The First Baptist Church of East Lyme
From its organization until about 1810, this Church was known as the ”Lyme Baptist”, and with the organizing of another Baptist Church in the township at that time the name of this Church became “The First Baptist Church of Lyme." In 1839, the east parish of Lyme, together with that part of Waterford lying west of the Niantic River, was formed into a separate township to be known as East Lyme, and the name of the Church was accordingly changed to "The First Baptist Church of East Lyme."
In March of 1842 twenty members of the Church residing in Lyme (later known as South Lyme and then as Old Lyme) petitioned to be set off as a separate Church, and were accordingly constituted a daughter Church in May. They soon erected a meetinghouse on land donated by Stephen Peck; it is now used as a Roman Catholic Church. The Old Lyme Church became extinct in the 1920's.
Townhall and Baptist Church, Flanders
by "The Studio" - New London, CT
The fifth and last daughter Church was formed at Niantic by members residing there in December of the same year (1842) and a meetinghouse was erected by them the following year. This daughter Church still exists today as the Niantic Baptist Church. It has been said that the "old Church on Meetinghouse Hill divided and the members were constituted into the two Churches at Flanders and Niantic." This is incorrect. This Church, the one in Flanders, is the original Church body which removed from Meetinghouse Hill to Flanders; and before it ever moved both the Old Lyme and Niantic Churches had been set off as daughter Churches. This is made clear in both the Church and Association records.
Elder William Palmer closed his pastorate in March of 1841. During the interim before another pastor was obtained they were supplied by Elders Avery and Watrous. Elder Watrous held a series of revival meetings during the winter of 1841-42 and baptized 61 into the fold.
A New Building
During all these years the population of the east parish had been gradually shifting eastward toward Flanders and southward toward Niantic. The Church on Meetinghouse Hill was no longer in the center of the community. New Baptist Churches had sprung up in Lyme (now Old Lyme), North Lyme (now Lyme), Chesterfield, Quaker Hill, and at Lakes Pond (now Lake Konomoc). About the time that the members in Niantic village were contemplating being formed into a daughter Church, many members began seriously to consider changing the location of the meetinghouse. Then, too, the old building was almost a century old, and although repairs had been made several times, the members felt that a new building in a more central location would be the solution to their problems.
And so in May of 1842 a special Church meeting was called to consider the project. After a rather lengthy discussion, it was "Resolved that we will Erect a house of public Worship for said Church provided the necessary means can be attained by subscription and the Church be agreed where said house shall be located." The logical place for the pew edifice to be built was at Flanders, at that time a more thriving community than Niantic. Here was a fairly large settlement, due mostly to the mill at Pattagansett Lake. (I might mention here that it was the mill which gave the village its name; the earliest mills on the lake were cloth-weaving and the district was given the name of Flanders from the cloth-weaving country of Europe.) A definite site in the village had to be decided upon, however, and when a vote was taken "it was found that 9-14th of the Brethren were of the opinion that the house be built on the ground belonging to the Estate of E. Way." The idea of 9-14th of the brethren being thus inclined is carrying the degree of accuracy and completeness quite far for this Clerk, who later kept so few records that a single page included the minutes for two entire years.
The Church was given an option on the property but lost it when they were unable to raise the funds in time. Other sites were considered: a lot near Mildred Lougheed's present home, and the corner across from where the post office now stands. Eventually the Church agreed on the present site and a committee was appointed to draft plans for the new edifice: and authorized to commence building. It was begun the fall of 1842, and enough had been built by the following spring to allow the Church to transfer itself from Meetinghouse Hill to Flanders.
It is sometimes said that the old building on Meetinghouse Hill was moved to this site. That is incorrect. The present edifice was first built and then the old building which had stood since 1754 was torn down and sold for lumber, for the money was needed to pay for the construction of the new building. The Church had several subscriptions and used up all its funds to pay the costs, and even then was forced to accept a proposition of the town that in return for money to finish off the basement the town would be allowed to hold its meetings and keep its records there. This arrangement has continued until recent years when the Hall of Records was built at Niantic village.
The new meetinghouse was dedicated on 1 June 1843. Elder Jabez Swan of the First Baptist Church in New London preached the dedication sermon. It was many years before the Church was able to pay off its indebtedness. It did not even have sufficient funds to purchase a bell for the steeple. The bell now in the possession of the Church was a gift from Dr. John Smith, one of the members, in 1851. The same year the new building was painted for the first time.
