The concept of a funeral sermon might seem strange to the 21st century mind. After all, eulogies, which are intimate, informal addresses often delivered by a spouse, relative, or friend of the deceased, have evolved to take their place. Funeral sermons, on the other hand, are formal, religious monologues delivered by a pastor or minister. One would imagine that such a treatment would be reserved for the passing of those whose significance is agreed upon by a large number. In the 18th and 19th centuries, however, funeral sermons were a rather common occurrence.
A booklet of sixteen pages, with a pale green cover and pressed title page, has been kept in the archives of the John Bale Book Company. It is a published funeral sermon, itself not an uncommon thing. The sermon is entitled “The Peaceful End of the Perfect Man.” It is notable for its extensive Biblical references, all italicized. The title of the sermon is derived from a passage in the Book of Psalms. “Mark the perfect man, and behold the upright; for the end of that man is peace” (3). The pastor whose words are recorded, Reverend Holland Weeks of the First Congregational Church in Waterbury, establishes the essential Christian dichotomy in the second sentence of his sermon, when he mentions that “mankind have but two general characters ascribed to them in the word of God… the just and the wicked… the perfect and the transgressor” (3). It can be seen that the words delivered by a man of God were of a single theme, whether delivered from a pulpit or by a graveside.
Reverend Weeks outlines “the perfection of the upright man” in the next section of his sermon. After a lengthy discourse on what this perfection does not consist of, he informs us that “the perfection of the upright man consists in his being holy and sinless at those particular moments only, whenever he is in the exercise of grace” (4). Experience has taught me how elusive these moments can be, both in literature and in life. This funeral sermon illustrates how the remembrance of one man can be a reflection of that grace, and how its published record can provide clues toward its greater historical context.
The sermon commemorates the passing of Thomas Lewis, an early resident of Waterbury. The cover of the booklet bears the signature of Noah Baldwin, another Waterbury man. The sermon was printed at the office of the Connecticut Herald in New Haven, as Waterbury did not have a newspaper in those days. The particulars are as follows: on April 30, 1804, Reverend Holland Weeks, pastor of the First Congregational Church in Waterbury, delivered a funeral sermon for Thomas Lewis, a candidate for the Gospel Ministry.
These were the days when the Congregational Church was pretty much the only game in town, or, at least, the only one that mattered if you wanted to be considered a proper, upstanding member of Waterbury society. Reverend Weeks, a 1795 graduate of Dartmouth College, was Waterbury’s minister for the years of 1799-1806 (Bronson, 291). While Reverend Weeks proved a minor personage, the mystery of Thomas Lewis’s death seemed to promise more than the two lines dedicated to him in Henry Bronson’s History of Waterbury. This brief statistical passage on page 519 gives a rather terse summary of the life of the deceased, “Rev. Thomas, b. April 13, 1777, grad. Y.C. in 1798, and d. in Georgia, March 3, 1804” (519). Lewis’s gravestone, located in Hillside Cemetery in Naugatuck, lists the date of his death as being March 4, 1804. In the preface to his history, Bronson admits to making mistakes, and here is a rather minor one.
Thomas Lewis’s last station in life was as the principal of Sunbury Academy, a private Presbyterian school in Georgia. Sunbury Academy was considered an excellent school, indeed, “a young man graduated from [Sunbury] was prepared to
enter the junior class at Yale, Princeton, or Harvard” (Vanstory, 46). Thomas Lewis’s position combined his candidature for the Gospel Ministry with the task of pedagogy and exemplified the Presbyterian ideal. Despite his brief tenure, Lewis’s death prompted a memorial oration delivered on April 3, 1804 by Sunbury Commissioner John Elliott, also a Yale graduate.
It is the printed record of this oration that provides the most information on Thomas Lewis’s short life. In his lengthy speech, Elliott establishes Lewis as a Waterbury resident of humble farming stock when he mentions that the “first fifteen years of [Lewis’s] life were spent in his native town, where he occasionally attended a neighboring school and assisted in cultivating and tilling his father’s farm” (6). Elliott mentions that Thomas Lewis was often heard to remark that it was “no inconsiderable advantage to him that he had been taught the art of plowing” (7). Thomas Lewis moved from the neighboring school to private tutelage under a local minister in preparation for entry into Yale College. He was an excellent and well-rounded student at Yale, and graduated in September of 1798. Unfortunately, he soon thereafter suffered “an alarming hemorrhage of his lungs” (Elliott, 8)., and was diagnosed with tuberculosis.
