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With an unbroken Puritan-Congregational heritage stretching back to origins of the colony, religious beliefs, activities, and institutions played a central role in the lives of early Sharon residents. No new town could obtain independent legal status without establishing a church. Inhabitants were required to set aside land for support of a church and minister, pay taxes for their annual upkeep, attend weekly meetings, and submit to church discipline.
Erecting a meetinghouse to accommodate church services and other public gatherings constituted the largest and often most contentious construction effort undertaken in many towns. Sharon’s first meeting house of 1743, built of logs, stood somewhere near the present clock tower. It was replaced in 1766 by a larger, more finished structure located in the middle of the upper Green.
The great geographic extent of the town, coupled with the difficulty associated with traversing Sharon Mountain in the winter, created a need for two churches. Early in his ministry Reverend Smith began holding worship meetings in the Ellsworth area, a practice that continued for nearly 50 years. The home of Timothy St. John on Cornwall Bridge Road was the site of many of these gatherings, drawing parishioners from the Ellsworth and Sharon Mountain neighborhoods. In May 1800 a new ecclesiastical society was incorporated, and a new church organized in 1802. Daniel Parker served as the first minister.
From the first days of settlement, Sharon had been home to several Anglican families. In 1754 they formed the town’s first Episcopal Society and soon built a small stuccoed church on the upper Green. They were led by Rev. Ebenezer Dibble, who was succeeded by Thomas Davies and Solomon Palmer. Dibble was a missionary of the London-based Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts. Leading Sharon churchmen included Joel Harvey, Job Gould, Elnathan Goodrich, John Pennoyer, Simeon Rowley, Samuel Hitchcock, and Solomon Goodrich. The congregation consisted of perhaps 19 communicants and 20 families. After the Revolutionary War the Anglican church (which had suffered financial loss and loss of congregants in the wartime period) experienced rebirth. The enthusiasm was evident in Sharon when in 1809 Sharon’s Episcopalians, about 20 families in all, reorganized and began planning to erect a new sanctuary. Work on the present church began in 1812. The interior work was completed in 1819, and the church was dedicated in November of that year by Bishop Brownell.
Just across the border in New York the Reverend Ebenezer Knibloe led the Round Top Chapel where several strands of Protestant believers gathered for services. Knibloe, who lived on the Connecticut side of the border, preached for 25 years, was known as a “sound, sensible, sincere man.” The first Methodist meeting house was erected on Caulkinstown Road circa 1808, and an imposing red brick church arose at the north end of the green in 1835. The custom of summer camp meeting began in Sharon in 1805. Methodists in Ellsworth originally gathered in the home of Joshua Millard, a native of nearby Cornwall.
Irish Catholic immigrants came to Sharon to work in the iron industry in the 1840s. Catholic mass was celebrated in Sharon as early as 1845-50 at the home of James and Bridget Dunning on Cornwall Bridge Road. Services were held in other houses, too, as well as a paint store, school, tannery, and town hall. The first permanent sanctuary, the Little Church in the Valley, was erected in 1884, followed by the present structure (St. Bernard’s) in 1915.
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First Congregational Church & Cotton Mather Smith
Sharon’s first religious services were held in the houses of Capt. Dunham and Mr. Pardee, as well as in Pardee’s barn. The first meetinghouse, a log structure measuring 36′ x 20′ was erected in 1741, followed a few years later by a larger structure, 45′ x 35′ with 20′ posts. A third meetinghouse was begun in the 1760s on the upper Green. At Sharon’s first town meeting, a committee was selected to choose a minister for the community. Peter Pratt, a recent Yale graduate was selected, and was ordained in April 1740. Five years later townsmen dismissed him for intemperance. John Searle from Simsbury next occupied the pulpit, but was dismissed in 1754 for feeble health. On August 23, 1755, Cotton Mather Smith of Suffield was ordained pastor of the Sharon church. He was a 1751 Yale graduate and a descendent of Cotton Mather, Massachusetts’ famed Puritan divine. Reverend Smith served as Sharon’s pastor until his death in 1806 and exerted considerable influence over the town, especially during the Revolution.
Sharon played its part in The Great Awakening, a spiritual upheaval of awesome proportions that drew on a history of revivals dating back to the 1720s. Exhortations of ministers Jonathan Edwards, George Whitefield, and others fanned the excitement, attacking orthodoxy and calling on listeners to repent. Supporters of the revival, who desired a more personal and intimate relationship with God, earned the name “New Lights,” while opponents, upholders of tradition, became known as “Old Lights.” In many cases parishioners left their congregations in large numbers and established rival churches. Whitefield visited the area repeatedly, the last time in 1770 when he spoke in Sharon, Canaan, and elsewhere.
When Whitefield revisited Sharon in July 1770 many opposed his being admitted to the town meetinghouse, but the Rev. Smith invited him in, even though opposed to Whitefields’ message. Smith had been a student of Jonathan Edwards and possessed evangelical tendencies himself, and thus allowed Whitefield to speak when most ministers in Litchfield refused.
To accommodate the expected crowds the windows were taken out of the church and bleachers installed. Whitefield’s sermons drew an immense congregation from Sharon and surrounding towns. He discoursed on the doctrine of the new birth “with astonishing power and eloquence.” Many inhabitants followed him on his journey even after he left Sharon so that they might hear his words.
In 1775, word of the fighting at Lexington and Concord set in motion a vast grassroots military response. The news from Massachusetts reached Sharon on Sunday morning. After the early service Rev. Smith dismissed his congregation and 100 men gathered on the green prepared to march to Boston. They were encouraged by Parson Smith, an ardent Whig, whose public ministry had been filled with allusions to the tyrannical edicts of King George and the degraded and suffering conditions of the colonies. His patriotism extended to prayers and hymns. One song defied the “iron rod” of tyrants and the “galling chains” of slavery, placing trust in “New England’s God” instead. Smith led his congregation out to that first wartime training session and later served as a chaplain during the Canada campaign.