In 1844, Elder Chester Tilden was called to the pastorate and remained here two years, at a salary of $300 per annum. He was succeeded by Elder Palmer G. Wightman in 1846. During these years weekly prayer meetings were held. The membership averaged slightly below the 200 mark. Members were still assessed for the support of the Church, and frequently individuals complained in meetings that his or her assessment was too high, and asked the brethren to reconsider his or her case. In one instance when the Church reconsidered, it found that the original levy had been too low, and the brother who had requested the reconsideration was assessed double his amount. There is no further record of his appealing the original assessments.
Elder Wightman left in 1851 after having increased the membership to over 250. He was called back in 1853, after some bargaining on the salary he was to receive. During the interim the Church was supplied by Rev. Augustus Bolles. Elder Wightman appears to have been a strong preacher; in February 1855 he baptized 31 into the membership and 41 the winter of 1857-58. The membership again went over the 300 mark. He resigned in November, 1858, although the Church had requested him to withdraw his resignation in September. The members called G. W. Abrams to be their pastor in December of the same year.
In 1858, the Church sold the site of the first Church building on Meetinghouse Hill to the first school district of the town, which soon after erected a school on the property. The land on which the Church now stands, although used from 1843, was not bought by the Church until 1862. The grantor was Ezra Beckwith, and the selling price was twenty-five dollars.
Rev. Abrams terminated his pastorate after only a year. The Church was then without a pastor for two years, during which time they extended calls to five men, but none of them accepted. Finally in 1862 Rev. T. O. Judd accepted a call and remained one year. He was followed by Elder G. F. Post in 1864. The pastors were paid about $400 yearly.
The first trust fund was left to the Church in 1860 by Jerusha Hayden, a member residing in Essex. The sum was $100, and the interest from it was to be distributed yearly among the poor of the Church. The principal was lent to the East Lyme Cemetery Association in 1860 and paid back in 1867, after which it was either lost or spent. The Church recently voted to reinstate the fund so that the name of the donor might be perpetuated.
In the late 1860's and early 1870's, much work was done on the meetinghouse. A new stove was installed, the steps in front of the building were repaired, and the interior was plastered. This last project was done at a cost of about $165. Later the entire interior was repaired and redecorated at a cost of $800 which was raised by subscription. While the repairing was being done services were held in the schoolhouse which formerly stood near the entrance to the cemetery. A new furnace was installed soon after.
George H. Lester of Waterford was called to preach in 1869 and the congregation was so well pleased with him that he was hired as pastor and a council called to ordain him (1 0 November 1869). He was the thirteenth man to be ordained within this Church body. He served until July of 1871. The Church was then without a pastor until 1873 when Rev. Percival Mathewson was called to fill the chair at a salary of $500. He remained four years and was followed by John W. Holman.
We find an entry in the Clerks' book dated 1872 wherein Fanny Manwaring was given a vote of thanks for playing the melodian during the year. The instrument had been purchased by the Church ten years previously to accompany the singing. (The first organ was purchased in 1882.) There was also an active choir at this time, led for almost fifty years by Justin l. Beckwith. The fine set of three pulpit chairs now in the Sanctuary were given in 1881 in memory of Mr. Beckwith by his daughter, Mrs. John Luce. The Luces were great benefactors of the Church. In 1878 when the Church was considering hiring Rev. Holman for $600 and wondering how the money could ever be raised, Brother John Luce stated that if the Church could raise two thirds of the amount by subscription and collections he would supply the remaining $200. He and his brother, Captain Edward Luce, were generous contributors to the treasury.
It was during Rev. Holman's pastorate, in 1879, that the Church's present parsonage was built, although there is no record of it on the records other than a reference to a meeting held at the parsonage in 1880. Edward Luce gave the lot to the Church, containing more than two acres, with a frontage on the main street of 126 feet. John Luce and his wife personally supervised the building of the parsonage and donated a good share of its cost, which was about $3500 to $4000.
Thirty-five were baptized in 1878, bringing the number again over the 200 mark. The Church School at this time had an average attendance of 110. Two years later the lists were revised and 43 who had lost contact with the Church were excluded, bringing the total down to 152.
