History and Genealogy of the
Gov. John Webster Family of Connecticut
By William Holcomb Webster &
Rochester, New York
Gov. Webster's Position. - That John Webster was a man of influence and standing in the Hartford colony is obvious. When the colony was settled at Hartford, a Board of Commissioners from Massachusetts governed the new towns, but a meeting of all the freemen of Hartford, Windsor and Wethersfleld, held Jan. 14, 1639, adopted a written constitution, - "the first written constitution known to history, that created a government." (Fisk, "Beginnings of New England," p. 127.) From that time to 1659 he was chosen to office; from 1639 to 1655, as magistrate, or judge: 1655, deputy governor; 1656 governor: and the three following years, first magistrate, or chief judge. Hinman in his "First Puritan Settlers of Connecticut," says that John Webster's first appearance as an officer of the Court was in April 1637, when he was a member of a committee who for the first time sat with the court of Magistrates for the purpose of declaring war against the Pequot Indians. That same year he was elected to the general court, and also elected as one of the deputy commissioners in 1638. Then followed his election to the court of magistrates at the first general court holden by Gov. Haynes in April 1639 as aforesaid.
His sessions of court held are summarized as follows: 1639, four sessions of the general court; 1640, three; 1641, four; 1642, three; 1643, five; 1644, five; 1645, five; and of the particular court, 1639, five; 1640, four; 1641, two; 1642, two; 1643, six; 1644, five; 1645, six; 1646, four.
In 1640 he was appointed with Mr. Ludlow and Gov. Welles to consult with friends in New Haven respecting Indian murders which had been committed, to learn of them whether they would approve a decree of war. With William Phelps he was appointed to form law against lying, and to hold consultation with elders on the subject. He was also a member of a committee with William Phelps who formed a noted criminal code of laws for the colony; reported and approved by the General Court in. 1642, several of which remain on the statute book unto this day, with little alteration except in punishment. In 1654 he was appointed a member of the Congress of the united Colonies with Maj. Gen. Mason. He was the first of his name in this country who gave high character for talent in the name of Webster.
Gov Webster's Public Services - Benjamin Trumbull gives the following summary of his public services: "For twenty years Mr. John Webster had been annually chosen into the magistracy of Connecticut, being elected Governor in 1656. At the election in Hartford, May 17th, 1655, Thomas Welles was elected Governor and John Webster Deputy Governor. At the election in 1656 John Webster was elected Governor and Thomas Welles Deputy Governor.
At the election in 1657 John Winthrop was elected Governor Thomas Welles Deputy Governor, and John Webster Chief Magistrate. This alternating was not a freak of voting, but arose from the law which permitted a governor to hold his office (until after 1660) only one out of two years.
Out of the one hundred and fifty-three original settlers of Hartford, only ten gentlemen besides himself were honored with the imposing prefix Mr. The ordinary title was Goodman or Goodwife, sometimes Goodwoman, and often Goody, or Neighbor. Only men of means and rank in the Colony who had come from England were looked up to with awe and without familiarity, such as clergymen, magistrates, doctors, schoolmasters, and those freemen who had received a second degree at college; eminent merchants, military captains, captains of vessels, and sometimes the mates, were addressed as Mr. and their wives as Mrs.
