Connecticut History on the Web 

Teacher Guide


Dissenters and the Standing Order

The Fight for Religious Toleration in Connecticut

by Mark Williams 







This guide contains the following sections. You may move directly to each section by clicking on the section's name, or scroll down through the guide from beginning to end. If you have not done so already, please read the General Introduction for the Teacher which discusses the philosophy behind these teaching units.

Unit Overview

Historical Background






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This site was created by Mark Williams, a history teacher at The Loomis Chaffee School, Windsor, Connecticut, under a grant from the Connecticut Humanities Council. Some of the materials published here were originally created by Mark Williams as Connecticut Case Studies, under a grant from the Connecticut Humanities Council, and printed by the Hartford Steam Boiler Inspection and Insurance Company. John F. Sutherland of Manchester Community College, Ronald P. Dufour of Rhode Island College, Thomas P. Weinland of the University of Connecticut, Tracey Wilson of Conard High School, Robert K. Andrian of The Loomis Chaffee School, and State Historian Christopher Collier served as consultants. The Connecticut Humanities Council is the State Committee of the National Endowment for the Humanities. The viewpoints or recommendations expressed in the materials on this site of are not necessarily those of the Council or the Endowment. Teachers are encouraged to print and make copies of these materials for their students.

Unit Overview


Students discuss Connecticut's religious establishment from the point of view of four pamphleteers of the late 1790s/early 1800s, and then study documents which provide clues about how religious toleration and religious diversity developed by 1818 in Connecticut. These materials also help students understand how Connecticut politicians fit into the national political party system, and how the ideology of republicanism was shaped by local politics as well as national issues.

State Standards Addressed

St.1: see national standards on historical thinking below
St.2: Local and state hist./US and World: see national standards for particular eras below
St.3: religious beliefs, conflict, conflict resolution
St.4: decision making, empathy
see also Civics standard 5: conflicts over constitutional principles

National Standards Addressed (from the National Standards for History: Basic Edition)

Historical thinking: 1. questioning and hypothesizing 2. comprehension, 3. analysis and interpretation, 4. research, 5. decision making

U.S. History: Era 3: St. 2C: impact of Revolution; 3B: Bill of Rights; 3D first party system; Era 4: Standard 3 political democracy

(Note: the continuing growth of religious diversity and religious liberty is not addressed as fully as it ought to be in the National History Standards. The impact of the Second Great Awakening, as well as the disestablishment of the remaining established churches are important for the understanding of American social history from 1790 to 1830.]

Activity Types

primary source analysis
secondary source reading
writing summaries of events
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Historical Background

On April 19, 1939, the state of Connecticut ratified the first ten Amendments to the Constitution of the United States. The reasons this accomplishment required 150 years are many, mostly amusing to today's history teacher. In the early days of the republic, however, two of Connecticut's (and the nation's) foremost teachers, Noah Webster and Timothy Dwight, were among those who opposed a bill of rights - and, in fact, where Connecticut was concerned, they could not even be bothered with a written constitution! It was not until 1818, the year after Dwight's death, that the people of Connecticut ratified their first written Constitution as an independent state. For Webster and Dwight, living at the time of the "The Terror" of the French Revolution and the ascendancy of the "licentious" Thomas Jefferson to the presidency, dangerous trends were in the making. Religion, morality and civilization itself were on the decline world-wide, and they and others of Connecticut's Standing Order set about to turn the course of America.

Leaders in Connecticut initially opposed a Bill of Rights on the grounds that, as Roger Sherman and Oliver Ellsworth had argued during the late 1780's, the states themselves would protect individuals against potential tyranny in the national government, and that a written Bill of Rights might imply that only enumerated rights were protected. According to their rationale, the Constitution of the United States should rather be viewed as a document in which the people gave up a few of their prerogatives, and retained all the others. It was not until after the execution of Louis XVI and the subsequent reign of terror, that new dimensions of conservatism crept into their political philosophy. The version of republicanism they espoused then came to include a limited franchise, deference to the "meritocracy," respect for long established institutions, and a state-supported church.

That last tenet of their ideology is probably what made them most concerned about the Bill of Rights, for the very first clause of the First Amendment insisted that Congress could not legislate religion. New England conservatives believed at the time that those who supported the Bill of Rights most fervently included deists, apologists for the French Revolution, and raving democrats. The association was plain: guaranteed written rights were the work of immoral demagogues whose success would mean the demise of the republic. As Baptists, with the support of the state's fledgling Republican Party, began to petition for religious toleration and a written constitution between 1802 and 1804, the Standing Order unleashed a barrage of editorials and essays condemning these seemingly Liberty-loving goals as the aims of Satan.

