Connecticut History on the Web 


Dissenters and the Standing Order

The Fight for Religious Toleration in Connecticut






Below is a list of the readings used with this unit. You may go directly to a document or group of documents by clicking on its name, or you may scroll down through the whole collection.


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§ 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.  


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.


Selections from Connecticut Laws on Religion

(on the books in 1808)

From the days of the first English settlements in Connecticut, church and state were linked closely. The Puritan founders of the early towns of Hartford, Windsor and Wethersfield wanted to establish a Bible Commonwealth - a "Holy Experiment" - governed by the laws of God and acting as a beacon to a world in need of deliverance from corruption. The first code of laws for Connecticut was, in fact, a series of excerpts from laws stated in the Bible. There was one Truth, one Word, one Church - and the government, led by a Governor who was a member of one of the "accepted congregations," would defend that church by insuring that taxes would be collected for the upkeep of meetinghouses, payment of the ministers' salaries, and maintenance of schools. In 1701 the colony even chartered its own college, Yale College, so that ministers could be trained properly within the Bible Commonwealth.

Connecticut's Churches had been placed under centralized, "presbyterian" control when the legislature decided to endorse the so-called Saybrook Platform of 1708. All churches were to subscribe to this statement of doctrine agreed to by Puritan divines at Saybrook in that year. County "Associations" were set up to approve of preachers chosen by congregations within the counties. Regardless of this measure, presbyterian control met serious challenges in the early 18th Century. First of all, it was difficult to bar Anglicans (members of the Church of England, which the first Puritan settlers had labeled as corrupt and degenerate) from worshipping as they pleased. After all, Connecticut was an English colony. Then, in the early 1740's there was much upheaval after the English evangelist George Whitefield made a tour of the state calling for a religious revival. Particularly in eastern Connecticut many congregations demanded complete control over choice of their ministers, some of which, the so-called "New Lights" with their "fire and brimstone sermons," were unacceptable to the presbyterian, "Old Light" establishment.

By the time of the Revolution, the New Lights had won the independent control they had demanded, and other denominations, such as Baptists and Anglicans, had achieved a modicum of toleration. Nevertheless, Puritanism remained dominant, and whether New Light or Old Light, its adherents controlled the legislature before and after the Revolution, allowing as little "dissenting preaching" as possible in the new state. On the following pages are some extracts from some of the laws relating to religion that were still part of the Connecticut Code of Laws in the early 19th Century, nearly two decades after the ratification of the Bill of Rights to the Constitution of the United States. (Note: Connecticut did not ratify the Bill of Rights until 1939.)

An Act in Addition to one Law of this Colony entitled An Act for regulating Abuses and correcting Disorders in Ecclesiastical Affairs [Enacted 1743]

[This law was occasioned by the return of a Rev. Samuel Finley, of New Jersey, to Connecticut after he had been escorted out of the colony in 1742 for preaching without license in Milford. Rev. Finley later became president of Princeton.]

Whereas in the last paragraph of said act it is provided and enacted, that if any foreigner or stranger, that is not an inhabitant in this Colony, including as well such persons that have no ecclesiastical character or lycence to preach as such as have received ordination or lycence to preach by any association or presbytery, shall presume to preach, teach or publickly to exhort, in any town or society within this Colony, without the desire and lycence of the settled minister and the major part of the church of such town or society, or at the call and desire of the church and inhabitants of such town or society, provided that it so happen that there is no settled minister there, that every such preacher, teacher or exhorter, shall be sent (as a vagrant person) by warrant from any one assistant or justice of the peace, from constable to constable out of the bounds of this Colony: And it being found by experience that, for want of further provision, the good ends proposed are defeated; and some persons that, pursuant to the aforesaid law, have been taken and carried out of the bounds of this Colony, have immediately returned again, and by preaching and exhorting as aforesaid have greatly disquieted and disturbed the people: Which for the future to prevent,

Be it enacted by the Governor, Council and Representatives, in General Court assembled, and by the authority of the same, That when it shall so happen that any person that is a foreigner or stranger, and not an inhabitant in this Colony, shall at any time after he has been, by order of authority as aforesaid, transported out of the bounds of this Colony, return into the same again, and shall in any town or society in this Colony preach, teach or exhort, contrary to the true intent and meaning of the aforesaid law, it shall be the duty of any one assistant or justice of the peace, that shall be informed thereof, to cause such person to be apprehended an brought before him, and if he shall be found guilty, to give judgment that such person shall become bound in the penal sum of one hundred pounds lawful money, to his peaceable and good behaviour until the next county court in the county where the offence shall be committed, and that such person will not offend again in like manner; and also, that such offender shall pay down the cost of his transportation. And the county court may, if they see cause, further bind such offender to his peaceable and good behaviour during the pleasure of said court.


