Early American Faith: Reverend Jonathan Lee (Part Two)

EarlyAmerFaithConnecticut had been a colony for one hundred years yet much of the land had never been explored or settled – it was wilderness.  To the west of Hartford were what seemed like impenetrable forests, the area known as the “Western Lands”.  Up until 1732 the land, never surveyed, had been occupied only by Indians and four Dutch families.

After the surveys and development in the last 1730’s and early 1740’s, the town of Salisbury began to expand rapidly.  As Julia Pettee, author of The Reverend Jonathan Lee and His Salisbury Parish, pointed out, “Minister Lee made no mistake in casting his lot in this rapidly expanding town.”

From the beginning the townspeople of Salisbury wanted a church, but until such time as one could be established and a minister called, those who were devout had their daily family prayer time.  David Brainard, missionary to the Indians, passed through a few times, but those who counted themselves as devout Christians wished to have a church of their own where they could worship and pray together.

The matter was discussed at the first town meeting held on November 9, 1741 and three months later a committee was appointed to find a minister.  In June of 1742 they found Mr. Hesterbrook and engaged him to preach for three months, although there was as of yet no church building.  Throughout the summer services were held at various locations or in private homes.  Hesterbrook was paid off and the search continued.

In May of 1743, the committee engaged the services of Thomas Lewis, but he only lasted sixteen weeks.  Whether his ministry wasn’t suitable to the congregants or perhaps, as Pettee pointed out, they already had Jonathan Lee in mind.  Thomas Newcomb, a leading citizen of Salisbury, was an acquaintance.

Jonathan preached there several weeks before he was offered the job.  The time he spent there made him well aware of the challenges he would face in that remote and still-primitive location.  Between the time the offer was tendered in early 1744 until Jonathan and Elizabeth arrived, the townspeople set themselves to build a minister’s house, this in addition to all their own labors.

On August 19, 1744, when he was sure he would have appropriate accommodations, he wrote a letter of acceptance.  He and Elizabeth were married on September 3 and soon afterward set out for Salisbury, their “wedding journey”.  Roads were non-existent and the journey arduous; upon their arrival they were shown their new home (still not quite finished) and the land allotted to them.  For about two months following their arrival they lived in a blacksmith shop while waiting the completion of their home.

The house was about thirty feet long and twenty-five feet wide, with portholes for firing should they coming attack by Indians, at which time the home could also serve as a fort as well.  For a time, it would not only be their home but a meeting house until that facility could be built.

Following the home’s completion in November of 1744, Jonathan was officially ordained, albeit with a bit of “bending the rules”.  The regional church governing body didn’t exactly agree to Salisbury’s plans but the townspeople nevertheless chose their own path to secure the minister they wanted.  Because they were bending the rules (he was not ordained at the time he accepted their offer), it may have taken awhile to find three ministers willing to assist with Jonathan’s ordination, for after all they would be risking their own reputations and standing within the denomination’s governing body.

The ordination, preceded by a fast, was set for November 23, 1744.  That same day the Congregational Church of Salisbury was formally founded, followed by an official vote of the “Saints” to elect Jonathan Lee as their minister.  The presiding ministers, however, did not escape discipline.  A few years later they admitted their “error” and were restored.

With their minister officially installed, the Salisbury church began holding regular services.  According to Pettee, “Sunday was the great day of each week, a respite from strenuous labor, and for many, a refreshing contact with neighbors after the solitude of the lonely clearings.”  The Sabbath was set aside for worship and the sermon (the first one) preceded by a prayer and perhaps a psalm sung without instrument.  Another sermon of similar length and subject matter would follow in the afternoon after an intermission between services.

For about two years services were held in their home before the townspeople decided it was time to build a meeting house.  Of course, the construction would be done by those who already had full-time jobs as farmers or businessmen.  By June of 1749 the meeting house was ready for raising, but it would take three more years before completion.

