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


And make the bounds of Freedom wider yet. -- Alfred Tennyson.

The legal recognition of conscience, the acknowledgment of fundamental dogmas held in common, the gradual approachment of the various religious organizations in polity, their common interest in education and good government, would seem to furnish grounds for such mutual esteem that the government would willingly do away with the objectionable certificates. On the contrary, the old conception of a state church, and of its value to the body politic, was so strongly intrenched in the hearts of the majority of the people that they felt it incumbent upon them to require the certificates as guarantees that those who were without the Establishment were fulfilling their religious duties. Particularly was this the case when new sects continued to increase and radical opinions to spread among the masses. And as the government saw these apparently destructive ideas permeating the people, it endeavored, rather unwisely, to hem dissent in closer bounds, and to favor still more Cougregationalists and Presbyterian-Congregationalists.

The aggressively successful proselytizing by the Methodists revived the old dislike of rash exhorters and itinerant preachers, and the old contempt for an ignorant and unlearned ministry. The proselytizing movement had also created a suspicion that it was hypocritical, and that it was masking a deliberate attempt to undermine the Establishment. Outside this Methodist propaganda there were also all sorts of unorthodox ideas that were spreading notions of Universalism, Arianism, deism, atheism, and freethinking, and making many converts. These proselytes were frequent among the untutored and irresponsible members of society who caught at the doctrines of greater freedom, and sometimes translated them, theoretically at least, into principles of greater personal license; and where they did not do this, the authorities felt sure that they would soon, and if unrestrained by ecclesiastical law, would quickly become lawless, first in religious affairs and then, as a consequence, in moral ones. Not only in this radical class, but among the recognized dissenters and among a minority of other, religious folk, there was a tendency to question both the authority and the justice of the government in its restrictive religious laws, its ecclesiastical taxation, and its Sabbath-day legislation. Particularly was there opposition to the fine for absence from public worship on Sunday, unless excused by weighty reasons, and to the assessment upon every one of a tax for the support of some form of recognized public worship, even though the tax-payer had no personal interest or liking for that which he was obliged to support. The feeling that such injustice ought not to continue was strong among some members of the Establishment. They found a powerful advocate in Judge Zephaniah Swift of Windham, the author of the |System of the Laws of the State of Connecticut.|

Judge Swift was a thorough-going Federalist, but so bitter an opponent of the union of Church and State that his enemies, and even members of his own party, taunted him with being a freethinker, -- a serious charge in those days. Nevertheless, Judge Swift held the loyalty of a county and of one rather tolerant of dissent. |The Phenix or Windham Herald,| founded in 1790, though Federal in politics, became Judge Swift's organ; and so acceptable were his opinions, taken all in all, to the community, that from 1787 to 1793 it returned this arch-enemy of the Establishment as its deputy to the House, and then his congressional district honored him with a seat in the national council until 1799. He became chief justice in 1806, and died in 1819, having lived to see the charter constitution set aside and Church and State divorced.

The small Anti-Federal party in the state, though making but very few converts at this time, and though of very little importance politically, were the pronounced advocates of a wider suffrage, a larger tolerance, and of radical changes in the method of government. The last they believed necessary before any great improvement in the terms of the franchise or in those of religious toleration could be secured. |An Address to the Baptists, Quakers, Rogerines, and all other denominations of Christians in Connecticut, freed by law from supporting what has been called the 'Established Religion,'| went the rounds of the newspapers urging continued resistance to the support of any religious system that enforced a tax. The |Address| closed with the cheerful prediction that, as their numbers were increasing very rapidly, they might hope yet |to carry the vote against those who have put on haughty airs and affected to treat us as their inferiors.|

Such seething opposition among various classes induced the government to enact some special legislation; but it was unfortunately not of a conciliatory character. In May, 1791, a law was passed varying the old requirement that certificates, after being signed by a church officer, should be lodged with the Society clerk, to the demand that they be signed by two civil officers, or, where there was only one, by the justice of the peace of the town in which the dissenter lived. Considering that the justices were mostly Congregationalists, the enactment amounted to an intrenchment of the Standing Order at the expense of the dissenters. With these officers lay full power to pass upon the validity of the certificates and upon the honesty of intent on the part of the persons presenting them. The certificates read: --

We have examined the claim of -- -- who says he is a Dissenter from the Established Society of -- -- and hath joined himself to a church or Congregation of the name of -- -- ; and that he ordinarily attends upon the public worship of such Church or Congregation; and that he contributes his share and proportion toward supporting the public worship and ministry thereof, do upon examination find that the above facts are true.