Elder Holman ceased his connection with the Church in 1882. A. J. Wilcox, an un-ordained preacher, supplied the pulpit occasionally until 1885, when Rev. D. H. Taylor was hired at a salary of $500, the use of the parsonage, and a donation. It was the custom at this time for the congregation to bring yearly donations of food, clothing, furniture, etc. to the pastor and compensate for the meager salary which they were able to pay him. The Church during these years was almost always in debt.
The last few months of A. J. Wilcox's supplying in this Church he baptized 30 and during the interim before Rev. Taylor was called a visiting evangelist baptized 20. These accessions again brought the membership to the 200 mark, the last time this figure was to be reached. Rev. Taylor resigned in 1888 and was followed by M. F. Lee who remained only one year. Four members of the Ladies' Society canvassed the community to procure funds for the pastor. Rev. Lee was given a salary of $550, a donation to exceed $50 in value, and the use of the parsonage and grounds. The money raised from renting the pews was included in the $550. (I might mention here that when the Church attic was cleaned in 1949 an old board carrying on it a diagram of the Sanctuary was found, showing who had owned each pew in the late 1890's. The highest rent paid was $15.00; the lowest, $10.00.)
In 1891 Rev. Silas Weaver became pastor. He stayed until 1893 and was succeeded by Rev. A. J. Wilcox who had supplied the Church ten years before while he was yet un-ordained. Rev. Wilcox remained only a year, after which poor health forced him to resign.
In October of 1894 a letter from Rev. Post, one of the former pastors, was received, recommending H. E. Martin, who had just been graduated from Colgate University, to this Church. Brother Martin was asked to preach several times, and, although un-ordained, showed such promise that the Church proceeded to settle him as their pastor and soon after (January 1895) called a council to ordain him. He was the fourteenth and last man to be ordained within this Church body to date (1952).
Repairs were made on the Church during his pastorate. The grounds were graded, the building re-plastered, and the Sanctuary remodeled. A second organ was purchased. The envelope system of giving was begun about this time, although no record books have been preserved. It may have stimulated Church giving, for they were able to raise Rev. Martin's salary to $600. He was also given a vacation of two Sundays in July, but no mention is made of deducting this proportion from his salary as had been done for Nathan Wildman seventy years before. During these years annual roll calls were held and were well attended. The custom was observed until the 1930's, when it fell into disuse.
Rev. Martin closed his labors in October of 1898 and in December of the same year was followed by Rev. Charles M. Reed, one of the most loved of recent pastors. He was a noble man, a fine Christian, a hard worker for the welfare of this Church. He held the second longest pastorate-nineteen years-and was pastor up to his death in 1917.•He officiated as Church School Superintendent for several terms, building the School into an actively functioning unit and increasing local interest in that phase of the Church's activity. In addition to serving this Church he supplied the Lakes Pond Church, which was unable to hire a pastor, for a long period.
In 1904 Rev. Reed introduced the following resolution at a Church meeting: "Resolved. That while we do not invite any to join us in the observance of the Lord's Supper except those who have been baptized on credible evidence of Faith in Jesus Christ, Thus following the example of the Apostles we will not turn away any of His professed followers who are walking considerately before Him. For has He not forbidden us to judge another’s conscience. Matt 7-1 Rom 14-4.10 We as a Church reserve the right however to reject anyone in case of discipline or any case where the good of the Church demands it." This resolution, when presented for adoption, was defeated 6 to 16, whereupon Rev. Reed tendered his resignation. At a special meeting called soon after it was voted to pass the resolution, 16 to 6, and Rev. Reed withdrew his resignation. Thus the Church reinstated upon Communion for the first time since 1795.
The meetinghouse was painted and re-shingled with the help of $200 given by Morten Plant, a local philanthropist. During Rev. Reed's pastorate electric lights were installed in the building (it had formerly been lit by oil), a new furnace and organ installed, and the present steel ceiling on the Sanctuary was put in. legacies and trust funds were also received. In 1904 $500 was received from the estate of Allen Keeney, the interest of which was to be used for the upkeep of his parents' family lot in Head-of-the-River Cemetery at the Golden Spur. His nephew, Frank Keeney, left the Church a thousand dollars, and Frank Keeney's wife bequeathed a like amount. (Also, Frank's brother Griswold bequeathed another thousand about 1928 and a third brother, George, bequeathed yet another thousand in 1934.) Mrs. Frank Keeney also presented the Church its first individual Communion set in 1905. A silver plated set of a pitcher, two goblets, and two plates had been used since 1876, and prior to that an old pewter set had been used since Jason Lee's ministry. Another trust fund of $500 was received from the estate of John D. Stanton in 1911.
