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Valentine Wightman

 

Rev. Valentine Wightman was born April 16, 1681 in Quidnessett, Washington Co., RI colony1, and died June 7, 1747 in Groton, New London Co., CT colony1. He was the son of George Wightman and Elizabeth Updike. He married (1) Susannah Holmes February 10, 1702/03 in N. Kingstown, Washington Co., RI1, daughter of Rev. John Holmes and Mary Sayles. She was born ca. 1682 in Newport, RI colony2, and died ca. 1727 in Groton, New London Co., CT colony2. He married (2) Joanna Avery (?) ca. 1728 in Groton, CT, possibly the daughter of Edward Avery and Joanna Rose. She was born November 21, 17003, and died Aft. 1754.

Valentine was born either at Wickford, or more likely, at Quidnessett in North Kingstown Township, Rhode Island colony, the youngest son of immigrant George Wightman, who was nearly 50 at the time of Valentine's birth. Valentine appears to have inherited some of his great-grandfather Edward's passion for vigorous religious debate and political involvement. When he was only about 18, Valentine was involved in a political riot in North Kingstown in which he and several other young men had "rescued" a prisoner being held by the Deputy Sheriff. He was arraigned in court in North Kingstown on April 22, 1700, along with his brother John and another ancestor of George Ransom Wightman, Zorobabel Wescott. The men were fined, but the execution of their sentence was suspended by the Assembly for reasons unclear.

By 1702, Valentine was a member of the Free Will Baptist Church of Kingstown, and clearly passionately devout.

He also appears to have received some substantial education during his youth, something very rare in this time. He is believed to have studied at the Kingstown school of a scholar named Edward Whaley, who operated under the pseudonym Theophilus Whale.

In early 1703, 21 year-old Valentine married Susannah Holmes of Newport, the granddaughter of Rhode Island's famous Baptist clergyman Rev. Obadiah Holmes and the great-granddaughter of Providence founder Roger Williams. The marriage took place near the Wightman home on the western shore of the Narragansett Bay.

In the meantime, the Baptists had begun to make inroads in Connecticut. In 1674, John Rogers, an influential citizen of New London, CT, converted to Sabbatarian Baptist. These individuals (like Dr. John Clarke and Rev. Obadiah Holmes) believed that the Sabbath rightly fell on Saturday, rather than Sunday. While this is a perfectly understandable tradition by today's standard, in 17th century Puritan New England, it put Rogers and his followers in direct conflict with the established Puritan Congregationalists and the law, which stated that all must worship on Sunday.

In 1705, a group of 12 religious dissenters (six men and six women) in Groton, Connecticut called Valentine to serve as their pastor. I am not certain why they chose Valentine. Clearly, Valentine was an intelligent, educated, passionate, and outspoken young man, but he was still only 23 when they called him. One possibility is that it was Susannah's father, Baptist clergyman Rev. John Holmes, who planted the seed during a brief sojourn in Groton at the close of the 17th century. The Baptist faithful in Groton might have inquired of Rev. Holmes about a potential pastor, and he might have suggested his young son-in-law.

Valentine did minister to the Groton congregation, albeit from a distance for a while, and in so doing became the first Baptist preacher in Connecticut colony-- essentially the founder of Connecticut's Baptist tradition. On September 6, 1707, Valentine arrived in Groton for good, accompanied by Susannah and young Daniel and Mary, their first two children. He was deeded 20 acres and a house by William Stark (the granduncle of Valentine's daughter-in-law Susannah (Stark) Wightman). Valentine would farm this land throughout his life, in addition to his duties as pastor, and reportedly never demanded a salary for his preaching (this was not unusual at the time). Valentine's home and farm were located five miles north of the present borough of Groton, near what is now Watrous Ave. and Route 184. The old Wightman parsonage was still standing in 1916, and was believed to be the oldest Baptist parsonage in the country at that time. According to F. M. Caulkins, Valentine was properly ordained in 1710, although I do not know who performed the ordination.

