Chapter Four

"Priest" Bronson: His Life and Work Compiled from his Historical Letters in the Gambier (Ohio) Observer


In 1802 the Church in Arlington was fortunate in securing the services of the Rev. Abraham Bronson, who for over twenty-three years ministered in Manchester and Arlington and elsewhere as he had opportunity. He proved to be a tower of strength to the struggling congregation at Arlington.

"At the period of my first acquaintance in Vermont," Mr. Bronson says, "in September 1802, the Church was in a low and desolate condition. Some of the first settlers were attached to it, and established little societies for its worship and ordinances in several different townships. Such was the case of Arlington, Manchester and Sandgate in Bennington County; Wells, Castleton and Tinmouth in Rutland County; Addison and Vergennes in the County of Addison; Fairfield in the County of Franklin; Bethel and Weathersfield in the County of Windsor.

Of these societies, those at Castleton, Tinmouth and Addison, for want of ministerial aid ceased to exist."

Thus at that period there were in the state eleven societies so-called, yet nearly all of them appeared to be on the eve of dissolution. From these Historical Letters interesting facts are gleaned in regard to Mr. Bronson’s early life.

He was born in Waterbury, Connecticut, on April 11, 1776; educated chiefly in the Cheshire Episcopal Academy. He was chosen as assistant to Dr. Bowden, the principal of the Academy in April, 1799; ordained on Christmas of the same year, and assistant in the parish for one year, after which he was an assistant for two years at Newport, Rhode Island.

Returning to Connecticut in 1802, he visited Vermont in September of that year, particularly Arlington, Manchester, Wells and Rutland. He was engaged in Manchester half of the time permanently and the other half annually in Arlington.

He was ordained priest in 1803, after which he moved to Vermont and entered regularly upon his duties. It is possible that he officiated here for a time before bringing his family to reside here.

The parish at Arlington voted in February 1803, according to the records. "To employ him for eight months if they could get subscriptions sufficient to pay him.’’

In 1811 he removed to Arlington.

Mr. Bronson closes the review of his life by saying: "If I had not gone to Vermont it is probable there would not for these many years past have been the vestige of an Episcopal Church in that state."

Of the Church societies in Manchester and Arlington he says: "The two societies in Arlington and Manchester, about ten miles distant from each other, had Glebes which together might be worth about $180 a year, and the churchmen in both places might contribute about $120 more. Wells and Pawlet with Hampton, New York were in better situation. But as Mr. Chittenden (the Rev. Bethuel Chittenden) was able to spend three or four months of the year with them it appeared most suitable that I should decline the invitation to remain there, and should take care of the two former societies which were entirely destitute of public worship.

"In Manchester I was engaged permanently for one share of the time, and in Arlington by the year for the other; and this engagement in the latter place was annually renewed for twenty-three years. But I took up my residence in the former place on account of the permanent engagement".

"The parish in Manchester was organized at the first settlement of the country by sonic emigrants from the west part of Connecticut and Dutchess County. New York, and previous to the Revolutionary War it consisted of 15 or 20 families. A Mr. Pringle was for sometime employed as lay Reader and the Rev. Gideon Bostwick of Great Barrington, Massachusetts, occasionally visited the place.

"The parish at Arlington was formed at about the same time. Mr. Jehiel Hawley with a respectable colony from Newtown and Milford, Connecticut, first organized it".

"By lay readings arid occasional visits by Mr. Bostwick (the Rev. Gideon Bostwick) he (Mr. Hawley) kept it in good standing until his decease in 1778".

"The troubles at about that time drove many people away from both of these churches; so that at the restoration of peace they had but barely a name to live. They, however, resumed the exercise of lay reading and thus were kept alive until Mr. Nichols (the Rev. James Nichols) was settled in Arlington in 1786 and Mr. Barber (the Rev. Daniel Barber) at Manchester a few years later".

‘‘Mr. Nichols was dismissed for intemperance (See Chapter 2), succeeded by a Mr. Catlin (the Rev. Russell Catlin) who proved to be of much the same character, and these unfortunate experiences were a heavy blow to the Church".