A law enacted 1750 (revised 1784)

Be it enacted, That if any person within this state, having been educated in, or having made profession of the christian religion, shall by writing, printing, teaching, or advised speaking, deny the being of God; or any one of the persons of the Holy Trinity to be God; or shall assert and maintain that there are more Gods than one; or shall deny the christian religion to be true, or the holy scriptures of the old and new-testament to be of divine authority, and be thereof lawfully convicted before any of the superior courts of this state, shall for the first offence, be incapable to have or enjoy any offices or employments, ecclesiastical, civil or military, or any part in them, or profit by them: And the offices, places and employments enjoyed by such persons at their conviction, shall be void.

And such person being a second time convicted of any of the aforesaid crimes, shall be disabled to sue, prosecute, plead, or maintain any action or information in law or equity or be guardian of any child, or executor of any will, or administrator of any estate.

Provided nevertheless, That no person shall be prosecuted by virtue of this act, for words spoken contrary to this paragraph thereof, unless information thereof be given within six months after the offence is committed.

Provided also, That any persons convicted of the said crimes, shall for the first offence, upon renouncing such erroneous opinions in the court where convicted, within twelve months after conviction, from the time of such renouncing, be discharged from all disabilities incurred by such conviction.


An Act to enforce the observance of days of public Fasting, and Thanksgiving [Enacted in October, 1791]

Be it enacted by the Governour and Council and House of Representatives in General Court assembled, That on the days appointed for public fasting, or thanksgiving, by proclamation of the governour of this state; all persons residing within this state, shall abstain from every kind of servile labour, and recreation, works of necessity and mercy excepted; and any person who shall be guilty of a breach of this act, and being duly convicted thereof, shall be fined in a sum, not exceeding two dollars, nor less than one dollar.


An Act securing equal Rights and Privileges to Christians of every denomination in this State[Enacted in October 1791]

Be it enacted by the Governour and Council and House of Representatives in General Court assembled, That in future, whenever any person shall differ in sentiments from the worship and ministry in the ecclesiastical societies in this state, constituted by law within certain local bounds, and shall choose to join himself to any other denomination of christians, which shall have formed themselves into distinct churches or congregations, for the maintenance and support of the public worship of God, and shall manifest such his choice, by a certificate thereof, under his hand lodged in the office of the clerk of the society to which he belongs - such person shall thereupon, and so long as he shall continue ordinarily, to attend on the worship and ministry, in the church or congregation, to which he has been chosen to belong as aforesaid, be exempted from being taxed for the future support of the worship, and ministry in such society.

Be it further enacted, That all such churches and congregations, which have, or shall have formed themselves as aforesaid, and who shall maintain and attend public worship, by themselves, shall have liberty and authority to exercise the same powers, for maintaining and supporting their respective ministers, and for building and repairing their meeting-houses, for the public worship of God, as the aforesaid societies by law have, and do exercise and enjoy; and in the same manner, may commence and hold their meetings, and transact their affairs, as occasion may require for said purpose.

And every person claiming the benefit of this act shall be disqualified to vote in any meeting of such society, save only in matters, which relate to the maintenance and support of schools.

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 A Distinguished Panel


The Moderator:

Oliver Wolcott, Jr. (1760-1833): Born and raised in Litchfield; graduated from Yale, 1778; studied law under Tapping Reeve in Litchfield. 1782 appointed to the committee of the pay table; 1784 state commissioner to settle accounts with the United States and the first state comptroller; 1789 auditor of the new Federal Treasury; 1791 United States Comptroller; 1795 Secretary of the Treasury; 1801 judge of the Second United States Circuit Court; 1803 President of the Merchant's Bank of New York; 1812 President of the Bank of America. A strong supporter of Hamilton's financial policies and other Federalist programs until 1812 when he supported the War and attracted the attention of Connecticut's hitherto unsuccessful Republican party. Returned to Litchfield 1815 after 12 years concentrating on the China trade. Has maintained his interest in Connecticut affairs even while in New York. A son and grandson of Connecticut governors, he certainly represents The Standing Order in Connecticut. However, lately he has had serious doubts about the legitimacy of Connecticut maintaining an established church in a modern republic. He will try to get the panelists to present both sides of the issue as thoroughly as possible.