The First Baptist Church of Groton was not built until 1715 (or 1718 according to some sources). Before that time, Valentine's congregation met at private homes, often the Wightman or Stark homes. The actual church was located on Stark's Hill, about a half mile from the Wightman home. The hill would later be called Wightman Hill, in honor of the long tradition of Wightman stewardship of the church. Rev. Daniel Fisk held the pulpit for seven years from 1747 to 1754 after Valentine's death, but Valentine's son Timothy became the church's third minister, and his grandson, John Gano Wightman, became the church's fourth minister. Thus a Wightman served as minister of this church, nearly continuously for over 125 years. Another Wightman descendant ministered to the congregation during the mid-19th century. A new church was built in 1790, long after Valentine's death, but it was abandoned in 1844 when the congregation relocated to Mystic. The church structure itself was demolished shortly after 1857.

Valentine's ministry in Groton was much more difficult than his brother Daniel's in Newport. Eastern Connecticut was relatively undeveloped at this time; most of the land was still heavily forested and inhabited by the remnants of the Narragansett and Pequot tribes. Much more problematic, was the lack of Rhode Island's tradition of religious freedom. In the early 18th century, the Puritan order was still the rule of law in Connecticut. The original Groton congregation petitioned the General Court of the colony to allow them to assemble in peace, but their petition was simply ignored. Remarkably, for the time, the six women actually signed the petition. The church and Valentine received considerable harassment from Connecticut authorities. Valentine was ordered to appear in court to answer various charges in 1707 and 1708. Valentine and Susannah were warned by the New London magistrate to leave the colony in October, November, and December of 1707. Rev. Wightman refused to comply, and may not have even appeared in court. He was fined 20 shillings, but refused to pay. The issue was temporarily resolved when William Stark agreed to post a bond of 200 pounds, a very large sum, such that Valentine would "not be a burden" to the town of Groton. In 1708, the colony of Connecticut passed a religious toleration law, but Wightman and the Baptist church of Groton continued to endure legal harassment until 1709, when the issue finally died down. In addition, it is believed the Congregational ministers of Groton's two established churches, Rev. Ephraim Woodbridge and Rev. John Owen, were on good terms with Valentine, and provided at least tacit acceptance of the growing Baptist congregation. Rev. Owen, in particular, was an active supporter and interceded on behalf of the Baptist Church; he was officially censured for his action.

Valentine was a vigorous preacher, who presented religious conviction in plain and logical language. Nonetheless, he was often described as warm, serene and possessed of a mild disposition. He became highly sought after, traveling often to preach in other places. As early as 1710, Valentine had spear-headed a union of Connecticut and nascent New York Baptist Churches. In 1712, he preached at the New York City home of Nicholas Eyres and two years later performed twelve baptisms there during the night in order to avoid an angry mob that had been harassing the early Baptist congregation. In 1724, he and his brother Daniel ordained and installed Rev. Eyres as the first pastor of the first Baptist Church in New York City. Over the years, Valentine would participate in forming new Baptist churches throughout Connecticut and New York colonies. In 1725, Valentine published his "Letter on Singing Psalms," which was among the first published pamphlets in the New England colonies. Thus Valentine is listed among notable American writers in Allibone's Critical Dictionary of English Literature of 1858. Apparently, the pamphlet was not a popular success in its time-- singing was not a common part of worship, and the faithful seemed confused as to what to sing and how. However, in a very few years, Valentine's pamphlet on singing and worship participation would prove to be anticipatory of a major American religious movement, discussed below.

