First Church’s Earliest Ministers
First Church was established in 1719, and is celebrating its 300th birthday this year.
Eighteenth-century America was a deeply religious culture that lived self-consciously under the eye of heaven. Events were generally perceived by the colonists, not from their own viewpoint, but from God’s perspective. The colonists didn’t see themselves as a ragtag settlement of religious exiles, but as God’s special people.
Lacking all of today’s media, they turned instead to the church sermon; it was generally an hour and a half long, and was part prophet, newspaper, video, internet, community college and social therapist all rolled into one. By the time a colonist turned seventy, he would have listened to some 7000 sermons, totaling 10,000 hours; this is about the amount of lecture time a college student would need today to earn ten different undergraduate degrees, without ever repeating the same course! The colonists at First Church therefore habitually turned to their ministers for news, information and guidance.
The credit for this series goes to Steve Hildrich and the late Edward Chase, whose research and efforts will chronicle the lives and deeds of some of First Church’s earliest ministers:
1719-1722 — The Rev. Samuel Johnson (1696-1772) – He was raised a Congregationalist in Guilford and educated at the Congregational “Collegiate School” (renamed Yale). However, soon after being called as Minister at First Church, he announced his interest in the Episcopal Church, and resigned in 1722. He became an Episcopal minister in England, with degrees from Oxford and Cambridge, and returned to Connecticut as an Episcopal missionary. The first church he founded was the Episcopal Church here in West Haven! He later became the first President of what became Columbia University!
1725-1734 — The Rev. Jonathan Arnold (lost at sea 1739) – He also resigned to go to England to become an Episcopal minister. When he returned, he also served briefly at the Episcopal Church here in West Haven.
1738-1742 – The Rev. Timothy Allen (1715-1806) – Though educated at Yale, he was prone to itinerant preaching without a required license. He was however, called and ordained at First Church. He was an eloquent but controversial speaker influenced by the revival called the “Great Awakening,” whose proponents were known as the “New Lights.” His fervor, brashness, and imprudence antagonized not only members of First Church, but also ministers of the New Haven Association, which censured him in 1742, and members of First Church removed him. He later repented and his censure was repealed.
1742-1758 — The Rev. Nathan Birdseye (1714-1817) – Raised in Stratford and educated at Yale, he was called and ordained at First Church at 28 years old, the first actual Congregational minister to serve at First Church. He had an effective ministry and favored early religious training for youth. He resigned for family reasons to care for his late brother’s farm, but continued as a supply pastor in the Stratford area. He is said to have had a remarkable memory, died at 103, with 200 living descendants at that time.
1760-1811 — the Rev. Naschus (Noah) Williston (1734-1811) – Educated at Yale, he served as Headmaster of Hopkins Grammar School for three years before being called to pastor at First Church. The Rev. Dr. Boaz in his “History of First Church” said Rev. Williston “laid the spiritual foundation for our Church.” He was so friendly, caring, and of such exemplary conduct that he was deeply loved. He strongly supported religious training for children, meeting with them twice weekly. He was among the first to take missionary trips to Vermont, the first being a year before the Missionary Society of Connecticut was formed.
He preached two different sermons each Sunday at morning and afternoon services. He outlived 3 wives, the last being the aunt of the Rev. Lyman Beecher, who lived with them in West Haven for a year when he was 16. Beecher was the father of Harriet Beecher Stowe, the author of “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” considered the most influential abolitionist book and the most influential American book of the 19th century. All this is in addition to his famous rescue by British Adjutant Campbell during the invasion of West Haven (and New Haven) on July 5, 1779.