A GENERAL HISTORY OF THE BAPTIST
DENOMINATION IN AMERICA, AND OTHER PARTS OF THE WORLD
By David Benedict
London: Printed by Lincoln & Edmands, No. 53, Cornhill, for the Author
This state began to be settled by some of the famous Robinson?s congregation in 1633, but we do not find any Baptists in it for more than seventy years from that period. In 1705, Mr. Valentine Wightman removed from North Kingston in Rhode Island to Groton, seven miles from New London, where he the same year planted a church of which he became pastor. This remained the only Baptist church in this province for about twenty years: But in 1726 another was gathered in the township of New London on the ground which is now occupied by the Seventh Day Baptists, and a minister by the name of Stephen Gorton became their pastor. He was a man of some eminence as a preacher, and ministered to this people for many years; but he at length fell into some scandalous conduct, for which he was deposed from his pastoral office, and the church in a short time became extinct.
In 1729, some people in Saybrook at the mouth of Connecticut river, embraced Baptist sentiments; but no church was gathered there until fifteen years after.
In 1731, some of the Pedobaptists in Wallingford, thirteen miles north of New Haven, by reading Delaune?s Plea, etc. became convinced of the error of their former creed, were baptized, and united with the church at New London, but usually met for worship in their own town, where a church was soon afterwards established.
These were some of the first efforts which our brethren made amongst the rigid Pedobaptists in this fast-bound State. Their progress was at first extremely slow and much embarrassed; they had to work their way against the deep-rooted prejudices of a people, who had been always taught, with a sanctimonious tone, that these were the vile descendants of the mad men of Munster; that they propagated errors of a pestilential and most dangerous kind; that they were aiming to subvert all the established forms of religion in the land, and on the ruin of the Pedobaptist churches to plant their heretical and disorganizing principles; that for the people to hear them preach, or for the magistrates to tolerate or connive at their meetings in any of their towns or parishes, was a crime of peculiar enormity, which would expose them to the famishing and revengeful judgments of Heaven.
Such were the sentiments of most of the Connecticut people, at the period of which we are speaking. But this host of prejudices was only a shadowy obstacle to the progress of the Baptist cause, compared with those religious laws with which the Connecticut rulers had fenced in their ecclesiastical establishment.
In the New Light Stir the foundations of this establishment were very sensibly shaken; many ministers opposed the progress of that extraordinary work of grace, as being only the fruit of error and fanaticism; divisions ensued; separate meetings were set up in many towns and parishes; Baptist principles almost everywhere prevailed; and many of the zealous New Lights, who began upon the Pedobaptist, brought up on the Baptist plan.
About the time, and a little after this distinguished epoch in the religious affairs of New England, small churches were formed in Stonington, Colchester, Ashford, Lyme, Killingly, Farmington, Stratfield, and Horseneck, some of which acquired a permanent standing, while others were soon scattered and became extinct.
So slow was the increase of the Baptists in this government, that in 1760, fifty-five years after Mr. Wightman erected his standard at Groton, they had only eight or nine churches, which had acquired any degree of permanency, and most of these were small and feeble bodies.
In 1784 their number had increased to about thirty, in which were about twenty ministers. From this date, the denomination began to increase much faster than it had formerly done, so that in 1795 the number of churches amounted to sixty, the ministers were about forty, and the communicants a little over three thousand, five hundred. These churches were scattered in every county, and in almost every township in the State.
From 1795, Baptist principles have prevailed in this populous territory as rapidly as at any former period. But as many brethren have emigrated to other parts, the clear increase of members has not been so great as it would otherwise have been.
The River from which this State receives its name divides it into two sections nearly equal in size. The churches east of this river belong mostly to the Stonington, Groton, and Sturbridge Associations. The Danbury Association comprehends most of those to the west of it; a few churches towards the south-west part of the State belong to the Union and Warwick Associations, in New York.
This body was formed at the place from which it received its name in 1772. Its progress does not appear to have been marked with any peculiar events; it has now increased to twenty-two churches, five of which are in Rhode Island, the remainder are in the south-west part of this State.
Groton. This church was planted by Valentine Wightman in 1705, being the first Baptist church in Connecticut. The members? were harassed for awhile by the predominant party; but no account of their sufferings has been obtained. Mr. Wightman was born at North Kingston, Rhode Island, in 1681, and finished his course in a joyful manner in 1747. We have already stated that he is supposed to have been a descendant of Edward Wightman, the last man who was burnt for heresy in England. According to a tradition in his family, five brothers came to Rhode Island in the early settlement of that colony; two of them were preachers, two were deacons, and the fifth was a professor of religion, all of the Baptist persuasion. The subject of this memoir was a son of one of these men, but nothing more particular respecting his progenitors can be learnt. He settled in Groton at the age of twenty-four, when there were but six or seven Baptists in the place.
