Part two of an occasional series. Read part one: Fairfield’s last witch trial.
The rise of Puritanism in England was from the beginning an attempt to reform the Church of England and disentangle it from the whims of the monarchy. Like Martin Luther during his protest against the Catholics in the 1500s, the Puritans felt that religious practices should be based primarily on the Bible; they sought to “purify” the church of bureaucracy and human fallibility.
To some extent, keeping the church pure required keeping it separate from government. Different groups of colonists disagreed over how exactly that should be accomplished.
A New View Of Church and State
The Rev. Thomas Hooker sparked one of those disagreements. He arrived in the thriving Massachusetts Bay Colony from Holland in 1633 after fleeing his native England, where he had been persecuted for his Puritan theology.
Hooker settled in what is today Cambridge, but quickly found himself at odds with the influential pastor John Cotton over rules determining suffrage. Before freemen could vote, they first had to be approved by the church hierarchy in Massachusetts Bay through a thorough interrogation of their religious experiences.
Hooker thought suffrage should be extended to all freemen.
He took his congregation south, founding Hartford in 1636. He gave numerous political sermons, expressing his view that “the foundation of authority is laid in the free consent of the people.”
Hooker’s sermons would become the basis for the Fundamental Orders, the 1639 document that established a framework for the colony’s government and has come to be recognized as one of the earliest constitutions in the world.
Just because there was an official distinction between church and state, however, did not mean the two were separate. Indeed, the entire reason for keeping them apart was to avoid sullying the church.
The government’s role was still ultimately a religious one: to produce and enforce rules that shaped society so it best reflected Biblical dictates. Though no individual church was in charge of the colony, Congregationalism was the government-sanctioned religion, and legislation was devised to protect that purity.
Along with the rule punishing witchcraft by death, the twelve Biblically inspired laws establishing capital offenses put on record in Connecticut in 1642 included other punishments for religious transgressions. The first two on the list said:
- “If any man or woman shall have or worship any God, but the true God, he shall be put to death. Deut. xiii. 6. xvii. 21. Exodus xxii. 2.”
- “If any person in this colony shall blaspheme the name of God the Father, Son or Holy Ghost, with direct, express, presumptuous or high-handed blasphemy, or shall curse in like manner, he shall be put to death. Levit. xxiv. 15, 16.”
According to Benjamin Trumbull’s 1898 “Complete History of Connecticut, Civil and Ecclesiastical,” lower courts around the colony had already been punishing unmarried adults who engaged in sexual relations or “wanton behavior” by fining the convicted parties, whipping them or forcing them to marry.
Trumbull writes that the General Court approved of these practices, “and authorised them [the lower courts], in future, to punish such delinquents by fines, by committing them to the house of correction, or by corporal punishment, at the discretion of the court.”
‘Odd Kind of Laws’
In practice, the attempt to keep Connecticut’s religious landscape pure could never fully succeed. Quakers almost immediately began settling in the area, forcing the colony to enact a number of laws during the 1600s to prevent the sect from gaining traction.
By the turn of the century, an even more worrisome development was taking shape just over the border in Rye, N.Y.
An Anglican missionary group called The Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts was set up in 1701 to provide English colonists with greater access to Episcopalian churches and services. Rye was chosen as a strategic entry point to Connecticut, where the group was especially interested in breaking the stranglehold that the Puritans had on religious life.
The Rev. George Muirson, who headed the Rye mission, took a trip in 1706 along the coast to the edge of the Housatonic River in Stratford, bringing along Col. Caleb Heathcote, an ardent Anglican living in Westchester. They reportedly baptized about 24 people for the church. Muirson and Heathcote were encouraged by this journey, and reported back to England that they expected to have success establishing new parishes in the communities.
They almost immediately ran into trouble, however. Heathcote derided Connecticut’s “odd kind of laws, to prevent any from dissenting from their church, and endeavor to keep the people in as much blindness and unacquaintedness with any other religion as possible….”
A year later, Muirson was invited by some of the people of Fairfield to preach there. He wrote after the trip that the people had been threatened with imprisonment and a fine of five pounds for coming to the sermon. He also noted that the Anglicans in Fairfield had been locked out of the meetinghouse to prevent them from holding services there, despite the fact that they had paid taxes for the building.
