Beacon Street Diary blog

A Drama in Connecticut

by Jules Thomson

Move over, Tiger King. There's a new cathartic docu-drama for these pandemic times, and it's called: Congregational Meeting House Location Disputes! (we're still workshopping the title).

What better way to escape our current worst timeline than full immersion into the bitter, decades-long rivalries of New England townsfolk upset about the location of their meeting houses? And when I say upset, I mean full on, mobs-fighting-in-the-streets upset.

This Reality-TV worthy material comes to us from the New England Hidden Histories program. In the last few weeks my work with NEHH has revolved around digitized materials from our partners at the Connecticut Historical Society, and in particular the collections of the First Congregational Churches in Durham and Lebanon, CT (Lebanon is still pending publication). While describing the documents for public consumption, I was surprised to see how much of both church's records were taken up with fierce battles over the location of their meeting houses.

There is already a lot of drama in our collections at large - a sizeable portion of NEHH records consist of documents generated in the course of disputes, whether on behalf of an entire church, a subset of aggrieved bretheren, or an individual congregant or minister. (I choose to interpret this plethora of argumentative material as a consequence of the denomination's robust mediation and appellate processes, rather than evidence of a particular orneriness on the part of Congregationalists themselves - though actual congregants may beg to differ).

Even within this context, however, the protracted and sometimes explosive battles in Durham and Lebanon stand out. When I initially looked over the Durham First records, I thought the frequent references to "Northerners" and "Southerners" had something to do with the Civil War. While it actually had nothing to do with the national conflict, it was indeed a civil war on a local scale. Lebanon's dramatic dispute also tellingly became known to history as "the Meeting House War".

Both the Durham and Lebanon "wars" had a similar catalyst; a previous meeting house building had become untenable (in Durham's case, it was destroyed by fire), and the situation stoked pre-existing tensions over the building's location. And the real issue in both cases, besides time spent travelling to and fro, was money. Members who were far removed from the meeting house resented having to pay for the repair or replacement of a structure on the same inconvenient spot.

In Durham, the argument was between residents living north and south, respectively, of the central "Mill Bridge" in the mid-1800s. When their third meeting house burned down in November of 1844, subscriptions were immediately raised for its replacement. However, a dispute soon arose over whether to build on the former site or to move it north, with factions forming on both sides. Among many records produced as part of the ensuing arguments, one letter by the southern faction, written for the benefit of the First Church at large, accused the northerners of inciting prejudice:

"the members of your Church and Society, residing south of your impassable gulf, would represent that the proceedings of many of the members residing north of the gulf by influencing the committee in their decision in locating the meeting-house, were fallacious, and unexpected from the followers of him whose character was without guile."

the authors conclude with the ominous warning:

"do not drive us to a step which we must take to ward off a greater evil."

The conflict eventually resulted in the separation of the First Church and Society into separate North Congregational and South Congregational churches in Durham by 1850.

This schism, as traumatic as it must have been at the time, was a far happier result than what occurred in Lebanon. Their Meeting House War began in 1724, when the Society voted to replace the former building, and lasted a whopping eight decades. Residents living north of the historic town center (amusingly referred to as "the Village People") were eager to move the building closer to what had become, effectively, the new parish center. However, a somewhat murky "ancient agreement" from Lebanon's foundation had stipulated that the building could never be moved from its location on the town common. Upon a major renewal of hostilities in 1772, the southerners enlisted some of the oldest town residents, who remembered "the ancient agreement" firsthand, to testify to its legality.

Meanwhile, the old meeting house was in a sorry state, and each round of repairs fostered new conflicts over who would pay for them. After decades of infighting, in which the Connecticut General Assembly was frequently called on to intervene, a concillatory agreement was reached in 1804. It was decided that the old meeting house should be disassembled and relocated to the north. However, when southern residents saw their beloved church under the hammer, they formed a mob and arrested the workmen who were attempting to demolish the structure. According to D. Hamilton Hurd in his History of New London County, Connecticut:

"A large crowd assembled from every quarter, with mingled emotions of grief and anger so highly excited, as to forebode actual violence."

This was followed in the ensuing days by a rallying of the northerners, who formed their own mob and arrested any southerners trying to prevent the demolition.

After multiple lawsuits in which both sides sued each other for damages incurred in the riots, the state's "Supreme Court of Errors" finally ruled in favor of the southerners, and the First Congregational Church in Lebanon is, to this day, situated at the town common as the "ancient agreement" intended.