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Church History of Norwich Vermont
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The great achievement of the first generation of Norwich settlers was the building of a meeting house. More than any other event of the time, with the possible exception of the accomplishment of the national independence, this was an undertaking that enlisted the energies and taxed the resources of our forefathers.
The building of a meeting house in a New England frontier settlement a century ago was regarded a matter of public concern, to be supported by the whole community without regard to sect or party, like the opening of roads or any other public charge. In less than ten years from the time the first clearing was made in Norwich, the preliminary steps were taken to provide a meeting house to be used for the accommodation of the whole people in the public worship of God. The question of the location of this building was sharply agitated, re-resulting in a keen competition between different sections of the town for the coveted distinction, inasmuch as the location of the house was supposed to fix the site of a possible future village where much of the business of the town would be transacted. When it became apparent that no agreement could be reached, a locating committee of three men from out of town was chosen and summoned upon the ground to decide where the meeting house should stand. The formal report of this Committee as made at the time has recently been found among the papers of the late W. H. Duncan, Esq., of Hanover, N. H., and by the kindness of Honorable Frederick Chase has been furnished to the writer. It is printed below in full as a curiosity of the times to which it relates:
“Report of a Committee, Locating the First Meeting House in Norwich, A. D. 1773.
“We, the subscribers, being by the inhabitants of the township of Norwich, County of Gloucester in the province of New York, on the twelfth day of October inst. appointed a Committee to examine and find out the best and most convenient spot to build a meeting house on for the public worship of God in sd town and on their appointment and call we met in said town on the 28th day of Oct. inst., and according to the instructions given us by sd inhabitants we carefully viewed sd township and the inhabitants thereof, and heard all parties concerned touching the premises and considered the same, and are of opinion that the best and most suitable place to build sd house on is upon the 9th Lot in the second Range of 100 acre divisions, about 20 rods a little North of West from Capt. [Peter] Olcott‘s dwelling house, on the north side of the highway sd house to include a stake set up by us marked “M. H.” All which is agreed upon by your most obedient, humble servants. [Dated] Oct. 30, 1773,
Samuel Gilbert, Charles Hill, Seth Wright ((Colonel Samuel Gilbert was one of the original proprietors and first settlers of Lyme, N. H. He came from Hebron, Conn. Charles Hill was an early settler in Lebanon, N. H. Mr. Wright was probably from Hanover.))
The situation for a site as made by the Committee, was the occasion of considerable dissatisfaction, it is said, especially among the inhabitants of an elevated tract of land lying west of the present village of Norwich, which had been settled and improved by a company of families from Preston, Connecticut, as early as the summer of 1766, who had made a resolute effort to secure the meeting house in their own immediate neighborhood nearer to the geographical center of the town. The temporary disaffection gave to the tract above described the name of “Judgment Hill,” an appellation conferred upon it by Lieutenant Governor Olcott, and which it retained for many years. Possibly the Preston people (among whom were Aaron and John Wright, John Hatch, Samuel Partridge, Samuel Partridge, Jr., and Israel Brown and Jonas Richards) thought the hand of Captain Olcott, a newcomer who had then resided in town only about a year, rather too prominent in settling this matter. But he gave liberally of his large means for the promotion of the enterprise, and soon after conveyed to the town as a free gift the land for a meeting house lot and for the public burial ground adjoining.
The point where the committee set their stake, and where the meeting house was subsequently built, was a short distance southeast of the site of the second meeting house built in 1817, the outlines of which are still distinctly visible. The first house stood directly in front of the old cemetery and nearly in line with the old brick schoolhouse still standing near. The surface of the ground where it stood seems to have been disturbed in later years and made more uneven. The war of the Revolution, with its anxieties and alarms, soon interposed to delay the consummation of cherished hopes in regard to the meeting house. The foundations of the new edifice were finally laid, with appropriate observances, no doubt. July 9, 1778. Meanwhile a young minister, Reverend Lyman Potter, had been settled over the church and the town, the installation ceremonies being performed in the open air, upon the spot chosen for the future temple, but then a primitive forest, on the 31st of August, 1775.1
The building of the meeting house advanced with slow and halting steps for several years. The people were poor and their burdens and sacrifices many and severe. Within a year, however, from the laying of the foundations, the frame was up, covered with rough boards and the roof put on. In this condition the building was used for a town meeting, July 15, 1779, for the first time, and thenceforth was habitually so used except in the coldest winter months when town meetings were held at some dwelling house nearby, usually at Colonel Olcott‘s, where they had previously convened since 1773. During 1779 roads were also laid out from different points in town centering at the meeting house. Among the most important of these was one from the ferry where Hanover Bridge now is to the meeting house, and thence through the town to Thetford line. These roads, which were not completed for some time after, were laid by a special committee, chosen for the purpose, consisting of John Hatch, surveyor, assisted by Abel Curtis, Philip Smith, Nathaniel Brown and Grersham Bartlett.