Nevertheless, inside of two decades of the framing of the Bill of Rights, in 1818, Connecticut itself, in spite of the fears of its great leaders, wrote a new constitution, a principal feature of which was to disestablish the state supported Congregational church and guarantee "the free exercise" of any Christian religion. This unit of Connecticut Case Studies contains materials with which students may analyze the dispute in Connecticut over religious toleration. It is designed as a supplement to the study of the politics of the early national period and the first two-party system.

With the materials in this package, students will be able to look at those politics from a different perspective, adding a local dimension to their understanding of the tensions of the Federalist and Jeffersonian eras. In a short amount of time it would not be possible for them to develop a full appreciation for all the complexities of Connecticut party politics during that era, but, at least, they should be able to see that in Connecticut the issue of religious freedom was a very significant component of the politics of the day. Because this issue of religious freedom was so important in the state, there are probably few places in the United States where the onset of democratization is more starkly portrayed. That is not to say that, in 1818 when Connecticut adopted a new constitution, the state was transformed overnight from a theocracy to a modern democracy. Certainly, though, there were few at the time who could deny the significance of disestablishment. Therefore, it would be worthwhile for Connecticut students to pause briefly in their journey through United States history to consider the thinking of some of the state's greatest minds on a fundamental liberty - a liberty some of our predecessors believed would destroy Liberty!

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While each teacher will want to define his or her own purposes in using these materials, depending on the context in which they are used and the overall goals of the course, the following are some possibilities for which these materials are particularly well suited:

(1) To know that Connecticut maintained an established church for nearly three decades after the ratification of the Bill of Rights.

(2) To know that the issue of religious toleration was so important in Connecticut that the only way the Democratic-Republican party could become, after two decades of struggling for recognition, a significant opposition party was to use religious freedom as their principal appeal. In reaching this understanding students will have a good introduction to the emergence of party politics in Connecticut, a subject of great complexity.

(3) To gain more understanding of Connecticut as a relatively conservative state, and of the rationale its leaders gave for the maintenance of "Steady Habits." In this sense, this unit continues themes which emerged in Connecticut Colony and the Empire and The Ratification of the Constitution in Connecticut.

(4) To practice debating, role-playing, and questioning skills.

(5) To continue to develop skill at comprehending and analyzing historical documents in their original form.

(6) To hypothesize on democratization in the early 19th century, and to gain some appreciation for the way in which the delicate tensions of the ideology of republicanism were losing their balance. In this sense, this material could be a good jumping-off point with which to ask questions about democratization of the 1820's and 1830's.

(7) To add richness to the study of politics in the early national period by seeing how local issues played an important role in the development of party strength nationwide.

(8) To gain some understanding of the variety of religious denominations that came into being as a result of the First and Second Great Awakenings. This objective cannot be fulfilled with the materials of this unit, but will require some independent research on the part of the students. It may be a good opportunity for an introduction to library work early in the course.

(9) These materials also present ample opportunity for writing assignments.

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The student handouts and rubrics for these assessments are described on the assessment page. You may go directly to this unit's assessment by clicking here.

Students' performance in the role-play can be used as an assessment as it was in The Ratification of the Constitution. Perhaps the best assessment for this unit, though, would be to have students write a letter to Lyman Beecher explaining why Connecticut's congregational church was disestablished in the 1818 constitution (since Rev. Beecher was struck dumb by the announcement). Students would be expected to trace the roots of the development to the first Great Awakening in Connecticut, as well as to the libertarian ideology unleashed by the American Revolution. The point would be for them to see the long-term impact of the Awakening and the Revolution.

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This unit uses mostly primary source documents, grouped together in the following sequence. You may go to particular documents directly by clicking on their names.

§ Selections from Connecticut Laws on Religion (on the books 1808) - shows some of the penalties for atheism, as well as the certificate requirements for dissenters from the established church.

§ A Distinguished Panel - short biographical summaries of participants in a panel discussion on religious toleration.

§ "The Duty of Americans at the Present Crisis" (1798) - a pamphlet by Timothy Dwight, President of Yale College.

