The Episcopal Diocese of Connecticut

Abraham Jarvis

Second Bishop of Connecticut, Episcopate 1797-1813

Biographical/Historical Note:

The bishop's ancestors were Massachusetts Puritans who later settled on Long Island. From there his father, Samuel, moved with his wife (Naomi Brush) to Norwalk. There Abraham, the ninth of their ten children, was born on May 5, 1739. About that time Samuel changed from the Congregational to the Episcopal Church. He became so ardent that he punished some of his boys when he caught them at a Whitefield revival meeting.

His zeal as a Churchman was tempered by enough common sense to let Noah Welles, the learned Congregational minister at Stamford, prepare young Abraham for Yale. The family has cherished a homespun legend that he studied in the evening by the oily Hare of a pitch-pine knot. His eyes survived that ordeal, and he read without glasses and wrote firmly to the day of his death.

The youth was marked for the priesthood and soon after graduation became a lay-reader at Middletown. The people recognized his sturdy qualities and insisted that he must go to England for ordination and then return as their pastor. For a short time he lived in the home of Thomas B. Chandler, rector of St. John's in Elizabeth Town, New Jersey, and there he was indoctrinated in the strictest High principles.

Jarvis voyaged to England in the autumn of 1763, and in February, 1764 was ordained deacon and priest. Like many ordinands, he lingered for several months to enjoy the flavor of England. His journal narrates several sight-seeing trips, including a walk from London to Windsor, and a description of Windsor Castle and its lovely grounds. When he returned to Connecticut during the annual election and attended the election-day sermon at Hartford, he received a foretaste of the enmity that later was to beset him. The preacher, pointing directly at him, asked, "What do they not deserve, who cross the Atlantic to bring in Episcopal tyranny and superstition among us!"

Very different was his reception by his parishioners in Middletown, who fairly adored him. His popularity brought requests for ministrations from people in Hartford County and farther afield. He won friends even among opponents 'of the Church, who protected him from violence during the Revolution. But they could not spare him the pain of seeing a liberty pole erected near his door, and the annoyance of having Continental soldiers quartered upon him. When men started from Farmington to mob him, his parishioners buckled on their swords to sacrifice life itself to defend him. He bravely ministered to Moses Dunbar (the Tory spy) in Hartford jail, and went with him to the scaffold.

Jarvis was hardly more than settled in his parish, when he chose a partner in life - Ann, the daughter of Samuel Farmer, a New York merchant. They were married in Trinity Church at New York, in May 1766, and lived happily until her death in 1801. Their son, Samuel Farmer Jarvis (1786-1853) was the Bishop's pride and became rector of his father's parish, and an eminent scholar and church historian. In 1799 the Bishop resigned his pastorship in Middletown, and built a house in Cheshire, to be near his boy at the Episcopal Academy. After four years, to be near Samuel at Yale, he went to live on New Haven's dignified Elm Street, in a house that later became the Yale Graduate Club. The Bishop grew lonely and in 1806 was married to the widow Lucy Lewis. The two were drawn together by mutual sympathy in bereavement, and their devotion was deepened by her tender care during the Bishop's declining health.

The illness was due largely to his conscientious devotion to duty. He had long been regarded as the right-hand man of Seabury, who relied upon him during his long struggle to attain consecration. He was secretary of the meeting in Woodbury at which Seabury was elected, and conducted the diocesan correspondence with the English hierarchy. He was regarded as having few equals in the drafting of petitions, memorials, letters and addresses, and he helped to revise the Prayer Book. The clergy naturally elected him as coadjutor to Seabury in 1787, and mostly preferred him as his successor. The election caused a period of doubt and uneasiness. Powerful laymen preferred the scholarly John Bowden, who hesitated an embarrassingly long time before announcing that frail health forbade his acceptance. Jarvis was then unanimously elected and he accepted, although pained by the divided sentiment. He was consecrated in Trinity Church, New Haven, on October 18, 1797, by Bishops Provoost of New York, White of Pennsylvania, and Bass of Massachusetts and New Hampshire. His was the first episcopal consecration ever held in Connecticut.