In 1727, Valentine participated in a famous debate in Lyme, CT, probably at the home of Nehemiah Smith, with the prominent Congregational Puritan minister Rev. John Bulkley of Colchester, CT. A transcript or account of that debate was published, but I have not seen it. Valentine would have probably argued for a more participatory style of worship, while Bulkley would have spoken in favor of the wisdom of the "standing order." In a sense, this debate would foreshadow the great conflict between the traditional churches of New England and the upstart evangelical tradition that would explode in the American colonies over the next two decades. Wightman and Bulkley maintained a vigorous debate in writing over the next few years.

Although Valentine's passions were clearly theology, and in particular, the growth of the Baptist church, he was also a hard-working farmer (like most clergy of that time). He bought and sold land, just like most colonists of the early 18th century. He owned land in Westerly, RI, just across the Pawcatuck River and a mere 10 miles from Groton. On August 31, 1726, Valentine sold his 250 acre Westerly parcel to John Willcox, a carpenter. He also purchased land in nearby Norwich, CT, which eventually was passed on to his sons.

Sometime around 1727, Valentine's wife Susannah died, leaving him with young children (John, the youngest, was no more than one year old). In fact, it is certainly possible that Susannah died while giving birth to their eleventh child. As was often the case in that time, Valentine quickly remarried, in 1728, to a 27 year-old woman named Joanna (probably Avery). Little is known about Joanna, other than that she was almost 20 years younger than Valentine and was probably widowed herself. Joanna may have brought a young daughter from her previous marriage into the Wightman household. Valentine and Joanna had one child together (Amey), and Joanna outlived him, probably by many years.

The 1730's and 1740's saw the first wave of American evangelism take form in what is now referred to as the "Great Awakening". The movement, which foreshadowed the "revival" camp meetings that became popular in the early 19th century, was primarily a frontier phenomenon. Outside of the established churches, traveling evangelists would move into poor, undeveloped rural communities and preach the good word. It marked a significant break from the staid and established Anglican and Puritan traditions, in particular. The worship was more joyful than damning, and involved significant elation, singing, and congregational participation. Unlike the "fundamentalism" of the 20th century, however, this movement was progressive; it looked forward rather than backward, and fostered development rather than resisted it. The Great Awakening preachers brought books and schools to communities that had none. The effect was the ultimate creation of a distinctively American protestant religion, a common sense of unity among Americans, and a moral motivation for social activism that helped fuel the Revolution to come. The principle spokesmen for the Great Awakening were English evangelist George Whitefield and American Jonathan Edwards, whose sermons and tours of 1740-1741 marked a significant peak in Awakening religious change. Their most visible opposition came from Boston Congregationalist minister Charles Chauncy, who published rebuttals that accused the evangelists of emotionalism and irrationality.

It is interesting to speculate on the views of the aging Valentine Wightman to the huge changes sweeping American religion in the years prior to his death. Valentine was clearly committed to an established denomination, and most of his efforts were focused on expanding the Baptist community to larger established communities, which was contrary to the evangelical thrust. However, what we know of his views on singing, for example, suggests he might have been open to some of the evangelists' ideas. Indeed, the more participatory Baptist churches fared very well during the years leading up to the American Revolution, gaining the most members among traditional denominations. On the other hand, Valentine's schooling, and serene, intense disposition would not seem to jive as well with the emerging evangelism.

Valentine was buried on the land of the original church, which became the Wightman Burying Grounds on Cold Spring Rd. in Groton. This old cemetery is still maintained to this day. The First Baptist Church moved to Old Mystic in 1843, and to a third site (on Shewville Rd. in Old Mystic) in 1968.

Susannah Holmes grew up in Newport, a preacher's daughter. Given this prominent and important position, Susannah probably enjoyed a relatively comfortable (although certainly not wealthy) childhood. As the daughter of John Holmes, the minister of the First Baptist Church of Newport, it is likely that she knew Rev. Daniel Wightman, Valentine's brother, who would become the co-pastor of the Second Baptist Church of Newport from 1704 until 1750. Daniel arrived in Newport when Susannah was around 12 or 13. Presumably, this is how Susannah became acquainted with the Wightman family, and the route by which she met Valentine, who lived on the other side of Narragansett Bay.

