Early History of the Parish
by The Rev. Canon Jervis S. Zimmerman
(Preached May 19, 2002)
(On November 16, 2002, St. Peters celebrated its 175th anniversary. We are printing Canon Zimmerman’s sermon so that we can appreciate what we celebrated then and today.)
The first minister of the Gospel in Hebron was a 1710 graduate of Yale named John Bliss. He was ordained “congregational” in 1717 by his fellow Congregational ministers who resided in this part of the colony. The Rev. John Bliss served the Congregational Church in Hebron for the next 17 years. In 1734, he resigned as pastor of the Hebron Congregation and declared for episcopacy. That is, he announced that he believed his Congregational ordination to be invalid and that ordination by a bishop in the historic succession of the Apostles was necessary. Mr. Bliss was not the first Congregational minister in Connecticut to declare for episcopacy. In 1722, the entire faculty of Yale College (all of them Congregational ministers) did so to the consternation of their fellow Congregationalists. Their conversion was based not on the influence of any Anglican missionary, there were none in Connecticut at the time, but solely on their reading of the church fathers in the Yale library.
A number of local families joined Mr. Bliss in his decision to become Anglicans. They, with him, were the founding nucleus of this parish and that is why 1734 is given as the year in which St. Peter’s Church was established. It is the sixth oldest Episcopal Church in Connecticut. The first minister in Hebron (John Bliss) was also the first pastor of St. Peter’s. Since John Bliss had not been ordained by a bishop, he served St. Peter’s as a lay reader. He immediately began reading to his tiny flock prayers from the Book of Common Prayer. Undoubtedly they met in each other’s homes. A church building was begun the following year, not on this site, but two miles to the north on Godfrey Hill. The people of St. Peter’s were poor and few in number and it took them 30 years to finish that building. (Even so, it was finished only thanks to a generous legacy from a wealthy woman in Boston.) The cemetery was located next to the church. It can still be seen on Route 85 today, surrounded by a low stone wall. The Rev. Samuel Seabury of New London (who was the father of our first bishop, also named Samuel) came to Hebron every other month to administer the sacraments, which, of course, John Bliss could not do as a Iay reader. At last, in February 1741, as he was about to sail to England to be ordained Episcopal, John Bliss died. He is buried in the old cemetery on Godfrey Hill.
What did it mean to be an Episcopalian in Hebron in 1734? It meant, first of all that they used the Prayer Book in their public and private worship instead of the long extemporaneous prayer by the pastors. They read short prayers printed in the Prayer Book, as we now do. It meant observing the Christian year with its feasts and fasts – the Congregationalists did not observe Christmas or Lent or Whitsunday. Episcopalians then and now baptized infants. Congregationalists in those days baptized only adults who had had some kind of personal conversion experience. We make the sign of the cross on the head of the person being baptized and the groom puts a ring on his bride’s finger in Holy Matrimony. To the Congregationalists these were vain superstitions or “popish” ceremonies. The Congregationalists indeed were very unhappy and mightily upset to have even a tiny group of Episcopalians worshipping in their midst.
After John Bliss died in 1741, the people of Peter’s wanted their own priest to live and minister amongst them here. So began a long and costly job of searching for an educated young man with an inclination to the priesthood and then raising the money needed to send him to England to be ordained by a bishop. Because, of course, there were no bishops on this side of the Atlantic until many years later in 1785 Samuel Seabury the younger returned to New England. The Anglican colonists had begged and pled for a bishop to be sent here, but every time the Puritan majority strenuously opposed the idea. After all the Congregationalists said, they had come to this Iand to get away from bishops whom they hated and feared as officers of the State Church of England. The greatest contribution of Bishop Samuel Seabury was that he functioned as a purely spiritual pastor, with no support from the state and no secular authority.
St. Peter’s second candidate for a pastor was Barzillai Deane, a 1737 graduate of Yale. He was the Uncle of Silas Deane of Wethersfield, the diplomat who served in France with Benjamin Franklin. Young Deane served as a lay reader here after John Bliss. Four years later, the people of St. Peter’s Church sent him to England where Deane was ordained in 1741. But on his return to America his ship was lost at sea and the young clergyman perished.
The next candidate was Jonathan Colton, who graduated from Yale in 1745. After serving as a lay reader here for six years, the good people of St. Peter’s had raised enough money to send young Colton to England where he was ordained in 1751. But on the way home he contracted smallpox aboard ship and was buried at sea.
Undaunted by these three losses, the people of St. Peter’s invited James Usher to be their lay reader. He had graduated from Yale in 1753. His father was a priest in Bristol, Rhode Island. Usher, too, was sent from Hebron to England for ordination. But his ship was captured by the French and he was imprisoned in the castle at Bayonne in southern France and he died there at the age of 24 years.
The saga is said to continue with a Mr. Fairweather of Boston who is said to have been ordained in England and headed for St. Peters, but he died in the West Indies on his return voyage.
By this time the Congregationalists were taunting the people of St. Peter’s, saying that God was punishing the Episcopalians by thwarting their efforts.
Nevertheless, St. Peter’s people asked Samuel Peters to serve them. He was born in Hebron in 1735, and like the others, he was a graduate of Yale College in the class of 1757. He sailed for England the following year and was ordained deacon and priest there in 1759. While in England, Peters became seriously ill with smallpox. He was attended by the personal physician of the Archbishop of Canterbury who clearly didn’t want St. Peter’s to suffer another loss. Happily, young Peters recovered and returned safely to Hebron in 1760. It had taken 26 years before the church finally was able to welcome a priest of their own. It had cost the lives of four fine, dedicated young men and untold dollars. Peters served here for 14 years and was a zealous missionary for the Anglican faith. In one year alone he rode at least 2,000 miles, planting new churches as far north as Vermont and New Hampshire.
He left Hebron in 1774 because he was an outspoken loyalist to the King of England and could not support the War of Independence. His property was confiscated, his slaves scattered, and his future blasted. Nearly all of the papers of the Episcopal Church in Hebron were destroyed. He eventually returned to New York and died in 1826 at the age of 91 and was buried at Godfrey Hill next to his three wives. In 1841 his remains were moved to the present St. Peter’s Cemetery.
In 1824 the decision was made to build a new church, and a building fund was begun. On October 19, 1826, the present church was consecrated, free of debt, just south of route 66 on Church Street. The old church was subsequently torn down.
Today the Godfrey Hill Cemetery comprises .80 acres (Map/Parcel: 24/12). It is located north of the intersection of Route 85 and Route 66 on the east side of Route 85 just beyond Slocum Road. It is surrounded by low stone walls. It is no longer an active cemetery and considered a historic property.
Our ancestor’s belief that bishops were an essential part of the church’s life and ministry was a costly conviction indeed – both in human and in monetary terms. The trip to England for ordination was expensive, slow and hazardous. The perseverance of this little parish is truly remarkable. We today are the beneficiaries of their faith and their sacrifices. Make us worthy of this noble heritage.