The episcopate of Jarvis was more effective than has generally been realized. Its fame has been overshadowed by Seabury's. And yet he took part in consecrating five bishops, and ordained thirty-three deacons and twenty-eight priests. It was his fortune to govern during the Church's slow recovery from the Revolution, in an era of religious depression. His firm and quiet administration made the Church respected. While suffering tortures from asthma, he traveled all over the Diocese - visiting the larger parishes on Sunday and the smaller ones on weekdays. In the evening he would gather the parishioners and the visiting clergy, and discourse with them informally on theology, the Bible, doctrine and usage. Then he would pass the night in a Gig chair, propped up with pillows, gallantly enduring his lonely pain and discomfort.

Bishop Jarvis conformed perfectly to the model of an eighteenth-century High-Church prelate. His formal manner suggested an English "gentleman of figure". In the pulpit he was clear, solemn, precise, and doctrinal; not "popular", and not wishing to be. His theology abhorred novelties and "witty inventions". Like Seabury, he regarded the Church's doctrine and polity as completely fixed and settled. He insisted upon strict conformity to the Prayer Book, and read the stately services in almost awesome tones. Clerical discipline was one of his dearest principles, and he once reprimanded Tillotson Bronson for allowing a Congregational minister to use his pulpit. The chastened parson later paid a gracious tribute to the bishop in a notable memorial sermon. Jarvis's insistence upon obedience to the canons became proverbial, and contributed to the improvement of diocesan and parochial government. He was a stickler for correct, old-fashioned clerical dress. When a young ordinand ventured to present himself in trousers, the bishop said severely, "Young sir, I cannot ordain you in those things! Mrs. Jarvis, cannot you find for this young gentleman a pair of breeches" The breeches - probably an extra episcopal pair - were produced, and the "young sir" was decently ordained.

The bishop's declining years were saddened by increasing physical suffering and the loss of his first wife. Opposition to the Federalist Party began to prevail in his latest years, and made him aware that he had survived a social order which he loved. His burdens were aggravated by the vindictive conduct of a refractory and degraded priest. III health and his duties forbade the writing he would have enjoyed, and his literary remains consist of little more than a few pamphlets.

The bishop was a man of amazing endurance and in spite of burdens and infirmities lived to the age of seventy-four. He died on May 3, 1813 on the couch where his first wife had lain in death, and was buried in the new Grove Street Cemetery. When Ithiel Town's Gothic Trinity Church was completed soon after his death, his body was interred under the altar. He is commemorated by a memorial wall tablet, erected by his much beloved son, the Rev. Samuel Fanner Jarvis.

Following the death of Bishop Jarvis, the Annual Convention of the Diocese of Connecticut was unable to elect a new bishop. The Rt. Rev. Henry Hobart of New York served as bishop from 1813-1819 when Thomas Church Brownell was elected Diocesan.

Source: Burr, Nelson Rollin, The Story of the Diocese of Connecticut, a new branch on the vine. Hartford: Christian Missions Publishing Company, 1962. (Portrait from an engraving the Evergreen magazine, Vol. 3, 1846.)

To read original manuscripts of Jarvis sermons, visit http://anglicanhistory.org/usa/ajarvis/

Collection Summary:

Creator:  Jarvis, Abraham, 1739-1813  
Title and Citation:
Jarvis, Abraham, Rt. Rev., 1739-1813, Second Bishop of Connecticut. Courtesy of the Archives of the Episcopal Church in Connecticut
This series is part of Record Group 1: Diocesan Bishops (RG1-A2)
Dates:    1769-1814
Extent:   1.25 Cubic feet 93 folders, 2 bound publications
Language:  English
Formats:  Manuscripts, documents, publications, pictures, centennial book
Processed: The Rev. Canon Kenneth Walter Cameron

Collection Inventory: