Wednesday, June 07, 2017
Rev. Jonathan Ingersoll:
A Historic Minister
Ridgefield’s earliest Congregational preachers must have found something to their liking in Ridgefield. Between 1715 and 1811, nearly a century, there were only three settled ministers. But while each served many years here, the one in the middle — the Rev. Jonathan Ingersoll — lasted longer than any minister in the First Congregational Church’s more than three centuries. He spent 39 years as the congregation’s leader, and would no doubt have continued to serve longer had he not died of “an apoplectic fit” at the age of 64. He left behind a family that became part of the town until the 1960s.
Ingersoll’s predecessor — the town’s first minister, Thomas Hauley — was only 49 when he died after preaching 25 years here, and his successor — the Rev. S. G. Goodrich — also spent 25 years here before moving to upstate congregation.
Jonathan Ingersoll was born in 1713 in Derby (then part of Milford), a son of Jonathan and Sarah Ingersoll whose ancestors were among the early settlers of Hartford and the Pioneer Valley of Massachusetts. Like so many ministers who came to Ridgefield, Ingersoll graduated from Yale, in 1736. His first preaching post was at a Presbyterian church in New Jersey (Congregationalists and Presbyterians were closely allied in the 18th Century) and in 1739, he was called to replace Mr. Hauley in Ridgefield. A year later he married Dorcas Moss, a minister’s daughter from Derby.
From all accounts he was well-respected in Ridgefield. “He is described as a man of brilliant intellect, of great strength and force of character,” said George L. Rockwell in his “History of Ridgefield” (1927).
Unlike most clergymen in Ridgefield’s long history, Ingersoll took a break from his local duties to serve in the military. He was chaplain for the town’s militia and, during the French and Indian War, he volunteered as a chaplain with Connecticut troops — including 22 Ridgefield men — serving around Lake George and Fort Ticonderoga (then called Carillon).
According to Tim Abbott, a sixth great grandson of Ingersoll, “In 1758 he was chaplain for Colonel David Wooster’s 4th Regiment in Abercromby’s ill-fated expedition against the French at Carillon. Wooster’s men were caught up in the attack, and Chaplain Ingersoll wrote to a fellow church colleague that God showed ‘distinguishing mercy to the Connecticut Troops’ who suffered few deaths in that dreadful slaughter.”
During Lord Amherst’s campaign the following year he was chaplain of the 3rd Regiment, again under Colonel Wooster, traveling from captured Fort Carillon to Oswego and then down the St. Lawrence.
His intellect, and perhaps also his notable family and his service with Wooster, gave Ingersoll a wide reputation and in 1761, he was invited to preach before the General Assembly on Election Day. He offered the colonial politicians a word of gentle warning: “You are the fathers of the common-wealth, and all our eyes are upon you,” he said. “See to it that your powers of mind are sanctified by grace, and always remember that you judge for the Lord. Let the interest of religion, and the welfare of the community (which indeed are necessarily connected), let these lye near your hearts.”
When it came to the Revolution, Ingersoll probably tended to be on the conservative side of the issues. When George III became king in 1760, Ingersoll had praised him as “richly endowed with all royal gifts and graces,” adding that through his influence, “we hope for the enjoyment of the best of liberties and privileges for for a great while to come.”
In “We Gather Together,” a 2011 history of the First Congregational Church, author Charles Hambrick-Stowe says, “Circumstances soon forced the church to decide how to pray for civil authorities, whether to continue to support George III and the Empire or the movement for independence. Jonathan Ingersoll probably shared the views of his brother Jared, a political leader in the colony who hoped that compromise and moderation would resolve the Stamp Act crisis of 1765. Jared Ingersoll worked to reduce the rate of the tax and accepted the position of stamp distributor for Connecticut in order to soften its impact. His efforts were rewarded with accusations of treason that destroyed his political career.”
Ridgefield in the mid-1770s leaned to the Tory side. “Jonathan Ingersoll’s leadership is often cited as influencing a town vote opposing the Continental Congress in January 1775,” the Rev. Hambrick-Stowe writes. However, “the beginning of armed conflict at Lexington and Concord in April and the subsequent siege of Boston swayed many in town to the Patriot side.” It is unknown whether Ingersoll was among those so swayed, but many in his congregation were leading supporters of the revolutionary cause. So were three of his sons in law.
Capt. David Olmsted, who was married to Abigail Ingersoll, fought at the Battle of Ridgefield. He became a leading town and state official after the war.
Another of Ingersoll’s daughters, Anne, married Lt. Joshua King, a Revolutionary officer who was in charge of the imprisoned British spy, Major John Andre, before his execution. Because of Anne, King settled in Ridgefield, established the King and Dole store (which grew into Bedient’s Hardware), and became a major landowner. But, in the church’s eyes, what is perhaps more remarkable about this union is that it led to Henry King McHarg (1851-1941), great great grandson of the Rev. Jonathan Ingersoll. McHarg, a wealthy banker and railroad president, donated to First Congregational the land on which its current landmark stone church was built in 1888. (McHarg lived on Nod Road until his death in 1941 but his much younger wife, Elizabeth, remained in town until the 1960s, dying in 1976 at the age of 84.)
Another of Ingersoll’s sons-in-law, a lieutenant in the Revolution, did not fare so well afterwards. Ebenezer Olmsted, husband of Esther Ingersoll, got caught pocketing state tax money he had taken in as a Ridgefield tax collector and wound up having all his property confiscated by the town. Perhaps fortunately for Ingersoll, he had died before Olmsted’s malfeasance took place and threw the town nearly into financial ruin (see separate “Who Was Who” profile).
Ingersoll’s son, Jonathan (1747-1823), became a respected post-war political leader. The Ridgefield native, another Yale graduate, served as lieutenant governor of Connecticut and as a Superior Court judge. He was also elected a congressman from Connecticut, but declined the job before being sworn in.
Finally, his brother’s son, Jared Ingersoll, not only supported the Revolution, but also helped write the U.S. Constitution and was a signer of the document.
Although most people would not think of Ridgefield as being a place where people were enslaved, slaves were found in most Connecticut communities in 18th Century — and in the Ingersoll household. In 1730, Connecticut’s 38,000 residents included about 700 slaves. By 1770, it had more than 6,400 slaves, the largest population of any New England colony. Half of all the ministers, lawyers, and public officials owned slaves, and a third of all the doctors, reports Connecticut historian Jackson Turner Main.
Jonathan Ingersoll was among Ridgefield’s slave owners. However, in 1777, shortly before his death, Ingersoll asked the Board of Selectmen to approve making his slave, Cyphax, a free man. Under colony law, the selectmen had to make sure the freed person wouldn’t be a burden on the town. The selectmen approved of Cyphax, who was 20 years old, and he was freed.
By 1790, five slaves were still left in Ridgefield.
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