Progress came slowly. In Stratford, there were enough Anglicans to start their own church. In 1707, they elected a vestry (a committee that helps manage church affairs), thus making them the first organized Episcopalian group in the colony. They asked Muirson to settle with them in the town, but he died before being able to respond.
For the next decade, Connecticut Anglicans languished. Missionaries continued to travel through the area, winning over converts. But there were no ordained ministers residing in the colony, and no physical spaces in which Anglicans could meet.
Toleration Without Tolerance
In the meantime, the Puritans saw their vision for a religiously pure society unraveling. The Anglicans’ constant complaints to England concerned Connecticut officials for political reasons. They enjoyed the most autonomous government of all the colonies, having won virtual independence through the charter that King Charles II had awarded them in 1662. But they also knew independence could be reversed; it had almost happened in the 1680s, when a brief attempt by English authorities to set up a “Dominion of New England” brought an appointed governor named Edmund Andros to Hartford to take over from the colonists, resulting in the famed Charter Oak incident.
To relieve tensions with the crown, the General Assembly passed the Toleration Act of 1708, which ostensibly gave citizens the right to dissent from the Congregational church as long as they continued to pay taxes for its support.
In practice, though, the Toleration Act resulted in little tolerance. In 1721, the General Assembly passed a slew of laws to enforce the standards of the Congregational church and prevent other religious groups from gaining further ground. Citizens would be fined if they did not attend an approved church on Sundays. They would be fined if they traveled on Sunday to or from anywhere other than an approved church. They would be fined if they attended any unapproved public gatherings, including unapproved church services. They would be fined for making any kind of disturbance (including loud talking) near a place of worship.
These and related statutes essentially placed minority churches under the authority of the Congregational churches, because the Congregational churches controlled local elections, record-keeping and other aspects of law enforcement.
Nevertheless, the tide was turning. In 1722, Connecticut got its first resident Anglican minister. Rev. George Pigot came to the colony, settling in Stratford and splitting his time between that town and Fairfield. Several colonists opened their homes to fellow Anglicans for Pigot’s sermons. Their congregations continued to gain clout.
Despite the Tolerance Act, Pigot faced as much discrimination as Muirson and Heathcote had. In a letter to the Secretary of The Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts dated Oct. 3, 1722, Pigot wrote:
“I now inform you Sir of what obstructions I met with in my ministry, & they are several, viz.: that of Lieut. Governor Nathan Gold, who is a most inveterate slanderer of our Church, charging her with popery, apostacy, & atheism,—who makes it his business to hinder the conversion of all whom he can, by threatening them with his authority—& who as a judge of the court here, disfranchises men merely for being Churchmen…they have boldly usurped to themselves, & insultingly imposed on the necks of others, the power of taxing & disciplining all persons whatsoever, for the grandeur & support of their self-created ministers.”
In the same letter, Pigot reported on the greatest success – and controversy – his sect had seen so far.
The month before, he had been invited to New Haven by the rector at Yale College, Rev. Timothy Cutler. While there, Cutler and several other Yale clergy members declared that they had begun to doubt the validity of Congregational doctrine, and wanted to learn more about joining the Episcopacy.
It was the first time that members of the Puritan clergy had dared to defect. And what a defection! Cutler was one of the most prominent pastors in the colony, in the top position at Yale - the very institution built for training the colony’s Congregational ministers.
Later in October, Yale’s Board of Trustees voted to dismiss Cutler and his colleagues. The defectors didn’t mind – three intended to travel to England to receive ordination.
One of those men, the Guilford-born Rev. Dr. Samuel Johnson, would return from his trip overseas to Stratford in 1724, taking over for Pigot, who had moved on to Providence, R.I.
On Christmas day of that year, the Stratford Anglicans got the gift they had waited so many years for: a wooden structure that would come to be called Christ Episcopal Church was dedicated in the town, with Johnson as its resident priest. He led the parish for the next 39 years.
It would be another 60 years from the time Stratford’s church was built until the formal diocese would be set up in Hartford, and even longer before Congregationalism would lose its legal sway as the state-sanctioned religion. But one thing was for sure: the Anglicans were in Connecticut to stay.