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Sermon Podcast | Audio | Video : Christian Books : CHAPTER V A PERIOD OF TRANSITION

The Development Of Religious Liberty In Connecticut by M. Louise Greene, Ph. D.


Alas for piety, alas for the ancient faith!

Though Massachusetts had been indifferent and had left Connecticut to work out, unaided, her religious problem, the two colonies were by no means unfriendly, and in each there was a large conservative party mutually sympathetic in their church interests. The drift of the liberal party in each colony was apart. The homogeneity of the Connecticut people put off for a long while the embroilments, civil and religious, to which Massachusetts was frequently exposed through her attempts to restrain, restrict, and force into an inflexible mould her population, which was steadily becoming more numerous and cosmopolite. The English government received frequent complaints about the Bay Colony, and, as a result, Connecticut, by contrast of her |dutiful conduct| with that of |unruly Massachusetts,| gained greater freedom to pursue her own domestic policy with its affairs of Church and State. Many of its details were unknown, or ignored, by the English government. The period when the four colonies had been united upon all measures of common welfare, whether temporal or spiritual, had passed. There were now three colonies. One of these, much weaker than the others, was destined within comparatively few years to be absorbed by Massachusetts as New Haven had been by
Connecticut. Meanwhile, Massachusetts and Connecticut were developing along characteristic lines and had each its individual problems to pursue. While in ecclesiastical affairs the conservative factions in the two colonies had much in common and continued to have for a long time, the Reforming Synod of 1679-80, held in Boston, was the last in which all the New England churches had any vital interest, because a period of transition was setting in. This period of transition was marked by an expansion of settlements with its accompanying spirit of land-grabbing, and by a lowering of tone in the community, as material interests superseded the spiritual ones of the earlier generations, and as the Indian and colonial wars spread abroad a spirit of license. In the religious life of the colonists, this transition made itself felt not alone in the character of its devotees, but in the ecclesiastical system itself, as it changed from the polity and practice embodied in the Cambridge Platform to that of a later day, and to the almost Presbyterian government expressed in the Saybrook Platform of 1708. The transition in Massachusetts, in both secular and religious development, varied greatly from that in Connecticut. Hence, from the time of the Keforming Synod, the history of Connecticut is almost entirely the story of its own career, touching only at points the historical development of the other New England colonies. On the religious side, it is the story of the evolution of Connecticut's peculiar Congregationalism. The Reforming Synod of 1679-80 had been called by the Massachusetts General Court because, in the words of that old historian, Thomas Prince: --

A little after 1660, there began to appear Decay, And this increased to 1670, when it grew very visible and threatening, and was generally complained of and bewailed bitterly by the pious among them (the colonists): and yet more to 1680, when but few of the first Generation remained.

The reasons of this falling away from the standards of the first generation were many. In the first place, the colonists had become mere colonials. Upon the Stuart restoration, the strongest ties which bound them to the pulsing life of the mother country, the religious ones, were severed. The colonists ceased to be the vanguard of a great religious movement, the possible haven of a new political state. Though they received many refugees from Stuart conformity, the religious ties which bound them to the English nonconformists were weakened, and still more so when both the once powerful wings of the Puritan party, Presbyterian and Independent, were alike in danger of extinction. Shortly after the Revolution of 1688, when, under the larger tolerance of William and Mary, the Presbyterians and Independents strove to increase their strength by a union based upon the |Heads of Agreement,| English and colonial nonconformity moved for a brief time nearer, and then still farther apart. The |Heads of Agreement|[a] was a compromise so framed as to admit of acceptance by the Presbyterian who recognized that he must, once for all, give up his hope of a national church, and by the Independent anxiously seeking some bond of authority to hold together his weak and scattered churches. After this compromise, the religious life of the colonies ceased to be of vital importance to any large section of the English people. After the Restoration the colonial agents became preeminently interested in secular affairs, in political privileges, and commercial advantages. The reaction was felt in the colonies by generations who lacked the heroic impulses of their fathers, their constant incentive, and their high standards. Moreover, the education of the second and third generation could not be like that of the first. The percentage of university men was less. New Harvard could not supply the place of old Cambridge. If life was easier, it was more material.

