Congregational Church Cornerstone

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Litchfield’s Congregational Church has been called “the most photographed church in New England.” It’s Greek Revival design and the simplicity of its black shutters and white paint seemingly epitomize colonial architecture. Its style is a perfect match to its setting.

Except that this is both Litchfield’s third and fifth Congregational Church, a story partly illuminated by this cornerstone.

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The first Congregational Church was erected between 1723 and 1726 in the intersection of the town’s major north/south and east/west roads, where today we would find the green. A largely square structure, it was sold in 1761 and the larger second Congregational Church was erected the following year.  By 1828, the church building had deteriorated so badly that one anonymous writer to the Litchfield County Post commented, “the shabby building pains the eye of every stranger.” The structure’s dilapidated condition – coupled with their era’s surge in desire to separate church and state, as manifested in Connecticut’s 1818 constitution – led to a decision to build a new Congregational Church off the green.

It is the construction of this church that is commemorated by the “1829” on the cornerstone. For its popularity and the rave architectural reviews the structure draws today, its design fell out of favor in the post-Civil War era. Of the building, Henry Ward Beecher, who had grown up in Litchfield, remarked “There is not a single line or feature in the old building suggesting taste or beauty.” With the popularity of Gothic Revival architecture, the third church was moved down the Torrington Road in 1873 and replaced by a wooden structure with dark stained glass windows and dark paneling and furniture, representative of the Victorian era.

The third church served as a gym, a roller skating rink, concert and dance hall, and movie theater, until the Colonial Revival swept the nation in the 1920s. At that time, Edgar Van Winkle, chairman of the Congregational Church’s building committee, termed the fourth church a “monstrosity” and, in 1929, hired noted architect Richard Henry Dana, Jr., to develop plans to move the third church back to a site opposite the green and restore it to its Greek Revival splendor (if not to its exact appearance, as several details were changed). This restoration is commemorated by the “1929” on the cornerstone.

The Congregational Church is an iconic symbol of Litchfield, but its foundation highlights the fact that this was not always the case.

For more on the architectural history of Litchfield’s Congregational Church, see Rachel Carley’s excellent book Litchfield: The Making of a New England Town (2011).

 

 

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Hidden Nearby: North Goshen Methodist Episcopal Church Marker

 

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The Methodist Episcopal Church was an outgrowth of the Great Awakening, a colonial American religious movement within the Church of England that emphasized being born again and attaining Christian perfection. Additionally, the Methodist Episcopal ministers and congregants tended to be both anti-elitist and anti-slavery.

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John Wesley

John Wesley, who along with George Whitefield founded Methodism, ordained the first American Methodist Episcopal ministers in 1784. Methodists in most Litchfield County towns continued to attend Congregational services until they could build a church of their own. This was the case in the community of North Goshen; however, when – in 1840 –  the Methodists in that area expressed a desire to build their own church, the Congregationalists contributed to their cause.

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That church stood at what is now the intersection of East Street North and North Goshen Road. As towns were often created when a significant number of people no longer wanted to travel far for religious services (Morris was carved out of Litchfield and Washington out of New Milford, Litchfield and Woodbury for this reason), the presence of this church suggests that while this area is now quite remote, it was once a vibrant community. In fact, the “History of the Town of Goshen” states that the church “flourished and at the congregation at times filled the church to overflowing.”

That 1897 history, however, also states that in later years the church’s numbers and finances were “greatly reduced,” leading the congregation to accept attendees from other churches and to be “very liberal to all sects, and Adventists, Unitarians, Baptists, and Congregationalists have preached to us but we like the ‘good Old Methodists’ the best.” The North Goshen Church closed 1920, less than two decades before the 1939 merger between the Methodist Episcopal Church and the Methodist Protestant Church, which formed the United Methodist Church.

 

 

 

Hidden Nearby: Charles Grandison Finney’s Birthplace

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Monument at the birthplace of Charles Grandison Finney on Cunningham Road in Warren.

There were no great battles fought in Litchfield County, nor were any presidents born here. The county has, however, left an indelible mark on American history, perhaps in no area as great as in religion. The county was the home of Joseph Bellamy, Lyman Beecher, Horace Bushnell, and Michael McGivney. Another extremely prominent American religious leader who called the county home was Charles Grandison Finney, born in Warren in 1792. Finney was the youngest of fifteen children, and the family moved to upstate New York soon after his birth.

Charles Grandison Finney

Charles Grandison Finney

Finney has been called the “Father of American Revivalism,” and the area in western New York in which he operated became known as the “Burned-Over District” for the intensity of the religious revivals there. The high point of Finney’s revivalism was 1825-1835, and they were particularly popular in towns like Rochester that were undergoing dramatic economic transformations brought on by the opening of the Erie Canal.

