Halloween 2016. A whimsical little love note to Center and the old New Haven Colony, featuring our grounds. (A walk past our exterior memorials and markers is a mini-tour back into the earliest history of both the church and the New Haven Colony–here’s your pictorial guide.)
Unless you were living under a Ryhorn this summer, you may have heard that your local church is a PokeStop. You may have also heard that your local church immediately started looking for ways to capitalize on the fact that it is a PokeStop.
Please relax and keep reading: I’m just the agnostic church historian, and the only hard sell evangelizing on the agenda here today is on behalf of the muse Clio and the history of the old New Haven Colony. And on that note, let’s begin our tour:
The New Haven Green. This summer it was better known as the home of a Pikachu that only seemed to show up after 11:30pm on weeknights and a Charmander I saw exactly once on a lunch break and wasn’t able to catch, but the historic New Haven Green got its start as the literal centerpiece of New Haven’s “nine squares,” a layout dreamed up by colony founder (and Puritan’s Puritan) John Davenport based on his understanding of the perfect symmetry of iconic settlements and holy sites described in the Old Testament.
Robert Newman’s Barn. In 1639, the original New Haven PokeStop was Robert Newman’s barn, where the free planters among Davenport’s first community settlers met and chose twelve of their number to select seven land-owning guys (the “seven pillars”) of upstanding character to organize a church to anchor what was intended to be a Puritan theocracy.
Mr. Richard Perry Home Site. Prominent early settlers ended up with the lots surrounding the New Haven Green. For example, before it was the site of a bank building with a $6,000/month penthouse suite, the lot immediately at the corner of Church and Elm was the site of Richard Perry’s estate. Perry was the second secretary of the New Haven Colony.
(The first secretary, Thomas Fugill–one of the original Seven Pillars–was removed from the position and excommunicated from the church in 1646 for falsifying records, proof that there really is nothing new under the sun when it comes to small town corruption, even in the first few years of your theocratic New Jerusalem.)
Here we raised our Ebenezer: the first “meeting house” of what was–and still is–called the First Church of Christ, New Haven (also known now as Center Church on the Green because, well, you know) was located near where the modern-day current meeting house stands. This tablet was placed in 1938, to commemorate New Haven’s 300 year anniversary.
An Oddish hanging out by a marker that stands in as an oddish sort of cornerstone for the current building (construction started in 1812 and finished in 1814) while marking the memory of those that stood before.
Davenport’s Puritans planted their meeting houses in the geographic heart of the past colony (and current metropolis)–as one does in a theocracy–but their burial habits failed to put the “New” in New England and they reflexively began making use of the surrounding grounds for this purpose as they had in the churchyards back home. As the population grew and epidemics ran roughshod, a large portion of the upper green was transformed into a subterranean sea of corpses, some marked with stone memorials (that endured or not) but the vast majority without.
The first two meeting houses built were square shaped (the first), or just about (the second). The third was a more modern rectangle, but facing towards Elm Street. When it was time to build the fourth, the decision was made to position it facing Temple Street and perfectly centered–which would overlap part of the footprint of the building into a particularly prime section of old cemetery. Rather than disturb these graves, architect Ithiel Town built the church over them, and our basement “crypt”* now preserves the last remaining visual snapshot of the ancient burying ground of New Haven.
1821 memorial tablet. By the early 1800’s, the burying ground had fallen into enough disarray that the still-growing city of New Haven decided to reclaim this land for the living. In a move straight out of the movie [SPOILER ALERT] Poltergeist, Yale students assisted in removing the remaining tombstones on the Green (the bodies were left in place undisturbed) to Grove Street Cemetery. To solemnize the event, a special ecumenical worship service was held at Center Church and a plaque was placed on the rear exterior wall to permanently recognize that the surrounding area had once been the town graveyard (and still contains an estimated 5000-8000 sets of individual remains).
John Dixwell gravestone (original) and monument. Dixwell was the regicide who stuck around after fleeing to New Haven. He went by the name John Davids, lived next to (and struck up a friendship with) Yale founder (and our minister at the time) James Pierpont…and insisted on preserving his anonymity even in death. His original crude stone marker is inscribed “J.D.” The larger monument was donated by Boston-area members of the Dixwell clan in 1847, under the condition that the city of New Haven provide a fenced off area for it.
