The Prayer Meeting that Began Asylum Hill Congregational Church -- Maybe

01/01/1861 |


At some point during this year, a prayer meeting was first held in Asylum Hill, at David Bartlett’s house on Asylum Avenue.  Maybe.

Neat Little Tidbit

This is the second of the “three necessities of the community” that led to the formation of Asylum Hill Congregational Church.  The story goes thusly:  Wolcott Calkins of the Center (or First) Congregational Church was up on the Hill calling on his parishioners, and as part of his circuit he went to the home of David and Fanny Bartlett.  They lived on Asylum Avenue across the street from the American Asylum, which is where David taught.  The Bartletts expressed their opinion that it was difficult “gaining religious privileges” locally.  Calkins then suggested that a neighborhood prayer meeting could be started.  The Bartletts agreed, and they hosted the first meeting.  Prayer meetings continued at other houses around the neighborhood until the chapel opened in March 1865.L1

Trust but verify

This item comes from Atwood Collins in 1915,L2 and here’s the key claim from Collins’s account:  “The first of these meetings probably was held in 1861.”  There’s no reason not to accept Collins’s claim that this is the way it happened, but there is one whopping good reason not to accept his claim as to when it happened:  Wolcott Calkins was not in Hartford in 1861.

Okay, maybe he could have been – he certainly could have been, I haven’t delved that deeply into his career – but there’s little support for it.  And even if he was in Hartford in 1861, he wasn’t at the Center Church.  The Center Church called him to serve as associate pastor on August 7, 1862, and the Courant reported on September 2, 1862 that Calkins accepted the call.  His ordination took place on October 22, 1862.

This does not preclude that someone met with the Bartletts at their home in 1861 and that the Bartletts subsequently hosted the first prayer meeting on Asylum Hill.  The Bartletts were definitely in place on Asylum Hill in 1861 – in fact, they were on their second go-round at the American Asylum during this period of time.  Bartlett had taught there from 1828 through 1832, and he returned to Hartford in 1860.  By this point in time, he was 55, and he and his wife might have been less inclined to travel downtown for church.  There’s also very good reason to think that someone would have had a circuit visiting members of Center Church on the Hill:  the original 114 membersL3 of Asylum Hill Congregational Church included 40 people who had been members of Center Church. 

There’s just no way it could have been suggested by Wolcott Calkins in 1861.

Put into context

David E. Bartlett would become one of the founders of Asylum Hill Congregational Church, and he and Fanny were uniquely situated to become involved in this process:  not only did they live across the street from the American Asylum, where the first meetings of what would become the Asylum Hill Congregational Society were held, but they also lived next door to West Middle School, where the Sunday school had just started.  And in an odd twist, the Bartletts’ house would be considered as a site for the church, provided the house was torn down first.  In any event, the Bartletts were heavily involved in Asylum Hill Congregational Church from the get-go and would remain so at least through David’s death in 1879.

Questions to pose

So, who was making the circuit up Asylum Hill in 1861?  As noted, 40 members of Center Church became members of Asylum Hill Congregational Church, which means Center Church’s senior pastor, Joel Hawes, could have been the one, but Asylum Hill residents were also members of other Congregational churches in Hartford.  Really, it could have been any Congregational pastor in Hartford.  It could also have been David Hawley, the city missionary, who was known to have been visiting families who weren’t attending church regularly in 1860 and probably continued to do so in 1861.

When exactly did the first prayer meeting occur?  All of the sources seem to agree:  first the Sunday school, then the prayer meeting, and lastly the bible study.  The first Sunday school classes were held in November 1860, so the prayer meeting couldn’t have happened before then.  Did it happen in 1861?  In 1908, F. Irvin DavisL7 said it happened soon after the Sunday school started, which would put it in November 1860.  In 1915, Atwood Collins said it was probably in 1861.  And in 1940, Melva Swartz reported that it happened the year after the Sunday school started, or in other words 1861.  Only Collins cites the role of Wolcott Calkins, so he was either wrong about the year or wrong about Calkins. 

A much bigger question is, how did Atwood Collins get this one so wrong?  His father helped found Asylum Hill Congregational Church, and he was the unofficial church historian.  I assume he had access to the church’s archives and to anecdotes from his father as well as other people involved with the early days of the church.

Speculating without evidence

As seems to be the case with Horace Bushnell and Calvin Stowe, church historians seem to want to associate the church with specific people for specific reasons.  In the case of Bushnell and Stowe, association with Bushnell was a powerful statement that would have been very meaningful for people in Hartford.  Stowe wasn’t so controversial, and even though his Bible study was one of the “three necessities” citing him as an important figure wouldn’t have made the same kind of statement.  Could the same be said about Wolcott Calkins?  Calkins doesn’t appear to have a direct role in the formation of Asylum Hill Congregational Church, but Joel Hawes did.  Hawes was involved in the examination and installation of Joseph TwichellL8 in December 1864, but in the months before that Calkins and Hawes had had a disagreement that led both of them to submit their resignations to the Center Church society at the same meeting.  The society accepted Hawes’s resignation on the spot, but they persuaded Calkins to withdraw his, because they wanted him to succeed Hawes.  Calkins persisted in his effort to resign for several months before he finally accepted a call to be pastor of a church in Philadelphia, at which point Center Church accepted the inevitable and dismissed him.  Calkins would eventually return to Hartford on occasion, and he was a respected figure by that point.  Perhaps, then, Atwood Collins gave Calkins a role in the church’s formation because, by doing so, he was making a statement that his fellow parishioners would have recognized or even appreciated.


Neyer, Constance, “Asylum Hill Church to Reaffirm Its Commitment to Urban Setting,” Hartford Courant, October 5, 1985, page AB1D.

Swartz, Melva J., “Hill Church Will Observe Anniversary,” Hartford Courant, March 18, 1940, page 1.

Unattributed, “City Intelligence,” Hartford Daily Courant, May 24, 1864, page 2.

Unattributed, “Ecclesiastical Council,” Hartford Daily Courant, May 18, 1864, page 2.

Unattributed, “Fiftieth Anniversary of the Asylum Hill Congregational Church,” Hartford Courant, February 14, 1915, page X5

Unattributed, “He Accepts,” Hartford Daily Courant, September 2, 1862, page 2.

Unattributed, “Mr. Editor,” Hartford Daily Courant, June 29, 1864, page 2.

Unattributed, “Ordination,” Hartford Daily Courant, October 23, 1862, page 2.

Unattributed, “Religious,” Hartford Daily Courant, October 21, 1862, page 2.

Unattributed, “Religious Intelligence,” Hartford Daily Courant, August 9, 1862, page 2.

Unattributed, “Resigned,” Hartford Daily Courant, May 2, 1864, page 2.

Unattributed, “Rev. Dr. Calkins, 94, dies at his home,” Hartford Courant, January 3, 1925, page 3.

Unattributed, “Rev. Mr. Calkins,” Hartford Daily Courant, July 8, 1864, page 2.

Unattributed, “Rev. Dr. Joseph H. Twichell Honored at Anniversary of His Church,” Hartford Courant, March 24, 1915, page 16.

Unattributed, “The Centre Church,” Hartford Daily Courant, May 6, 1864, page 2.

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