The Panelists:

Timothy Dwight (1752-1817): Born in Northampton, Mass., a grandson of Jonathan Edwards; graduated from Yale in 1769; taught at Hopkins Grammar School two years; 1771 Tutor at Yale; 1777 Chaplain of General Samuel Holden Parsons' First Connecticut Brigade. 1778 returned to Northampton to preach, teach, and serve in the General Assembly. 1783 moved to Fairfield County, established a coeducational academy; gained a national reputation as an educator, and a statewide reputation as a poet (member of the Connecticut Wits, a literati group that wrote patriotic works for publication). 1795 became President of Yale University, where he worked tirelessly increasing the size and quality of the buildings and faculty, not to mention the school's endowment. Active in the Missionary Society of Connecticut, the Andover Theological Seminary, the American Bible Society, and the American Board of Commissioners of Foreign Missions. Although quite conservative socially and politically, and devoted to Calvinism and Connecticut's established church, he has made Yale a place of diverse intellectual pursuits, most notably through his appointment of Benjamin Silliman as its first professor of Chemistry and Natural History. He has also introduced there the study of law, languages and medicine. His work The Duty of Americans at the Present Crisis addresses the disturbing trend away from religion.

Noah Webster (1758-1843): Born in West Hartford; graduated from Yale 1778, taught school, studied law, and admitted to the bar in 1781. 1783-1785 published A Grammatical Institute of the English Language, which has become known as the "Blue-Backed Speller," and exemplifies his strong nationalist leanings and belief in education as the foundation of liberty and independence. Has lectured and published prolifically on topics ranging from language to slavery to constitutional law. Founded The American Mercury in 1793 (which has since fallen into Republican clutches), and The Herald, A Gazette for the Country in 1794. He is considered the foremost authority on the American version of the English language, and is a staunch supporter of American economic, cultural and political independence of Europe. Is highly skeptical of the late trend toward democracy, fearing that the republic will be doomed if ordinary people occupy its highest offices. His work published anonymously as A Rod for the Fool's Back amply thrashes those who would consider unsettling Connecticut's political, religious and social institutions.

Reverend John Leland: Originally from Virginia, where he had energetically supported the movement to separate church and state (succeeded 1786 with the toleration clause in Virginia's constitution). Became pastor of the Baptist church of Cheshire, Massachusetts in 1792 and continued there for some time, although he became the chief spokesman for Connecticut's Baptists through his itinerant preachings and pamphlets. In 1794 he spoke from the steps of the State House in Hartford urging disestablishment of the Congregational Church. Has encouraged Baptists in this state to petition the legislature incessantly for redress against the certificate law, the Stand-up Law of 1801 requiring voters to make their choices for the Governor's Council known publicly, the control of the established Church over the schools in the towns, and the lack of a constitution guaranteeing basic liberties. A staunch Jeffersonian Republican, he believes that the interests of the Federalist party and the state church are one in Connecticut, and that friends of toleration and liberty of conscience should abandon the Federalists. He is author of A Connecticut Dissenter's Strongbox which contains numerous direct attacks on the Standing Order and its monopoly over the churches of Connecticut.

"A True Baptist:" The panelist is anonymous and will being wearing a mask or seated behind a curtain to protect his anonymity. His background is somewhat murky, although reliable sources say that he is not a Baptist at all, but a newspaper editor from New London. Others have it that he is a lawyer and Republican legislator from Lebanon. At any rate, he has published numerous articles, editorials and pamphlets under various pseudonyms in Connecticut, for his writing style is quite distinctive, and his arguments seem to follow the same path each time. The authorities, at least, have proclaimed this to be so. At times he has used phrases of Abraham Bishop's, crying against "the sultanlike professors" of the established order, and condemning "fettered religion," but Bishop is not afraid to make his name known (having obtained his certificate, it is said). At any rate, A.T.B.'s most heralded work, The Age of Inquiry, calls on all Baptists to reject the Standing Order of Connecticut if they ever wish their faith to have equal standing. As for his religious views, many Baptists feel there are some errors that need attention.

