Notes on Two Hundred Years (and More)
by Douglas H. Parkhurst
The Connecticut Universalist Convention was organized in New Haven on May 9, 1832, as the state-wide governing body of Universalist churches and societies. Within the next few years three regional associations were also established in the state. One of these, the Southern Association of Universalists of Connecticut comprising Fairfield, New Haven, and Middlesex counties was formed in Danbury on June 22, 1836.
Handwritten minutes and reports of the Southern Association still exist. Meetings were usually held in the month of June with societies and churches within the association hosting these gatherings on a rotating basis. Reports on the activities and condition of constituent groups offer snapshots of their progress or lack thereof over time.
Let’s take a look at some reports from First Universalist Society of Danbury for years immediately following the end of the Civil War. Danbury’s population was approaching 9,000 and the town was more and more a center for hatting and related businesses. During these years the Universalist church was located on the south side of Liberty Street, east of Main. The Disciples of Christ church stood diagonally across the street.
“1866 Danbury – No stated preaching for a year, but occasional supplies and lay meetings in the intervals. More money has been raised, and with greater ease than ever before, but not enough for a pastor’s support. Rev. A.C. Thomas preaches on alternate Sundays.
“1867 Danbury – No settled pastor. Until recently Rev. A.C. Thomas preached on alternate Sundays. He did much to strengthen the society, adding 6 members to the church and drawing many strangers to hear him. Perfect harmony in church matters prevails. The pecuniary condition is good….Attacks from other pulpits are frequent. One of them was very successfully answered by Bro. A.T. Peck, a layman. The communion is seldom held, but nearly every member of the society belongs also to the church. The Sunday School is growing, the parents take an increasing interest in it….
“1868 Danbury – The existence of a very liberal Congregational society is found to draw away some persons from the Universalist church, and yet this is considered as partly the fruit of the society’s labors in past years. There is a feeling of confidence and strength. The society has suffered for want of a pastor, but is now engaged in seeking one….3 members added to the church. The Sunday School has about 53 scholars and 9 teachers. Monthly concerts are held.
“1869 Danbury – A pastor was settled here about Nov. 1st [1868, Rev. William G. Haskell] and all concerned are greatly satisfied. The society has increased in vigor though not in numbers. Every active member of the society is a church member. 3 have been added to the church. The Communion is held quarterly….There are about 55 scholars [in the Sunday School], and the average attendance has increased to 40….Weekly conference meetings and monthly teachers’ meetings are held. Average congregation 140.
“1870 Danbury – This Society boasts of life and activity rather than numbers. They endeavor to make all members of this congregation also church-members. They keep their Universalism [before?] the community in deed and word, and are generally respected and cordially treated by the other denominations. The church numbers about 50 members, 9 having been added during the past year….During the past year several prominent members have died. The Sunday School has 58 names enrolled, with an average attendance of 38….Much credit is given to the Pastor for efficient Sunday School labors….
“1871 Danbury – We are united and strong in the faith. Have added 14 members to the Church during the year. Our average attendance at Sunday School is 45. Have no debt and no reason for discouragement….Sunday School is in a transition just now. Have adopted the One Session System which is working admirably….Are strengthening in working power and zeal. Rev. D.M. Hodge is Pastor.
“1872 Danbury – Additions to the Parish 8 Loss 3 – Additions to Church 7 Loss 3 – Baptized 5 children – Added 9 or 10 to S School. The Pastors salary has been increased….Have recently purchased an organ for $350 – nearly paid for – There is a tendency in the town favorable to our continued growth….We have influence in the town – Much progress has been made in the town in religious things – We are on a perfect equality with other sects. Union Prayer meetings have been held – to which we were invited and where we were made welcome. We are not in debt – are united and moderately prosperous for a small society….Added about 30 volumes to Library. Number in S. School about 80 Teachers 14 Teachers efficiency has increased under our one lesson system.”
The government of First Universalist Society had a dual form which was common in New England then and later. Those associated with the group belonged to the “society” and what was often a smaller group of society members also belonged to the “church.” Society and church each had a governing board; the same person might serve on both boards simultaneously. And, it appears that participation in an active Sunday School program played a significant part in life at First Universalist.
As noted above there was no settled minister between 1865 and 1868. Rev. Abel C. Thomas, nearing the close of his career, supplied pulpits in Danbury, also Bridgeport, during part of that time. Thomas, born in Pennsylvania to a Quaker family, was a prominent Universalist parish minister, evangelist, historian, and author. During the 1850s he traveled to England and Scotland as a Universalist missionary. Rev. William G. Haskell came to Danbury near the end of 1868 and served First Universalist for three years. Haskell was succeeded by Rev. Dwight M. Hodge who began his ten-year pastorate in 1871.