Jonathan Lee had been allotted about five hundred acres of land upon his acceptance as minister, so not only was he a preacher but a successful and shrewd business man.  After the birth of their first two children it became necessary to begin considering a new home.  Even though the meeting house completion was delayed, he made some land deals and built a new home for his growing family.

Although his ordination had been somewhat irregular his prestige didn’t suffer.  Three years following his ordination, he was invited back to New Haven to receive his Master of Arts from Yale.  Salisbury continued to grow and by 1756 had grown to a population of eleven hundred.  With the growth of the town, the church grew as well.

The French and Indian War began in 1754 and two years later Connecticut raised an army of twenty-five hundred men, divided into four regiments of eight companies each.  The Reverend Jonathan Lee was appointed chaplain of the first regiment.  On May 23, 1756, Jonathan preached his farewell sermon before departing with his regiment.  He admonished his congregation to remain steadfast in their vows, knowing that he himself would face hardship and possibly death.

That year turned out to be one of inaction and by late autumn Connecticut’s army had disbanded and returned to their homes.  Pettee wrote that the lack of action, which to many surely seemed like a waste of their time, planted seeds “of a burning resentment against submission to the incompetent authority of their own racial stock” which would seethe until the war for independence.

One of the most well-known patriots of the Revolutionary War, Ethan Allen, was born in Litchfield, Connecticut on January 21, 1738.  He was the oldest of the children of Joseph and Mary Allen.  Shortly after his birth the Allen family moved to Cornwall, and as Ethan’s desire for knowledge read grew, Joseph sent him to Salisbury to be mentored by Jonathan Lee in preparation for entering Yale.

It was in Salisbury where Ethan became immersed in republicanism, the belief that everyone had a right to life, liberty and property.  Ethan never made it to Yale – his father died in April of 1755 and he returned to take care of the family farm and later married.  While in Salisbury he had also come under the influence of Dr. Thomas Young who later become an influential figure during the war for independence.

In 1764 some believed that the smallpox virus could be cured by ingrafting (inoculation), the process of transporting infected tissue into a healthy body as a means to cure the virus.  Clergymen throughout New England considered it heresy, including Jonathan Lee.  If not done with the consent of a town’s leadership, the act was illegal and punishable.

Ethan Allen was a bit of a troublemaker and apparently not at all inclined toward divine authority.  He was a profane and belligerent fellow who was hauled into court for his various misdemeanors.  Ethan insisted that Dr. Young inject him with the virus on the steps of the church to prove whether or not ingrafting worked or not.  They did it on the Sabbath and caused quite a stir throughout the town.  Although Ethan never contracted the virus, he was still taken to court, threatened with prosecution by his one-time mentor Jonathan Lee.

Allen, a Deist, made his startling defense before the court: “By Jesus Christ, I wish I may be Bound Down in Hell with old Belzabub a Thousand years in the Lowest Pitt in Hell and that Every Little Insippid Devil should come along by and ask the Reason of Allens Lying there, (if) it Should be said (that) he made a promise . . . that he would have satisfaction of Lee and Stoddard and Did Not fulfill it.”  When Ethan Allen was around, there was never a dull moment for the residents of Salisbury.

After Jonathan returned from the French and Indian War his family continued to grow.  In June of 1760 their last child, Milo, was born.  Their other children (Jonathan, Elisabeth, Samuel, Rhoda, Salome and Elisha) ranged in ages from twelve to three.  On February 22, 1762, Elizabeth died at the age of forty-five.  With several young children to raise, Jonathan found a young widow, Love Brinkerhoff (Graham).  He and Love had three children of their own: Chauncey, Robert and Love.  Jonathan, Jr. matriculated to Yale in 1759, followed by Elisha in 1773 and Chauncey in 1780.  His children, including his daughters, were educated by private tutors.

Jonathan was in great demand throughout the colonies to both preach and preside over ordinations.  His church continued to flourish as more settlers came to Salisbury.  There were other congregations in Salisbury, including the Quakers and Episcopalians (Church of England), but neither was considered a major element at the time.  Jonathan’s Church of Christ was the dominant congregation in Salisbury.  Pettee suggests he “had no love for the Church of England,” associating it with British tyranny.

