Petersburgh And Berlin Families Visit Their Roots
by David Flint
Two hundred and forty years ago a church on the coast of Rhode Island, concerned about members who had migrated west, sent their pastor, John Burdick, along with Deacon Elisha Stillman, on a mission – to visit the departed members, first in Farmington, Connecticut, and from there “to Little Hoosick and places adjacent where our brethren and Sisters chiefly reside… and inform them that if they are United and established in the Faith of the Gospel, the Church hereby informs them that they have the Liberty to choose them an Elder and the Church is free and willing to lend them all necessary assistance in their power for their furtherance and Establishment in the Faith of the Gospel.”
Last Saturday descendents of members of this new church, now known as the Seventh Day Baptist Church of Berlin, along with other historically inclined friends and neighbors, paid a visit back to the place from which many of their forbears sprang.
Aptly led by Charlie Hakes of the Taconic Valley Historical Society, the group, some 29 strong, first visited the Old Hopkinton Cemetery, the original site of the Seventh Day Baptist Church in that area,
where they were met by Gayle Wait of the Hopkinton Historical Society. Wait spoke with the group gathered round the Ministers’ Monument, relating some of the history of the area. She informed them that the church that was built on this spot in 1835 was moved 17 years late on rollers three miles down the road to Ashaway, RI, where it stands today. The Ministers’ Monument memorializes the pastors who served the church since 1708, and their remains also lie buried within the enclosing circle. Names of the pastors on the Monument include Clark, Maxson, Hiscox, Burdick, Coon, Stillman and Harris. The group then spent some time browsing among the older gravestones in the cemetery. Some of the names observed include Green, Stillman, Burdick, Crandall, Lamphear, Tanner, Babcock, Vars, Wells, Langworthy, Maxson, Potter, Eldredge, Hoxie, Clark and Mumford, names that would be quite familiar today to residents of Berlin, Petersburgh, Stephentown and Grafton.
According to a history of the Seventh Day Baptists published in 1910, the Seventh Day Baptist Church of Berlin, established in 1780, was the third one organized out of Hopkinton. Its name changed as the name of the town it was in changed, being first called Little Hoosick, then Stephentown, then Petersburgh and finally Berlin. Sabbath Keepers in this area are first mentioned in the records of the Hopkinton Church in 1770. They had been members of the Hopkinton Church but had migrated out some time previously.
The first pastor of the Church in Berlin was William Coon who had accompanied Burdick and Stillman on their journey from Hopkinton. According to the Church history from 1910, he had powerful lungs so that, “It is said that some of his sermons were so distinctly heard as to be followed by those a mile distant. Men would stop their teams in the fields, cease their work and listen to his preaching.” Elder Coon served for 20 years. Among the pastors who followed him up until 1863 were his nephew, Asa Coon, William Satterlee, William Maxson, H.H. Baker, James Scott, James Cochran, L.C. Rogers and A.W. Coon.
The Berlin pilgrims went from the cemetery to pay a visit to the First Seventh Day Baptist Church down the road in Ashaway. There they were greeted by one of their own, Pastor David Stall, who until recently was a member of the Berlin Seventh Day Church. It was his returning to take up the pastorate of the Hopkinton “mother church” that focused attention on the roots of some of the early settlers of Berlin. Stall, pleased to see his neighbors and friends again, provided them with some additional tidbits from the history of the Church. Among other things he noted that after the Church had been moved from Hopkinton to Ashaway in 1852, the congregation found they were not happy with the way it was situated. So 30 years later they had it picked up and turned around to face the opposite direction. At this time the vestry and steeple were added.
A nearby historical marker informs us that, “The members of this church suffered imprisonment in defense of the colony’s domain, met the onslaughts of hostile natives, were foremost among these who established and developed the colony on the principles of freedom, furnished a Governor, Samuel Ward, who was leader in the struggle for independence and joined in founding Brown University.”
The tour concluded with a visit to the Babcock-Smith House Museum in nearby Westerly. The house was originally owned by Dr. Joshua Babcock, Westerly’s first physician and also Postmaster, close friend of Benjamin Franklin and a signer of the Renunciation Act declaring Rhode Island independence from the King on May 4, 1776. Later the house and farm were purchased by Orlando Smith who began a granite quarrying and granite monument business there that eventually became nationally recognized.