First Congregational Church
26 Meeting House Lane
New England approach to the Classic Revival
In 1703, the citizens of eastern Guilford successfully petitioned to form a separate society that was geographically closer to the new communities that had grown up east of the East and Neck Rivers and west of the Hammonasset River. This second petition, refused initially in 1699, was finally approved by the town of Guilford as well as by the Connecticut General Assembly in Hartford.
The first of three Congregational meetinghouses was built in 1705 on the southeastern portion of the present-day green. The Reverend John Hart was its first minister. A drummer summoned its congregants to weekly services. John Grave II had this duty, which he recorded in his logbook, from 1713 to 1724; he was paid twenty shillings per year for his work. Men and women were seated separately within the church, and further seating restrictions were based on age and property. Anyone who sat in a seat to which he or she had not been assigned was subject to a fine.
The second meetinghouse, dedicated in 1743, was built near the site of the first meetinghouse. By 1801, it featured both a steeple and a bell. The Reverend Jonathan Todd served as its minister, as he had in the earlier structure, until 1791.
In 1838, the third and present meetinghouse was built in a commanding position on the low hill at the north side of the green. Deacon Benjamin Hart, who lived next door to this site, donated the land for the meetinghouse, and the contract for building it was given to architect Volney Pierce. Its granite foundation and steps were quarried in Madison. Built in a Federal style, it reflected a Greek temple design. Much admired for its architecture, the church incorporates all three of the ancient Greek column styles. Doric columns uphold the pediment above the steps. Ionic pillars support the steeple, and Corinthian columns support the dome.
In 1867, its interior was reconstructed, and its first organ was installed in 1869 at a cost of $2,600. Its trompe l’oeil interior painting remains notable for its quiet elegance. In 1927, the church was electrified, and a new copper roof replaced a tin one in 1928. A Chapel and a Church House were added to the property in 1962, with Ionic elements that visually link the two structures.
For nearly fifty years, the third meetinghouse continued its dual purpose as a place of worship and as a public assembly place, hosting town meetings until the construction of the Memorial Town Hall in 1887. During all those decades, among all of its memorable ministers were Samuel Fiske, James Gallup, and Franklin Bower.
During the Civil War era, the Church was the site of abolitionist meetings and speeches. In 1878 it offered a space for the riveting and grueling pre-trial testimonies in the shocking case of the murder of Mary Stannard of Rockland, on her twenty-second birthday, perhaps at the hands of another Madison minister. Local author Joel E. Helander wrote a book about the latter event; look for Noose and Collar: the Story of the Rockland Murder, Madison, Connecticut at the E. C. Scranton Library.
Today the First Congregational Church of Madison continues its mission of outreach and social justice to both its congregants and those in need—and it presides over its beautiful four-acre green, generously offering use of its land for an abundance of private and public events.
See inside the church here.