A Pomfret Church History
by John Bennett & Donna Lange
December 7, 2013-a crisp, sunny day on Pomfret Hill. As Advent season got underway, students at Pomfret School bustled about, readying for exams and winter break.
Across the road, the First Congregational Church of Pomfret stood, a classic structure with her Greek Revival columns, Federal windows and Pilgrim pews, waiting to mark her 300th anniversary in 2015.
As needed repairs were being made, the flame from a torch unknowingly penetrated the chestnut sill of the old structure and ignited it. No one realized there was a fire for several long minutes until it burst out and consumed the steeple framework. The building that was home to thousands of life’s ceremonies — weddings, baptisms, funerals, and other events great and small — was soon gone.
On May 1, 1668, twelve Puritan settlers, all from Roxbury, Ma., purchased 15,100 acres in Northeast Connecticut from Capt. James Fitch of Norwich, who had purchased it from Owaneco, a sachem of the Mohegan tribe. This was known as “The Mashamoquet Purchase” (or “Mashmugget” as it was spelled then.) The General Assembly agreed to ratify it only if a minister was procured. Ebenezer Williams, from Roxbury, was called as the first minister in the Purchase, making it possible for the town of Pomfret to be incorporated. He was ordained on October 26, 1715.
The Congregationalists of Pomfret have had three meetinghouses during their nearly three hundred years of history. The first was located on White’s Plains, a section of land on Pomfret Hill, just north of Needle’s Eye Road. The building faced south; the window arrangement was four on the lower story and five above. It would not be impressive by today’s standards — building materials were scarce and primitive. Seats and family pews filled the building, all facing the pulpit. “Sabbaday” houses were built by the side of the highway — they allowed families who came early on a wintry Sabbath to warm themselves with a fireplace before and after services. The meetinghouse itself was unheated.
Pomfret was experiencing a rapid growth in population and the inhabitants of the southern part of town (eventually Brooklyn) were granted permission to set up a separate society of worship in 1729. By 1749, Abington Society was formed, absorbing some of the western population.
In the spring of 1760, the town voted to build a new, larger meetinghouse, buying the two acres of land that make up the present common. Thomas Stedman, of Hampton, was the builder. A description from Rev. Daniel Hunt: “Those who saw it and remember it well say it was a noble structure — high and spacious and abundantly lighted. It had galleries on three sides, and could seat a thousand or twelve hundred people.” In 1762, it was voted to paint the exterior of the new meetinghouse orange. This must have been quite a sensation at the time because in successive years the neighboring towns of Windham, Killingly, Thompson, and Brooklyn voted to paint their new buildings “the same as Pomfret”.
In 1792, there was a division in the church, leaving it with only twelve male members, including the pastor, Rev. Aaron Putnam. The rest of the congregation followed a large number of residents from surrounding towns to worship at a new church, meeting in the Grosvenor House. They were enamored with the Rev. Oliver Dodge who preached with an “irrepressible exuberance of a free and generous spirit”. Even so, a few years later, the members of Rev. Dodge’s congregation voted to return to the fold at FCCP.
In 1832, the third meetinghouse was erected just east of the old building on the common. Dr. Waldo sold the land and was paid with the proceeds from the sale of one hundred pairs of stockings knit by the women of the church. The builder, Lemuel Holmes of Pomfret, salvaged much of the building materials from the previous meetinghouse. This building-situated far back from the road, facing westward toward the common, presented a beautiful example of Greek Revival architecture. Form and function blended skillfully when classical detail was adapted to suit native building materials and the New England climate.
Congregationalists, the spiritual heirs of the Puritans, remember that their beliefs and practices influenced the course of American democracy. The Mayflower Compact of the Pilgrims and the later Fundamental Orders of Hartford founder Thomas Hooker prepared the way for constitutional government.
Although the old meetinghouse had always been an elegant and aesthetically pleasing venue for worship, the church is — and has always been — the people, not merely a building. As the tercentennial celebration approaches, the congregation is hard at work on its “Building for Eternity” program. The people of FCCP are grateful to the community — especially Pomfret School for making available Clark Chapel for Sunday morning worship services and the town of Pomfret for the use of the Senior Center. For more information, see fccpomfret.org.
Pomfret Congregational Church records including:
Historical recountings by Reverend David Nelson, and Reverend Daniel Hunt.
Ellen D. Larned, “Historic Gleanings in Windham County, Connecticut”
Gerald Renner, “Congregational Conventions Convene”