On my way out of the stately 1851 First Congregational Church building on State Street in downtown New London, after a service Monday evening, I stopped to look at some of the likenesses of former ministers.
In the portraits that line the walls of the stone-floored vestibule, the former pastors look severe, some keepers of the faith in 19th century New London, leaders of the city's first church, a congregation dating to the 17th century.
I wondered, looking at the frowning countenances of some of these men, what they would have thought of the Monday night service, put on by revivalists from a church in Florida.
What, for instance, might have the Rev. Thomas Field, who served from 1856 to 1876, still pictured in the vestibule today with his stern frown and gray mutton chops, thought about a pastor in his church selling $1,000 iPods preloaded with gospel-related videos.
The pitch for the expensive iPods ("loaded with $4,000 worth of video programming" that would play for 19 days) was part of a sales pitch to the congregation of the Engaging Heaven church, which has become a tenant of the New London church, for all kinds of wares, books, albums, even self-help programs for getting out of debt.
The merchandise was all being sold off big tables set up in the back of the sanctuary of the magnificent stone church.
I don't know a lot of the New Testament, but the story of Jesus driving the money changers from the Temple came to mind when I heard the sales pitches Monday from the altar of the Congregational church.
Rev. Field's eyebrows also might have also gone up a bit, if you could have looked closely at his portrait, during a long sermon in Monday's service on the lessons of how to give generously to the church, no matter how little money you have, to help guarantee "inheritance for your children's children."
This sermon, with Gospel readings and references to Jesus, included a long anecdote from the pastor about a time he did a service in Boston and an unemployed woman who gave her last $25 immediately began to see miraculous returns, starting with $50 she found after the service under the wiper blades of her car.
The lesson of the sermon, that God will provide even if you give the church the last of your money, was followed by a distribution of donation envelopes, with forms to use for credit cards for one-time gifts or ongoing monthly payments.
The offering followed a show of hands in which almost everyone in the congregation said they are in financial distress.
The service Monday, complete with amplified live music and ushers in suits and ties, was part of a visit this week by preachers Rodney and Adonica Howard-Browne of Tampa, Fla., and their team, part of their Great Awakening tour.
The campaign here, including "soul-saving" ministries in the community in which they seek out people to make religious conversions, is sponsored by the Engaging Heaven church, which shares the historic stone building for separate Sunday services.
On Tuesday, when I reached Catherine Zall, pastor of First Congregational, she didn't want to talk on the record about the Great Awakening services, but she said the alliance with Engaging Heaven is a way to help pay the bills, since her congregation has only 20 members.
James Levesque, pastor of Engaging Heaven, took offense when I asked him Tuesday about the selling of merchandise in the church and the heavy handedness of the solicitations in Monday's service.
He said Howard-Browne, a personal friend, knows presidents and kings the world over and wouldn't have come to New London if he wanted to raise a lot of money. He added that Howard-Browne's church is generous, giving away money and even houses and cars to its members.
He said the campaign's visit to a city like New London costs about $75,000. The local church was not asked to pay any of those expenses but also does not receive any of the money given in the collections.
Levesque also bristled when I asked about Howard-Browne preaching Monday night that everything the United Nations does is bad and that people should write their congressmen and urge the defeat of measures like the Law of the Sea Treaty.
Internal Revenue Service rules prohibit nonprofits and churches from "urging the public to contact members or employees of a legislative body for the purpose of proposing, supporting or opposing legislation."
It sounded like that was what Howard-Browne was doing in the New London Congregational church Monday.
Levesque scoffed and said it was the preacher exercising his freedom of speech.
I suspect that Rev. Field, after stroking those long mutton chops, would not agree.
This is the opinion of David Collins