'Old First' marks 250 years

Wednesday November 28, 2012


Religion Editor

BENNINGTON -- Observing its 250th anniversary on Monday, the First Congregational Church, as a body of believers, is virtually as old as Bennington itself.

As much as any single person, Capt. Samuel Robinson Sr. can said to be the main founder of both the town and the church. Returning to his home in Hardwick, Mass., after a battle in the French and Indian War in 1756, Robinson "mistaking his route, passed, by accident, this way; and, impressed by the attractiveness of the country, resolved to obtain others to join him and come up and settle here," according the Rev. Isaac Jennings' 1869 history of Bennington, "Memorials of a Century."

William Sterne Randall, in his critically acclaimed 2011 biography, "Ethan Allen: His Life and Times," describes Robinson as a "born again deacon in Hardwick's church," who had marched with young Ethan Allen on and ill-fated expedition to relieve Fort William Henry in 1757. On June 18, 1761, one of the captain's sons, Samuel Robinson Jr., led 22 men, women and children into Bennington on a narrow trail from the south. "Thus did the families from Hardwick and Amherst, Massachusetts, become Bennington's first permanent settlers," writes Robert E. Shalhope in "Bennington and the Green Mountain Boys."

These people and others who arrived within the next year, mainly from Hardwick and Sunderland, Mass., and Norwich, Conn., were dissenters -- or "separates" -- from the establishment form of Congregationalism then dominant in New England.

The religious sensibility of these first Benningtonians was formed out of the Great Awakening, a religious revival movement that produced significant divisions and dissent in New England's social order. For one thing, the dissenters rejected the idea that civil authorities had the right to intervene in church affairs.

"Separates all, these individuals intended to establish the special kind of community based on equality, trust and Christian discipline that had been denied them in their native states," Shalhope writes. The first town meeting in Bennington was held on March 31, 1762. Capt. Robinson and others formally organized the Bennington Church on Dec. 3, 1762. This was done through the combination of the Hardwick and Sunderland churches into one new Bennington Church.

In a recent talk at the Bennington Museum, Kenneth Clarke, the current pastor of the First Congregational Church, said that on Sunday, Dec. 2, the church will have an afternoon service to commemorate the organization of the church 250 years ago. On Monday, Dec. 3, there may be a brief prayer ceremony outside.

"How they organized themselves and where is a question," Clarke said.

The current church building, historic as it is, did not exist in 1762. Moreover, the old meeting house -- "which kind of looks like a glorified barn with many windows" -- positioned on what is now the green to the west of the current church, likely did not exist then, either, he said.

With few church members at the start, they likely gathered in someone's home, which in the early years of the settlement would have been quite primitive, Clarke said.

"My thought is perhaps if Samuel Robinson was here and organizing the town, and active in one of the churches, which he was, it would more than likely be in Samuel Robinson's home," Clarke said. "We know where, approximately, that house was located. It was located at the corner of Bank and Monument Street. So perhaps you can imagine these early settlers huddling into a small cabin, a little house there that Samuel Robinson had built, and perhaps gathering the church in that place." These people from Hardwick, Sunderland and Norwich who formed the new church were "New Lights" -- people who felt a new light of the spirit, an inspiration, a new sense of revival. By the 1710s and 20s, many of the New Lights felt that ministers in the established Puritan congregational churches of New England were not warm or evangelical enough, Clarke said.

"This culminated with George Whitefield and the great revivals of the late 1730s and 40s. And also Jonathan Edwards," he said. "This sets the stage for what happened in Bennington."

Three objections

In some ways, the contrast between "Old Lights" and "New Lights" or separates was similar to the current relationship of unease between evangelicals and those in mainline churches.

The New Lights focused on three things in particular, from which they diverged with established congregational practice. For one thing, they felt that Communion or the Lord's Supper should be limited.

"Communion was held by some churches to be open to everybody. It was seen as an ordinance, an activity that would help convert you or make you holy," Clarke said. "Some of the New Lights kind of felt that Communion should be restricted just to those who were regenerate, who had a sense in their heart of the saving faith of God, and so they felt that Communion should be limited." The New Lights also felt that religion should be deeply felt and did not focus on the rote repetition of dogmatic formulas.

