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In Norwich, as elsewhere, the Baptists were the first of the dissenting sects to contest the ground with the dominant New England orthodoxy. Soon after the settlement of the town we find mention made of Baptists here, and it is probable that a few of the very earliest settlers were of that faith.
The following documents are transcribed from the town records:
Willington [Ct.] October ye 6, 1780.
“This may Certify all Persons whom it may Concern that Calvin Johnsen of Wellington is of the Baptist Persuasion and is one of the society of the Baptist Church in said Willington and is ready to help to support the gospel in that order.
“Andrew Main, Clerk”
“Willington, September 24, 1784.
This may certify that James Johnsen belonged to the Baptist society and his father and mother are Baptist.
Signed in behalf of the Church,
“Andrew Main, Church Clerk”
The above certificates were doubtless procured and lodged in the town clerk’s office by the persons whose names they bear, with a view to exempt themselves from taxation for the support of the Rev. Mr. Potter, the settled minister of “the standing order” in the town at that time, as well as to relieve them from expenses for the building of the first meeting-house then in progress. A law of the state early made taxation for these purposes compulsory on all taxpayers who did not thus prove their connection with some other church organization differing in religious sentiments from the majority of the town. This law, called the “ministerial act,” continued in force till the year 1801, when it received important modifications in the direction of liberality to dissenters, who were then a numerous body in town. It was finally repealed in 1807, since which time all religious organizations in Vermont have depended wholly upon voluntary contributions for their support.
As early as 1799 the town records show the existence of an organized society of Baptists in Norwich. Asahel Lewis was at that time clerk of the society, and his certificate is on record showing the following members: Israel Brown, Elias Partridge, Jesse Geer, Jude Allen, John Lewis, Baxter Newton, Eli White, William Winslow, Nicholas Allen, William Wade, Amos Phillips, Martin Brown, Elisha White. Although this list is probably far from complete, the society was never very numerous in town, nor does it appear ever to have had a meeting house or a settled minister.
A Baptist society had been formed in the north part of Sharon and adjacent parts of Strafford as early as 1792, by the efforts of Rev. John Hibbard, a pioneer Baptist missionary, who, it is probable, may have divided his time to some extent with the small flock in Norwich. From causes unknown to the writer, the Norwich society seems to have dissolved early in the century, and the members, in many in-stances, attached themselves to the Methodists, after the formation of a Methodist church here.
The Sharon Baptist church above mentioned appears to have possessed a stronger vitality. Under the ministrations of Rev. James Parker (a deacon of the church, who in 1805 had been ordained as pastor, and was thenceforward actively engaged as a Baptist preacher until the close of a long and busy life in 1839) the church held its own in a sort of nomadic existence, worshiping in schoolhouses and private dwellings for forty years, until in 1833 it built a small but tasteful meeting house at West Norwich (Beaver Meadow), near which locality a considerable portion of its communicants then resided. After the death of Mr. Parker, the Rev. J. S. Herrick supplied the church about a year, and was formally ordained over the church find society in 1840. Stated meetings continued to be held from this time onward for thirty years, during which period several ministers were settled and dismissed. In 1871, the church and society having become much weakened from deaths and removals, meetings were discontinued at Beaver Meadow, and the following year the society permanently removed to Sharon village, where it erected its second meeting house and where it still worships. The disused church building at West Norwich was, in 1875, taken down and the materials used in the construction of a parsonage at Sharon. During the thirty years existence of the church at Beaver Meadow, about 125 persons were added to its membership. A list of Baptist ministers at Beaver Meadow, with their terms of service as far as we have been able to ascertain them, is as follows: Rev. James Parker, previous to 1839; Bev. J. S. Herrick, 1839-1842; Rev. J. Crowley, 1842-1846; Rev. Philip Chamberlin, 1846-1860; Rev. A. W. Boardman, 1862-; Rev. W. L. Coburn, 1864-1865; Rev. C. D. Fuller, 1868-1869.