Justice of the Peace.

A veritable doubt, spite, malice, prejudice, or mistaken zeal, might determine the granting of the certificate to the dissenter.

The authorities defended this measure upon the ground that it was the civil effect of preaching that gives the civil
magistrate jurisdiction. |The law,| they said, |has nothing to do with conscience and principles.| They further declared that there were persons who were taking undue advantage of the certificate exemptions, and that there were good reasons, to doubt the validity of many of the certificates.

This Certificate Act roused the dissenters throughout the state. |In public society meetings and in speaking universal abroad, sensible that their numbers though scattered were large,| they strove to create a sentiment that should send to the next legislature a |body of representatives who would remember their petition and see that equal religious liberty should be established.|

In regard to the certificates, a writer in the |Courant| exclaims: --

It is sometimes said that the giving of a certificate once a year or once in a man's life is but a trifle, and none but the obstinate will refuse it as none but the covetous desire it. True it is but a trifle -- ten times as much would be but a trifle if it was right. If it must be done, let them who plead for it do the little trifle; they have no scruples of conscience about it.... The certificate law is as much worse than the tax on tea as religious fetters are worse than civil.

The Rev. John Leland's |The Rights of Conscience inalienable; therefore Religious Opinions not cognizable by Law; Or The High flying Churchman, stript of his legal Robe appears a yaho| was a powerful arraignment of the government and defense of the right of all to worship as conscience bade them. Leland had recently come from Virginia and settled in New London. In the southern state he had been one of the most influential among the Baptist ministers and a great power in politics. In Virginia he had seen the separation of Church and State in 1785, and had witnessed the benefits following that policy. After the publication of his |Rights of Conscience| the question before the Connecticut people became one of establishment or disestablishment, because Leland, not content with showing the falsity of the position that civil necessities required an established church, or with a logical demonstration of the inalienable rights of conscience, proceeded to boldly attack the Charter of Charles II as being in no rightful sense the constitution of the state of Connecticut. He maintained that, |Constitution| though it was called, it was not such, because it had been enforced upon the people by a mere vote of the legislature [a] and was a |constitution| never |assented to further than passive obedience and non resistance| by the people at large; a constitution --

contrary to the known sentiments of a far greater part of the States in the Union; and inconsistent with the clear light of liberty, which is spreading over the world in meridian splendor, and dissipating those antique glooms of tyrannical darkness which were ever opposed to free, equal, religious liberty among men.

Leland arraigns a union of Church and State that presupposes a need of legislative support for religion, which the example of other states has proved unnecessary; and which the experience of communities, persisting in such union, has shown to be productive of evil, of ignorance, superstition, persecution, lying and hypocrisy, a weakness to the civil state, and a conversion of the Bible and of religion to tools of statecraft and political trickery.

Government has no more to do with religious opinions of men than it has with the principles of mathematics.... Truth disdains the aid of law for its defence, ... it will stand upon its own merit.... Is it just to balance the Establishment against the rights guaranteed in the charter, and to enact a law which has no saving clause to prevent taxation of Jew, Turk, Papist, Deist, Atheist, for the support of a ministry in which they would not share and which violated their conscience?

Many Federalists of Judge Swift's type sympathized with Leland's bold arraignment of the Establishment, if not with his view of the unconstitutionality of the charter government. These men repudiated the new certificate law.