"Religion should be heart-felt. It should come from the heart. It shouldn't be a recitation of wooden creeds or statements of faith. It should be something that you would speak of personally," Clarke said. "And to be admitted to some separatist churches, you would have to actually testify in front of the church to the dimensions of your religious experience."

Not surprisingly given this, the New Lights objected that some established churches admitted members who did not give such heart-felt testimony either in public or private, Clarke said.

A third area of disagreement erupted over something called "the half-way covenant." This idea resulted from situations in which second-generation Congregationalists did not want to join the church and so their children could not be baptized.

"The early Puritans made a compromise that said even if you did not join the church, if you ‘owned the covenant,' --basically agreed to be subject to church discipline, though not a member -- you could present your children for Baptism," Clarke said. This so-called "half-way covenant" upset many of the separates. "They did not like this kind of a compromise," Clarke said.

Further alienating the New Lights separates, leading them to seek new lands in which to practice their faith without interference, laws in Massachusetts and especially Connecticut, required them to pay a town tax to support churches they did not attend.

Connecticut also adopted a new form of Congregational church government that "removed power from the local congregation, presumably because some of these New Lights were introducing new ideas and were challenging people." More hierarchy and bureaucracy further antagonized the separatists, Clarke said.

"Suffice to say that about the time the New Hampshire grants were being parceled off that these issues were very real, that the people from Connecticut and also Massachusetts were looking for ways to escape," he said. "They were looking for places to go where they could have their own church and ways of worship and order them accordingly."

When on Dec. 3, 1762, the separatist churches of Hardwick and Sunderland joined together to become the Church of Christ of Bennington and agreed to follow the principles of the Cambridge Platform, a 1648 doctrinal statement for the Puritan Congregational churches in Colonial America, they rejected provisions in it supporting the use of civil authority to compel people to pay to support the church; they also rejected the use of governmental force to prevent schisms or splits of a dissenting church off from an established one. On Aug. 14, 1763, the Church of Christ of Bennington engaged as its first pastor the Rev. Jedediah Dewey, of the separatist church in Westfield, and the Westfield church agreed to become one church with Bennington. The Bennington church ratifed this merger on Sept. 12 1763.

Clash with Ethan Allen

Jennings writes about the first pastor that "unquestionable evidence has descended to us of his fervent piety and ability, as well as fidelity. Mr. Dewey had only a common-school education, but he was intelligent and gifted. His Christian character stood high."

Jennings quotes a Bennington tradition, noting it may not be entirely reliable, that "on one occasion, when Ethan Allen was in the congregation, and Mr. Dewey was preaching on the character of God, some remark in the discourse displeased Col. Allen; he arose in his place at the head of a prominent pew in the broad aisle, and saying with an audible voice, ‘it's Not so,' started to go out of the pew, evidently with the intention of leaving the house.

"Mr. Dewey, lifting up his right hand, and pointing with his fore-finger directly at Col. Allen, said, ‘Sit down, thou bold blasphemer, and listen to the Word of God.' Allen, who had too strong a taste for that style of doing things not to like it under any circumstances, immediately resumed his seat, and gave respectful attention to the remainder of the discourse."

Dewey, judged an able leader and dedicated patriot, died in 1778 and did not live to see the current, and much-celebrated, Old First Church building, which was dedicated on Jan. 1, 1806.

Samuel Robinson Sr. died even earlier, in 1767, of smallpox in London, England, where he had gone to deliver a petition to King George on behalf of local landowners in the dispute with New York over the New Hampshire land grants, of which Bennington was a part. His son Moses (1741-1813) was a colonel in the Revolutionary War, and served chief justice and governor during the Republic of Vermont, just before it was admitted as a state to the Union.

The gravestones of all three men can be found in the first row of the famed cemetery in the shadow of Bennington's Old First Church.

The First Congregational Church will hold a special anniversary service on Sunday, Dec. 2, at 2:30 p.m. to which the Greater Bennington community is invited.


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