Thomas Lewis strove to make the utmost use of his talents and accepted the offer to teach in Georgia in December of 1801. It was hoped that the gentler climes would bring about a recovery, and, indeed, for a while, Lewis flourished as an instructor at Sunbury. Elliott recounts how, due to Lewis’s guidance, the students’ “last public examination gave flattering proofs of… advancement in science” (12). The illness was merely in remission, however, and soon, suddenly it seemed, Thomas Lewis was on his deathbed. Elliot mentions that the pupils and fellow pedagogues of Sunbury were foremost in Lewis’s last thoughts (10)., but it seems more likely to me that his mind lingered in the peaceful meadows of his father’s farm. That image is much more congruent with the title of Reverend Weeks’s sermon.
Thomas Lewis was brought back to be laid at rest, in that part of Waterbury now known as Naugatuck. Reverend Weeks’s sermon was “delivered, by the desire of [Lewis’s] bereaved family and friends, at Salem in Waterbury” (1). Miss Sarah Prichard, in Anderson’s The Town and City of Waterbury, Connecticut, describes the process by which the residents of Naugatuck, then newly broken away from Waterbury, petitioned the Connecticut General Assembly in 1772 for the establishment of “a distinct ecclesiastical society, to be known and called by the name of Salem” (641). This was merely the culmination of a long process than had begun in 1765. The Puritans did not believe in establishing churches haphazardly, and neither did the early residents of Connecticut.
Thomas Lewis’s parents, Samuel Smith Lewis and Abigail Baldwin had been married on February 22, 1776 in Waterbury. He was their first child. Samuel Smith Lewis could trace his roots back to Joseph Lewis, who was “the first man, an outsider and not an original proprietor, that joined the settlement of Waterbury” (Bronson, 165). Abigail Baldwin was the daughter of Matthew Baldwin, originally from New Haven, and had been born on June 26, 1753 in Cornwall. There is no indication that Abigail was related to the Baldwin family already present in Waterbury. The Waterbury Baldwins had a considerable political and military legacy, and were related by marriage to the Bronsons, whose descendant, Henry Bronson, published the first major record of Waterbury’s history.
The cover and first page of the sermon booklet both bear the handwritten signature of Major Noah Baldwin, who represented Waterbury in the General Assembly from 1805-1810 and was the son of Revolutionary War veteran Colonel Jonathan Baldwin, himself an Assemblyman. The date affixed to the signature is May 8, 1807, indicating that the booklet had likely passed into Noah Baldwin’s possession over three years after the sermon was delivered. This leads me to believe that he was not present at the funeral, and probably not a close relation to the mother of the deceased. The story here is that of Thomas Lewis, a young man from a Waterbury farm who achieved distinction at Yale College and Sunbury Academy. Noah Baldwin’s signature is a merely a beguiling link to a more illustrious local family, indicating a social mobility that has been an essential part of Waterbury since its earliest days.
Anderson, Joseph, Sarah J. Prichard, and Anna Lydia Ward. The Town and City of Waterbury, Connecticut. Vol. 2. New Haven: Price and Lee, 1896. Print.
Bronson, Henry. The History of Waterbury, Connecticut; the Original Township Embracing Present Watertown and Plymouth, and Parts of Oxford, Wolcott, Middlebury, Prospect and Naugatuck. Waterbury: Bronson Bros., 1858. Print.
Elliott, John. An Oration, on the Death of Mr. Thomas Lewis, Principal of Sunbury Academy, Who Died on the 3d of March: Delivered (by Particular Request) in Sunbury Meeting House, on the 3d of April, 1804. New Haven, Ct.: Reprinted by Ezekiel Hayes, 1855. Print.
Vanstory, Burnette Lightle. Georgia’s Land of Golden Isles. Athens: U of Georgia, 1980.
accessed Oct. 09, 2014. Web.
Weeks, Holland. “The Perfect End of the Peaceful Man.” New Haven: Herald, 1804. Print.