Article 5: After the Revolution in White and Black
The independence movement in Connecticut did not mean an end to enslavement among the colonials. Rather, though Connecticut banned the import of additional enslaved people in 1774, its revolutionaries and loyalists alike remained committed to the practice of enslavement. Even as the Revolution was underway, the colony defeated emancipation laws three times in 1777, 1779, and 1780. It was only after the Revolution that Connecticut would pass a gradual emancipation act (1784) and restrict participation in the overseas slave trade (1788) and domestic slave trade (1790). And still, given the provisions of these acts, Connecticut would be the last state in New England to abolish slavery. The church, too, rather than work towards enslavement’s end, continued to perpetuate it (Harper 2003).
The revolutionary spirit that launched the new church and new nation, utterly failed among white Christians to ignite moral outrage over the perpetuation of enslavement; rather they, the members and leaders of the newly reconstituted Episcopal Society of Weston (1787) among them, continued to enslave. Philo Shelton, first a lay leader, after the war became the first clergy to be ordained in the United States for the new Protestant Episcopal Church of the United States. He served both at Trinity in Southport and at the Episcopal Society of Weston. In the first census of the United States, Rev. Shelton was still enslaving one person.
In Rev. Shelton’s “Parochial Notitiae,” detailing his sacramental life, the church’s complicity in enslavement is revealed in more detail. Communicants in 1785 included William Prince who enslaved one person in 1790, Daniel Morehouse who enslaved one person and employed another as a servant, and Daniel Andrews who enslaved Jack. Jack was also listed as a communicant. Nathan Jackson also frequented the church along with his brother Aden (whose will proved to the Episcopal Church in North Fairfield in 1815), and their family had previously enslaved at least one person named Dinah (Hickox 1995; US Census 1790; Shelton in 1898; Jacobus 1930; The Vincent J. Rosivach Register of Slaves).
The Vestry, the leadership board of the new church (Episcopal Society of Weston/N. Fairfield) in the new town (Weston) of the new nation further depicts the complicity of the church in post-revolutionary enslavement. Rev. Shelton shared leadership with Calvin Wheeler, Benoni Dimon, Moses Burr, and John Nichols. Among them, Calvin did not enslave, yet his cousin had ties to the slave trade. Stephen Wheeler, Calvin’s cousin, opened a store and advertised in 1796 the rum, brandy, gin, teas, molasses, sugars, ginger, pepper, indigo for sale there. Almost all of the goods on sale came from the labor of the millions of enslaved persons in the West Indies. Benoni did not enslave either (at least by the 1790 Census), yet the Dimon family benefited from enslavement.
As aforementioned, Benoni’s step-grandfather, Captain Moses Dimon emerged one of the wealthiest in the area during the mid-18th century by participation in the slave trade; additionally, he actively enslaved children and adults alike including Jeffrey, Ned, Matthew, Jack, Harry/Ham, Tamar, and Sue, a “negro child.” Benoni’s step-father Moses Jr. inherited and enslaved Tamar and Harry and possibly others. (Reeve et al. 2009; Nelson, “Longevity,” 2020; Kimball 2009; The Vincent J. Rosivach Register of Slaves; US Census 1790; and Jacobus 1930).
The last two Vestry members, Moses Burr and John Nichols, continued to enslave. Moses was joined at the church by his brother Increase and their nephew Joseph. Moses’ father, Joseph, had enslaved both Phillis and Ned. Moses himself enslaved one person as recorded on the 1790 Census. John Nichols and his family, too, enslaved. John and John’s father, Ephraim, enslaved Tom, who had been bequeathed to John at his mother’s death. Revealing a proslavery stance, indeed, John posted notice when Tom ran away on January 4, 1787, offering an $8 reward, and apparently Tom was recaptured as he was not freed until December 1807, even then only after being sold within the family.
John’s brother Ezekiel, a fellow church member along with his sons Alexander and Gould, also enslaved, accepting Dorcas as partial payment for debts owed by fellow townsman Gershom Bradley. Incidentally, in 1792, Eliphat Bradley, another member of the Episcopal parish, had sold the 16-year-old Jeffrey to the very same Gershom, reflecting the cruel trading and displacement of people inherent to enslavement (Shelton in 1898; Reeve et al. 2009; Jacobus 1930; US Census 1790; The Vincent J. Rosivach Register of Slaves).
The vast web of complicity of the members and leaders of the Society of North Fairfield/Weston illustrated above counters popular mythologies of northern exceptionalism. What the history reveals, instead, is a startling picture of the degree to which enslavement centered in the lives of ordinary Christians and the foundation of nation and church alike in Fairfield County. The wealth that was transferred generationally among families and to the church itself cannot be understood apart from enslavement. Further, the history offers the chance to recognize the people who lived on the lands of Easton (and of Christ Church and its predecessors) yet remain unacknowledged, those individuals enslaved by their white brethren.
We, reverently and solemnly, remember all those enslaved by the members and landowners of the Episcopal Society of North Fairfield/Weston/Christ Church and their forebears, and we name here those whose records have been located. These individuals, lived, loved and breathed-and endured the horrors of enslavement, even as they sought to resist them:
Jeffrey, Dorcas, Tom, Phillis, Ned, Jeffrey, Ned, Matthew, Jack, Harry/Ham, Tamar, Sue, Dinah, Jack, Clement, Caty, Ismael, Jack, Nancy, Pomp, Simon, Dinah, Nimrod, Simon, Pegg, Plimmoth, Pegg