One has well said of him: "Prior to his election as Governor he was frequently directed by the General Court to decide controversies about boundaries, or arbitrating on lands, distributing estates, auditing the accounts of the treasure and answering petitions. In 1639 he was one of a committee appointed to confer with New Haven in relation to the murderous attacks from the Indians at Middletown, and he bore the banner of war against the haughty and insulting Sowheag, when our sister of Quinnipiac (New Haven) turned her face from it, and her milder counsel prevailed. Ten years later, 1649, the New England Congress employed him "to set forth on the towns" soldiers and ammunition for an expedition against the Indians. At other times he was chosen "to press men and ammunition" or appointed one of the officers with whom the constables of each town were to take advise in the pressing of men" In 1654 he with others was appointed by the General Court to examine and arrange "all particular and several charges of the late war (with the Narragansetts) and for the support of Uncas," of which charges they directed that they should cause the constables of Hartford to bring in a full account. When it was determined to provide a frigate of ten or twelve guns to defend the coast of Long Island, against the Dutch and Ninigrate, Mr. Webster was one of the Committee "to treat with the owners of the frigate, and agree with them for the use of the same." Likewise in the matter of the agreement with Mr. Fenwick and the impost duty at the mouth of the river, he was frequently called to act, and also to license the exportation of provisions in times of scarcity. He made journeys as magistrate to the seaside and elsewhere to administer justice. He was employed in drawing up correspondence with friends of the Colony in England. He surveyed the highway from Hartford to Windsor, and overlooked its "amendment." He was one of the Committee which purchased and disposed of Simsbury. Abstracts for grievan ces to be presented to the New England Congress for its deliberation were at times drawn up by him. The New England Congress of 1654 had before it a new expedition against Ninigrate; the difficulties of New Haven with Delaware Bay; plans for "the better passage of the gospel among the Indians;" for the education of some of the Indians at Cambridge College, including the extension and repair of the buildings of the institution, and he with his fellow-members dealt with these early problems of the infant state. To the several letters and sets of instructions growing out of these deliberations, the name of John Webster is in every instance signed, as also to the Swedish Governor of Delaware Bay, which was written in Latin.
The Office of Governor. - It is of interest to know that the office of Governor which John Webster reached had some pecularities not existent now. He had not only to be a freeman, but must have been previously a magistrate, and always a member of some "appointed congregation." His election by ballot was by the greatest number of votes, cast by all who had been admitted freemen and had taken the oath of fidelity, and who "did cohabit with this jurisdiction," the vote being taken the second Thursday in April each year. The convention for this purpose was held in Hartford. The General Court was in session in at the same time to choose one or more persons to tell the voters who were sworn "to be faithful therein." Immediately upon his election the Governor-elect appeared before the General Assembly and took the oath of office "by the great and dreadful name of the everliving God to promote the public good and peace of this jurisdiction according to the best of my skill, and will also maintain all lawful privileges of this Commonwealth, and also that all wholesome laws that are or shall be made by lawful authority here established, be duly executed according to the rule of God's word, so help me God: In the name of the Lord Jesus Christ."
Duties of Governor. - His duties were manifold. Through the constables of each town, by himself or his secretary, he called the two General Assemblies. Special meetings might be called upon the advice and with the special consent of a majority of the magistrates, "within fourteen days warning," or shorter notice if necessary, the reasons to be stated in his warrant. When in session the Governor presided over the General Assembly, all the branches sitting in one body. He had power to order the court to give liberty of speech, and to silence unreasonable and disorderly speakings. He put the motions and in case the vote was equal he cast the deciding vote. The Governor was also a magistrate and held with his colleagues, Particular Courts over which he presided, now in one place and then at another. He managed the chief correspondence of the Colony, served as one of the Commissioners of the United Colonies, acted on important committees, and acted as principal adviser in all emergencies. For this Gov. Webster received the munificent sum of 30 pounds a year, this salary having been established in 1647, prior to which time there was no pecuniary compensation, and this was the first office to receive compensation in the Colony.
His Church Relationships. - The First Church of Hartford justly stands in the forefront as one of the historic churches of New England. Founded by the learned and beloved Rev. Thomas Hooker who led in person the church through the wilderness from Cambridge to Hartford, he left the stamp and impress of his great personality and teachings upon them when, in 1647, eleven years after their arrival, he passed away. With the most judicious management such a crisis, would not be easily passed, but when Rev. Samuel Stone the assistant assumed the pastorate with some innovations, some deviation in doctrines, and a new bent in ecclesiastical preceedure, it is not surprising that others were quick to resent it, and the little fire of controversy rose to a great conflagration. Out of the imperfect records of the time it is difficult to determine the exact cause or causes of the controversy. It probably involved some questions of church order. Mr. Stone stood for "a speaking aristocracy in the face of a silent democracy."