Against such conditions as these, the Reforming Synod made little headway.[b] It set forth in thirteen questions the offenses of the day and in the answer to each suggested remedies. To these questions and answers the synod added a confession of faith. This last was a reaffirmation of the Westminster Confession of Faith as amended and approved by Parliament, or that found in the Savoy Declaration.[c] In respect to church government, the Reforming Synod confirmed the |substance of the Platform of Discipline agreed upon by the messengers of these Churches at Cambridge, Anno Domini, 1648,| desiring the churches to |continue steadfast in the Order of the Gospel according to what is therein declared from the Word of God.| Cotton Mather in the |Magnalia,| [5l] writing twenty years later, gives four points of departure from the Cambridge polity by the Reforming Synod. First, occasional officiations of ministers outside their own churches were authorized; secondly, there was a movement to revive the authority and office of ruling elder and other officers; thirdly, |plebeian ordination,| or lay ordination, ordination by the hands of the brethren of the church in the absence of superior officers, was no longer allowed;[d] and fourthly, there was a variation from the |personal and public confession| in favor of a private examination by the pastor of candidates for church-membership, though the earlier custom was still regarded as |lawful, expedient and useful.| With reference to the office of ruling elder, it had been done away with in many churches, partly because of lack of suitable men to fill the office, partly because of the mistakes of incompetents, and partly because of a growing doubt as to the Scriptural sanction for such an office. In many churches the office of teacher had also been abolished, the pastor inheriting all the authority formerly lodged in the eldership, and as he retained his power of veto, it came about that the churches were largely in the power of one man.

Plymouth and Connecticut colonies strongly approved the work of this local Massachusetts synod. As a result of the interest excited by its suggestions to increase church discipline, for laws to encourage morality and Christian instruction, and for renewed zeal on the part of individuals in godly living, a goodly number of converts were immediately added to the churches throughout all the colonies. Of these, the larger number were admitted on the Half-Way Covenant. But times had changed, and the churches could not keep pace. The attempts to enforce religion were fruitless,[e] and only go to show that political interests, that wars,[f] with their accompanying excitement and license, and that engrossing civil affairs had torn men's minds from the old interests in religious controversies and in religious customs.

The Church itself had deteriorated as the towns in their civil capacity had undertaken the support of the minister and to collect his rates. Even earlier began, also, the gradual change by which the election of the minister passed from the small group of church communicants, or full membership, to the larger body of the Society, and finally to the town. This change was partly brought about through the increasing acceptance of the Half-Way Covenant with its attendant results. In some localities, |owning the Covenant| and presenting one's children for baptism came to be considered not as a necessary fulfilling of inherited duties (because of inherited baptismal privileges) and the consequent recognition of moral obligations, but as meritorious acts, having of themselves power to benefit the participants. Further, the rite of baptism, confined at first to children one at least of whose parents had been baptized, was later permitted to any for whom a satisfactory person -- any one not flagrantly immoral -- could be found to promise that the child should have religious training. Still another factor in the lowering of religious life was Stoddardeanism, or the teaching of the Rev. Solomon Stoddard of Northampton, Massachusetts, a most powerful preacher and for many years the most influential minister throughout the Connecticut valley. As early as 1679, he began to teach that baptized persons, who had owned the covenant, should be admitted to the Lord's Supper, so that the rite itself might exercise in them a regenerating grace. In its origin, this teaching was probably intended as a protest against a morbid, introspective, and weakening self-examination on the part of many who doubted their fitness to go to communion. But as a result of the interworking of this teaching and of the practice of the Half-Way Covenant, church membership came in time to include almost any one not openly vicious, and willing to give intellectual, or nominal, assent to church doctrines and also to a few church regulations. With the change, the large body of townsmen became the electors of the minister. Cotton Mather in the |Ratio Disciplina| illustrates these changing conditions when he tells us that the communicants felt that the right to elect the minister was invested in them as the real church of Christ, and that, in order to avoid strife or the defeat of their candidate by the majority of the town, they would customarily propose a choice between two nominees.