The old horse sheds were also repaired about this time. They stood in a semicircle around the rear of the meetinghouse, and I have been told that they were partly or wholly built out of some of the lumber from the old meetinghouse on Meetinghouse Hill. How true this is it; is impossible to say. The present Church building could not possibly have been built out of lumber salvaged when the old meetinghouse was torn down, but the horse sheds could very well have been. They were built shortly before 1847 and were torn down in the early part of the present century, as by that time they had served their purpose and were no longer needed.
In March of 1917, the Church was greatly grieved to lose its pastor who had labored faithfully for almost eighteen years. He died on a Sunday evening after preaching as usual in the morning. Resolutions passed by the Church to express its sympathy to Rev. Reed's widow and daughter show the esteem in which he had been held in this community, and remind one of the time the Church had similarly been bereaved of a beloved pastor over a century before. A successor to him was found in Rev. Walter Reynolds of Rhode Island, who commenced his duties in the fall.
At this time there arose a bitter controversy within this Church, breaking ties of Christian fellowship and threatening to break the body asunder. It is best not to speak of the misfortune which the Church suffered in detail; such a matter should be left to the future historian who can tell the story fairly and truthfully with no fear of giving offense. As a result of this trouble the Church lost some of its most faithful workers who had labored for many years, and scars from it have lasted even to the present day.
Rev. Reynolds left in 1922 and was followed by Rev. P. S. Collins in 1924. Between these two men Rev. F. S. Leathers supplied the pulpit as interim pastor. The Sanctuary was again repaired and redecorated and the tablet now on the front of the building was presented by the Church School. A trust fund of $400 was received from the estate of Raymond Beckwith for the purpose of lighting the meetinghouse. By common consent among the members the name of the Church was un-officially changed to "The Flanders Baptist Church of East Lyme."
Rev. Collins terminated his pastorate in November of 1925 and was followed by Rev. Herbert Plumbe. The pastor's salary at this time was $1200, made possible only by a yearly grant of about $300 by the state Baptist board. The 1920's were trying years for the Church, The membership dropped to slightly over 100 with only about threescore resident members. Without aid from the state board it would have been impossible to have had a resident pastor. In addition to these troubles, the Church was experiencing difficulty with its pastor. The state Baptist board was called upon for assistance, and when the facts in the case became known the members voted to dispense with the services of Rev. Plumbe (1927).
The Flanders Baptist and Community Church of East Lyme
As a result of this trouble several members took their letters and the membership, already depleted by the controversy six years before, fell even lower. The pulpit was supplied by S. D. Ogden from the Seventh Day Baptist Church in Waterford for several months and after he left this section of Connecticut other neighboring ministers and students from Yale Divinity School in New Haven officiated. But the members were anxious for a resident pastor who could again built the Church into an actively functioning unit, and the community was canvassed for funds to hire a man. With the sum raised (over $1200) the Church extended a call to Rev. Marion Neilsson from the Yale School, who accepted and commenced his duties in July of 1929. He found the congregation at a low ebb. The membership had dropped to 74 with only about 50 living in the community. The only solution to the difficulty appeared to be changing the body to a non-denominational Community Church, which was done, although connection with the state and county Baptist organizations was maintained. The name of the Church was changed to "The Flanders Baptist and Community Church of East Lyme," and a fine set of by-laws was drawn up and adopted. Now that the Church was no longer wholly Baptist, several residents in the community who had formerly refused to unite with it now joined, and the membership again rose to over 100. The Church had come long way toward recognizing the common ties of Christianity since the open Communion controversies of 1768-70 and 1904. Now not only Communion was open to all denominations but membership as well.
With the changing of the body into a community organization the early history of our Church closes. It is difficult to speak of its history for the subsequent two decades, for only the future historian can look back with the perspective of time and see the salient points; and the story is already well known to us as it is so recent. However, a resume of the outstanding changes may be made.
