The first hundred years are the hardest
This is the first of an occasional series about St. James Episcopal Church of New London, which will celebrate its 300th anniversary in 2025.
On September 6, 1781, New London was reduced to rubble. The British vandalized and torched scores of homes and businesses. Few streets were spared. On the Parade, the courthouse, the jail, the market wharf, shops, houses, and the Episcopal Church were all reduced to a smoldering heap of ashes.
Afterwards, when church members met at the site to survey the devastation, some of them could probably remember when the church had been built 49 years earlier. Who could have imagined that this symbol of faith and love would be destroyed in one day of infamy? Given the impact of the Revolution on the parishioners’ personal lives and the catastrophic condition of the city, it would have been easy to despair.
Looking back, the church, as a society of believers, began even before there was a building. In June 1725, a group of 12 men published their intention to establish the Episcopal Church of New London and pledged their financial support for a building project. Someone bought a vacant lot on the Parade west of Bradley Street (now Atlantic Street) and donated it for the site.
Progress could have been expedited if plans to move a vacant church in Newport to New London had materialized, but they didn’t, so a local contractor, John Hough, was hired to construct the building. The completed structure, which opened for worship services in 1732, was square but high, and featured double doors, five windows, and 22 pews. By 1741, the first of several improvements were undertaken to accommodate the growing congregation, and the church became known as St. James Episcopal.
By the early 1700s, New London’s exceptional harbor was attracting businessmen like the St. James’ founders, who often identified with England and the Anglican Church rather than with Puritanism and the Congregational Church. In a time of growing religious diversity, Puritanism was losing its hold as the established and exclusive religious denomination in the city.
The Baptists had established a church in Waterford, the Rogerenes were aggressively promoting religious and social reforms, and the Great Awakening, an Evangelistic movement, was beginning to sweep the colonies.
James Davenport, a charismatic preacher of the Great Awakening, spoke in the New London area several times. His orations stirred crowds to wild frenzies. People fell to the ground in hysterical fits, burned books including a volume of standard Anglican theology, and consigned frivolous clothing (even someone’s velvet trousers) to the flames. The Rev. Samuel Seabury, Sr. was so disgusted by these outrages that in 1742 he resigned his position as the first Rector of St. James and moved to Long Island.
The next rector, Matthew Graves, faced far worse problems during his tenure, especially as anger mounted against British policies and talk of independence began to fill the air. Although St. James was part of the Church of England, a number of members were Whigs, Americans who actively supported the Patriot cause. It didn’t sit well with them that Graves persisted in reading the prayers for King George and the royal family, as prescribed in The Book of Common Prayer, while some other clergy had substituted prayers for the Continental Congress.
One Sunday, some of the members had had enough. When Graves began the controversial prayer, someone stationed in the lobby rang the church bell, and on that prearranged signal, a group of men, led by the burly Mumford brothers, stormed into the sanctuary and rushed at Graves. He was saved from possible harm by two women who threw themselves between him and the angry crowd. Graves escaped through a side door and sought refuge in a nearby house. Eventually, naval agent Nathaniel Shaw arranged for him to travel under a flag of truce to British-held New York. After this incident, St. James was closed for several years, and then, of course, there was the arson.
In April 1783, parishioners met as an organization for the first time since the attack on New London. A peace treaty hadn’t been signed, but the war was virtually over. It was a time to hope, a time to rebuild. They needed a new site and a new sanctuary, but, buoyed by faith in a brighter future, they were eager to move ahead.
Today, preparations are underway to celebrate St. James’ 300th anniversary and its extraordinary journey. Those early founders would be delighted.