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Emmanuel Episcopal Church: The Little Church in the Wilderness – A History

Submitted by Rosemarie Prelinger.

Many of us are aware that there is an Episcopal church in Killingworth, but few of us know its location. Driving west on Route 148, after about 3 miles, you will see on your left a sign “Emmanuel Episcopal Church” and underneath on a small attachment “The Little Church in the Wilderness.” At that point, turn left onto Emmanuel Church Road, and drive down a narrow, winding road, running along Church Brook. There it is — the oldest, smallest church in Killingworth. It has the distinction to be on the Federal Register of Historic Places.

This small, beautiful and plain building reminds one more of a meeting house than a more traditional church.

Emmanuel Church was built between 1800 and 1815 by a small group of very poor farmers and designed by a disciple of Christopher Wren in the style of Georgian architecture. Only much later, maybe in the 1880’s the steeple was added.

But why was this little church built way down in this remote valley?   Far away from the center of town?

There was a law at that time in Connecticut in the 19th Century that prohibited the erection of an Episcopal church in or near the center of a town or village — Guilford is an exception.

The settlers who came here had their own ideas. They wanted to be free from the strict, severe and authoritarian Church of England. They desired a church where they could worship in their own simple and plain ways.

It was then called the Union Church to commemorate the union of North Bristol and North Killingworth Society.

Up to then services were held in the schoolhouse on Town Hill.

Bezaleel Bristol gave the lot to the church. Construction began in 1803 and continued, finances permitting, until about 1817 when the sanctuary was consecrated by the Rt. Rev. John Henry Hobart of New York. Crucial lay involvement began early and continues to this day. The first minister, Nathan Bennett Burgess was engaged for one-sixth of the year. Eventually the parish could afford to have him ten Sundays a year.

In 1869 it was changed to Emmanuel Church. It seats about a 100 people. Over the altar is a single stained-glass window and the only “fancy thing” is a brass candle chandelier, which is only lit during Christmas Eve Service. The original one, dating from the 17th century was stolen by thieves at some time.

Emmanuel Church has gone through many ups and downs and many diverse congregations over its 200-year history. After enduring a time when the congregation held so few members that selling the building was considered, the church was revitalized in the early decades of the 20th Century by the Reverend George B. Gilbert whose ministry was chronicled in his best-selling book, “Forty Years A Country Preacher.” It will soon be available again on

There was no electricity in the church until 1970 and the congregation – and visiting bishops – used the outhouse until 1987, when a parish hall, kitchen, and an indoor bathroom was added. By the way, it is still standing.

Today Emmanuel Church is one of three churches belonging to the Middlesex Area Cluster- Ministry.

Our members come from many social and religious backgrounds and beliefs. We are a diverse group who have one thing in common . . . we all have chosen Emmanuel Church as the place to express our faith, receive spiritual nourishment, and spend time together in fellowship. Crucial lay involvement is still and again very important. We are the Church.

To reach out to people in need is a major focus of the Emmanuel congregation. We are providing food for St. Vincent Soup Kitchen in Middletown, collecting Peanut Butter for the Amazing Grace Food Pantry, and participating in outreach projects at Thanksgiving, Christmas and Easter for those less fortunate than we.

Bell ringing

We have a service every Sunday at 10:00 a.m. at which we sing our hearts out! At the end of Services the children run out and ring the bell. As history tells us, when the church first became a cluster, a few children wanted to ring the bell. Rev. Brown, then the missioner, told them that at the beginning of services it was to be three rings and at the end many rings and so it developed into a routine – ever changing in the way of when and how many rings.

After that we gather in our Social Hall with coffee and refreshments, made by our members, to share heartaches and happiness and keep in touch with one another. We have a Sunday School for our children, and training for baptism and confirmation.

Our doors are open to all persons of faith and good will who seek a deeper meaning in their lives and strength to cope with the daily challenges and difficulties in today’s complex world.

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