The authorities felt that they had gone too far, and in October, 1791, after an existence of only six months, they repealed the certificate law by one hundred and five yeas to fifty-seven nays. The new law that was substituted permitted each dissenter to write his own certificate, release, or |sign-off,| as the papers were colloquially called, and required him to file it with the clerk of the Established Society wherein he dwelt. This favor was not so great a privilege as it seemed. It bore hard upon the dissenters in two ways. It created |Neuters,| people who wished to be relieved from the ecclesiastical taxes, but who were too indifferent to the principles and welfare of the churches to which they allied themselves to faithfully support them. For their churches to complain of such persons to the authorities would only give the latter reasons for enforcing the laws for the support of the Establishment. Then again, the new certificate law did not relieve the dissenters who lived too far from their churches to ordinarily attend them from petty fines and from court wrangles as to the justice of them, for with the judges lay the determination of what the words |far| and |near| and |ordinarily do attend| in the laws meant. [b] The important question of how many absences from church would prevent a man from claiming that he was a regular attendant was thus left in the hands of judges, who were for the most part prejudiced or partial. Many amusing and exasperating legal quibbles occurred in the courts between judges, who were determined to sentence for neglect of public worship, and defendants, who were equally positive of their rights. Many dissenters attempted later to ridicule the law out of existence by substituting for the formal --

I certify that I differ in sentiment from the worship and ministry in the ecclesiastical society of -- -- in the town of -- -- constituted bylaw within certain local bounds, and have chosen to join myself to the (Insert here the name of society you have joined) in the town of -- -- .

Dated at -- -- this -- -- day of -- -- A. D.

declarations, undignified in wording and sometimes written in doggerel rhyme. While granting the new certificate law, the Assembly were careful to pass a minor ecclesiastical statute enforcing a fine of from six to twelve shillings upon all who should neglect to observe all public fasts and thanksgivings. This law at times proved unsatisfactory to the Episcopalians, for the Congregational fasts and feasts were appointed by the authorities, who naturally did not consider the Churchman's feeling when called upon to celebrate a feast or thanksgiving during an Episcopalian season of fasting, or to observe a public fast, to go in sackcloth, upon an anniversary that should be marked by joy and praise.

In 1792, the year following the attempt to remodel the certificate laws, certain legislative measures with reference to Yale College fed the discontent among the dissenting sects. For some years there had been an increasing dissatisfaction with the management of the college. It culminated in 1792 in the reorganization of the governing board, to which were added eight civilians, including the governor, lieutenant-governor, and the six senior councilors or state senators. At the same time, and in consideration of the admission of laymen to the board, [USD]40,000 was given to the college. [c] This money was a part of the taxes which had been collected to meet the expenses of the Revolutionary war, and which were in the state treasury when the United States government offered to refund the state for such expense. It was granted to the college on condition that she should invest it in the new United States bonds, and that half the profits of the investment should be at the disposal of the state. This arrangement relieved the crippled finances of the college and gratified many of its friends. But there were many who regarded the measure as out-and-out favoritism to a Congregational college, and who put no faith in the proposed half-sharing of profits. They maintained that eventually the college would get the whole benefit of the money that had been collected for other purposes, and from many persons who could derive no benefit from such a disposal of it. These prophets were not far wrong, for after Yale had paid into the state treasury a little more than [USD]13,000 she was relieved from further payments by a repeal, in 1796, of the conditional clause of the grant.

This favoritism to Yale was not the only legislation to anger the dissenters, and especially the Baptists. Another measure, mooted at the same time as the certificate acts and the special grant to the college, was accepted as a further mark of the government's determination to ignore the rights of dissenters. In 1785-86 the Assembly had granted lands for the support of the Gospel ministry, for schools, and to the first minister to settle in each township of the Western Reserve. This act, as has been shown, was considered to unduly favor the Presbyterians. But little had come of this legislation beyond the survey of the land and the opening of a land office there for its sale. Five years later, in 1791, even though no part of the tract had been sold, the Assembly introduced a new bill appropriating the anticipated proceeds from the sale of the land to the several ecclesiastical societies as a fund with which to pay their ministers so as to enable them to do away with the tax for salaries. But the excitement roused by the first certificate law -- of 1791 -- was so great that it was deemed prudent to continue this Western Land bill over to the next session of the legislature, and there it was lost. The session of May, 1792, contented itself with only such legislation in regard to the Western Reserve as that by which it granted the |Fire Lands,| so called, a grant of 500,000 acres as indemnity to the citizens of New London, Groton, Fairfield, Norwalk, and Danbury, for the destruction of their property in the burning of their towns by British troops.

