If only the West Haven Green could talk about the July Fourths in its past. Without doubt, the most memorable was 239 years ago.
Being a Sunday, the Green was filled with West Haveners on their way to services at the First Congregational Church. We know it was hot – in the high 90s. We also know that the Reverend Noah Williston was not considered a very dynamic preacher. Even fellow minster Benjamin Trumbull admitted his close friend did not have “the most happy manner of speaking.” So it was a tossup what Williston’s congregation likely dreaded more – sitting through that stifling July heat or another of their minister’s droning sermons. Even his family had painful memories of them.
But on this particular Sunday, no one really seemed to care. Most of Williston’s congregation was thinking about what Monday would bring. After all, New Haven planned to stage its first Independence Day parade on that July 5 morning. Even the Governor’s Foot Guard was in town to lead off the festivities.
Then, too, Williston’s flock simply loved the minister. He came to West Haven in 1760 after graduating from Yale, and was now in his 19th year in the pulpit. Recently widowed, he was raising a family of four, and proved to be what we might today call a multitasking “super dad.”
Everyone in town knew him as the pipe-smoking clergyman who always seemed late for an appointment, racing around on horseback. Once the war started in 1775, the Reverend Williston quickly earned a reputation as an ardent patriot. He even supposedly used the Congregational Church as an American recruiting station.
That fact galled a good many of the town’s Anglican residents, who totaled about a third of West Haven’s population. As members of Christ Church, which also happened to be on the Green, the
Anglicans were less than enamored by the Reverend Williston. Because of him and the Congregationalists in charge of the state, they could no longer practice their faith publicly. The reason why was based on a central part of their liturgy in which they pledged allegiance to King George III.
Rather than drop that part of their service, West Haven Anglicans (today known as Episcopalians) suffered in silence from frequent insults, discrimination, and not a few physical threats from some of their more belligerent patriot neighbors.
For these folks, their only hope for relief was that the British army would someday come to their supposed rescue. Little did anyone know on the steamy Sunday in July that someday was only hours away.
Continued next week.
Guest contributor Peter J. Malia is the author of award-winning Visible Saints: The Colonial History of West Haven, 1648-1798, available from www.connecticutpress.com, Amazon, and Barnes & Noble.