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.

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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.

Palm

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.  

Hidden Nearby: Sharon’s Moravian Monument

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Jan Hus

The Unity of Brethren, better known as the Moravians, also played an important role in the early religious history of the county.  The group’s nickname stems from the refugees from Moravia, an area of the present day Czech Republic.  The Moravians were essentially followers of the Catholic revolutionary Jan Hus, who advocated for giving lay people a more prominent role in the church and having masses said in vernacular languages.  Hus was burned at the stake in 1415.

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Nicolaus von Zinzendorf

One of the principal tenets of the Moravian church is the “ideal of service,” which emphasizes the importance of educational and missionary work.  At the forefront of these ideals was Count Nicolaus von Zinzendorf, a German social reformer and Moravian bishop who led efforts to spread Christianity through the Native Americans of the Northeast.  Around 1740, von Zinzendorf himself came to America, and preached to Indians in New Milford.  He was so successful in igniting the fire of Moravianism that the natives agreed to move with Zinzendorf to Bethlem (today Bethlehem), Pennsylvania.  Harsh conditions and illness, however, soon led the Native Americans to return.

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Monument to Rauch in Pine Plains, NY. Courtesy of Ancestry.com

Around the same time, a second Moravian mission was established in Sharon to minister to the settlements at Shekomeko (Pine Plains, NY), Wequagnock (near Sharon), and the Schaghticokes in Kent.  The mission was founded by the Reverend Christian Henry Rauch, who presided for two years before turning the work over to 26 year-old Reverend Gotlieb Buetner, who died two years later, and was buried at the site of the mission.

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New York State chased the Moravians out of their borders in 1745, fearing that the missionaries were secret emissaries of the Catholic Church.  This led numerous Christian Indians to settle around Sharon, where the Moravian mission continued under the leadership of David Bruce, a Moravian teacher from Edinburgh, Scotland.  In 1789, George Loskiel wrote of Bruce’s activities in his History of the Moravian Missioners Among the North American Indians:

Bruce … resided chiefly in a house at Wequagnock … but sometimes resided at         Schaticook, whence he paid visits to Westenhunk, by invitation of the head chief of the Mohikan nation, soweing the seeds of the gospel wherever he came …. Twenty Indians were added to the church by baptism.  Brother Bruce  remained in his station till his happy departure out of time …. He was remarkably cheerful during his illness, and his conversation edified all who saw him.  Perceiving that his end approached, he called his Indian brethren present to his bedside, and, pressing their hands to his breast, besought them fervently to remain faithful unto the end, and immediately fell asleep in the Lord.

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That was July 9, 1749.  A monument to Bruce and Joseph Powel, a later Moravian missionary, was erected in Sharon in October 1859, 110 years after Bruce’s death.  The monument still stands, hidden deep within the woods along Route 361.  On its east face is the following passage from Isaiah:

How beautiful upon the mountains

Are the feet of him that bringeth

Good tidings, that publisheth peace,

That bringeth good tidings of good,

That publisheth salvation.

Special thanks to my friend and colleague Warren Prindle of Sharon for not only bringing this monument to my attention, but also hacking through the woods with me to find it!

The Beecher Monument

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The monument sits prominently on the eastern end of where Route 63 passes through the Litchfield green, a fitting location for the monument to Litchfield’s most prominent family.

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Lyman Beecher (1775-1863)

Lyman Beecher was born in New Haven in 1775 and graduated from Yale in 1797.  The following year he became the pastor of the East Hampton (Long Island) Congregational Church at an annual salary of $300.  He remained there for twelve years before he was hired by the Litchfield Congregational Church, where he remained for sixteen years. (It is interesting to note that the monument sits at the site of Beecher’s church; the current Congregational Church was moved to its site in 1929).

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Beecher remembered his time in Litchfield as the most “active and laborious” of his life.  In his autobiography he wrote that he “found the people of Litchfield impatient for my arrival and determined to be pleased, if possible, but somewhat fearful that they should not be able to persuade me to stay.  The house yesterday was full, and the conference in the evening, and so far as I have heard, the people felt as I have told you they intended to.  Had the people in New York been thus predisposed I think I should not have failed to give them my satisfaction.  My health is good and I enjoy good spirits, some time past, am treated with great attention and politeness and am become acquainted with agreeable people.”

S4859-lgTimothy Dwight, the president of Yale University, preached the sermon at Beecher’s installment service.  Beecher very quickly established himself as one of the nation’s most important religious leaders.  He was central to the establishment of the Litchfield County Foreign Mission Society, and from the pulpit at the Congregational Church gave the Six Sermons on Intermperance, that when published in book form in 1826 were widely circulated on both sides of the Atlantic and were “among the earliest and most effective” statements on behalf of the temperance movement.

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Harriet Beecher Stowe

Lyman Beecher’s achievements have largely been eclipsed by those of his children; in fact, Theodore Parker, the noted writer and abolitionist said that Lyman was the father “of more brains than any other man in America.”  Harriet Beecher was born in Litchfield the year after Lyman was installed as pastor.  One townsperson shared a recollection of Lyman Beecher serving as the judge of an essay contest among the students of Sarah Pierce’s academy.  Upon hearing one essay he immediately brightened and asked who had written it.  He beamed when he learned it was his daughter’s work.

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Henry Ward Beecher

Henry Ward Beecher, soon to surpass his father’s fame as a minister, was born in Litchfield in 1813.  He was  remembered by his classmates for building a pulpit out of hay and impersonating the elder Beecher’s sermons.

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Catharine Beecher

Catharine Beecher, Lyman’s oldest child, would become a reformer and leading proponent of the cult of domesticity.  While not born in Litchfield, she had fond memories of the annual “minister’s wood sled” when members of the congregation would bring Beecher wood for the winter and in return the Beecher children would serve them cider, hot cakes and doughnuts.

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The Beechers’ time in Litchfield ended in 1826 when Lyman moved to a congregation in Boston.  Harriet achieved her fame in Cincinnati and Maine, Henry Ward headed the Plymouth Church in Brooklyn, and Catharine opened a school for girls in Hartford.  Still, they had a great impact on Litchfield, as remembered by this monument which was erected by the University Club in 1908.