church's only hymn book would read the: first line of the hymn and blow the starting note on a small pitch pipe. The congregation would sing the line and then stop while the Deacon read the next line and blew the next note, and so on until the entire hymn was sung. It took quite a little time but time meant very little, for the morning service lasted two and a half hours and the after- noon rarely less than three and a half. Elder Lee especially was noted for his long sermons.
Asa Wilcox terminated his pastorate in 1818 as a result of disagreements over baptism, and was followed by Elder George W. Appleton who remained three years.
In 1819 the Church applied for its share of the appropriation of $145,000 granted by the legislature of Connecticut for the support of religion and literature. The amount received by this Church was seventy dollars, a large sum in those days. Joseph Strickland (the first regular Treasurer) was appointed to receive it from the Baptist board in 1820, and it was voted to use it as a permanent fund, the interest to be used for the support of the ministry. That same year (1819) Joel Loomis, Christopher Strickland, and Joseph Strickland were empowered to lease the Church parsonage and farm, which had been given by Elisha Miller, for a term of 999 years, and deposit the proceeds in the bank or invest it in mortgage on landed estate. The amount received for the parsonage and farm of 75 acres is not given in the records, nor was I able to learn definitely what became of these two funds, although it seems certain that they were used when the present Church building was erected at Flanders in 1843.
In 1822, Elder Appleton requested to be released from the pastorate, giving these reasons:
1. For the want of success in the Ministry.
2. For the neglect of the Church in regard to discipline ̶ "it exists onely in name."
3. For neglect of the Church in regard to my support.
Elder Appleton was released from his pastoral office, but remained a member of the Church. Shortly after, he set up meetings of his own on Sundays, and a Church committee was appointed to visit him and ask why "he neglects to attend our Covenant meetings and also why he holds meetings on Sunday at a remote corner of the Society which the meeting house which is the proper place of worship on the Lords evidently tends to draw off a number of the Brethren and Sisters from day and also enquire why he should censure the Church so hard as he had in saying that there was not a member in the Church that would go ten rods to have the gospel preached to them." The answer was soon apparent. The Church voted to pay Appleton the money owed him and his private Sunday meetings ceased.
In 1824, Nathan Wildman was ordained and soon after was called to be the pastor. He baptized nearly a hundred and the resident membership, which had greatly fallen due to new Churches being organized close by, rose to 309. During his pastorate, we find the first definite amount named for the support of the pastor. In March of 1829 it was voted to raise $220 for this purpose, but during the year he spent four weeks in Ohio and that proportion of his salary, amounting to $17, was deducted. A report of the treasury about this time shows a balance of $711.60. By now the Church had a regular Treasurer and trustees to take charge of these funds.
Minor repairs were done on the meetinghouse in 1830, and the next year the rear roof was shingled. To raise the amounts necessary for these and other Church projects, each member was assessed according to his wealth. A contribution was taken after Communion on the first Sunday of each month for the benefit of the poor of the community. It was the duty of the Deacons to administer this Poor Fund.
Nathan Wildman terminated his pastorate in 1831 and after an interim of about a year Rev. Frederick Wightman of Middletown accepted a call to serve here. The first Church project he entered into after receiving his call was to organize a Church School which he did in October 1832. In 1835 the Church School reported 78 scholars, 15 teachers, and a library of 250 volumes, which was not bad for a School only three years old. At this period the Church had 203 resident members and 58 non-resident.
Elder Wightman closed a peaceful pastorate in 1837 and was followed by William Palmer. Always during these years there was difficulty in raising the pastors' salaries. The interest on the "permanent funds," the rent from the pews, and the assessments on the members never seemed to be enough, and the Church almost invariably fell behind on its payments.
At this point I should like to digress from the usual order of Church histories and speak of the actual life of this Church 100 and 150 years ago. As Rev. C. M. Reed has written, "Two things were prominent in the Churches then, viz., watchcare and discipline .... The Church then felt a deep responsibility for their members that seems to have lost some of its force at the present time. If a brother strayed, the Church felt it their duty to bring him back into the fold if possible, and if that could not be done, to cut him off for the sake of the rest of the body, even as a physician now will remove a diseased member in an attempt to protect the perfect parts of the physical body."
Allow me to mention some of the things that were then considered worthy of discipline. (By discipline I mean rebuke, admonition, cut off from the Communion or exclusion from the Church, or all of them.) They disciplined for improper conduct, for drunkenness. One brother was disciplined because he had his children pour water on his hay before he sold it. A servant girl was disciplined for stealing. A brother was excluded because he would not pay $10 a year toward the support of his mother, and another for misrepresenting the age of his horse in a trade. Two brothers were debarred from Communion until they should settle a lawsuit and cease saying hard things against each other. One was converted and received back into full membership, and afterward it was learned that about ten years before he had stolen a cow. Though he confessed his crime and paid for the cow, yet it was thought to be [or the good of the Church and the honor of Almighty God to hold him under admonition for a time. Members were disciplined for dancing and swearing, for gambling and smoking. They were disciplined for failing to attend Church, covenant, and business meetings. Parents were disciplined for allowing their children to go to balls. Some of these instances seem to us severe, and perhaps they were, and perhaps they were not all of them wise, but yet I think we must concede that back of them was the noble purpose of watching over the covenant brethren and keeping the Church pure. A single instance will serve to show that they were not always moved by selfish motives. A brother, Nehemiah Huntley, had in some way become involved financially and was likely to lose his farm. The Church came to the rescue and voted to assess themselves to redeem his farm. Instances are numerous where their methods were effectual, and offending and delinquent brethren came, confessed, were forgiven, and became useful members in the Church.
I want to quote here an account of labor with a brother in the very early days. This took place in 1785.
"And at Same Meeting took ye Case of our Brother Richard Mack into Consideration and found by labouring that it is the Mind of god for this Chh to take up their watch Care over him the sd Mack for Reasons as fallows first sd Church found sd mack giltey of the Sin of Carde Playing Joining with the Vain youth in Chanting to the Sound of the Viol and the Awfull Sin of Swarring and other Varey Sinfull Practises all these Varey Contrey to that Covenant hee esayed to Make with god and this .Church."
This practice of disciplining and exerting an oversight on the daily affairs of the members fell into disuse about the second half of the nineteenth century.
Section 3 - History