1934 WPA regicide plaques. We don’t actually have the regicides Edward Whalley and William Goffe buried in the backyard alongside Dixwell. What Pokemon trainers will discover in the rear of the building are these two plaques in their honor:
Stephen Goodyear tablet. Yet another tablet in honor of someone who is most certainly not interred in our backyard. Stephen Goodyear was one of the original settlers of the New Haven Colony. (Yes, he is the ancestor of that Goodyear.) From 1641 until he died while on a business trip in London in 1658, Goodyear was elected and reelected to serve as Theophilus Eaton’s deputy governor. Goodyear’s first wife, Mary, died in the sinking of the infamous “Great Shippe of New Haven,” an incident later memorialized in a Longfellow poem. (Rev. Davenport had possibly not helped matters when he was overheard “blessing” the rickety vessel full of superstitious sailors on the way out of the harbor: “Lord, if it be thy pleasure to bury these our Friends in the bottom of the Sea, they are thine; save them!”)
Theophilus Eaton memorial tablet. Eaton was Davenport’s school chum from England, New Haven’s first governor, and author of the colony’s legal code (based on Mosaic law, after the New Haven Puritans voted that merely importing English Common Law like the Massachusetts colony had done was weak sauce), as well as a famously embarrassed husband of a powerful historic figure in her own right. He really is buried somewhere near his tablet, just as advertised.
Eaton’s Tricentennial Cenotaph. For the celebration of New Haven’s 300th anniversary in 1938, a cenotaph (empty tomb) was placed in back as well. It’s inscribed with the tribute in verse that’s reported to have appeared on the original tablet commissioned to mark his grave in 1657 (long since lost; the tablet at Grove Street Cemetery is a reproduction):
“Eaton so faimed, so wise, so meek, so just
The Phoenix of our world here hides his dust
The name forget, N. England never must.”
Trinity Church on the Green. If you’re under the impression that Puritans came to the New [to them] World to create a utopia for anyone else’s freedom of religion but their own, you really ought to talk to the Episcopalian history buffs next door about what it took for their own predecessors to establish an official worship presence in New Haven. (They were still gracious enough to offer to lend us their bell when ours was briefly out of service in 1796–you can read more about that here.)
United Church on the Green. A theological “Great Awakening”–complete with traveling preachers and tent revivals–swept its way through Connecticut, among other places, in the mid 1700s. This is too much Congregationalist inside baseball to get into for a Pokemon blog post 275 years later but basically, it was like the folks in the original established churches (nicknamed the “Old Lights” by the folks who — you guessed it — dubbed themselves the “New Lights”) were more like Team Mystic in their outlook, and the New Lights who felt moved to eventually break off to form their own congregations were essentially Team Valor with maybe a little too much Team Instinct mixed in at the extremist end. The modern day United Church on the Green descends from the “New Lights” breakaway that divided New Haven’s Congregationalists in 1741, but these days we’re joined together again as members of the same team called the United Church of Christ. **
*School and university groups and members of the general public are invited to visit the crypt during our scheduled open hours, or by special arrangement.
I restrict my own Pokemon hunts to the public areas of our property, and take to heart our centuries-old mandate to protect the dignity of the countless hundreds buried below. Center Church’s covenant with this community of everyday saints and sinners (and everyone in between) is still binding, still rich with meaning and relevance. The sign that greets you as you first walk down the stairs into our crypt reads simply, “Speak softly. Tread lightly. This is God’s Acre. Here the Fathers [and mothers, sisters and brothers] sleep.”
There are no consecrated objects in a Congregationalist church, but to claim this building as private sanctuary inevitably recalls Hebrews 12:1, with regards to the democracy of souls — merchants alongside servants, named and anonymous both — whose remains co-mingle in riotous colonial-era disarray below:
Therefore, having so vast a cloud of witnesses surrounding us, and throwing off everything that hinders us and especially the sin that so easily entangles us, let us keep running with endurance the race set before us.
**You don’t have to look like (or believe in Calvinism like) one of our O.G. Puritans in the basement to join the rest of us who have colonized this historic church for our own sanctuary and gathered community. (Take it from a former Catholic whose ancestors didn’t start hitting these shores until long after the current meeting house was finished.) When I talk to guests and school groups I don’t edit out any part of our 378 year old history as off limits for frank discussion; to do so is to lose all relevance as an institution to the living world outside our doors. We just keep adding more voices and renewed perspectives.
The 18th and 19th century silver we still share for communion also belongs to the history of New Haven and the state of Connecticut. The history and tradition we’ve been witnessing and stewarding and making since 1638 is yours to add to your own New Haven story, if you find it speaks to you. (You can read more about our history, present, and future as a still-speaking congregation here.)