The collection of letters at the Barnes Museum is unique. One of the most interesting segments of the collection involves missionary work and Benevolent Societies. There is a good deal of information about the family’s role in the community through their faithful worship and attendance at Southington’s First Congregational Church. There are several letters about the family’s involvement in these societies. One letter was to Bradley Barnes to attend a meeting at the family’s church (First Congregational Church) just down the road from the Barnes family home. This letter (circa 1910) is an invitation to help organize a new society for the improvement of others.
In the 1830’s article entitle d Another View of What Southington Needs Most a benevolent spirit and attitude among Southington, CT citizens is described as the result of having a friendly attitude to each other and strangers. It says the citizens of Southington “should have feelings of bettering their condition and…to realize all of the advantages of the town – and that unity produces opportunity, prosperity, growth, strength, happiness, health, and an endless number of advantages.”1 It was believed that this public spirit of interest combined with compassion and encouragement, would help make the town of Southington a leader when it came to helping others and forming benevolent missions or societies.
Benevolent societies were focused on social reform in 1800’s post-Civil War America through the means of Christianity. They were dedicated to various causes including the temperance movement, the prison system, educational reform, and labor laws. These societies wanted to put an end to corporal punishment in schools, and give teachers stronger training and better curriculum choices. They wanted to stop gambling, prostitution, and pushed for the establishment of Blue Laws to stop non-religious activities on Sundays including working and shopping. Societies built orphanages, established childcare programs, and started career placement services for the poor.
The benevolent societies were voluntary and often interdenominational. In practice, however, these societies were mainly established and funded by Congregationalists, evangelical Episcopalians, and New School Presbyterians. These societies were organized with a board of directors that provided national leadership and various branches spread throughout the country. These chapters or branches saw to it that the goals of the society were carried out. Annual meetings were held by a Board of Directors.
The first benevolent society of Southington’s First Congregational Church was the Ladies Sewing Society, established in 1849, its goal was to promote benevolent relief and provide the necessities of life. This society was even more unique because men were allowed to join by paying annual dues of 25 cents. They were obviously a minority and never held offices in the society. The society began by making quilts and to help pay for new carpeting for the church. 2
They packed missionary boxes when they met every two weeks at the homes of different members. On December 28, 1859, the society began meeting both afternoons and evenings in the upper room of the Academy building in the rear of the church. Later the group changed its name to the Congregational Sewing Society, and in 1885 a vote was held to change the name again to the Ladies Aid Society. In addition to quilting, the work now included making clothes for missions and hosting dinners. They started a fund to purchase an organ, lamps, and linens for the church. Carpentry work, painting and interior decorating were all paid for through the work of this society. A telephone was installed in 1890, as well as a water motor for $125.
During World War I, the ladies helped the war effort by working with the Red Cross, sewing hems for soldiers and servicemen. This society eventually became known as the Women’s Association of the First Congregational Church. This organization consisted of four groups, each with a variety of interests and responsibilities that made great contributions to the Christian World Mission. 3 Missionaries from the church traveled to Hawaii and the Philippines. Stateside, the Women’s Association helped a poor family with food and clothing in Mississippi.
Reverend Elisha Cowles Jones served the church from 1837 until 1872 and was its fifth pastor. He was involved in the spirited debate centered around the temperance movement. Several parishioners were both manufacturers of liquor and involved in selling it. Yet others believed in temperance or complete abstinence, including not wanting to use real wine for communion. The issue was decided by Reverend Jones in a powerful sermon that was both honest and logical.
The Barnes family received many offers to help benevolent causes and events. Museum paperwork from the year of 1913 shows requests for either direct donations or information; and for direction in helping the poor and others on hard times. One of these charities was the Lord’s Day League of New England, whose objective was to maintain the observance of Sunday, as a day of civil rest and religious observance, not one of business and pleasure. It did this through printed instruction, through instruction from the pulpit, education in the moral code of the day, enforcement of the Sunday Laws, and securing better legislation for working people. 5
In the interest of Sabbath Reform, this organization promoted educational, legal, and legislative work to close theatres and sporting events in Massachusetts and New England. Work on roads, buildings, stores, factories, saloons, post offices, and gambling resorts ended. They helped to defeat more than one-hundred Sunday bills legalizing baseball and other public games or sports. 6
Another document states that “one touch of nature makes the whole world kin.”7 This was The Citizens’ Relief Letter, and it concerned the flood of March 25, 1913, in Hamilton, Ohio. Requests were made to help rebuild the city, help people rebuild their businesses, restore their manufacturing plants, supply store merchants, and help put working people back to work.
One of the most interesting letters was from The Charity Organization Society. This letter written in 1914, was regarding well-being of Mrs. Agatha Hayes who was employed by Barnes family as a general housekeeper during the summer of 1912. After her husband died in 1901, she and her only son, John James were on hard times. The letter requested information regarding relatives or family of Mrs. Hayes, inquired about her work ability and referenced her character. This letter was answered om January 16, 1914. One particularly humorous letter/poem asking for donations to build a recreational room for boys in the First Congregational Church basement. The poem reads:
We’ll greet you all with great delight
At a birthday socialization Friday Night
This little bag of dainty hue, you are kindly asked to bring with you
In it you’ll place (t’will surely hold)
As many pennies as you’re years old
Its use is for our dear church, for a better object you will have to search
Its weak foundations we must strengthen,
Its life and usefulness to lengthen.
They too, our boys must have a room,
They can call their very own
Beneath the church such a room we’ve planned,
To meet this need in great demand
Where hearty, healthy happy boys
May exercise and make a noise
So, send your bag if you cannot come
And help us raise the needed sum. 9
(Mrs. Paul C. Woodruff – April 4, 1913)
Louise C. McKinney is a Ph.D. Candidate at Liberty University in Lynchburg, VA. She completed this research as part of her internship with the museum in the Fall of 2021.