Rochester, NY 1830

Rochester, NY 1830

Finney preached salvation through faith alone, but also wrote of the role of the individual’s will in achieving salvation. Finney’s religious views led him and his followers to promote social reforms, especially abolitionism and educational opportunities for women. These beliefs led him in 1835 to Oberlin College in Ohio, which accepted both genders and all races. Finney would go on to serve as the school’s president from 1851 to 1866.

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Getting to this monument is very challenging; it is advised that those seeking it walk or mountain bike down Cunningham Road. Thanks to Warren historian Ellen Paul and the dog walker I fortuitously met along Cunningham for the directions! Thanks also to Jason and Amanda McGrew for their assistance.

For more on Finney and his revivals in Rochester, see Paul Johnson’s wonderful A Shopkeeper’s Millennium: Society and Revivals in Rochester, New York, 1815-1837.

East Cemetery: The Grave of Jeph Africa

Rev. Judah Champion (Courtesy of Litchfield Historical Society)

Rev. Judah Champion (Courtesy of Litchfield Historical Society)

Judah Champion was minister of Litchfield’s Congregational Church from 1753 to 1798. This was a prominent position, one that came with a commensurate salary. For Champion, moving to Litchfield came with a 2,000 pound bonus, an 800 pound salary, and 20 acres of land. Alain White, in his history of Litchfield, describes how only the most prominent of Litchfield were in a financial position to own slaves. This clearly included Champion who owned several slaves, including Samson, Kate, and Jeph.

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Jeph’s grave in the East Cemetery indicates he was a Revolutionary War veteran, but his name does not appear in the Roll of Honor of Litchfield County Revolutionary Soldiers. Jeph’s grave is interesting at several levels. It is an impressive stone, inscribed “Here lies the body of Jeph Africa servant of the Rev. Judah Champion, who died June the 5th 1793.” The text as well as the magnitude of the headstone suggest that it was paid for by the Champion family.

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Also interesting is the carving at the top of the stone. The modern explorer might associate it with a pinwheel, but pinwheels didn’t appear until the next century. The whirligig was a medieval predecessor of the pinwheel, but it seems unlikely that a toy would be carved on to an 18th century gravestone. Is it perhaps a representation of the rising sun, which carries both religious connotation and harkens to the continent of Africa? Or could it be a wheel, representative of divine power, prominently featured in Ezekiel 1: “Now as I beheld the living creatures, behold one wheel upon the earth by the living creatures, with his four faces.”

Nathaniel Hawthorne

Nathaniel Hawthorne

The grave is also notable as the inspiration for an 1838 writing of Nathaniel Hawthorne. In his American Notebooks, the author shared his observations of Litchfield, which include his reflections on Africa’s grave (although he incorrectly cites it as the grave of Julia Africa):

“In Connecticut, and also sometimes in Berkshire, the villages
are situated on the most elevated ground that can be found, so that
they are visible for miles around. Litchfield is a remarkable instance,
occupying a high plain, without the least shelter from the winds,
and with almost as wide an expanse of view as from a mountain-
top. The streets are very wide, two or three hundred feet, at
least, with wide, green margins, and sometimes there is a wide
green space between the two road tracks. Nothing can be neater
than the churches and houses. The graveyard is on the slope, and at
the foot of a swell, filled with old and new gravestones, some of
red freestone, some of grey granite, most of them of white marble,
and one of cast-iron with an inscription of raised letters. There
was one of the date of about 1776, on which was represented the
third-length, bas-relief portrait of a gentleman in a wig and other
costume of that day; and as a framework about this portrait was
wreathed a garland of vine-leaves and heavy clusters of grapes.
The deceased should have been a jolly bottleman; but the epitaph
indicated nothing of the kind.

“In a remote part of the graveyard, remote from the main body
of dead people, I noticed a humble, mossy stone, on which I traced
out ‘To the memory of Julia Africa, servant of Rev.’ somebody.
There were also the half obliterated traces of other graves, without
any monuments, in the vicinity of this one. Doubtless the slaves
here mingled their dark clay with the earth.” 

East Cemetery: Floral Symbolism

Photojournalist Douglas Keister has written that “Plants, especially flowers, remind us of the beauty and brevity of life.” As such, they have been used to remember the dead since the time of the Egyptians. Aristotle even went so far as to state that plants had a soul. The use of the language of flowers as symbolism on gravestones peaked during the Victorian Era, which also marked the heyday of the use of cemeteries as gardens. Vestiges of this era of floral symbolism are common in Litchfield’s East Cemetery.

