Tales from Truman Street

Truman Street in New London has a colorful past. All old city streets do. Like acquaintances we see frequently but know only casually, the roads we travel every day have hidden stories, some of them surprisingly spicy for their times.

Joseph Truman was 27 years old when he came to New London in 1666. He must have been an energetic man with good social skills, because just one year later he was the town constable, an important position in the community. Joseph built a farm and opened a tannery on Truman Street. His two tanning pits at either end of the street emitted a nasty smell, but Truman Brook carried the effluent into Bream Cove.

In the next generation, the Trumans were touched by scandal when Joseph's son, Thomas, brought a lawsuit against his wife for conceiving a child by another man before their wedding. Susanna Truman managed to avoid legal consequences, although she didn't deny the charge and refused to name the father. A public airing of such an intensely personal matter sounds callous and tasteless, but their marriage, despite its spectacularly rocky start, produced five children and lasted until Thomas' death in 1747.

In 1742 the Shepherd's Tent, a center for training evangelistic ministers, opened on the corner of Truman and Blinman streets. From their residence in Joseph's old house, Thomas and Susanna could probably hear exuberant songs and prayers coming from the seminary. This boisterous style of worship was quite different from the traditionally sedate Puritan services.

The Shepherd's Tent was part of the First Great Awakening, a revival movement featuring itinerant preachers and open air services. The phenomenon swept the colonies, hitting New London especially hard. There were several reasons why the movement was so popular: growing dissatisfaction with the official Puritan church, the rise of other Protestant denominations, the appeal of expressing religious feelings more emotionally and the leadership of some charismatic men.

One of those charismatic pastors was the Rev. James Davenport, a descendant of the founder of New Haven. He was a compelling speaker who knew how to command an audience. In 1742 when James spoke to New London, Groton and Stonington congregations, some women were so overcome they fainted. His theatrics were controversial, fascinating and the subject of much discussion.

In March 1743 James was in New London again, thundering against idolatry. One Sunday he led his followers to the town wharf where they lit a large bonfire and burned books that he considered heretical. The next day the scene was repeated, only this time James urged the crowd to dispose of personal possessions that reflected self-indulgence. Wigs, jewelry, petticoats, silk stockings, vests and hoops all hit the flames.

Unfortunately James succumbed to his own rhetoric and removed his breeches and tossed them on the bonfire. An onlooker retrieved his pants, but everyone was suddenly subdued by this shocking display. James regained his wits, apologized, and left town a chastened man.

The incident made news everywhere. The Boston Weekly Post-Boy reported wryly that people "fell to stripping and cast their Cloaths down at their Apostle's Feet." The Post-Boy's editors seem to have been amused by revival-inspired hijinks because a year earlier they'd run a story about a man who, like Moses, tried to part the waters of a river. Using a stick, he "fell a smiting, splashing, and spluttering the Water… til he was quite up to the Chinn."

There would be other evangelistic movements, but the First Great Awakening, with its colorful excesses, played a role in the birth of the United States. It gave shared experiences and sense of community to people across the colonies and helped pave the way for cooperation in the coming revolution.

Carol Sommer of Waterford is a self-proclaimed history nut. She writes a monthly history column inspired by local street signs.

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