Jonathan, like others who had returned from the French and Indian War, was incensed over the incompetency of the British commanders.  Following that war, the British seemed more intent on imposing onerous taxation on its New England colonists.  The Stamp Act of 1765 was cause for patriots like Patrick Henry to denounce the tyrannical British government.

Jonathan Lee, as pointed out in last week’s article (read it here), considered himself conservative in his personal beliefs.  During the election sermon of Governor Thomas Fitch in 1766, however, Jonathan preached a fiery message, decrying Deists and Unitarians.  He was dismayed by the evil of the times, the lives lost in the late war, the moral corruption — and then took a swipe at the Church of England, at “those who cross the Atlantic to import Episcopal tyranny.”  He admonished the newly elected government officials to seek wisdom and “make religion their first and greatest care.”

By the time hostilities broke out at Lexington on April 19, 1775, Ethan Allen, had migrated to Vermont along with hundreds of others looking for cheaper land when the New Hampshire Grants were made available between 1749 and 1764.  Ethan and his Green Mountain Boys captured Fort Ticonderoga, sending a ripple of enthusiasm throughout his former hometown of Salisbury.

Following the signing of the Declaration of Independence, more Connecticut residents sprung into action and joined the resistance.  Some of Salisbury’s townsmen joined Allen’s Green Mountain Boys.  Salisbury played a significant role in the war as the local iron works, The Furnace, was pressed into service to aid war efforts.

Jonathan’s two sons, Jonathan and Samuel, served in the war, Jonathan a surgeon and Samuel commissioned a captain.  Besides concern for his sons, during this time the meeting house had fallen into disrepair – with broken panes and broken pews, it was a cold and dismal place to hold a worship service.

Following the war, residents voted on April 12, 1784 to direct the town’s selectmen to repair the house of worship.  The repairs were completed six months before Jonathan Lee’s death on October 8, 1788.  His son Chauncey had been admitted to the Litchfield County Bar in 1788 and opened his own practice in Salisbury.  He abandoned the practice of law and decided to follow in his father’s footsteps.  Jonathan, however, didn’t live to see Chauncey receive his license to preach in June of 1789.  At the age of seventy Jonathan was stricken with “a sickness of inflammatory swelling” and died two weeks later.

He was laid to rest beside Elizabeth in the cemetery behind the church.  I came across his grave stone and epitaph recently, that being the impetus for this two-part series on the life of Jonathan Lee.  I found the inscription so inspiring I wanted to know more:

To the faithful discharge of the paftoral office he united the private
virtues of the hufband, the parent and the friend, and expired in the
bleffed hope of that Gofpel to which he had freely devoted his life.

My flesh fhall flumber in the ground Till the laft Trumpet’s joyful found,
Then burft the chains in fweet furprife, And in my Savior’s image rise.

He had lived a steadfastly faithful life, strictly adhering to his Calvinist beliefs.  As Pettee points out, his common sense approach, coupled with his conservative, yet strong and positive personality, helped him achieve a fine balance which avoided extremes at a pivotal point in America’s history.  He was held in high esteem not only by his own parishioners, but also had an outstanding reputation throughout the Colonies.

He may have been somewhat irreplaceable, however.  Chauncey preached for a time at the church, but ultimately declined to accept the office his father had held for forty-four years.  For eight years following Jonathan’s death, the church was without a permanent pastor.  A Scottish pastor was elected in 1792, but after a brief tenure when he changed the name to the “Presbyterian Church” (to the consternation of his congregants), he was dismissed.  In 1796 a new minister arrived and the Church of Christ that Jonathan Lee had helped found and shepherd had a new life.  Today it is known as the Congregational Church of Salisbury, United Church of Christ.

Have a GREAT day . . . someday it will be HISTORY!

© Sharon Hall (Digging History), 2015.


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