When the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life ranked states using data from its comprehensive 2007 U.S. Religious Landscape Survey, only 57 percent of respondents from Connecticut and Rhode Island reported that they believed in God with “absolute certainty,” placing the states second-to-last in the country. Connecticut placed similarly low in all other rankings.
Today’s religious landscape is almost the complete opposite of what it was in the seventeenth century, when Connecticut was the quintessentially theocratic state. The Calvinists who founded the colony steeped their everyday lives in religiosity, and saw the tools of government as extensions of their god-given duty to secure religious purity in society. The Congregationalist Church was for more than a century the state-sanctioned religious institution; all other belief systems, including other sects of Protestant Christianity, were officially disenfranchised and unofficially derided as atheistic abominations.
Life in a theocracy could be difficult for those outside of the state church’s good graces. People who broke with the sanctioned practices of the official belief system would be ostracized by the community. They could find themselves unable to participate in civic life. They could even be prosecuted under statutes that enshrined religious intolerance.
The separation of church and state was incrementally accomplished over generations, often as a reaction to specific policies that negatively impacted Connecticut’s own residents.
‘By the lawe of God of this colony thou deservest to dye’
The New England Calvinists, who were consisted of two major groups called “puritans” and “pilgrims” (a reference to John Bunyan’s allegorical moralist tale, “The Pilgrim’s Progress’), were products of a Europe that had been torn apart a century earlier by some of the bloodiest sectarian wars the world has ever seen. Puritans, who founded Connecticut and eventually dominated New England, preferred to work for reform from within the British church system, and saw themselves as closely connected with the mother country. The pilgrims who formed the smaller Plymouth colony in present-day Massachusetts were separatists. Both sought to establish a society in America where they could practice their own brands of religious fundamentalism without interference.
The Puritans in Connecticut also believed in education. The most prominent among them were men versed in laws and letters. They and their Massachusetts Bay counterparts built the earliest colleges in the colonies. They kept an eye on the scientific revolution in Europe and the emerging value it placed on empiricism and induction.This led to some strange combinations of belief and skepticism.
Connecticut’s citizens thought that Satan had direct influence in the world, and that witches had gained supernatural powers by creating pacts with the evil being.
Connecticut’s government was at the forefront of witch persecution. Numerous trials took place in the state during the 1600’s, including the first recorded execution for witchcraft in the U.S. in 1647.
A state law making witchcraft a capital offense that was passed in 1642 explicitly referenced passages from the Bible: “If any man or woman be a witch, that is, hath or consulteth with a familiar spirit, they shall be put to death. Exodus xxii. 18. Levit. xx. 22. Deut. xviii. 10, n.”
By the end of the seventeenth century, however, colonial jurisprudential culture had shifted, placing a greater emphasis on evidence that made witch trials increasingly difficult to prosecute.
In 1692 – the same year as the famous Salem witch trials – a new wave of witchcraft accusations threatened the lives of several Fairfield County women.
The troubles began when Katherine Branch, a servant in the Stamford home of former selectman Daniel Wescot, started having epileptic-like “fits.” Wescot suspected Branch was possessed by witchcraft, and soon Branch began naming names: Elizabeth Clawson of Stamford. Mary and Hannah Harvey, Mary Staples, and Goody Miller, all of Fairfield. Finally, Mercy Disborough of Compo (now part of Westport). Several of the accused were known to have had rocky relationships with the Wescots.
The initial investigation called for a committee of five women to examine the accused for “devil’s marks.” These were marks supposedly placed on the witch’s body by Satan so that he could drink the witch’s blood. If a birthmark was considered suspicious, a pin would be stuck through it to see if it would bleed. If it didn’t, the woman might be a witch.
Clawson passed this first examination, but Disborough did not.
A special trial was set up on Sept. 14 in Fairfield. Bills of indictment against Clawson and Disborough were presented to a grand jury, while charges against the other women were dropped. Disborough’s indictment, transcribed by Secretary John Allyn, said she had “familiarity with satan the grand enemie of God & men & thes by his instigetion & help thou hast in a preternatutal way afflicted & don Harm to the bodyes & Estates of sundry of their Ma[jesties] subjects…for which by the lawe of God of this colony thou deservest to dye.”
Clawson and Disborough had both pleaded not guilty to the crime. To determine if they were actually witches, the jury needed more evidence. The accused women agreed to be tested by having their hands bound to their legs and being tossed into the water, the theory being that water would refuse to accept a witch. If they floated, it was evidence of guilt.
On Sept. 15, the two women were given the water test. According to Allyn’s notes, several witnesses testified that they both floated.
Meanwhile, a contingent of Clawson’s friends from Stamford rallied to her defense. Seventy-six people signed a letter vouching for Clawson’s good character.
The jury deliberated, but was unable to come to a conclusion in either case, and decided to send the case to the General Court in Hartford (then the state’s highest court).
The ministers of the court, who had plenty of experience with the prosecution of witches and were aware of the hysteria sweeping through Salem, were not convinced at all by the evidence. They returned their official opinion on Oct. 17 with four findings:
1. "The endeavor of conviction of witchcraft by swimming is unlawful and sinful, and therefore it cannot afford any evidence.”
2. "Unusual excrescences found upon their bodies ought not to be advanced as evidence against them without the approbation of some able physicians.”
3. "Respecting the evidence of the afflicted maid (the witness claimed to have been bewitched)…we cannot think her a sufficient witness; yet we think that her affliction being something strange, it well deserves a further inquiry.”
4. "As to the other strange accidents—as the dying of cattle, etc., we apprehend the applying of them to these women as matters of witchcraft to be upon very slender and uncertain grounds."
The General Court did not choose to question whether witches actually existed, but they did demand a higher standard of evidence than the trial in Fairfield had produced.
The group in Fairfield reconvened, and on Oct. 28, found Clawson innocent. Disborough, however, was convicted.
In the first half of 1693, petitioners on behalf of Disborough approached the General Court, calling the decision against her illegal. The Court appointed a commission consisting of Samuel Wyllys, William Pitkin, and Nathaniel Stanley to review the documents of the case.
The commission, reaffirming the General Court’s earlier skepticism, acquitted Disborough and decided that further witch trials should be avoided altogether. They cited the horror that had occurred in Massachusetts the year before, saying that the epidemic of litigations in Salem were “warning enof, those that wit make witchcraf t of such things wit make hanging work apace.”
No witches were convicted in Connecticut after that, though a few trials continued to take place until 1697. Many citizens still believed that witches walked among them, consorting with Satan and possessing children. The law against witchcraft was never repealed; instead, it was quietly expunged from later revisions of public acts.
Disborough escaped execution. She faded into relative obscurity, popping up only occasionally in public records from the early 1700’s. She had been subjected to dangerous and humiliating tests, put in jail and sentenced to death, but had narrowly managed to gain her freedom. In this early test of state-sanctioned religion, Connecticut had taken a small step toward reform.