Carelessness of the churches in admitting members had had its counterpart in the carelessness of the towns in admitting inhabitants. Very early, as early as 1658, the Connecticut General Court had been obliged to call them to order. The March session of 1658-59 had limited the franchise to all inhabitants of twenty-one years of age or over who were householders (that is, married men), and who had thirty pounds estate, or who had borne office. This was shortly changed to |thirty pounds of proper personal estate,| or who had borne office. The ratable estate in the colony averaged sixty pounds per inhabitant at this time. Up to March, 1658-59, the towns had admitted inhabitants by a majority vote. These admitted inhabitants, armed with a certificate of good character from their town, presented themselves before the General Court as candidates for the freeman's franchise, and were admitted or not as the Court saw fit. Disfranchisement was the penalty for any scandalous behavior on the part of the successful candidate. One reason for the new and restrictive legislation was that from 1657 to 1660, from some cause unknown, large numbers of undesirable colonists flocked into the Connecticut towns, and thus it happened that, as the Church broadened her idea of membership, the State had need to limit its conception of democracy. Consequently, it narrowed the franchise by adding to the original requirements a large property qualification, and continued to demand the certificates of good character. Moreover, the candidates were further required to present their credentials in October, and they were not to be passed upon until the next session of the Court in the following April. This two-fold change in the religious and political life of the colony gave greater flexibility and greater security, for |with church and state practically intertwined, the theory of the one had been too narrow and of the other too broad.| After the change in the franchise, records of the towns show that there was less disorder in admitting inhabitants and more care taken as to their personal character.

As the townsmen became the electors of the minister, and when the new latitude in membership had been accepted by the churches, there soon appeared a growing slackness of discipline and also an increase of authority in the hands of the ministers and their subordinate deaconry. This excess of authority in the hands of one man tended to one-man rule and to frequent friction between the minister and his people. As a result councils might be called against councils in the attempt to settle questions or disputes between pastors and people. Consequently, among conservatives, there came to be the feeling that there ought to be some authoritative body to supervise the churches, -- one to which both pastor and people could appeal disputed points.

In Massachusetts, the Connecticut colonists saw a strenuous attempt to establish such an authority. Between 1690 and 1705, the Massachusetts clergy had revived the early custom of fortnightly meetings of neighboring ministers. The new associations were purely voluntary ones for mutual assistance, for debate upon matters of common interest, or for consultation over special difficulties, whether pertaining to churches or to their individual members, which might be brought before them. These associations grew in favor, and later became a permanent feature of New England Congregationalism. Because they were received with so much, favor at the time of their revival, the conservative Massachusetts clergy attempted in the |Proposals of 1705| to increase the ministerial and synodical power within the churches, and to bring about a reformation in manners and morals by giving to these associations very large and authoritative powers. The Proposals provided that all ministers should be joined in Associations for mutual help and advice; for licensing candidates for the ministry; for providing for pastorless churches; for a general oversight of religion, and for the examination of charges brought against their own members. Standing Councils, composed of delegates from the Associations and also of a proper number of delegates (apparently laymen) to represent the membership of the churches, were to be established. These were to control all church matters throughout the colony that were |proper for the consideration of an ecclesiastical council,| and obedience to their judgments was to be enforced under penalty of forfeiture of church-fellowship. The Proposals were approved by the majority of the Massachusetts clergy; but the liberal party within the churches would not accede to their demands, and the General Court would not sanction the Proposals in the face of such opposition. Consequently, the essential feature of the Proposals, the Standing Councils, was never adopted. But the attempt to establish them invigorated the Associations, and the licensing of candidates was arranged for.

Many people in Connecticut approved the tenor of the Proposals and desired a similar system. Moreover, there never was a time when the General Court was so ready to delegate to an ecclesiastical body the control of the churches. The trustees of the young college, Yale, the most representative gathering of clergymen in the colony, were anxious to have the Court establish some system of ecclesiastical government stronger than that existing among the churches, and to have it send out some approved confession of faith and discipline. Consequently, when, in 1708, Guerdon Saltonstall,[g] the popular ex-minister of New London, was raised to the governor's chair, the time seemed ripe for a move to satisfy the widespread demand. In response to it, the May session of the General Court --

from their own observation and the complaints of many others, being made sensible of the defects of the discipline of the churches of this government, arising from want of a more explicit asserting of the rules given for that in the holy scriptures [saw fit] to order and require the ministers of the several churches in the several counties of this government to meet together at their respective countie towns, with such messengers as the churches to which they belong shall see cause to send with them on the last day of June next, there to consider and agree upon those methods and rules for the management of ecclesiastical discipline which shall be judged agreable and conformable to the word of God, and shall at the same meeting appoint two or more of their number to meet together at Saybrook... where they shall compare the results of the ministers of the several counties, and out of which and from them to draw a form of ecclesiastical discipline, which by two or more persons delegated by them shall be offered this Court ... and be confirmed by them.

