The meeting house routinely appears at the early stages of the histories of New England towns. Town leaders gather and agree to build a meeting house for worship and civic purposes. Then the town is off and running with the meeting house as its heart.
But the new meeting houses didn’t always come together so smoothly. Poor construction, leadership squabbling, fire – all threatened the early meeting house. And Bridgewater, Conn., provided a good example of how not to build a meeting house.
An Annoying Meeting House
Bridgewater spun off from the western Connecticut town of New Milford. Bridgewater was settled as early as 1722, but its inhabitants generally had to attend the church at New Milford. They also had to support it with tax payments.
Over time, the arrangement began to annoy the Bridgewaterans who didn’t like travelling all the way to New Milford. In 1788 the Baptists had established a presence in Bridgewater, and the fast-acting Baptists built a church by 1789.
So the Congregationalists began pushing to build a local church of their own. They may also have wanted to thwart the growth of the more convenient Baptist church.
The town of New Milford still ranks as one of the largest towns in Connecticut in terms of land area. The distances that the residents of Bridgewater (then called the Neck) had to travel to church annoyed them more and more. Some had been granted permission to send their money not to the local church but to a more convenient neighboring town.
In 1803, the separatist movement made another run at independence. Andrew Minor actively supported the group. It recommended that the local citizenry split off as their own town. They would carve the boundary lines out of New Milford and raise $2,500 for the town, which the treasurer would hold.
Late in 1803, the Connecticut government approved the committee to begin the work of forming the new town. It also sent negotiators to New Milford’s First Ecclesiastical Society to formalize the division. That’s when things started to bog down.
Samuel Orcutt described the first meeting in November 1803 in his History of the Towns of New Milford and Bridgewater, Connecticut, 1703-1882. The committee accomplished little. “[P]ossibly there was so much talking to be done that but little progress could be made, a failing which has sometimes befallen even the Congress of the United States,” he wrote.
But by January of 1804, the committee made forward progress. It planned to build a new meeting house, hire a minister and tax its members for the expense. Eli Smith and Benjamin Mead were appointed to buy lumber for the new meeting house.
A year later, however, the committee declared that it did not accept the lumber Smith and Mead had purchased, without stating why they found it substandard. Meanwhile Abijah Treat and Samuel Lockwood had been appointed to negotiate with the church at New Milford regarding funding for the new church and its location.
That ended badly, as well, with the new society firing Treat and Lockwood from their appointed posts. They “regretted the doings of Abijah Treat and Samuel Lockwood.”
The end of 1805 found the new committee mired in a dispute over where and how to fund its meeting house. The committee now turned to the county legislature to mediate the dispute. A group of men from neighboring towns then declared that it would site the new meeting house at Cranberry Pond.
Andrew Minor was the lucky man appointed to mediate the issue of the meeting house location. As a reward (or punishment?) for his success in 1807, the committee appointed him treasurer. It then gave the go-ahead for the construction.
By 1807 the work was under way on a building 52-feet by 40-feet, and the committee petitioned the legislature to run a lottery to pay for it. Lotteries were common in those days as they are today as a way to generate funds without taxation.
In 1808, the committee held its first meeting at its new, unfinished meeting house. Nevertheless, one last eruption would come.
The lottery raised some money and the legislature renewed it in 1813 with Minor still in charge. Not knowing much about the workings of a lottery, Minor hired an agent to run it. The agent had to collect the funds from people wagering in it. Minor’s agent skipped town with the greater portion of the lottery’s money, leaving Minor on the hook personally for the meeting house.
With some taxes and the contribution of the better part of Minor’s fortune to the cause, the meeting house was finally finished. Minor would leave town seeking to restore his fortunes. The meeting house would get hit by lightning and damaged in 1817. By this time he Baptists had pulled up stakes and the town of Bridgewater would remain part of New Milford for nearly 40 more years.
Images: Meeting house interior (Old Ship Church) By Michael Carter – https://www.flickr.com/photos/michaelcarter/269096379/, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=6286653.. This story last updated in 2022.