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History of The Congregational Church in Killingworth

History of The Congregational Church in Killingworth

by Thomas L. Lentz, Church Historian


Killingworth originally comprised present day Killingworth and the Town of Clinton to the south. The Congregational Church in present Killingworth is the Second Church in the original town. In 1735, the General Assembly of the Colony of Connecticut granted permission for the residents of the northern section of Killingworth to form a Second Ecclesiastical Society so that it would not be so far for them to travel to church. In 1838, the two societies were split into two towns, the Second Society being present Killingworth and the First Society being Clinton. Having been granted their own Ecclesiastical Society, the new Society proceeded to establish their own church and choose a minister. The General Assembly gave permission for the formation of a church on May 12, 1737.  William Seward was ordained and settled as pastor on January 18, 1738, the date assigned for the formation of the Killingworth Congregational Church.  At its time of organization, the church had 50 members.


A society house for meetings of the society and worship services was built in 1736 on a high flat piece of land about 50 rods north of  “the new bridge over the Bare-Swamp brook.” The site is south of the Route 80 & 81 traffic circle and east of the hardware store and is owned by the Killingworth Land Conservation Trust. The first meetinghouse, as the church building was referred to then, of the Second Ecclesiastical Society was completed in 1743.  The meetinghouse was 58 feet long and 38 feet wide.  It was located close to the society house, faced south, and had a door on the south side that was the long side of the building. When the second meetinghouse was built, the first meetinghouse was moved or reconstructed behind the second meetinghouse and used as a society house and later a town hall. The church campus today includes the church building, the parsonage built in 1866, and “The Old Town Hall,” an agricultural hall built in 1881 that later became the town hall.


Rev. William Seward (1712-1784) was born in Durham, July 27, 1712, the son of Deacon William Seward who was one of the founders of Durham and had moved there from Guilford.  He graduated from Yale College in 1734 and received a second degree in 1737. Rev. Seward was 25 at the time he became Pastor in North Killingworth.  During his ministry, the small parish grew and became strong. He received 158 into full communion and 466 owned the covenant. He baptized 1,343 in his parish, and married 307 couples. His ministry in Killingworth lasted 44 years until his death in 1782 at the age of 70. The second pastor of the church was the Rev. Henry Ely who was ordained on September 25, 1782. The house on Route 81 now known as the Ely house was built for him in 1783.


There are several notable persons in the history of the church. Abraham Pierson (1756-1823) was the fifth deacon of the church from 1794 to 1823. He was the great-grandson of the Rev. Abraham Pierson (1646-1707), pastor of the First Church and the first Rector or president of the Collegiate School, later Yale College, and held the first classes in his home in Killingworth. Abraham served the town in many ways including selectman, town clerk, and representative to the General Assembly for 24 sessions. He was also a captain of the militia and served in the Revolutionary War. Asahel Nettleton (1783-1844) was a noted evangelist in the first part of the nineteenth century. Asahel was baptized in the church on April 27, 1783 by the Rev. Henry Ely. After graduating from Yale College, he preached throughout Connecticut, New York, and Massachusetts. He was a leader in the revivals known as the Second Great Awakening. Titus Coan (1801-1882) as a boy worked on his father’s farm and received his early education in the Killingworth schools and from the Rev. Asa King. He was a missionary to the Hawaiian Islands from 1834 to 1882. His long course of service has few parallels in the annals of missionary life. He baptized over 14,000 persons and is sometimes called the “Saint Peter of Hawaii.” Lydia Hartig of the Connecticut Home Missionary Society became the first woman pastor of the church in 1919. Today, the Acting Pastor is the Rev. Joan Cooper Burnett, the first African American pastor of the church.


In 1816, the Second Ecclesiastical Society decided to build a new meetinghouse.  It was voted “to lay a tax of 25 Cents on the Dollar to be made on the List of 1817 to defray the expense of building a meeting house…” The present Congregational Church building was raised in 1817 and completed in 1820.  It was dedicated to the service of God on May 31, 1820. The design of the meetinghouse traditionally has been attributed to Ithiel Town, a well-known architect of the period from Connecticut.  The plan is typical of the churches of this period with the long axis at right angles to the highway, a vestibule at the front end, and a rectangular audience room with the pulpit at the far end.  The building is 62 feet long and 48 feet wide, with a graceful belfry of three major stages in front. The meetinghouse had a bell that was never satisfactory and, in 1873, a new “Genuine Bronze or Bell-mettle Bell” was purchased. It weighed 1197 pounds and cost $586.07. In 1875, Gen. William S. Pierson and his sister Miss Olivia Pierson made a gift of a fine Holbrook pipe organ to the church. A parish hall was added to the rear of the church building in 1959. Currently, the church has undertaken Preservation 2020, a capital campaign to raise $350,000 for necessary repairs and restorations to this historic building. With continued care, it will continue to serve as a place of worship and community activities in Killingworth for future generations.





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