1822 – The Second Awakening and a Bolton Tragedy

by Hans DePold, town historian
(Published in the Bolton Community News, April 2004)

Caregivers, doctors, nurses, and pastors are most exposed to illness today just as they were in the past. In the early 1800s, the cause of typhus was unknown and after someone died his or her clothes and bedding were often burned. In one small European country, 40 percent of the doctors died while trying to contain an outbreak of typhus. In some cases even the victim's house was burned afterwards.

In the early 1800s, Asahel Nettleton began the Second Great Awakening here in Connecticut. His classmate at Yale, Philander Parmele, was his best friend through life and became the fifth Congregational Church pastor of Bolton. While in college, Yale President Timothy Dwight, the grandson of Jonathan Edwards, took note of Nettleton and remarked, "He will make one of the most useful men this country has ever seen." [1]

While the intellectual Jonathan Edwards had started First Great Awakening, Asahel Nettleton began the type of revival that we see today. He was often invited to speak to congregations, where his probing questions left people wondering how he knew their very deepest secrets and he left them worrying that they had condemned themselves. Townwide revivals usually followed him. He was so carefully studied and well imitated by some of his peers that he has been largely forgotten while his best imitators are still remembered.

In a personal letter to Philander Parmele dated August 4, 1815, Nettleton recounted what happened when he spoke at a local school for girls in New Haven. "For three days the distress of some was overwhelming. On the fourth day four were rejoicing. On the fifth day eleven more were rejoicing. From that time the work has been gradually spreading through the town... Within about four weeks upwards of 50 have entertained hope in this place." [2]

Similarly he wrote to Pastor Parmele from Middletown on December 1, 1817, "They [the people at his meeting] left the house and went home sighing & sobbing in every direction. I came home & found a number around the door of Mr. Williams' house, in the most awful distress, some were standing, some sitting on the ground, & some on the door steps exclaiming 'What shall I do? I shall die. I shall die. I can't live.!' Within a few days 8 or 10 are rejoicing in hope. What will be the end, I know not. Do pray for us, and your friend, A. Nettleton."

In early October of 1822, Nettleton visited a family in Wilbraham, Mass., where he contracted typhus fever. His friend Philander Parmele and wife Abigail took him in and nursed him in Bolton, Connecticut in the original parish house in which General Washington had dined and Rochambeau had slept just 41 years earlier. By December Nettleton began to recover, only to discover that his kind and loving hosts, the Parmeles, had contracted the disease themselves. Abigail recovered but Rev. Philander succumbed to the disease on December 27. That broke Nettleton's heart, and he described that time as the most trying of his life. It was two years before he could resume his work. He was never the same and his imitators were by then everywhere.

(Addendum January 2008) The records indicate that Abigail remained in the original Bolton colonial house for a while and then it was abandoned for a few years, probably to destroy the agents that spread typhus. The typhus incident was lost from Bolton memory and later modifications done by the Sumner family led to a mistaken belief that the house had been destroyed and rebuilt in the Federalist style on the same foundation. Robert Foley, Preservation Director for the Newport Restoration Foundation, visited the house in the fall of 2007 and concluded from the exposed attic timbers that the attic is the original colonial attic dating back to before the American Revolution.

[1] John F. Thornbury. God Sent Revival. Durham, England: Evangelical Press, 1977.

[2] Letters to Philander Parmele, August 4, 1815 and December 1, 1817. Nettleton Manuscript Collection, Hartford Seminary Foundation.

See also: https://web.archive.org/web/20080725073149/http://www.ccwonline.org/anett.html