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Issues of The American Mercury from 1816 and 1817

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Issues of The Connecticut Courant from 1816 and 1817

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Transition Years for Connecticut

The years immediately after the War of 1812 were important years in Connecticut politics. The Federalist Party, which had dominated the state since the ratification of the Constitution of the United States in 1788, found itself in an embarrassing position after the Hartford Convention of 1814 - 1815. News of a seemingly successful peace treaty and of a brilliant victory by American forces under Andrew Jackson at New Orleans made the resolutions of the Convention, attended by Federalist opponents of "Mr. Madison's war" appear unnecessary and unpatriotic. On top of that was a serious recession, and continuing agitation by religious dissenters to end the state's Congregational establishment of religion, supported by the Federalists,with a new constitution. Republicans seized on these issues, particularly the issue of religious toleration, and tried to form a coalition of disaffected citizens who would support their candidates for the governorship and the legislature.

This was not the first time Republicans had made an effort to capitalize on religious dissent. Between 1800 and 1804 they had also gained converts, particularly among Baptists. However, there was much working against them at that time. Even though dissenters were allowed to obtain certificates that would exempt them from attendance at the Congregational churches, it was difficult to have those certificates accepted promptly, and socially disadvantageous to be classed as a "certificate man." Thus, since most of the Congregational clergy were sympathetic to the maintenance of the status quo, namely the Federalist hierarchy, the establishment line was the message most people got when they went to church. To make things more difficult for the Republicans, the legislature had passed a law in 1801 called the Stand-up Law, requiring voters to cast their votes for state officers publicly by standing up at town meetings when the candidate's name was read. This and the tradition of reading the names of incumbent office holders first tended to discourage people from voting for challengers to the "Standing Order." Furthermore, growing criticism of Jefferson's, and then Madison's, foreign policy held the opposition party at bay for many years.

In 1814 and 1815, however, Federalist leaders of the state legislature blundered seriously by not passing an appropriation of funds which was important to the Episcopalians of the state. Until this time most Episcopalians, although discriminated against in the same fashion as Baptists and Methodists, had been loyal to the Federalist Party. They were generally a conservative group - some had even been Loyalists during the Revolution - and their leaders were among the social and economic elite of the state. In fact, they expected the state government to appropriate funds to their Bishop in return for a bonus a group of Episcopalians had paid the state for the right to incorporate a new bank. When the Council refused twice to live up to its part of the bargain, Episcopalian leaders began to meet with Republican leaders to form the coalition Republicans had been dreaming of for years.

In two years' time, the new party, called first the "Toleration Party," and then the "American Party," had overturned the Federalist control of the state government and had called for a Constitutional Convention to frame Connecticut's first constitution as an independent state. Quite prominently placed in this new Constitution were clauses disestablishing the Congregational Church. The following are excerpts from that Constitution, as it was printed in 1819 in Pease and Niles' Gazetteer of Connecticut and Rhode Island.


Breakdown by Towns

The following three maps show the breakdown of Connecticut by towns on such matters as distribution of various religious denominations and the vote for Governor in 1817 and the Constitution in 1818. Does there seem to be any relationship between the strength of religious dissent in a town and its political leanings? [Maps from Richard Purcell, Connecticut in Transition (Middletown: Wesleyan University Press, 1963), pp. 64, 222, 260. Used with permission of the publisher.]

Lyman Beecher of Litchfield was one of Connecticut's most famous Congregational ministers. He wrote and lectured widely, and his family, including Henry Ward Beecher, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Catherine Beecher, and Isabella Beecher Hooker were to become similarly famous for their work in religion, literature, education and woman's rights. When news reached the Beecher home in 1817 that the Toleration Party had prevailed at the polls and that Connecticut would soon disestablish its state church, "a perfect wail" arose. Beecher's son, editor of the minister's Autobiography wrote of the day,

I remember seeing father the day after the election, sitting on one of the old-fashioned rush-bottomed kitchen chairs, his head drooping on his heart, and his arms hanging down. "Father," said I, "what are you thinking of?" He answered solemnly, "The Church of God."...It was a time of great depression and suffering....It was as dark a day as ever I saw. The odium thrown upon the ministry was inconceivable. The injury done to the cause of Christ, as we then supposed, was irreparable. For several days I suffered what no tongue can tell for the best thing that ever happened to the State of Connecticut. It cut the churches loose from dependence on state support. It threw them wholly on their own resources and on God....They say ministers have lost their influence; the fact is, they have gained. By voluntary efforts, societies, missions, and revivals, they exert a deeper influence than ever they could by queues and shoe buckles, and cocked hats and gold-headed canes.

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