As the lands of the Western Reserve did not sell well, [d] the Assembly, in 1793, appointed a committee to dispose of the tract to the highest bidder if the amount offered should be duly guaranteed with interest; principal and interest payable to the state within four or six years, whether paid in lump sum on demand, or by installments. The sale was widely advertised both within and without the state. It was now calculated that the amount realized from the sale of the lands would be a sum yielding an annual interest of [USD]60,000, or an average of [USD]600 to a town, beside a bonus to Yale of [USD]8000. Therefore, the Assembly, in October, 1793, voted that --

moneys arising from the sale of the territory belonging to the State, lying west of the state of Pennsylvania, be, and the same is hereby established a perpetual fund, the interest whereof is granted, and shall be appropriated to the use and benefit of the several ecclesiastical societies, churches, congregations of all denominations in this State, to be by them applied to the support of their respective ministers or preachers of the Gospel, and schools of education, under such rules and regulations as shall be adopted by this or some future session of the General Assembly.

An earlier bill had been proposed, discussed, and tabled. This act was originally a resolution framed by a large committee whose members represented both the friends and opponents of the proposal for the immediate sale of the lands. When the vote passed, it was by eighty-three yeas to seventy nays in the House and by a large and favorable majority in the Council.

One fault that the dissenters found with the law was that, under the rules and regulations adopted by the Assembly, they believed that the alternative which the law allowed of voting the money to the ministerial fund, or to the school, would work to their disadvantage. Where there were few dissenters, the Presbyterian vote would carry the money over to the minister's use, and where there were many, the same vote would be sufficient, if thrown, as it probably would be, to direct the money to the school appropriation. It would follow that the dissenters might never have the use of the money for the support of their own worship.

The Baptists voiced the general opposition among the dissenters, -- an opposition so strong that it appealed to some of the conservatives as sufficient reason in itself to condemn the law. |A Friend to Society| wrote to the |Hartford Courant| that --

if a religion whose principles are universal love and harmony is to be supported and promoted by a means which will blow up the sparks of faction and party strife into a violent flame, it is a new way of promoting religion. Much better would it be for the State of Connecticut that their Western Lands should be sunk by an earthquake and form part of the adjoining lake than that they should be transplanted hither for a bone of contention.

Apart from sectarian interests, the law met with hostility. There were those who thought that the money ought to be applied at once to the remaining indebtedness of the state, rather than for it to wait for another installment on the Revolutionary debt that was still due from the national government. There were more who thought that the money ought to go for the expenses of government, or for direct advantages, such as the repair of bridges and highways. But the expenses of government were light, [e] and, as a rule, the people were willing to keep the highways in repair. There was still another party who contended that the money should go for schools, both because they were needed in larger numbers, and because they ought to be able to pay larger salaries and not ones so small as to tempt only the farmer lad, or the ambitious student, to keep a country school for a few months in winter, or a somewhat similarly equipped woman to teach in summer. And there was yet another party who were convinced that the money should go to the support of the ministry, for they believed that morality could be taught only by religion, and that the people were losing interest in the latter because of the inferiority of the preachers whom the small salaries and insecure support kept in the field.

While this discussion of certificate laws, of grants to Yale, and of grants of land and money to the ecclesiastical societies had been constantly before the public, there had also been present a minor grievance due to the Assembly's interest in the missionary work that the General Association had extended to include parts of Vermont, western New York, Pennsylvania, and the outlying settlements in Ohio. In the western field the missionaries sent by Connecticut frequently met those sent out by the Presbyterian General Assembly. Drawn together by their interests in these missions in 1794, the practice was begun of having three delegates from the General Association meet with the Presbyterian General Assembly in their annual convention, and three delegates from the General Assembly take their seats in the yearly convocation of the General Association of Connecticut. So long as the Connecticut churches were strongly Presbyterian in sentiment, there was no clashing of interests among the workers in the mission field. Naturally, Connecticut wanted to do her full share of missionary work; and feeling the need of more money for the purpose, the General Association, in 1792, appealed to the legislature for permission to take up an annual collection for three years. The Association hesitated to take up such a collection in all the churches, dissenting or Established, without such permission. The Baptists expressed their indignation at the wording of Governor Huntington's proclamation, |that there be a contribution taken up in every congregation for the support of the Presbyterian Missions in the western territory.| More than that, they refused to contribute, on the ground that if the collection had been |recommended| they would gladly have helped a Christian cause, but that it was inexpedient to yield to a demand that all societies should contribute to the support of missions that were entirely under the control of one religious body. Furthermore, with reference to the appropriation of money from the Western Lands, they would join with other dissenters in opposing it, on the ground that, in order to obtain their share of the money, they would have to admit their inferiority through the showing of the compulsory certificates. Moreover, even the scant favor secured through these was in danger from the continual favoritism of the legislature, with its treasury open at all times to its Congregational college, and with its enactments in favor of the Established Churches.

