It was in the early days of the Revolution and Litchfield County was thoroughly patriotic. The young graduate with several of his classmates was eager to enter the army. Circumstances, however, compelled Mr. Ashbel Baldwin to accept a private tutorship, as have many other of Yale’s brightest men. He was pleasantly situated in a delightful home in Dutchess County, New York, near the Hudson River. The family were members of the Church of England. It was at that time customary for the tutors in the old colonial families to conduct the family worship, and when the house was remote from church to read the service and a sermon to the household and neighbors. When called upon for this duty, Mr. Baldwin, who had been brought up a strict Congregationalist, was perplexed, for his ignorance of the Prayer Book was profound. A friendly gardener on the place, whom he consulted, made him familiar with the Book. He then read the service with fervor and intelligence. From admiration of the pure English and devotional fervor of the prayers he advanced to a belief in the doctrines expressed in the Prayer Book. By study and examination, he became thoroughly convinced that the Church of England was a pure branch of the Catholic Church of Christ, and conformed to it.
At the close of his tutorship, about 1778, he secured a position as quartermaster in the commissary department of the Connecticut line of the Continental army, and was stationed at Litchfield in charge of a large depot of stores, many of which had been surrendered at Saratoga by General Burgoyne. Much to his regret, he could not engage in active service, as imprudence in swimming when a boy had brought on a permanent lameness and shortening of one of his legs.
In May of 1781, Brother Ashbel Baldwin presented a petition to the Massachusetts Grand Lodge signed by himself and other Masons from Litchfield who were affiliated with other lodges. There were fourteen signatures in all. After due consideration by Massachusetts Grand Lodge, the charter was granted and duly signed by Grand Master Joseph Webb and other officers including Paul Revere, whose signature is still legible on the original Charter. There being no postal service as such, the Charter and other pertinent documents were sent to Litchfield by special messenger, who arrived in Litchfield on June 10, 1781. On June 13, the first meeting of St. Paul’s Lodge No. 16 was held with Ashbel Baldwin as Master.
His studies for the ministry were probably pursued by himself with the advice of his friend and neighbor, the Rev. Richard Clarke of New Milford.
He was in attendance as a spectator at the convocation of the clergy at Woodbury, on the feast of the Annunciation, 1783, when the first Bishop of Connecticut was chosen. During the absence of the incumbent, the Rev. James Nichols, in other part of his mission, Mr. Baldwin read the service at Litchfield. When Mr. Nichols removed to Sandgate, Vermont, Mr. Baldwin was invited to take charge as lay reader. A parish by the name of Saint Michael’s Church, Litchfield, was incorporated under the state law in October, 1784.
Mr. Baldwin was invited by representatives of St. John’s, North Guilford, and Christ Church, Guilford, in November, 1784, to take the lay readership in those parishes at a salary of eighty pounds, Connecticut currency, which was then equal to forty pounds sterling, and the rectorship when ordained. As he had already commenced his work at Litchfield, he felt obliged to decline.
At the first ordination by Bishop Seabury in Christ Church, Middletown, on August 3, 1785, he, with three others, was made deacon. He was ordained priest in Trinity Church, New Haven, on September 18, 1785, by the same Bishop.
He immediately entered upon the rectorship of St. Michael’s, Litchfield.
His work was well planned and carefully carried out, both in the parish and county. He went all over the beautiful hills of Litchfield County reviving the courage of neglected and depressed Church folk. He saw that closed churches were opened, officiated in them himself, and, whenever possible, had the parochial organization completed and clergymen provided for them.
With sound wisdom he continued the excellent work of those ardent missionaries, Solomon Palmer, Thomas Davies, and Richard Clarke.
In 1793 he became Rector of Christ Church, Stratford, and spent thirty years of faithful service in that parish, adding to his labors some successful missionary effort in the surrounding region. For many years he took charge of Christ Church, Tashua, which as North Stratford had once been part of the mother parish. As Mr. Baldwin grew older he felt that the work of the parish needed a younger man, and in 1824 he resigned.
But to one full of energy, although verging on old age, idleness was impossible, and Mr. Baldwin began to officiate at Southington and Meriden, where the Church was beginning to make progress. These places quickly felt the benefit of his ministrations.
In 1827 he took charge of St. John’s, North Haven, and St. Paul’s, Wallingford. After five years of gratifying prosperity for these ancient parishes, he accepted temporarily the rectorship of St. Peter’s, Oxford, and Christ Church, Quaker Farms. Here amid rural and pleasant surroundings, he spent two years. In 1834 he found that his eyesight was failing and other marks of old age were so apparent that work for him must cease. For a few years after his resignation he lived in New Haven, Bridgeport, and Stratford.
To the Convention of the Diocese in 1837 Mr. Baldwin sent a touching and pathetic letter, resigning his office as trustee of the Episcopal Academy, in which he graphically contrasted the condition of the Church in Connecticut when he was ordained and its rapid progress in fifty-two years. “My days of pilgrimage, I how, are almost closed, and I can do no more than to be in readiness by the grace of God to leave the Church Militant in peace. May I be permitted, Sir, to ask the prayers of my Bishop and his clergy that my last days may be happy?”
His closing years were spent in the family of an old friend who had removed from Connecticut to Rochester, New York, and who gladly made cheerful for him the weary hours of inaction. He ended his earthly life on Sunday, February 8, 1846, having nearly reached the age of eighty-nine years. Mr. Baldwin had a clear and logical mind. He was a ready speaker and could put into writing important papers, resolutions, or debates, with accurate rapidity. This made his service as secretary of the Convocation, as secretary of the Convention of the Diocese for thirty years, and as secretary of the House of Clerical and Lay Deputies of the General Convention for twelve years, invaluable.
Mr. Baldwin held nearly every position in the gift of the Diocese and filled each with efficiency and dignity.
At the time of his death he was the oldest clergyman of the American Church and the oldest graduate of Yale College.
Hooper, Joseph, ed. “The Records of Convocation, A.D. 1790-A.D. 1848” (New Haven: Printed for the Convention, 1904) pp. 133-135
Pruner, A. William “The History of Saint Paul’s Lodge No. 11, F. & A.M. Litchfield, Connecticut 1781-1931” (Hartford, CT: Finlay Brothers, 1932) frontispiece