Colonial Meetinghouses Featured in this Project
Name of Meetinghouse:   Old Brooklyn Meeting House
Year(s) Built:   1771 - 1772
National Register of Historic Places Designation:   yes (1972)
Connecticut State Register of Historic Places:   ?
Organization responsible:   Unitarian Universalist Society in Brooklyn
Organization's address:   PO Box 38, Brooklyn, CT 06234
Organization's web site:   Unitarian Universalist Society in Brooklyn
Town Information:   Town of Brooklyn, Connecticut
Tax status:   Tax Exempt 501(c)(3)
Contact:   Dennis Landis, UUSB Restoration
Address:   PO Box 38, Brooklyn, CT 06234
Telephone:   (860) 779-2623
This page was last updated on:   February 17, 2009
Acknowledgements: The following text has been taken in part from the pamphlet A Short History of the Unitarian Universalist Society in Brooklin, Connecticut, and from a pamphlet prepared for the 1995 fund drive, both published by the Restoration Committee of the Unitarian Universalist Society of Brooklyn, and used by permission.
The present Meeting House was built in 1771, replacing an older structure located just to the northwest, across Hartford Road. Under the close church-state relationship that formed colonial New England, it was the responsibility of Brooklyn's taxpayers to erect a meeting house where the parish could gather on Sunday. Accordingly, spaces for the 44 box pews planned for the ground floor were awarded to the 43 persons highest on the tax lists; one pew continued as a ministerial pew, as it was in the smaller meeting house that preceded the new one. People owned the pews if they also paid for their construction.
By December 30, 1771, planning had advanced to the point that pews were arranged for in the balcony as well, and the 14 people who were next on the grand list were entitled to build pews there. But by April 24, 1772, pressure had mounted to allow three additional pews at the balcony level. So it was that a new plan was arranged for a total of 17 box pews in the galleries. The remainder of the balcony was given over to seating for the public at large.
Not much is said about these seats in the church records until December 1834, when it was voted "that the three colour'd girls that now set in the public seats north of the aisle leading from the east door in the gallery be requested to take their seats in the wall slips" - that is, where they could not be seen from the main floor.
But the story does not end there. In his biography of Samuel J. May, Brooklyn's early Unitarian minister, historian Donald Yacovone tells the story of May's response, drawing on the minister's letters and memoirs. A leader of national stature in the movement for the abolition of slavery, Samuel May was deeply sensitive to racism, and approached the gentleman responsible for this action privately, advising him that the young women would remain in their newly chosen seats, and that he would denounce such conduct from the pulpit, should he ever pursue similar action in the future. May had but recently lost the fight for Prudence Crandall's school, and was known to be her principal defender in her struggle to educate young women of color. It was the twelfth year of his ministry in Brooklyn, and he could speak with great moral authority there.
In less than a year, however, May's large personal commitment to civil rights led to his departure from Brooklyn to devote his full-time efforts to the goal of abolition. Such is the high human drama that played itself out in the gallery of the Brooklyn meeting house.
The ecclesiastical society, or parish, of which the present Society is a descendant, was established in 1731 from parts of Pomfret, Canterbury, and an independent tract called Mortlake. The first minister was called in 1734. This religious body was what now is called Congregational, as were all the other non-dissenting parishes in Connecticut (church and state not being distinct until 1818). In 1752 the area became known as Brooklyn, and the town was incorporated in 1786.
In 1816 the church membership was sundered by a doctrinal controversy between those holding to the established Trinitarian views and those espousing the newer "Unitarian" beliefs. In 1819 a formal separation occurred, with the majority Unitarians retaining the Meeting House and property. (Such controversies were frequent in Massachusetts, but this was the only congregation in Connecticut where Unitarians predominated.) The Trinitarians, or Congregationalists, soon built their own church just to the south.
The Society experienced its golden hour in the 1830s, under the leadership of the Reverend Samuel J. May (uncle of Louisa May Alcott). Northeastern Connecticut was at the time a seat of abolitionist activities, and the Society participated, espousing, for instance, the cause of Prudence Crandall and her school for "young ladies of color."
The first woman to ever serve as a Unitarian minister, Celia Burleigh, was ordained in Brooklyn in 1871. Her successor, the Rev. Caroline James, established a prison ministry in the Brooklyn Jail after 1878.
In the mid-nineteenth century, a floor was added at the balcony level, and the upstairs used as a sanctuary. The pews and pulpit were removed from the lower level, and it was used as a public hall (among other things, serving the town of Brooklyn until the courthouse across the street became the present Town Hall).
The hurricane of 1938 badly damaged the building, toppling the steeple and causing substantial water damage. Contemplating the extensive repairs that would be needed, some historically-minded individuals in the Brooklyn area suggested that it be returned to its 18th century appearance, much as it was known to its first sexton, Col. Israel Putnam. A committee soon formed to raise funds to this end. World War II intervened, but restoration of the building became a focus of attention again in the 1960s, with the replacement of the high pulpit and many of the box pews. In the 1970s and 80s work proceeded more slowly, as the cost of materials and labor rose, but the Society's Restoration Committee continues to solicit funds to be used for the continuation of the project.