The Holmes lineage produced Abraham Lincoln, 16th President of the United States. Susannah's first cousin was Sarah Bowne, the great-grandmother of Abraham Lincoln, Sr., who was, in turn, the grandfather of the famous US President. Susannah was also the lynchpin of the Wightman family's connection to the famous Rhode Island historical figures, Roger Williams and Obadiah Holmes, thus all Wightmans who are descended from Susannah claim Williams and Holmes as ancestors.

Susannah's half-sister, Catherine married Rev. Daniel Wightman of Newport (Valentine's brother) as her second husband (and his third wife), thus establishing yet another connection between the Holmes and Wightman families.

Little is known about Joanna, the second wife of Valentine, other than that she was almost 20 years younger than Valentine and was probably widowed herself. Valentine and Joanna had two more children, and she outlived him, probably by many years. Mary Ross Whitman seemed fairly confident that Joanna was Joanna (Avery) Stoddard, widow of Mark Stoddard, and daughter of Edward Avery and Joanna Rose. If true, then Joanna was both stepmother and mother-in-law to Rev. Timothy Wightman, who eventually married Joanna's daughter from her first marriage, Mary Stoddard. That would mean that Joanna brought Mary to the Wightman household when she was about 3 years old and Timothy was about 9 years old. Thus Timothy and Mary would have literally grown up together under one roof and eventually married their step-sibling as adults-- a little creepy, but nothing genetically wrong with it.

It should be noted that "The Groton Avery Clan" presents some fairly strong evidence that Joanna Avery's second husband was actually Joshua Allen. If this is the case, Valentine's second wife may have been another Joanna of about the same age.

Children of Valentine Wightman and Susannah Holmes are:

Abraham's older brother, Daniel, had the farm adjoining Abraham's-- part of the Norwich property that was purchased by Rev. Valentine and then willed to his sons. After Daniel's death, this portion of Norwich would be designated as the town of Bozrah. Daniel was clearly a successful and prominent citizen of Norwich. He bought several additional parcels of land in Norwich and nearby Glastonbury, held several local offices, and was elected to the Colonial Assembly three times. It is surprising, given his father's vigorous advances for the Baptist church, that Daniel was a member of the "New Concord Society in Norwich"-- a Congregational church.

Catherine Westcott's lineage produced the Revolutionary War hero-turned-traitor General Benedict Arnold. Catherine's great-aunt, Damaris Westcott, married Benedict Arnold, ancestor of the famous general of the same name.

Catherine's family was almost certainly acquainted with the Wightmans. However, her husband Daniel moved to Groton with his father Rev. Valentine in 1707. Catherine was just a toddler in Warwick and appears to have grown up there with her parents Zorobabel and Jane Westcott. As early settlers of Rhode Island and associated with the Arnolds, the Westcott family were probably Baptists, although I've not uncovered record of church membership. As such, Catherine and Daniel may have met through church activities, since the new Connecticut churches continued to maintain relationships with the churches in Rhode Island (although it appears that Daniel became a Congregationalist as an adult). In any case, at the appropriate age of twenty, she married Daniel, either at Warwick, Groton, or Norwich. They immediately settled on the land that Daniel was farming in southwestern Norwich, which would become Bozrah.

Child of Valentine Wightman and Joanna Avery (?) is:

 

Sources

1. Mary Ross Whitman, George Wightman of Quidnessett, RI and Descendants, (1939, Chicago: Edwards Brothers).

2. White, Dorothy Higson, Descendants of Roger Williams III: Sayles Line Through Mary Williams, (2002, Roger Williams Family Association).

3. Elroy M. Avery and Catherine H. Avery, The Groton Avery Clan, (1912, Cleveland).

Wightman, Wade C., The Wightman Ancestry, (1994, Chelsea, MI: Bookcrafters).

 

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