An item in an 1876 Newport newspaper recalled an event in Hardwick some 40 years earlier that demonstrated the excesses of the religious revival that swept through Vermont in the 1830s.
It was the tail-end of the “Second Great Awakening” in America – an era which saw the spread of religion through revivals and emotional prayer-meetings. The movement was perceived as an antidote to the decline in church activity following the Revolutionary War. In Newport, The Vermont Farmer described the strange events at Hardwick’s South Meeting House.
It reported: “In 1837 one Bridgeman, becoming particularly deranged, claimed to be divinely inspired. He gathered a lot of half-cracked people like himself, and they began a mission of disturbing religious meetings by screams and yells, pretending they were setting under the power of the Spirit. They got possession of a meeting house in Hardwick and held services there barking like dogs and imitating the noise of beasts. But their chief worship was rolling on the floor, and they got the name of ‘Holy Rollers.’ A very sensible clergyman, Chester Wright, exposed them in a plain sermon; some of them were put in jail for disturbing public worship, and so they subsided.”
Wright was new to Hardwick, having been fired from his parish in Montpelier for his vocal opposition to Freemasonry. In 1808, Wright had been the first pastor in Montpelier to establish a congregation. The Vermont capital had been in existence for only twenty years when the newly minted minister arrived to preach. He described the situation in Montpelier for the Vermont Evangelical Magazine in 1811: “The first settlers, not being disposed to encourage an attention to religious concerns, no religious order was observed in the place for a number of years. The inhabitants, as might be expected, became generally dissipated, and a deplorable state of morals was the result. The Sabbath, instead of being observed as the day of holy rest, was improved as a season of relaxation from ordinary business, only for purpose of amusement, convivial entertainments at public houses or shops, sleigh-riding, trading, or gambling, and the language of profanity was the common dialect.”
Soon, however, the tenor of religious revival was rife throughout the land, and Chester Wright’s piety and reverence became the norm in Montpelier. He embraced the religious fervor of the time and participated in revivals in and around the Capital City. Vocal in his support of the American Colonization Society, his efforts toward returning slaves to Africa put him at odds with more conventional abolitionists – many of them influential residents of Montpelier.
But it was Wright’s opposition to Masonry that ultimately led to his dismissal from his pastorate. Masonic lodges flourished throughout Colonial America and gained importance and power with independence.
Along with the secret order’s influence came suspicion and resentment. Finally, in 1826, the murder of William Morgan in Batavia, New York, inflamed anti-Masonic passions nationwide. Morgan, it was said, threatened to reveal secrets of the fraternal order and was violently silenced. Rev. Wright became a vocal advocate of anti-masonry which displeased the Masonic members of his congregation. He was dismissed in 1830.
Wright eventually found another church in Hardwick, but soon became embroiled in a second controversy for which he had no culpability. Imposing themselves upon his congregation were the followers of John Bridgeman, a local farmer. They called themselves the “New Lights” and traced their spiritual lineage back to Jonathan Edwards, a charismatic Puritan preacher. They were Protestants who were demonstrative in their peculiar form of worship, creating an environment well-disposed to evangelicalism. There was often a rift between the established church ritual (the Old Lights) and the more bizarre practices of the New Lights. Not all New Lights were given to extreme behavior. Eleazar Wheelock, founder of Dartmouth College, counted himself among the faithful.
As Bridgeman and his acolytes began to wrest control of Hardwick’s South Meeting House from Wright and the established order of worshippers, the Old Lights began to plan a coordinated resistance.
Vermont historian Zadock Thompson wrote of the schism five years later: “New Lights – This is a name assumed by a small band of fanatics, who commenced a brief career in the town of Hardwick in the early part of 1837. Their leader, whose name was Bridgeman, had been a professed Universalist, but having his mind discomposed by frequent attendance upon prayer meetings in his neighborhood, and becoming, as some thought, partially deranged, he professed to be inspired from on high and was not long on enlisting several followers.”
Thompson explains how they began initially holding church services in local homes in town and then, as their numbers grew, at a Hardwick schoolhouse. They interrupted these proceedings “by occasionally uttering in a tremendous sing-song scream or yelling passages of scripture, claiming to act under the influence of the Holy Spirit.”
They soon developed into the main attraction at these religious services, which became known sarcastically as the “Hardwick Theater.” Outgrowing the school building, they surreptitiously insinuated themselves into the congregation of the French Meeting House. Samuel French had it built just west of the schoolhouse in 1816. It was an expressly non-denominational church which bore the inscription Liberty of Conscience over the front door.
Thompson described the services at which the New Lights were present: “The exercises consisted of the most ludicrous and foolish performances, such as frightful yellings, barking in imitation of dogs, foxes and cuckoos, jumping, swinging the arms and rolling on the floor. From this last circumstance they were sometimes called ‘holy rollers.’”
Bridgeman, at one point declared that the men should not shave, and they began to be called “Long Beards.” When it was mysteriously revealed that they must all be shaved, they did so. While the dedicated core of believers never numbered more than six or eight, according to Thompson, some local residents of Hardwick and neighboring towns offered encouragement. “Many of these were ignorant and weak-minded persons who were deluded and led astray, but the greater part were idle and irreligious.”
It fell to Hardwick’s new pastor, Wright, to vanquish the disruptive element in the town’s religious observances. Some believe that his strongly worded pamphlet was responsible for Bridgeman and his followers’ downfall. His 21-page tract, “The Devil in the Nineteenth Century,” published in Montpelier in 1838, was well-received. Wright’s preface delineated the problems he faced at Hardwick’s South Meeting House.
Early in the year 1837 meetings on the Sabbath at the South Meeting-house in Hardwick began to be characterized by tumultuous noises; and soon one or more of the most active performers assumed the prerogative of silencing the ministers who had been invited to preach in that house. This was done in a number of instances by breaking in upon the speaker in the time of prayer or preaching and raising the voice in such tremendous yells as to render the continuance of any religious exercise impossible.
Wright confessed that this had been done to him and he had stopped the service and brought his congregation to a private home in town where they continued their observances undisturbed.
Wright’s tract delineates specific instances of bizarre behavior which would seem to be sacrilege to most practicing Christians. His tract is persuasive and provocative but was not the reason for the cessation of the New Lights demonstrations. Rather, Wright entreated the town constable to restore order at the Sabbath gatherings.
As the Caledonian reported some years later, “Chester Wright broke up this sect by having many arrested for disturbance of the Sabbath. It so affected one of the faithful that he hanged himself. The New Lights vanished into darkness.”
The offenders were imprisoned in the Danville jail until they promised to be respectful of the services in Hardwick. Ralph Nading Hill’s “Contrary Country” summarized the trajectory of the bizarre faction. Composed chiefly of ignorant ne’er-do-wells the sect lasted a year and then disintegrated under the cross-fire of orthodox ministers.
This was Wright’s triumph as a man of the cloth, but shortly thereafter, his health failed and he moved back to Montpelier. He died there in 1840.
Paul Heller is a writer and historian from Barre.