by Douglas H. Parkhurst
Danbury Universalists, both before and after organizing in 1822, met in a variety of locations. These included private homes, a schoolhouse in Great Plain, and perhaps even in barns and the open air when weather permitted. Later the group began meeting in the court house in the borough of Danbury, on present-day lower Main Street. As told in Bailey’s History of Danbury (1896) the local Methodists and the Universalists would have together built a union meetinghouse sometime prior to 1828. This did not work out, however, and the Universalists retired from the project. By the early 1830s the Universalist Society was well enough established to construct its own building at what is now 88 Main Street, facing the court house. Bishop Curtis Homes stands on this site today.
The Connecticut Universalist Convention (state governing body) was formed in 1832 and on October 9, 1833, met in Danbury on which occasion this new Universalist meetinghouse was dedicated. The dedicatory sermon was delivered by Matthew Hale Smith, then pastor of the Hartford Universalist Society. Smith was at the beginning of a checkered career that saw him renounce Universalism at least twice. He went on to become a Congregationalist minister, militia chaplain, lawyer, journalist, author, and popular lecturer. Delegates to the General Convention of Universalists (national governing body) assembled in Hartford in September 1835. At this gathering a representative of the Connecticut Convention offered reports, more than thirty in all, on the condition of the state’s Universalist societies, churches, unorganized groups, and preaching. Danbury’s Society was described thus:
“Here is a flourishing society, consisting of twenty-nine members, and a church connected with the society. The brethren here have recently erected a large and beautiful house of worship. They have now no settled clergyman, but usually have employed one half the time. The brethren are steadfast, persevering, and increasing in numbers, and meetings are generally well attended.”
John Warner Barber’s 1836 Connecticut Historical Collections detailed history, geography, and interesting facts about towns in the state. The chapter on Danbury was illustrated with four engravings depicting local scenes and buildings. Two of these illustrations clearly show the Universalist church. The building is two and one-half stories and rectangular in shape with a narrower end facing Main Street. There are windows looking south on each main floor and to the rear facing west. We can assume windows also graced the northern and eastern sides with public entry from Main Street. A tower and steeple rose over the center front. The building appears substantial.
Here was home to the First Universalist Society for eighteen years. Worship, as before, was conducted depending on the availability of preachers, though laypersons were encouraged to meet and lead Scripture reading, prayer, discussions, and the like. Perhaps seven clergy, not counting guest preachers, served the Society during this time, an average of one every two years. In 1835 and 1847 there was no settled pastor. Two ministers were ordained in Danbury: Albert Case in 1834 and George H. Deere in 1849 [see note below]. A choir was formed in the 1830s and denominational records show a Sunday school established by 1838. We can assume that a variety of social events, programs, and fund-raising activities took place during these years. The Southern Association of Connecticut comprising Universalist groups in Fairfield, New Haven, and Middlesex counties was organized in Danbury in 1836. The Connecticut Universalist Convention also met in Danbury from time to time.
The fortunes of the Society appear to have declined during the late 1830s to the mid-1840s. In early August 1847 Rev. Salmon C. Bulkley, who was settled in Danbury from 1836 to 1838 and would return in the 1850s, paid a visit to his former pastorate. He wrote the following for the Universalist Union periodical of August 14, 1847: “That society has passed through many vicissitudes….We do most sincerely regret the necessity that existed for mutilating their beautiful church in the manner it has been done, but since it was thought best, we will not complain, but rather rejoice that the society is now free from debt, with a neat and convenient place for worship free of incumbrance….All that now seems to be needed to secure them a greater degree of prosperity than they have ever before enjoyed is a faithful and judicious pastor, and union and a healthy cooperation of all the friends of our cause, with him in his labors….”
The nature of the “vicissitudes” which plagued the Society can only be guessed at. Perhaps the nationwide economic Panic of 1837 and years-long depression which followed played a part. How the church building was “mutilated” is likewise lost to history though we can infer that some degree of interior remodeling and/or exterior change, which distressed Rev. Bulkeley, was carried out.
Times and fortunes can improve, however, and in 1851 the Danbury Universalists were ready to construct a new church on Liberty Street, just east of its intersection with Main, on a lot later numbered 30. And there was an interested buyer for their meetinghouse on Main Street.
[Note – Albert Case served in Danbury for less than a year. George Deere ministered from 1849 to 1851. In Universalist practice ministerial fellowship (to be licensed to preach) and ordination (to conduct all clerical activities) were authorized not by local churches but by a denominational body, such as a county or regional association, a state convention, or the General Convention. Associated ceremonies often took place in local churches, however.]
To be continued in December 2022…