At the May session of the Assembly, 1794, the Baptists from all over the state thronged the steps of the capitol at Hartford, angered almost to the point of precipitating civil war. There John Leland addressed them, urging the necessity of government; the power of constitutional reform; arguing for rights of conscience, citing both European and colonial history to prove their reasonableness and their value to the body politic; and setting forth Connecticut's departure from the glorious freedom mapped out by her founders. He declared to that great and angry crowd: --

Government is a necessary evil and so a chosen good. Its business is to preserve the life, liberty and property of the many units that form the body politic.... When a constitution of government is formed, it should be simple and explicit; the powers that are vested in, and work to be performed by each department should be defined with the utmost perspicuity; and this constitution should be attended to as scrupulously by men in office as the Bible should be by all religionists.... Let the people first be convinced of the deficiency of the constitution, and remove the defects thereof, and then, those in office can change the administration upon constitutional grounds.

* * * * *

[The right to worship] God according to the dictates of conscience, without being prohibited, directed or controlled therein by human law, either in time, place or manner, cannot be surrendered up to the general government for an equivalent.

Had not Governor Haynes said to Roger Williams, |The Most High God hath provided and cut out this part of the world for a refuge and receptacle for all sorts of consciences?| How had not Connecticut fallen? How passed her ancient glory, how ignored her charter's rights? How firm a grip upon her had that incubus of her own raising, the pernicious union of Church and State? Break that, as elsewhere it had been broken, and then as freemen demand a constitution guaranteeing both civil and religious liberty.

The result of the widespread hostility was the attempt at the May session of 1794 to repeal the offensive law. The Lower House did repeal it, after a lively debate, by a vote of 109 yeas to 58 nays, but the Council, or Upper House, where the conservatives were intrenched, refused to pass the bill. However, they were induced to pass a resolution suspending the sale of the lands. The debate in the House was published verbatim in the |Hartford Gazette| of May 19, 1794, and was copied by the papers throughout the state. In the following October a bill was passed by the Council, but continued over by the House and ordered to be printed in all the papers, that the people might have opportunity to consider it before it should come up to be passed upon by their representatives in the May session of 1795. The terms of the bill were that the principal sum of money received from the sale of the Western Lands should be apportioned among the several school societies according to the list of polls and rateable estates, and that the interest arising from the money so divided should be appropriated to the support of schools that were kept according to the law, or to the support of the public worship of God and the Christian ministry, |as the majority of the legal voters should annually determine.|

The proposed law was subjected to public scrutiny of all sorts. It was agitated in town meetings, and the discussions for and against it were noticed in the newspapers, where much space was given to its consideration. Ministers made it the subject of their sermons. Dr. Dwight discoursed upon the subject in his Thanksgiving sermon. When the proposed bill came up before the legislature, it encountered considerable opposition, but after some modifications it became a law. As in school societies the dissenters had an equal vote, and in all town affairs were worth conciliating, there was more justice in the new law than in the old, where the ecclesiastical society was made the unit of division. From 1717 to 1793 the towns, parishes, and occasionally the ecclesiastical societies had charge of the schools. But in 1794 school districts were authorized and the change to them begun. Such districts could, upon the vote of two thirds of all the qualified voters, locate schools, lay taxes to build and repair them, and appoint a collector to gather such rates. The act of May, 1795, appropriating the money from the Western Lands to the schools, provided also that the school districts should be erected into school societies to whom the money should be distributed, and by whom the interest thereon should be expended; and that it should go |to no other Use or Purpose whatsoever; except in the Case and under the circumstances hereafter mentioned.| The circumstances here referred to were in cases where two thirds of the legal voters in a school society meeting, legally warned, voted to use the interest money for the support of the ministry in that Society, and appealed to the General Assembly for permission to so use the money. Upon such an expression of the wish of voters, the General Assembly was empowered to answer in the affirmative. The act also repealed that of 1793. The legislature appointed another commission for the sale of the lands. They were sold in the following October for [USD]1,200,000. By this legislation was laid the foundation of Connecticut's School Fund. The Connecticut Land Company, which had made the purchase, petitioned the legislature in 1797 that Connecticut should surrender her jurisdiction over the lands to the United States. The state complied. In 1798 the organization of the new school societies was perfected, and the control of the schools passed entirely into their hands until the district system of 1856 was adopted.

