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Buried History: A place where early Baptists struggled for existence

As one drives down Mullen Hill Road in Waterford and approaches the Howard Cemetery, one can almost imagine this stretch of road over 200 years ago, when the first Baptists of the area hurried to Sunday services at the Darrow Church.

Although the church building no longer stands, it would seem the area has not changed much in the past 175 years. Of course the road is paved now, but the fields probably look the same. The cemetery and grounds are lovely.

These hills were part of the farming district of New London when they were first settled. Its distance from New London made it a refuge for New London’s citizens who opposed the official religion of New London and adopted a daring new belief.

These early Baptists were struggling for their very existence. The “Great Awakening” could be said to have “lit the fire” that initiated the creation of this church in what would later become Waterford.

Browsing through the list of burials in Mullen Hill Cemetery reveals a startling fact: A large number of families suffered multiple infant deaths. Life in early colonial times was precarious. Approximately 10 percent of the graves are from families that endured three or more newborn deaths during the approximately 175 years the burial ground was active.

When visiting the burial ground, one can almost hear echoes of the grief of parents burying their small children here.

John and Hannah Beckwith: six children

Phoebe and Comstock Smith: five children

Daniel and Charlotte Daniels: five children

Lemluel and Susan Beebe: five children, then Susan, the mother, died within one year after the death of her fifth child.

Four more families endured the death of three children each.

The excitement of religious revivals known as the Great Awakening swept through eastern Connecticut in mid-1741 when a series of preachers visited the area. On July 18, 1741, James Davenport, said to be “the most ardent and renowned enthusiast” during this period, brought his “message from God to purify” to all believers.

He exhorted New Londoners to cleanse themselves of evil that had somehow “crept in amongst them.” His enthusiasm provoked a good number of his listeners to immediately “purge themselves of all that may contaminate their souls.”

The throng of worshippers moved to an area near the town wharf and began a bonfire. They began to fuel it with “certain religious books that they had previously relied upon for their faith.”

Into the fire went sermons and other books they considered heretical. Some people tossed in articles of clothing they saw as ornamental — silks, satins, embroidered vests and buckles.

Davenport beseeched them to sacrifice to the fire “whatever they had esteemed and cherished as valuable. ... Most of the articles were of a nature to be quickly consumed, but the heavy books lay long upon the smoldering heap.”

As the night grew later and the flames intensified, the people became a disorderly, noisy crowd.

The next day, when the news of this out-of-control bonfire spread, calmer minds took hold. Miss Caulkins, the historian, explains the aftermath: “this ebullition of misguided zeal appears to have operated on the troubled minds of those engaged in it, like a storm upon the moody atmosphere, dispersing the mists, calming the air, and cooling the temperature.”

A council of ministers met to discuss the “disorder.” A Mr. Edwards of Northampton preached a sermon “bearing witness against the prevailing disorders, caused by enthusiasm.” Later a group of New Londoners was arrested and brought before the court on April 5, 1743. Six defendants were found guilty of “profanation of the Sabbath” and fined.

Miss Caulkins points out “the main outcome of the incident is certain — the little company of enthusiasts never accomplished their favorite idea of forming a pure church under a divinely appointed teacher.”

Chastened by their own transgressions, that group of separatists continued for a few years to look for a sign of someone to come forward to lead them, but eventually the group ceased to exist.

After a few years in 1748 several of the community united with another group and assembled a group of 16 in the West Farms area of Waterford under the leadership of one of the first converts of the 1741 great revival: Nathan Howard. Meetings were held at John Beckwith’s house, and Beckwith was named deacon. There were 16 members who called themselves Congregational separates. Most of the separatists ultimately embraced the Baptist principles.

By 1769 there were three Baptist elders living in West Farms: Nathan Howard, Zadoc Darrow, and Eliphale Lester. All were young earnest, diligent men, most still in their 20s, however within a few years one of them would die of smallpox.

The sudden death of Elder Nathan Howard on March 2, 1777, was the first of several changes to the group. Howard had previously given to the Church a plot of land on Mullen Hill to be used as a burial ground so he himself was the first person laid to rest in the peaceful enclosure.

The cemetery was enlarged with a gift of more land from Daniel Howard in 1786. Eventually the cemetery became part of a “Burial Place For the Society.” Until that time, members were buried on their own farms or in New London.

Next, Elder Lester accepted a call from Saybrook to lead a group there. Only Elder Darrow was left so he became the sole leader of the group. His first concern was to build a church so he generously donated land for the new building across the street from Mrs. Howard’s burial place.

Unfortunately the building project was delayed for some years because all of New London became preoccupied with the Revolutionary War.

Immediately after the war, the congregation members, “laboring together,” built the church.

The most flourishing period of Darrow’s ministry was between 1790 and 1800. When Darrow’s flock had a great revival in 1794, baptisms that year peaked at 90. Members rose to 250 and it was known as the Darrow Church.

The Darrow Church on Mullen Hill Road, and its cemetery, served most Baptists in the area for many years. After 1794, the Church was divided into four divisions: Niantic, New London proper, Great Neck, and harbor’s mouth. Each division had its own leader, but all were under the pastoral care of the Rev. Zadock Darrow, who was the “efficient and revered” pastor for 52 years.

Years later, in 1848, a New Baptist church for Waterford was built in Jordan village and the Mullen Hill church was eventually closed.

The church is gone, but the cemetery, still lovely, is a remembrance of a time long gone.

Eileen Potkay Olynciw is a lifelong resident of Waterford, a member of the Waterford Historical Society and the Waterford Properties Commission.


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