§ "A Rod for the Fool's Back" (1800) - a pamphlet by Noah Webster supporting the Standing Order (courtesy of the Connecticut Historical Society).

§ "A Connecticut Dissenter's Strongbox" - a pamphlet by Rev. John Leland, a dissenting minister arguing for freedom of religion (courtesy of the Connecticut Historical Society).

§ "The Age of Inquiry" - by "A True Baptist" - another pamphlet extolling freedom of religion (courtesy of the Connecticut State Library).

§ The American Mercury, issues of April 2, 1816 and March 11, 1817. This Hartford paper was a Democratic-Republican organ.

§ The Connecticut Courant, issues of April 2, 1816 and March 25, 1817. This Hartford paper was staunchly Federalist (courtesy of the Connecticut Historical Society).

§ "Transition Years for Connecticut" - a set of documents and maps illustrating the triumph of the Republican (alias Toleration, alias American) Party in 1817 and the framing of a constitution for Connecticut in 1818.

[I would like to thank my students, Jackie Eckhouse, Jennifer Kerensky, Sara Rosenberg, Andy Wittenberg, and Glen Chagnot, for their assistance in identifying these sources.]

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It is best to begin this unit after students have studied the Federalist and Jeffersonian periods on a national level. They should know about the issues that divided the Hamiltonians and Jeffersonians, the French Revolution and its impact on American politics, the philosophy of Thomas Jefferson, perhaps the Second Great Awakening, the Election of 1800, Jefferson and Madison's foreign policy, the Hartford Convention, and the postwar troubles of the young nation's manufacturers. Also, the background essays from Connecticut Colony and the Empire and The Ratification of the Constitution would be good to review so students recall how intertwined religion and politics were in Connecticut during the Colonial and Revolutionary period. If they are not familiar with Jefferson's views on religious toleration, and his role in making religious freedom part of Virginia's first Constitution, they should read some of his commentary on the state of Virginia. Doing the activities of this unit should reinforce a lot of this knowledge, as well as providing new understandings and raising new issues.

A day or two before you get to using these materials, assign a group of four or five students to prepare a panel discussion. They will do this by reading over the "Distinguished Panel" handout, and each reading a pamphlet that is associated with one of the panelists. If a fifth student will play Oliver Wolcott Jr. as moderator of the panel, this student could be assigned to do some independent research on Methodists, Episcopalians, and Baptists and enlighten the rest of the panel ahead of time how these denominations differed from the Congregationalists, and how they came to have advocates in Connecticut around the end of the 18th Century. The Ahlstrom book cited below would be a good reference for this, although my inclination would be to let the kids find that out for themselves. You may have to tell them that the years 1800-1804 was a time when the Baptists in the state, were petitioning for a written Constitution and religious freedom - thus the plethora of pamphlets on the subject at that time. The Republicans, desperate for an issue that would propel them out of the basement of Connecticut political standings, supported the Baptists. When the panel is ready, you can get the rest of the class involved in this Connecticut Case Study.

The "Selections from Connecticut Laws on Religion" will wake everybody up quickly once they perceive what the legal jargon is actually saying. In looking at what could happen to people for denying the existence of God and failing to observe the Sabbath, and contemplating the trouble people who differed from the established church had to go to to have their own form of worship and support their own ministers, students should gain some appreciation for what life was like in a religious establishment. Leaders of Connecticut's political establishment actually were quite proud of the degree of religious freedom in Connecticut, but everything is relative - no doubt they had the 1720's in mind when they delivered these rationalizations. It might be a good idea to ask students to think of things that could be said in defense of established religion, since they are probably well versed in the Jeffersonian position by now.

Now is the time for the panel discussion. Wolcott's job is to elicit the main points of each pamphleteer's argument. Providing the rest of the class with the "Distinguished Panel" sheet would be a good idea for the sake of background, since Dwight and Webster are certainly people everyone should be acquainted with. There should be some exposition, some debate, and then some time when the observers can ask questions. When all this is done, everyone should spend some time summarizing in writing the principal points of disagreement and the main features of each argument. This is important, for it will lead to good reflection not only about the debate over religious toleration, but also about the ideology of republicanism. Students should note that republicanism figures very strongly into the arguments of all panelists, and should conclude that politicians of the time could not hope to appeal to their audience without appealing to republican ideals. Webster, for example, for all his obvious conservatism, could be seen as a sort of liberal as well - and he would probably maintain, himself, that he was a true defender of Liberty. Clearly, there were inherent contradictions and tensions in the republican ideology that were, themselves, at the root of a good deal of the bickering of the times (and throughout the century!).

