This monument on the Bethlehem green marks the location of the church where Joseph Bellamy preached. Bellamy was one of the leading Congregationalist pastors and theologians – as well as a prominent educator and writer – of the late 18th century. Born in Cheshire, Connecticut, in 1719, he graduated from Yale in 1735 and studied for a time under the famed minister of the Great Awakening, Jonathan Edwards.
Bellamy was licensed to preach in 1738, at the age of nineteen. That same year Bethlehem, a community of fourteen families, was granted “winter privileges.” Because of the poor nature of 18th century roads, settlements were given the privilege of hiring their own minister for the winter months instead of traveling to the nearest established church. Bellamy began preaching on November 2nd of that year and 1740 formally became the town’s minister.
Bethlehem, 1836. The Congregational Church is on the right.
Initial services were held in a barn, but by 1767 the townspeople had voted to tear down the old meetinghouse and hired workers at four shillings a day to construct a new meetinghouse, with dimensions of 60 by 43 feet. The new meetinghouse would have a “good decent bell” and a “lightning-rod” and the interior would be arranged for “men not to infringe on women’s pues.”
It has been stated that no theologian of the time – except for Edwards – had the impact that Bellamy had. This was due largely to his teaching of theological students and the publication of his twenty-two books, which laid out the basic ideas of New Light Congregationalism. New Lights largely accepted the revival movements of the Great Awakening and as such brought political divisions to largely Old Light New England. In response to these divisions minister Gideon Hawley, wrote to Bellamy in 1763 that he didn’t “know of but two clergymen however in the country that appear to like your principles.” In spite of his controversial views, Bellamy served as the pastor in Bethlehem for more than half a century, until his death in 1790.
A future post will examine the history of Bellamy’s house, now maintained as the Bellamy-Ferriday House and Gardens.
The town of Litchfield celebrated the nation’s centennial in grand style. A committee had been formed “to arrange for the commemoration of the Centennial Anniversary of the Declaration of Independence.” The festivities began on the evening of July 3, when the village bells were “rung from 8 to 10 o’clock P. M., and houses in the village illuminated.”
An 1869 issue of Harper’s Weekly depicted Fourth of July fireworks.
At sunrise on Independence Day, the town’s bells rang for another hour, and all townspeople were asked to display the American flag. The formal public ceremonies began at 10:00 am with church services and a reading of the Declaration of Independence by Truman Smith, the 94 year-old former senator and congressman. In the afternoon, a display of Revolutionary War artifacts was opened in the Court House. The day concluded with another illumination and with fireworks over the center of town.
George Catlin Woodruff
The driving force behind the festivities was George Catlin Woodruff, who that day delivered a 44-page address on the town’s history. Woodruff was born in 1805, and was described by a fellow townsman as “erect in figure, and singularly robust; always of the finest health; always at work and never seemingly fatigued; nothing in nature so typified him as an oak which has withstood every vicissitude of storm a century of time.”
An 1825 graduate of the Litchfield Law School, Woodruff served several terms in the state legislature, and one term in the United States Congress. He was best known for his 1845 history of the town, which was marked by the precision of his research. The same year he wrote a Geneaological Register of the Inhabitants of Litchfield from 1720 to 1800. In his address that day, Woodruff discussed the town’s history between 1776 and 1876, but was “concerned chiefly with the share our town had taken in the Revolution.”
Woodruff would go on to be the first vice president of the county historical society before his death in 1885. It is not difficult to imagine that it was with great pride in his role in honoring the nation’s centennial that Woodruff had that memorable date carved into a stepping stone outside his home on South Street, opposite Saint Anthony of Padua’s Church.