The stories behind the origins of Warwick’s houses of worship are as varied as the number of denominations that are in the city. Many trace their history to the Colonial Period and the spirit of discontent in the 17th century, which brought many from England, France and Boston. Others can trace their origins back to the type of worship they were used to in their homelands. Still others, such as Hillsgrove United Methodist Church, owe their beginnings to the paternalistic mill villages of the 19th century.
This, in itself, is significant from both a spiritual and historical perspective. A look at Hillsgrove Methodist Church gives us an insight into the philosophy as well as the economic aspect of life in the Warwick mill villages. The Hillsgrove village owed its existence to Thomas Jefferson Hill, the owner of the Malleable Iron Works (1867) and the Elizabeth Mill (1875). Most of all the residents of the village worked in Mr. Hill’s mills. This was a time of “paternalism” throughout Rhode Island, and Hill’s Grove was a typical village of the area. In order to attract workers, the philosophy of the times believed it was necessary to provide the workers with adequate housing, stores and community services. Most believed that the mill owner was not only obligated to provide these services, but that he should give direction for the social and moral care of his operatives. Mill owners should direct the mill workers much as a father would direct his children, hence the term “paternalism.”
This type of village rule was profitable for the owners, for in providing housing entire families could be utilized to work in the mills. Women and children could perform many of the tasks and most often were hired for very low wages. Discipline and control by the factory managers became easy, as the behavior pattern of any family member reflected upon all. Jobs, housing and general well-being of workers depended upon cooperation with the superintendent and mill “bosses.”
Rent for the worker’s house was often deducted from his wages, and mill maintenance crews could be used to repair, paint and build when work at the mill was slow. In addition, workers often found that the company store was the most practical place to purchase their goods as transportation was difficult and credit at the store was available.
In addition to the influence the company had over the workers economically by controlling employment, housing and food, many mill owners and superintendents controlled the workers political, social and, to some degree, their moral and religious lives. In Hillsgrove, Thomas J. Hill and his superintendent, William G. James, were responsible for the success of a temperance society in the village and for creating a Methodist church, which still stands on Kilvert Street. Hill and his followers were well aware that the church was of prime importance in any mill village.
They realized that supporting the local church was a sound investment, as it brought stability and order to the village and fostered a sense of well-being and pride. In addition, the church promoted social activities as well as meeting the moral and religious needs of its congregation.
The United Methodist Church on Kilvert Street traces its origins to 1876, shortly after the Elizabeth Mill was erected. The number of villagers by this time had grown and many of them met in the schoolhouse Hill had erected a few years earlier. Hill allowed the group to meet on the second floor of the building to conduct services and to organize Sabbath school.
This early school was called “The Hill’s Grove Union Evangelical Sunday School” and within a few years became affiliated with the East Greenwich Methodist Episcopal Church.
The stories of Hillsgrove Methodist Church will be continued.