The next step is to look at the newspapers. First, though, have students check their textbooks for Connecticut's record in the presidential elections between 1796 and 1816. Even after the nation had established its independence a second time under Republican administrations, and after New England Federalists had been embarrassed by the Hartford Convention, Connecticut still sent Federalist electors to Washington. It is important that students see that the Federalists had a lock on the State House at the time, and that all the flurry of petitioning between 1800 and 1804 did not have any immediate impact, except, perhaps, to induce the Federalists to become even better organized.

In looking at the newspapers students should note how partisan the press was - that the existence of the press was, in part, due to the need for propaganda organs. Even these relatively moderate papers took sides early in the era and did not attempt a "nonpartisan" editorial policy. Ask students to try to find the relationship between religion and politics in the 1817 campaign. What were the platforms of the two parties? What did they promise? How did they set themselves apart from their opposition? What role did the Episcopalians play in all of this? Who was the Republican (alias "Toleration") candidate?!?!? Here they could hypothesize on the course of political events in Connecticut. Was the state becoming more democratic? What was democracy? How did people define it then?

A possible writing assignment at this point would be to create some of their own propaganda. They could write editorials or pamphlets themselves, portraying the opposition as tyrants, or mad raving demagogues, and themselves as the bastion of stability and sanity in a world that was not sympathetic to republican virtue. When they have fully explored all the dimensions of partisan, establishment and tolerationist thought and its relationship to republicanism, they can look at the selections from the Constitution of 1818, and at the maps, to think about the changes that occurred as a result of the 1817 election. It is important that they note that the new Constitution's religious freedom clause differed substantially from the first clause of the First Amendment in the Bill of Rights - Christianity was still required. Also, they could note that the Standing Order did not suffer for long, as the Beecher family discovered. Connecticut was just not the place for a cultural revolution.

Another possible source to use in connection with this unit is a selection from the Water Wheels and Steam Engine, Part I: Shops along the Brook unit. The folder called "Windows into the Past" has some material on "The Preacher and the Innkeeper" which shows how the established church operated on a local level and the tensions that arose in small towns. This would be good evidence to show how pervasive dissenting thought was, even while the religious establishment continued. It also contains excerpts from a revival sermon preached by a Congregational minister. This and references to revivals in the Connecticut Courant issues will help students see some of the local side of the Second Great Awakening. Perhaps, Isaac Porter could be a fifth panelist, supporting his old mentor, Timothy Dwight, and James Huggins a sixth, suspicious of the Baptists, but newly converted to toleration.

The teacher may want to inform the class that, in spite of efforts by Wolcott and his successor, Gideon Tomlinson, to introduce liberal reforms that would usher in a modern era for the state, things did not change all that much. These governors wanted to stimulate industry, raise taxes for canals and roads, open the Connecticut River to Vermont, raise taxes to support new school programs, and provide aid to beleaguered farmers. In these efforts they were generally unsuccessful. The state did end imprisonment for debt for women, repealed the obnoxious "Stand-up" law, set up state senatorial districts, and institute a reformed taxation system that taxed stocks, bonds, and mercantile property as well as farm property. Nevertheless, the Congregationalists did continue to dominate Connecticut politics, even to the point where a Know-Nothing party ran a successful gubernatorial campaign in 1855 in a state alarmed by the degree of Irish Catholic immigration.

Left out of this story are all the intricacies by which the Republicans were finally successful in 1817. It would take a good deal more material for students to develop a full understanding of the role the Episcopalians played in upsetting the Standing Order, or to appreciate the various mechanisms by which the Standing Order maintained their dominance in Connecticut for so long. These issues, perhaps, will come up in questioning sessions after students have looked at the Constitution of 1818 and could be the beginning of some independent research efforts, once the squabble over toleration has whetted their appetites for Connecticut history. The Old State House in Hartford, and the Noah Webster House in Wethersfield would make good trips, for those so inclined - perhaps even an exciting location for the panel discussion.

The conclusions that this material can lead to have not so much to do with Connecticut political history as with the ideology of republicanism and the importance of religion as a public issue in this state. Obviously students will see the latter, and with some help they may also be able to get into the minds of early republicans whose approach to the science of politics was wholly different from ours today.