Nothing further seems to have been done on the meeting house until the spring of 1780, when at a town meeting held April 20th, a Committee was chosen consisting of Elisha Burton, Nathaniel Brown and John Hopson, “to lay out the subscriptions raised towards furnishing the meeting house”; and the committee were directed “to finish the out-side of the building, glaze the lower part if possible, lay the lower floor, build the pulpit, and proceed to make the pews, etc., if there be money sufficient raised.” Lack of funds doubtless prevented the full execution of these directions, as a year and a half later the pews at least had not been built, and a proposition was accordingly brought forward and adopted in town meeting Oct. 4, 1781, to sell the pews, or the “pew ground” at auction, in advance of their construction. The floor of the house was then divided into thirty pew spaces, and twenty-six of these were sold on the spot at prices ranging from £8 to £31 each, the whole amount realized from the sale being £472, 10 shillings. Only a small part of this gross sum, however, was available for future work, since purchasers of pews were to be credited on their payments for whatever money or materials or labor each one had previously contributed towards the building of the meeting house. Enough was obtained for the immediate purpose, and accordingly the pews were put in early in the following year. At the sale of the pews it had been agreed that three families should occupy each pew, but this arrangement soon proved unsatisfactory, and a town meeting was called by the meeting house committee Sept. 3, 1782, at which the following action was taken:
“Whereas, it is found that to have only three Families in a pew, as was formerly proposed, will not accommodate the whole of the families in town with seats; therefore
“Voted that five Families be desired to sit in each of the Pews in the meeting house, which have been or are to be sold, except the five smallest pews, in which four families are to be accommodated.”
The pews in this meeting house were undoubtedly built in the large, square form prevalent in those times, but to think of five families of the size then common stowed away in a single pew, and to recall the then almost universal habit of church attendance, suggests a density of population quite unknown to our day. In the summer of 1784 the seating capacity of the meeting house was considerably enlarged by the finishing of the gallery and the building of fourteen pews therein. Glass windows were then put into the gallery for the first time. Measures were also taken the same season for the substantial completion of the whole interior of the building. At a town meeting held in connection with Freeman’s Meeting, Sept. 7, 1784, it was voted “that the Meeting house be finished off by lathing and plastering and whitewashing the walls and overhead” Major Burton, the chairman of the building committee, was at the same time directed “to contract with Lieut. John Hopson, to finish the meeting house completely, and to engage him the sum of £100 for the same,” This expenditure had been provided for by the sale of the gallery pews by vendue the April preceding, which realized the sum of £191-8s.-6d. On that occasion purchasers of pews were required “to give their notes payable next December in wheat at five shillings per bushel, for such sums as they may be sold for.”
Probably the finishing touches were not given to the meeting house before the spring of 1785. Seven years had it been in building, seven dark and trying years, a period equal to that required for building Solomon’s temple. Now that it was at last finished and stood complete before their eyes, our fathers may be pardoned if they looked upon the work of their hands with some degree of pride and affection. It was reputed at that time to be the best meeting house in the State. Doubtless there followed a formal dedication of the structure to public and pious uses, although no record or tradition of such an event has come to our notice; still one might say it was already dedicated in a higher sense through the self-denying spirit and the consecration of purpose that had wrought so long and so valiantly for it. The whole cost of the house was computed to be £694, or about $2,300 of our money. Very little money, however, was used in its construction, which was carried on almost entirely by means of direct contributions of labor and materials furnished by the townspeople.