A minister had spent some time in Hartford, and preached on several occasions. It was deemed by many to be wise and courteous to put to vote the question of his call to the pastorate. This Mr. Stone would not allow, and this he acknowledges in a paper drawn up in 1657, and conceeds that the brethren had the right or liberty to have done what he did not permit, and "that he ought to have left the church to their liberty in voting." William Goodwin was the Ruling Elder, the Moderator at church meetings which it was his duty to call and dismiss; to prepare business for action of the church, superintend the conduct of members, and preach in the absence of the pastor or teacher. (2d Church, p. 17.) In these duties or many of them he was probably thwarted by Mr. Stone the acting pastor, and both being determined men the "conflict between opposite principles of ecclesiastical order," as Dr. Leonard Bacon described it, waxed hot. To this was added a growing demand for an enlargement of baptismal privileges. As taught by Hooker, and original Congregationalism in N. E. only children of members in full communion were proper subjects of baptism, but Mr. Stone espoused the idea of extending the privilege to those outside the communion, and also to extend the voting privilege to non-communicants. (2d Church. p. 20, p. 33. p. 34.) These views leading to sharp attrition, a ukase was agreed upon and a council was convened in Hartford in June, 1656. The petition for the council was signed by George Steele, Ozias Goodwin, Will Partrigg, John Marsh, Isaac Graves, Benjamin Harbert, William Leawis, Thomas Bunc, John Webster, John Cullick, Nathaniel Ward, Andrew Bacon, Andrew Warner, John White, John Crow, Thomas Standley, John Barnard, Gregory Woolterton, John Arnold, Zachary Fild, Richard Church. The Council was composed of ministers from the Connecticut churches with one or two from the New Haven Colony. (2d Church p. 26 pp. 23, 24, 23.) They decided that mutual satisfaction should be given on both sides, each to the other, that in case further differences arose and the dissenting brethren should desire dismission the church should grant it. "A substantial vindication of the minority as against the arbitrary procedures of Mr. Stone and the church." (2d Church, p. 26.) But Mr. Stone and the church refused to be bound by the findings of the council and matters grew worse. All New England soon became involved. Mr. Stone visited Boston and promoted a movement for a new Council. The General Court of Connecticut favored it. Gov. Webster, Cap. Cullick and Mr. Steele opposed it, pointing to the previous Council which Mr. Stone had disregarded, and objecting to legislative interference in the case. In a letter to Mr. Stone and the church they declined the suggestion of a new Council. (p. 29.) The following year, 1657, in April and a few days in May the council was held in Hartford with no result. The minority participated in the proceedings, holding however that all were bound by the first council. The pacification did not last and the minority demanded their dismission which was not granted and they formally withdrew, seeking admission to the church at Wethersfield, and sending to other churches their reasons for separation and this letter was read in some of the churches. For reading this and another paper the pastors were haled into court, among them Roger Newton of Farmington, and his wife, a daughter of the lamented Thomas Hooker, "to answer for the crime of publicly reading the communication addressed to the churches by the withdrawers who could get no other hearing?' (p. 37,) The subscribers themselves went before the Governor and his Deputy and declared that Mr. Stone would allow them no hearing in the church, and the Court would not permit them to make proof on oath of the particulars alleged by them. The General Court ordered xxx things, granting in the month of May, 1658, permission for withdrawers to settle up the river near Hadley, on condition they should submit to an orderly hearing of the differences between themselves and their brethen. They accepted, the church declined, and the court, acting for the church selected referees. It came to nought however by fault of the church. In March, 1659, the court renewed its effort, but the churches refused to attend this "court-created council." Renewed again, June 15, 1659, the withdrawing party was required to submit, and the church agreed to. The withdrawers said, "of our free choice we are not at all interested in the council now chosen." A month earlier they had signed an agreement to remove to Massachusetts (p. 40.). The council met in Boston, Sep. 26, 1659, reviewed the case, distributed its mild censures and counselled that those disposed to go elsewhere be given dismission. They found too much evidence of Mr. Stone's rigid handling of adverse brethren, particularly specifying Honored Mr. Webster and Brother Bacon. (1st Ch. p. 173.) "The weight of right and justice," says the historian of the First church, "was with the defeated and emigrating minority." "Their ideas and principles finally triumphed, not only in a separate organization, but in the mother-church as well, and in the Congregational churches of the country. For it is the congregationalism of Thomas Hooker, and not of Samuel Stone, that flourishes in our own age." (2d Church, p. 42.)
In this lamentable controversy Mr. Webster took an honorable and dignified part, revealing in the papers extant always the spirit of the gentleman and christian that he was.
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