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The political and social history of Connecticut from the Revolution to 1820 is complex, and deserves a great deal more study than can be done with the materials here. If teachers do not have the time to work with some of the material listed below in their classes, perhaps the study of the bickering over toleration will inspire a few students to take on independent research. The most interesting sources are, of course, the newspapers of the time. The American Mercury was the principle Democratic-Republican organ, and The Connecticut Courant supported the Federalist position - the Standing Order in Connecticut - long after the Federalist party had dissolved in other states. In the 1780's and 1790's these papers appear quite moderate (the Mercury was actually founded by a Federalist), but as time passed, they became more partisan. Originals of these are at the Connecticut Historical Society, and most good college libraries and the State Library have them on microfilm. For more radical writings, the Columbian Register offers extreme Republican rhetoric, and The Connecticut Mirror maintains an uncompromising conservative line. Of course, there is far more than politics in these tabloids of a time of general cultural transformation in Connecticut and the nation.

The principal text on the era is Richard Purcell, Connecticut in Transition: 1775-1818, originally published by the American Historical Association in 1918, and republished in 1963 by the Wesleyan University Press. Purcell has an excellent set of footnotes and an annotated bibliography for students searching for good primary source material.

Ahlstrom, Sidney E. A Religious History of the American People. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1972. A good reference book for background on the various denominations emerging after the Revolution.

Briceland, Alan V. "Ephraim Kirby: Pioneer of American Law Reporting, 1789." American Journal of Legal History 16(1972): 297-319. He also wrote a dissertation at Duke University entitled "Ephraim Kirby, Connecticut Jeffersonian, 1757-1804: The Origins of the Jeffersonian Republican Party in Connecticut." (1965) The dissertation can be found at the Connecticut Historical Society and is an excellent study of politics in Connecticut in the early national period.

Brownsword, Alan W. "The Constitution of 1818 and Political Afterthoughts, 1800-1840" Connecticut Historical Society Bulletin 30(January, 1965) 1: 1-10. This is a discussion of the 1818 constitution and the principal features that would be its undoing - although not until 1965! He also wrote a dissertation at the University of Wisconsin entitled "Connecticut Political Patterns, 1817-1828" (1962) which may be found at the Connecticut Historical Society.

Dennis, William Cullen. "A Federalist Persuasion: The American Ideal of the Connecticut Federalist" (Yale dissertation, 1971). Looks at some Connecticut conservatives and finds them not so conservative after all. Available and Connecticut Historical Society.

Destler, Chester. Joshua Coit: American Federalist, 1758-1798 Middletown: Wesleyan University Press, 1962). Coit was a Congressman, and this book focuses on Connecticut's contribution to national politics.

Dwight, Timothy. Travels in New England. 4 vols. Published in various editions, the most recent of which is edited by Barbara Solomon. This is a must for anyone studying the period.

Greene, M. Louise. The Development of Religious Liberty in Connecticut. Reprinted from the 1905 edition. New York: Da Capo Press, 1970. A very long book, with much detail on the complex social and political changes that formed the backdrop for the emergence of toleration.

Keller, Charles Roy. The Second Great Awakening in Connecticut. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1942. Probably pretty heavy for high-school students, but a classic study of religious movements and their political, social and economic impact nonetheless.

Lipson, Dorothy Ann. Freemasonry in Federalist Connecticut, 1789-1835. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1977. This is an excellent work on social history as well as political ideology.

McLaughlin, William G. New England Dissent, 1630-1833: The Baptists and the Separation of Church and State. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1971. A huge work, with a lot on Connecticut's established church and the challenges to it.

Morse, Jarvis Means. Under the Constitution of 1818: the First Decade. Number XVII of the Connecticut Tercentenary Pamphlets (1933). Morse discusses how little Connecticut actually changed after the 1818 constitution was put into effect - steady habits all the way.

Roth, David, and Freeman Meyer. From Revolution to Constitution: Connecticut 1763 to 1818. Part of the "Series in Connecticut History" published by the Pequot Press of Chester, Connecticut, 1975. A good overview, and, thus, a good place for a student to begin a research project.

Stamps, Norman LeVaun. "Political Parties in Connecticut, 1789-1819" (Yale dissertation, 1950). Stamps studies how the parties were organized. Find at Conn. Hist. Society.

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