A notable event in the history of the town soon occurred to signalize the completion of the new meeting house, the meeting of the Vermont Legislature at Norwich for an adjourned session, in June, 1785. This body then consisted of a Council of twelve members, and a House of Representatives of about 100. Only about sixty members of the lower house appear to have been in attendance at this session, which lasted sixteen days (June 2-18). The representatives assembled in the meeting house for their daily sittings, while the Council were accommodated at the house of Daniel Buck close at hand. Peter Olcott and Thomas Murdock of Norwich were members of the Council at this time, and Elisha Burton and Elijah Gates represented the town in the assembly, the state constitution then allowing two representatives to such towns as contained over eighty taxable inhabitants. Daniel Buck, a young lawyer just settled in town, was chosen Secretary pro tem of the Council. Other members of the Council present were Ira Allen, then also treasurer of the state (this was not Colonel Allen‘s first visit to Norwich on a political mission); and Moses Robinson of Bennington, who succeeded Thomas Chittenden as governor four years later, who had already served five years as chief judge of the Supreme Court of the State, and who was elected in 1791 one of the first Vermont senators in the Congress of the United States. Hon. Paul Spooner of Hartland, as Lieutenant Governor, was the presiding officer of the Council. John Throop of Pomfret, three years a Supreme Court judge, and Benjamin Emmons of Woodstock were also members. The Speaker of the assembly was Nathaniel Niles of Fairlee. Speaker Niles was then serving his second term as judge of the Supreme Court and was soon to be chosen the first representative in Congress from the Eastern District of the State. On the floor of that house were many of the strong men whose names illuminate the early history of Vermont. Among them was Stephen R. Bradley of Westminster, thrice chosen U. S. Senator from Vermont, and that staunch Federalist, Isaac Tichenor, twice chosen to the same office and eleven years governor. There also were Nathaniel Chipman, afterwards six years a senator in Congress, and six years judge in the Supreme Court of the State, three of which he was chief judge; and Samuel Knight of Brattleboro, four years judge in the same court and three years chief judge. Joshua Hazen and William Tilden were representatives from Hartford at this session, Beriah Loomis from Thetford, and Roger Enos and William Gallup from Hartland.
It needs a lively imagination for one who stands today on that naked and desolate hilltop, to carry back the mind and picture to oneself the scene presented at the gathering of the Vermont legislature more than one hundred years ago, on that now lonely spot. History records that the ceremonies usual to such occasions were not omitted, that the governor, lieutenant governor, and other prominent officials came to town attended by a cavalry escort, and were received by a body of the local militia under the command of Colonel Paul Brigham. The whole number of members and officers belonging to the legislature probably did not exceed 100. One almost wonders where even these found comfortable lodgings, as nowhere in town was there a regular hotel, or any collection of dwellings that would even suggest the idea of a village. “Burton’s Plain,” as the site of Norwich village was then called, possessed only three or four houses. But the reputation of the town for hospitality was good, and the distinguished strangers who did not find entertainment at the homes of the resident legislators, were probably quartered at the nearest farmhouses. Members of the legislature did not journey to the capital in Pullman cars in those days, but on horseback with such baggage only as could be carried in a pair of saddlebags. It is doubtful if the first four-wheeled carriage had then rolled into Norwich. It is possible that Colonel Olcott and one or two others might have owned a chaise. Such roads as then existed were mere cart tracks through the woods, emerging here and there into a narrow clearing full of blackened tree stumps.
A number of important measures were enacted into law during the brief session of the legislature at Norwich. Questions of greater magnitude or wider interest have seldom come before our legislative bodies in later years. Vermont was at that time to all intents and purposes an independent sovereignty. Congress had rudely repelled her overtures for admission into the Confederacy of States. Her legislators had to attend not only to local affairs but to the international relations of the state as well. On June 7, Colonel Ira Allen submitted to the legislature a report of his mission to Canada the previous winter for the purpose of negotiating with the government of the Province of Quebec a treaty for the establishment of a free trade to and through that province to the countries of Europe, and in furtherance of this end to secure the cutting of a ship-canal to connect the waters of Lake Champlain with those of the St. Lawrence. An act was passed granting to Reuben Harmon, Jr., the right to coin hard money. The same legislature passed a naturalization act, laws for the establishment of post offices and mail routes, and other acts of sovereignty. A township of land was granted to Dartmouth College and Moor’s Charity School, the rents and profits of which were devoted to “the use of said college and school forever.”
A law called the “Betterment Act,” which had “been debated for several sessions, and upon which public opinion was much divided, received its final shape at this session. This measure secured to actual settlers the value of their improvements in cases where the titles to their lands proved defective. It is interesting to note that the Norwich representatives took opposite views of its merits, Mr. Burton voting for the bill on its passage and Mr. Gates against it. Among acts of local interest passed at this session was the incorporation of the Windsor County Grammar School and its location at Norwich, where it remained until its removal to Royalton in 1807. A tax of three pence per acre upon all private lands in Thetford was voted for the purpose of building a meeting house in said town.