Rev. Nilsson terminated his pastorate in August of 1931 as he had been granted a fellowship at Oxford, and another Yale student, J. H. Pennebaker, became the next pastor. During his term the parsonage was remodeled; the second floor being made into an apartment for the pastor and the first into rooms for the Church School at a cost of about $800. The membership roll was revised and 35 were placed on an "In-active List," bringing the total to below 100. The earliest Church record books were deposited in the State Library for safekeeping.
Rev. Pennebaker resigned in 1934 and was followed by Rev. Rival Hawkins who remained three years. In 1938 Rev. Frederick Tholen came to the pastorate. During these years various repairs were made, the parsonage was painted, the Church basement redecorated, and a new choir organized. During Rev. Tholen's stay the Church exterior was painted.
In 1942, Rev. Tholen closed his labors and the following winter a call was extended to Rev. George Strouse, long a minister in this vicinity and at one time a missionary in Africa. He accepted and remained our pastor until 1948. The Church at this time was going through a financial struggle, and the highest salary they were able to pay Rev. Strouse was only $1200 ̶ one third of the average salary for Connecticut pastors during the war years. In spite of this and other discouraging factors Rev. Strouse stayed on and labored faithfully and diligently in this Church until his pastorate came to a close four years ago. While he was with us a new furnace was installed at a cost of eleven hundred and a new floor laid in the Sanctuary for over eight hundred.
Since 1948 we have had no regular pastor, but have been supplied with students from Yale. One of these, Peter Chiolero, and, before him, the former pastor of the Seventh Day Church in Waterford, Ronald Hargis, have both acted as interim pastors. In 1950 the Church was incorporated under the laws of the state, and as a result this spring an entirely new set of by-laws was adopted. At present Allen Scott, one of our members who is studying for the ministry and an earnest worker for the Church, performs the duties of resident pastor.
The earliest women's society of which I find record was existing in 1868 under the name of the "Ladies' Social Circle." In 1874 a Missionary Society was organized with over sixty members. It became defunct in the 1880’s. In the next decade a Women's Temperance Society was formed but did not last very long. In 1895 a Ladies' Aid Society was started and lasted until 1922. The next year it was revived and named the "Social Union." In 1924 it was reorganized as the Community Circle, the next year as the Ladies' Aid Society, and finally in 1926 as the Community Circle again, since which time it has lasted to the present day. It is impossible to estimate the work of the Ladies' Aid and the Community Circle; to speak of the ways in which this group has helped the Church would require a sketch as long as this present one. The present president of this organization is Mrs. Minnie G. Lewis.
A second Missionary Society was organized in 1907 and lasted until before 1911; a third in 1923, lasting to about 1927, and a fourth in 1946, lasting to date (1952) through the efforts of its leader, Mrs. Nita M. Wheeler. A society for the younger ladies of the Church was formed in 1939 as the Hawthorne Club. The organ now in the Sanctuary was given by them in 1941. Also, there has recently been formed a Junior Circle.
The young people's societies have been- many in number and short in duration. The first one on record was organized in 1894, and in 1897 had 30 senior and 40 junior members. It dissolved in 1898. At least five separate Baptist Young People's Societies were organized during Rev. Reed's pastorate. A "Christian Endeavour" organized about 1920 lasted until 1925, and four more separate societies bearing this name were formed in the 1930's. Another society formed in 1944 lasted to 1946; another 1947 to 1948; and the most recent held together but five months in 1949. Since then no regular society has been organized but the young people have met with Allen Scott as leader for informal discussion periods.
Our present membership is 122, of which 80 are resident and 42 are non-resident members. The Church building and property are valued at $10,000 and the parsonage and property at $8,000.
And so with these few strokes I have tried to present a synopsis of the history of our Church for the long and varied period of its existence. The former days, dark oftentimes with difficulty, are colored with glory, and the periods of greatest struggle were indeed the periods of triumph, of which today we are proud. But we as a Church would do well to learn from the tutelage of these past days, and, realizing that no Church is permanent which forgets its past, remember the story of sacrifice and struggle of those into whose labors we have entered, and pass on the work to those who come after us, with a glory undimmed, and the cause of our Savior advanced.
Section 4 - History