"Thus both parishes were left in reduced circumstances about the year 1798, not a convert admitted to the communion, as I could find for twenty years or more. Though you, dear brother, are now acquainted with so many faithful Christians in these two churches, you must not think me uncharitable in presuming that in 1802 there were not in either of them more than seven or eight pious communicants, and a greater part of these few were upon the borders of the grave." (Note. These Historical Letters were written to the Rev. William S. Perkins, Rector of the parish in 1829.) "In Arlington a church edifice had been erected and covered in the first part of Mr. Nichols ministry; in that situation it remained until it was finished in 1803".

"In Manchester we occupied the courtroom and were never able to provide any better accommodations for 18 or 20 years".

"In a remote quarter of Sandgate there was at that time (1802) a small society in which Mr. Nichols officiated for awhile after he left Arlington, and in which the Rev. Jordan Gray was materially useful from 1818 to 1821, but for want of further services it had become nearly extinct".

"There was also a society in Maitland, Windsor County, but it was destroyed by the labors or vices of the abandoned Catlin".

"In Weathersfield and Bethel in the same County were societies which had been visited by Mr. Chittenden (the Rev. Bethuel Chittenden)".
"The former was given up for many years, but has recently been revived; the latter languished ‘till in 1821 it was favored with the missionary services of a Mr. Clapp (the Rev. Joel Clapp)".

"There were a few professed churchmen in Vergennes, who with the small societies in Shelburne and Fairfield made up all that could be named in that part of the state".

"And now, to sum up the whole amount at the time of my entering upon that field of labor; there might have been in Arlington, Manchester and Sandgate about twenty-five communicants; in Pawlet and Wells fifteen; in Shelburne, Bethel, Weathersfield, and Fairfield, twenty, with scattered individuals in other places sufficient to make up eighty or ninety in number".

"Beside these there were many who assumed the name, some because they belonged to the same families, or were educated in the same way; others because they disliked the close preaching or high-Calvinism or wild fanaticism which they had found among the religious societies around them."

In the same year that Mr. Bronson began his ministerial duties at Arlington, the people of West Arlington decided to build a church four miles distant "down river".

The project seems to have been undertaken before the completion of the first church, and under the new leadership the two churches were soon completed and set apart for worship.

The Minutes of the Vestry of the church in Arlington show a decided difference of opinion as to whether the pews should be free or rented.

It was finally voted that the "East Church" should be a Free Church and that it should be called "Bethel"; the pews of the "West Church" were sold to individual proprietors and the church was named "Bethesda." There was no disorder or division caused by the building of the two churches, and they both remained under the same religious society, the only stipulation being that half of the officers should be chosen from those living "down river."

The Rev. Abraham Bronson ministered at Bethel and Bethesda alternately. This arrangement continued until about 1827, when for want of support stated Sunday services at Bethesda Church were suspended.

Mr. Bronson performed a vast amount of labor not only in Arlington but in Sandgate and Manchester. (Hemenway’s, Vermont Historical Gazetteer, p. 132.)

Again we are indebted to the Historical Letters of Mr. Bronson for the record of an important event in the life of the Church in Vermont, arid in the history of the Arlington parish, that is, the formation of the Eastern Diocese and the election of its first bishop.
"In the Convention of 1805," writes Mr. Bronson, "a resolution was passed requesting Bishop Moore of New York to take the Church of Vermont under his care. He consented with the express understanding that he should not be expected to visit the state." (Poor Vermont! How like the people of Judah of whom Zechariah says: "They are afflicted because there is no shepherd.")

‘In that situation respecting the Episcopate the Church remained until 1809, when the Convention of Massachusetts directed their Secretary to invite their brethren in Rhode Island, New Hampshire, and Vermont to join them in the election of a bishop.

"The Secretary, having no knowledge of any churchmen in Vermont, made no communication to that state, but the Rev. William Montague, whose zeal and diligence did much for the cause at that interesting period, made a journey to New Hampshire at a very inclement season, and with the Rev. Mr. Barber came to Manchester to consult upon the subject.

"As the fund for the Episcopate was expected to be raised principally in Massachusetts, the project appeared peculiarly favorable, giving encouragement of Episcopal ministrations at a small expense to the people of Vermont".

"Having then no colleague in the state, I could decide the whole question as to the clergy; the assent of the Standing Committee was soon obtained as one of their number, Mr. Sperry (Anson H. Sperry) was with me, and Mr. Chipman (Hon. Nathaniel Chipman, Chief Justice of the State) I consulted by letter".