The bill was passed by the Upper House of the legislature and sent to a conference from the Lower, May 22, 1708. It became a law May 22. In the interim the words in italics were inserted in order to eliminate any possible loss of liberty to the churches and to protect them from a system of government, planned by ministers only, and enforced by the General Court.

No records of the preliminary meeting have come down to us, but the Preface of the Saybrook Platform reports such a meeting and that their delegates met at Saybrook, September 9, 1708. At this second convention, twelve ministers, of whom eight were trustees of Yale, and four messengers were present. Their work, known as the Saybrook Platform, declares in its Preface that --

we agree that the confession of faith owned & consented unto by the Elders and messengers of the Chhs assembled at Boston in New England, May 12, 1680 being the Second Session of that Synod be Recommended to the Honbl. the Gen. Assembly of this Colony at the next Session for their Publick testimony thereto as the faith of the Chhs of this Colony.

We agree also that the Heads of Agreement assented to by the vnited Ministers formerly Called Presbyterian & Congregationall be observed by the Chhs throout this Colony.

The work of the synod, including also a series of authoritative |Articles,| was laid before the October session of the Court and received its approval, the Court declaring its |great approbation of such a happy agreement| and ordaining |that all churches within this government that are or shall be thus united in doctrine, worship and discipline, be and for the future shall be owned and acknowledged established by law.|

The period of transition was over. Connecticut had passed from the individual consecration and democratic organization of the Cambridge Platform to the comprehensive membership of a parish system and to the authoritative councils, or ecclesiastical courts, provided for by the Saybrook Articles. A consideration of them as the main points of the Platform is next in order.


[a] The |Heads of Agreement| was destined to have more influence in America than in England.

[b] The order of the Massachusetts Court was |for the revisall of the discipline agreed upon by the churches, 1647, and what else may appeare necessary for the preventing schism, haeresies, prophaneness, and the establishment of the churches in one faith and order of the gospell.| There was no questioning of the Court's right to summon this synod, as there had been in 1646-48.

[c] The Savoy Declaration of October, 1658, was put forth by the English leaders of the Independent, or Congregational, churches as a confession of faith, and in its thirty articles contained a declaration of church order. The formulated principles of church order were suggested by the Cambridge Platform but were neither so clear nor so fully stated as in the New England document. The Westminster Confession, the Savoy Declaration, and the later Heads of Agreement, were destined to have more influence in New England than in England, where the effect was transient. The Reforming Synod preferred the Savoy Declaration to the Westminster Confession because the terms of the former were more strictly Congregational, and also because they wished to hold a confession in common with their trans-Atlantic brethren. The Massachusetts synod changed here and there a word in order to emphasize the church-membership of children as a right derived through the Half-Way Covenant, and also to state explicitly the right of the civil authority to interfere in questions of doctrine.

[d] In 1660 the lay ordination of the Rev. Thomas Buckingham of Saybrook, Conn., was strongly opposed by a council of churches, but it was reluctantly yielded to the insistent church. -- J. B. Felt, Eccl. History, ii, 207.

[e] |Whereas this Court [the General Court of Connecticut] in the calamitous times of '75 and '76 were moved to make some laws for the suppression of some provoaking evils which were feared to be growing up amongst us: viz. -- prophanation of the Sabbath; neglect of catechizing children and servants and famaly prayer; young persons shaking off the government of parents or masters; boarders and inmates neglecting the worship of God in famalyes where they reside; tipling & drinkeing; uncleanness; oppression in workmen and traders; which laws have little prevailed. It is therefore ordered by this Court that the selectmen constables and grand-jury men in their several plantations shall have a special care in their respective places to promote the due and full attendance of these aforementioned orders of this Court.|

[f] King Philip's War, 1675-76; the usurpation of Andros; King William's War, 1689-97, with its expedition against Quebec; Queen Anne's War, 1702-13.

[g] Governor Saltonstall |was more inclined to synods and formularies than any other minister of that day in the New England colonies.| His influence over the clergy was almost absolute. |The Saybrook Platform was stamped with his seal and was for the most part an embodiment of his views.| -- Hollister, Hist. of Conn. vol. ii, p.585.

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