No data have been found showing the dimensions upon the ground or the seating capacity of the first meeting house. As originally built it contained upwards of forty pews, upon the floor and in the gallery. Probably ten persons to a pew would not be thought an excessive allowance for its seating capacity. There is little doubt that the building was often made to accommodate (by the aid of movable seats or otherwise) a much larger number. It was a substantial frame building, clapboarded without and plainly finished within, but without steeple or bell. One who remembers it well as it appeared in the days of his boyhood, thinks the outside at least was never painted; but it appears from the town records that in December, 1791, a tax of £50 was levied for that purpose, ” Sd tax to be paid one half in wheat and one half in flaxseed at cash price.” At the same time it was voted “to have the Meeting house underpinned with as good natural-faced stone and pointed with lime mortar as the Chapel at the College, with good stone steps, well faced with as good stone as can be provided in this town.” As was usual in the New England meeting houses of its time, there was no provision for heating in winter; what-ever artificial heat was enjoyed by its occupants being derived from the diminutive foot-stoves that our great-grandmothers carried with them to church.
It is not strange that having served its purpose for nearly forty years, the meeting house should come to be considered a little antiquated and a demand arise for something better. Since its foundations were laid in 1778, the town had more than doubled in population and in wealth. A new minister, Rev. James W. Woodward, had been settled in 1804 as the successor of Mr. Potter, and though supported only by the voluntary offerings of the congregation, had succeeded after a ministry of a dozen years to more than the esteem and regard bestowed upon his predecessor. The desire for improvement took shape in the summer of 1817, in the erection of a new and more commodious meeting house (40 by 60 feet on the ground), near the site of the old one. On the 24th of December that historic old building wherein the pious aspirations of two generations of worshipers had found a voice, and where the fathers of the town had so often formulated their ideas of civil policy in town and state, a building that to Norwich stood for all that Faneuil Hall and the Old South Church together stood to Boston, was sold to Constant Murdock, the highest bidder, for $100. The Sunday following (Dec. 28, 1817) services were held in it for the last time. A commemorative discourse was pronounced by the pastor, Mr. Woodward, on that occasion, a few passages from which, characteristic of the speaker and well befitting the hour, we gladly quote:
“Towards this house” said Mr. W., “which for the space of nearly forty years has been devoted to religious uses, with those who have here united in divine worship, peculiar emotions must be excited whilst we are met for the last time within its sacred walls. Who, that ever received pleasure in a visit to this sanctuary, in reflecting upon the times in which he has ascended this hill of the Lord, must not be ready to acknowledge his attachment to its homely walls?
“In reflecting upon past scenes it will be natural to call to mind the names of those who have met with us in this place. Of those who were concerned in the building of this house, or were original proprietors, the greater part have fallen asleep. We may here and there behold one who saw in youth its early glory while it stood encircled by the forest. A few hoary heads are still waiting at this gate of wisdom, whose ears were addressed by the first messages of God communicated from this desk. The most of their contemporaries are gone. Among the early occupants who have died, are the names of Waterman, Bartlett, Olcott, Hatch, Richards, Partridge, Hutchinson, Smalley, Boardman, Murdock, Loveland, Bush, Burton, Hopson, Brown, Goodrich, Stimson, Morse, Percival, Wright, Thatcher. Their Places have been filled by their successors, many of whom also have gone the way of their fathers, from which there is no return. The whole number of which the church has been composed is a little less than 300. Of seven deacons, successively chosen to officiate in its temporal concerns, four have died Joseph Smalley, John Burnap, Nathaniel Brown and Jonas Boardman.
“This house is endeared to me by a thousand recollections of which I have been the unworthy partaker. Has any benefit accrued from my labors, this you should refer to the giver of every good and perfect gift. For I consider it among the choicest mercies of my life, if I have been used as an instrument in any degree of promoting your Spiritual welfare.
“Let us never forget, my hearers, the goodness of the Lord. If we are ever permitted to tread the ground upon which this house now stands, let us revere this spot of earth from the remembrance of the merciful kindness of God to us and to our fathers who have frequented this holy tabernacle.”
Reverend Isaiah Potter, brother of Lyman Potter and the first minister of Lebanon, N. H., was settled there in 1773, the installation services taking place (August 25) under 4 large elm tree on the bank of the Connecticut. ↩
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