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Holy Water (1831)

Welcome back, Monroe history lovers. This week’s history takes us right to the heart of Stepney Depot, and long before it was ever known as such. Most of you will recall that just last year the Stepney Baptist Church celebrated the 175th anniversary of its constitution in 1848, but the Church’s roots here in Monroe go back much further to 1831. It all started in neighboring Easton, when a Baptist Society of worship was formed, independent from an already established Church located in Stratfield. The Baptist faith was gaining in popularity and spread quickly, and once formed, the Easton Baptist Society built their meetinghouse near the Union Cemetery at the intersection of Route 59 and Sport Hill Road.

In short order there was a strong interest in the Baptist faith throughout Upper and Lower Stepney, but for many, the distance to Easton was deemed too far to be practical. The Solution? The Easton Baptist Society built a satellite meetinghouse in Lower Stepney on Judd Road near the foot of Hiram Hill. Reverend William Denison split his time preaching between the two meetinghouse locations. The Reverend was charismatic and was appreciated for the spirited and inspiring delivery of his sermons. Conversions to the Baptist faith were plentiful in these early days.

Baptism is a celebrated event among Christian denominations, and the Baptist faith is certainly no exception. Those who are baptized into the Baptist Church are fully robed in white and stand with the pastor in water above the waist. The pastor then submerges the new member fully beneath the surface of the water in full witness of the congregation. It’s truly a joyous event for all to behold and celebrate. Today, this ceremony takes place within the church building itself, in a purpose built baptistry, but what of those early converts in the 1830s in Monroe? Just where were they baptized by Reverend Denison?

One might suspect the Mill River as the obvious location, since it flows just a short distance west of the meetinghouse’s former location on Judd Road. That would certainly be a great guess, but a valuable detail has recently revealed itself in the 1892 obituary of Captain Eli Leavenworth. The greater Leavenworth family settled in Blanket Meadow on Upper Hattertown Road. Eli was the son of Captain Andrew Leavenworth, the man famous for running the successful milling enterprise in the heart of Stepney Depot.

Eli Leavenworth was a devout Baptist and was one of its earliest converts in Lower Stepney when it was still affiliated with the Easton Baptist Society. His obituary tells of him being baptized in the millpond at Stepney Depot, then owned by his father. The Leavenworth family were Baptists from this early era, and the millpond on the Western Branch of the Pequonnock River was not only a scenic location, it was also easily deep enough to facilitate the Baptist tradition of fully submerging its new converts.

When the construction of the Stepney Baptist Church was completed in 1841, all baptisms were conveniently relocated across the Green to a pond behind the Stepney Cemetery. The remains of the former dam across the brook that once formed the baptizing pond are still visible behind the utility shed in the back corner. Monroe’s ponds have always been utilized for a multitude of purposes, from milling to icehouse filling, fishing, swimming, washing, boating, skating, skipping stones, and on a whim, even occasional skinny-dipping! And now, to that historic list we can confidently add baptizing!

I hope you enjoy this week’s history spotlight on the earliest days of the Baptist faith in our town. I just love it when a simple clue presents itself unexpectedly and it works out to be another valuable piece in our town’s history puzzle. Please share this ecclesiastical history with your family and friends. As always, thank you for your continued support and interest in Monroe history. Until next time, can I get an Amen?!


Kevin Daly
Historian, Monroe Historical Society
Our Past is Always Present

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