"The next May (1810) Mr. Chipman, of Middlebury, Mr. John Whitlock, of Castleton, Dr. Cutler, of Rockingham, and myself, with the delegates from the other states, attended the convention at Boston and formed the Constitution of the Eastern Diocese".

"By that Constitution it was provided that the convention of the Eastern Diocese was to meet biennially, composed of four clergymen and four laymen, appointed by each state convention; but at the suggestion of the Bishop later an alteration was made, appointing the convention annually, to consist of all the clergy, and a lay delegate from each parish".

"After the adoption of the Constitution the convention proceeded to the election of a bishop. "Dr. Gardner, of Boston, proposed the name of the Rev. Alexander Viets Griswold, of Rhode Island, as being for age and character, the most suitable candidate".

"We of Vermont at once assented to the proposal; the clergy of Massachusetts, all except one, concurred, and the vote of the Laity was unanimous".

"Thus providentially transpired one of the most important events which has ever occurred to the Church in the Eastern States".

"Mr. Griswold at first declined the election, but after earnest entreaties he was induced to accept and he was consecrated in New York in June 1811. Near the close of the same month he visited Vermont, attending the state convention, and administered confirmation at Wells, Manchester and Arlington."

This year 1811 marks the beginnings of the first regular Episcopal ministrations in Vermont.

Active as Mr. Bronson was in the affairs of the Church in Vermont and even beyond its bounds, he did not neglect the spiritual welfare of his flock in Arlington.

He was much disturbed by the carelessness and indifference of the people, young and old, in regard to religion and speaks of the fact that "Universalism had infected many of the people."

In the hope of arousing a greater degree of loyalty for the Church he began the practice of holding evening lectures at school and private homes, and of reading the evening prayers of the Church, giving opportunity as he says for others to make observations.

The Rev. W. J. Brown, Rector of Zion Church, Manchester, says that Mr. Bronson followed the same practice in Manchester and that the Friday evening service and address begun at that time has been maintained without hardly an interruption up to this day.

That this practice was fruitful may be shown from the fact that while at the time of the beginning of his ministry in Arlington in 1802 there were only seven or eight "pious communicants," the Convention Journal of 1823 records a communicant list of eighty.

He says in his Letters that there was much prejudice against the Church in Vermont at the time of his first acquaintance there, but that it had so far subsided (at the close of his ministry) that in most of the parishes our people were considered as doing their reasonable share toward promoting the general cause of religion.

In 1826 Mr. Bronson resigned the parish at Arlington and removed to Manchester. He resigned the Manchester parish in 1833 and went to Ohio, taking appointment as a missionary.

He lived in Ohio for twenty years, ten years as Rector in Boston of that state and afterwards at Norwalk.

He died on June 12, 1853 at the home of his son-in-law, the Rev. A. Phelps.

The Rev. A. H. Bailey in his historical review given at the centennial convention at Arlington, quotes the following tribute to Mr. Bronson from "Hard’s History of Arlington":

"Surely he was diligent in business, fervent in spirit, serving the Lord. Compelled for support to cultivate the Glebes largely by his own labor; visiting the sick with great frequency, and burying the dead of a wide region for a half dozen parishes that looked to him for ministrations; calling upon his people in season and out of season; untiring and inflexible in efforts to recover "the Lands". His attendance on our conventions in which he failed but twice in thirty-one years; on meetings of Land Agents (after they were appointed), and those of the Standing Committee; besides more direct calls for ministerial services which required him to travel over the State many times. While he was accustomed as far as possible to make his journeying occasions of missionary services; looking up the scattered sheep, administering the ordinances, and aiding in the formation of new parishes; his paternal care for the Church made him known deservedly by the title of "Father Bronson." (The title "Priest Bronson" seems also to have been given him. The title in either case seems to have been given as a mark of deep respect.)

The Rev. Charles J. Chapin who was Rector at Vergennes from 1874 to 1877, adds this tribute as given in Journal of the Centennial Convention: "What honors and responsibilities the diocese had to confer, short of the Episcopate, were freely and almost uniformly conferred on Mr. Bronson.

"He was President of the Convention from 1815 to 1832; a member of the Standing Committee from 1803 to 1833; delegate to the Convention of the Eastern Diocese from its formation in 1810 to 1823; was active in procuring its formation, making the first draft of its constitution, by which an union was entered into for Episcopal purposes, reserving to each diocese its own diocesan privileges and independence."



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