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Elizabeth Phelps died at only twelve years of age in 1859.  Her gravestone included a rose, a flower rich in symbolism to the Victorians.  Since Elizabeth was so young, we are led to believe that this depicts a white rose, a symbol of purity. The fragrance and beauty of a rose was a reminder to visitors to the cemetery of the Paradise that awaited good Christians.

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Zebulon Colmer, who lived to be 90, had his gravestone marked with a palm tree.  The story of Christ’s procession into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday is, of course, well known to Christians.  In the Roman era, the palm was a symbol of victory, and Christians adapted this imagery to symbolize Christ’s victory over death, and thus, by extension, the afterlife achieved by good Christians.

Lily

Julia Henrietta Jones, who died in 1851 at the age of 46, was commemorated with a lily.  Lilies were symbols of chastity, but were also strongly associated with funerals, as their strong scent covered the foul smells associated with death.

Broken willow

The gravestone of Luna Norton depicts a broken willow tree, incorporating two Victorian symbols of death.  Weeping willows are symbolic of grief, but also of immortality, as the tree will continue to live despite having its branches cut off.  This was an exceedingly popular cemetery image in the early 1800s, and several willow trees can be found on graves in the East Cemetery.  Norton’s grave, however, depicts a broken willow, which seems to counteract the notion of immortality.  Broken trees symbolized lives that were cut short.

For more information on the symbolism of gravestones, see Stories in Stone by Douglas Keister.

For additional posts on the East Cemetery, see here, here and here.

East Cemetery: The Death’s Head Tombstone

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Prior to the sixteenth century’s Protestant Reformation there were few formal burying grounds for those who were not nobles.  The remains of royalty, nobility, and high-ranking clergy members were often entombed in the walls of churches and cathedrals, with the areas closest to the altar being reserved for the most important members of society.

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The social changes spurred on by the Reformation – and the necessity of finding new spaces with the walls of churches nearing their capacity – led to the dead being interred in burial grounds, often known as God’s Acres. The emergence of these cemeteries opened up the possibility of a tombstone for members of the middle class, which meant an opportunity to be remembered.

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Much of New England’s tombstone art followed the lead of the Puritans, who were particularly macabre in their engravings.  Puritan theology held that only the “Elect” would make it to heaven; the rest of mankind just died, were buried, and rotted in the ground. These beliefs are reflected in Puritan gravestone art, with the classic words, “Here lies of the body of …” engraved below a skull or skull and crossbones.

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However, a loosening of the grip of conservative Puritanism led to more optimistic gravestones, with skulls being swapped for human faces, and crossbones giving way to angels’ wings.  Equally telling is a subtle change in the wording, with “Here lies the body of …” often giving way to “Here lies the mortal remains,” language that allowed for the possibility of a human soul.

For more information on cemetery art, see Douglas Keister’s excellent Stories in Stone.

East Cemetery’s Van Winkle Gateway

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An outstanding job of brush clearing along Rt. 202 between Litchfield and Torrington has recovered the Van Winkle Gate of the East Cemetery.

 

 

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East Cemetery, Litchfield’s largest, is, according to Alain White’s history of the town, the third oldest cemetery in town.  White identifies West Cemetery, established in 1723 as the oldest but does not state what is second.  In 1754 a committee consisting of Samuel Culver, Joshua Garritt, and Edward Phelps was formed to lay out a new cemetery closer to town.  Their work was finished in January 1755.  As is evident from the plaque above (which adorns the right side of the gateway), Edgar Van Winkle, Sr. served as president for the Litchfield Cemetery Association for 27 years.  Van Winkle was a Union College educated civil engineer and Union Army veteran who rose to be chief engineer of New York’s Department of Public Works.  He also worked for the Shepaug Railroad. 

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On the left side of the gate are biblical quotations.  The first is: “Then shall the Dust return to the Earth as it was and the Spirit to God who gave it” from Ecclesiastes.  The second is: “Blessed are the Dead which die in the LORD that they may rest from their labors & their works do follow them” from Revelation.

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Originally the area of the cemetery behind the gate was designated for use as a highway, but when the cemetery expanded in 1837, the town voted to give the highway land to the Litchfield Cemetery Association that still maintains the grounds.  The stonewalls alongside the Route 118 frontage of the cemetery were built by public subscription in 1850.  The southeast corner of the cemetery – along this road – contains unmarked graves of Revolutionary War soldiers.

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The entrance to the cemetery on Route 118 is dedicated to the memory of Edgar Van Winkle, Jr., who also served as president of the Litchfield Cemetery Association.