"Priest" Bronson: His Life and Work
Compiled from his Historical Letters in the Gambier (Ohio)
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 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.
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
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
"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
"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
"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
"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
‘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.
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
"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".
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
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
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
"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
Next | Back