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Congregational Church Tercentennial Continues With Traditional Worship Service

Photo: Nancy K. Crevier

Members of Newtown Congregational Church continued the celebration of their church’s 300th anniversary last weekend with a Sabbath Worship Service. Those who were leading the service, as well as all members of NCC, were encouraged to wear Colonial attire for the May 18 service. Members gathered at Newtown Meeting House — which also served as the church’s home until 1988 — before walking as a group to their current sanctuary on West Street.      

Newtown Congregational Church continued its 300th anniversary celebration on May 18, with a Colonial-era style Sabbath Worship Service.

Members were invited to first gather on Sunday morning outside Newtown Meeting House on Main Street, which was the first home for the town’s oldest church. Efforts began in the autumn of 1711 to “call Mr Phineas Fisk to the pulpit but these efforts were not availing,” according to the church’s history. It was not until May 1714 that Newtown Congregational Church (NCC) began gathering, led by Thomas Tousey. The meeting house was first constructed where the Main Street flagpole stands today. The building was moved in July 1792, 132 feet to the southwest, to its current location at the intersection of West and Main Streets.

To honor that history, the May 18 service also began at the former home of NCC.

The original meeting house had neither bell nor belfry. Worshippers were summoned to Sunday services by a drummer. Last weekend, Shane DeMarche served as the morning’s drummer, calling those who wished to attend services to gather with ministers in front of 31 Main Street. Shortly before 10 am, the group proceeded from the meeting house to the current Newtown Congregational Church location at 14 West Street.

Mr DeMarche, the church leaders, and a few dozen members of the church who chose to do so were all outfitted in Colonial-era costumes for the special service.

Once the group arrived at the church, following tradition, the women were seated on the left side of the sanctuary (facing the altar) and the men sat on the right.

Richard Hubert, serving as a tithingman on Sunday, rapped his stick on the deacon’s bench in the front of the sanctuary to announce the entrance of Deacons Christopher Farrington and Gordon Williams. The two sat on a pew facing those in the sanctuary. They were followed by the entrance of the ministers, led by “Ye Reverend Matthew Crebbin.”

Robert Keegan served as a second tithingman. According to Eric Sloane’s American Yesterday (Wilfred Funk Inc, New York, 1952), “The tithing man was always given a convenient place in the first American churches, and it was his job to keep order. His badge was a long stick with a rabbit’s foot on one end and a fox tail on the other. The heavy end of the stick was used to waken nodding boys; the faces of slumbering matrons were brushed with the softer end.”

On Sunday, Messers Hubert and Keegan carried rods that had a knob on one end and a feather on the other. Fortunately, no disciplinary action was needed during the service.

When it was time to begin the worship service, Ye Rev Crebbin mentioned the disparity between the very full section of pews where women were seated versus the markedly smaller group of men who were attending services that morning.

“The tithingmen may need to call upon some of our men, to find out why they are not here this morning and perhaps levy a fine for their absence,” Ye Rev Crebbin noted, drawing a laugh from those in the pews.

While it was custom 300 years ago to have churches led by men, Sunday’s service made an exception with the inclusion of Janice Touloukian, the church’s retired associate pastor, and current Youth Pastor Allysa De Wolf. The former offered the day’s Long Prayer and the reading of Scripture (Jeremiah 1:1–19) and its Exposition, while the latter offered the Opening Prayer and later, an Announcement of the Text (1 Corinthians 13:1–13). 

Following the opening prayer, Keith Roberts led the congregation in the first Psalm of the morning. Mr Roberts stood in front of the sanctuary and sang Psalm 100 alone, and then indicated that worshippers were to join him for the repeat of the verse.

Music on Sunday was also provided by NCC Organist Phil Crevier, who performed on a harpsichord for the event, and special guest Jim Allyn, who performed on a modern mandolin. Mr Crevier was solo for the morning’s hymn, “O God Our Help in Ages Past,” and was then joined by Mr Allyn on “Slane,” an Irish folk tune that was played while deacons collected the morning’s contribution.

NCC’s Handbell Choir (“Ye Olde Ringers In Faith”) also offered music for the service, playing “See Ye First with Pachelbel’s Canon.”

A pair of baptisms was also part of the special service. Emilie Ann Guyeski, daughter of Kellie Ann and Mark Guyeski, and Dylan William Rankin, son of Michelle and Charles Rankin, were both baptized Sunday morning.

For his sermon, Ye Rev Crebbin adapted a sermon called “Heaven, A World of Love.” The piece had been adapted from a work of Jonathan Edwards (1703–1758), a Congregational preacher, philosopher and theologian “widely acknowledged to be America’s most important and original philosophical theologian, and one of America’s greatest intellectuals,” according to the May 18 bulletin. Educated at Yale, the bulletin continued, “Edwards preached throughout New England for much of his ministry, and his sermons and other writings would have been familiar to many throughout Connecticut, including residents of Newtown.”

The detailed bulletin printed for Sunday’s service helped attendees not only follow the order of the service, but also explained traditions and practices behind the day’s presentation. Prior to beginning the sermon, Ye Rev Crebbin announced that while two- and even four-hour sermons were quite frequent 300 years ago, “mine will not last that long.”

The sermon was followed by the congregation standing to sing another Psalm, this time “Joy To The World.” While all were still standing, Ye Rev Crebbin then offered the morning’s Blessing.

Then while Mr Crevier played “Capriccio per il Cambalo” for the service’s postlude, congregants filed out of the sanctuary toward The Great Room, where all gathered for refreshments. In leaving the sanctuary, however, another tradition was followed: men exited the room first, which was done a few centuries ago “to protect women and children from any dangerous animals or Indians lurking nearby.”

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