The Western Land bills had resulted in the establishment of a public school fund and in its just distribution, without reference to sectarianism, among the people. All the agitation attending both the certificate acts and Western Land bills had demonstrated the intense opposition of the dissenting minority, and that they were beginning to look to the increase of their numbers and the power of the ballot as the only means of changing the vexatious laws under which they were treated as inferiors. To the Congregationalists, strong both as the Established Church and as members of the Federal party, which counted many adherents among all the dissenting sects, the possibility that any voting strength could be brought against them, adequate to oppose their party measures, seemed improbable. Such a possibility must be very remote. Yet within twenty years, they were to see the downfall of the Federal party, of the Established Church, and of Connecticut's charter government.


[a] The vote of the Assembly was: |That the ancient form of civil government, containing the charter from Charles the Second, King of England, and adopted by the people of this State, shall be and remain the Civil Constitution of the State under the sole authority of the people thereof, independent of any King, or ftince whatever. And that this Republic is and shall forever be and remain a free, sovereign, and independent State, by the name of the State of
Connecticut.| -- Revision of Acts and Laws, Ed.1784, p.1.

[b] |Courts and juries had usually been composed of what was considered the standing church, and they had frequently practiced such quibbles and finesse with respect to the forms of certificates and the nature of dissenting congregations as to defeat the benevolent intentions of the law.| -- Swift's System of Laws, pp.146, 147.

[c] Yale received in all [USD]40,629.80. In 1871, six alumni replaced the six senior councilors.

[d] So far the highest bid for the tract of land had been [USD]350,000.

[e] The annual expenses were estimated to be approximately [USD]90,000. In Advice to Connecticut Folks, 1786, occurs the following estimate: --

Necessary Unneces'y
-- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- - Governor's salary, L300 L300 Lieutenant-Governor's, 100 100 Upper House attendance and travel
60 days at L10 per day, 600 600 Lower House attendance and travel
170 members at 6s. a day, 60 days, 3,060 1,530 L1,530 Five Judges of the Superior Court at
24s. a day, suppose 150 days, 900 900 Forty Judges of Inferior Court at
9s. a day, suppose 40 days, 720 720 Six thousand actions in the year, the
legal expenses of each, suppose L3, 18,000 1,000 17,000 Gratuities to 120 lawyers, suppose
L50 each, 6,000 1,000 5,000 Two hundred clergymen at L100 each, 20,000 20,000 Five hundred schools at L20 a year, 10,000 10,000 Support of poor, 10,000 10,000 Bridges and other town expenses, 10,000 10,000 Contingencies and articles not
enumerated, 10,000 10,000 -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- - Total, L89,680 L66,150 L23,530

As a glimpse at society, it may be added that the Advice itself is an energetic and statistical condemnation of the prevalent use of |Rum,| estimated at L90,000 or |ninety-nine hundredths unnecessary expense| in living. |Deny it if you can, good folks. Now say not a word about taxes, Judges, lawyers, courts and women's extravagances. Your government, your courts, your lawyers, your clergymen, your schools and your poor, do not all cost you so much as one paltry article which does you little or no good but is as destructive of your lives as fire and brimstone.| -- Noah Webster's Collection of Essays, pp.137-139.

The evil was beginning to be recognized in all its danger. Here and there voluntary temperance clubs were beginning to be formed among the better classes, but it was a time when hardly a contract was closed without a stipulation of a certain quantity of rum for each workman.

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