In 1727, Mr. Wightman, being called to preach at Lyme, was opposed by Reverend Mr. Bulkly of Colchester, who challenged him to a public dispute, which was first maintained in a verbal manner, and was afterwards kept up in writing. Mr. Bulkly, after ransacking the records of slander for arguments against his opponent, and the Baptists generally, concludes, "They are but of yesterday, and consequently the truth cannot be with them, as being not known in the world till about two hundred years past." Mr. Wightman replied, "I never read of a Presbyterian longer than said term, how then can the way of truth with them?" etc. [Backus, vol. ii. p. 89, 90.]
Mr. Wightman was succeeded by Mr. Daniel Fisk, who served the church about seven years, when Timothy Wightman, one of the sons of the founder of this body, was elected its pastor. He discharged the duties of his office till a good old age, and was succeeded by his son John Gano Wightman, who was ordained in 1800. Jesse Wightman, another of his sons, is pastor of a church in West Springfield. John Wightman, a brother of Timothy, was an eminent minister in his day, and died at Farmington in this State. From a daughter of Valentine Wightman descended four Baptist ministers, by the name of Rathbun; one of them, by the name of Valentine Wightman Rathbun, died this present year, pastor of the church in Bellingham, Massachusetts.
Stonington. This town is in the south-east corner of Connecticut, adjoining Rhode Island, and directly east of Groton. In it, as it stood before its late division, were three churches belonging to the Association under consideration. The oldest of the three is situated in what is now called North Stonington, and is under the care of Mr. Peleg Randal. It was formed in 1743; its first members were baptized by Mr. Wightman of Groton. The foundation for the second church in this town was laid by Simeon Brown, now its aged pastor, and Stephen Babcock of Westerly, Rhode Island. In the remarkable revival so often referred to, these two men caught the New Light flame, and zealously engaged in promoting the work, which was then going on in the land. Mostly by their means a church was formed in Westerly, on the plan of open communion, in 1750, of which Mr. Babcock was soon ordained pastor, and Mr. Brown a deacon. They traveled together about fourteen years, held meetings sometimes in Westerly, but often in Stonington, and the church increased abundantly, and spread into many of the surrounding parts. But the pastor and deacon at length fell out upon sundry points, both of doctrine and discipline, their disputes, however, turned principally upon what, in that day, was called the divine testimony. By this testimony, which consisted of certain impulses and spiritual manifestations, Mr. Babcock was for regulating those acts of discipline, which Mr. Brown would govern by moral evidence. As all attempts at reconciliation proved ineffectual, the deacon, who had not yet been baptized, had the ordinance administered to him by Elder Wait Palmer, the same who had baptized Shubeal Stearns; gathered a church in his own town in 1765, to the pastoral care of which he was ordained the same year. Mr. Brown was born in Stonington, January, 1723, and if still living, is turned of 90.
This church has been a flourishing body, and has now become large; by it were sent into the ministry, John and Valentine Rathbun, Robert Staunton, Eleazer Brown, Amos Wells, Simeon Brown, Jr., Asa Spaulding and Jedidiah Randal.
A third church was gathered at Stonington harbour in 1775. Mr. Rathbun, late of Bellingham, was for a number of years its pastor; it is now under the care of Mr. Elihu Cheeseborough.
A fourth church was formed in this town in 1795, which has since been dissolved.
New London. This town once included Montville and Waterford. In the last place a church was formed in 1726, whose pastor was Stephen Gorton, of whom we have given some account. In the same place has arisen a Sabbatarian church, and also one of the First-day order, whose ministers are Zadock and Francis Darrow. It was formed in 1767. The ancient church, in what is now called Montville, was gathered in 1750, under the ministry of Mr. Joshua Morse, who removed to Sandisfield, Massachusetts, in the time of the war, and his flock appears to have been scattered. The present church is dated in 1786, and is now under the care of Mr. Reuben Palmer.
A church in the city of New London was gathered in 1804, under the ministry of Mr. Samuel West.
The church in Lebanon, Windham county, arose out of a Pedobaptist quarrel, about an old meeting house; the affair made a considerable noise at the time, and is thus briefly related by Mr. Nehemiah Dodge, under whose ministry the church was built up:
"Many things complicated and perplexing took place in the town, relative to taking down one old meeting house, and building two new ones; concerning which many wrong reports have been spread abroad. And since a number of Christians have been baptized in this place and formed into a church, some have been ungenerous enough to cast many hard reflections upon the denomination. They have said, that the Baptists had been the cause of the tumults and distressing divisions which took place in the parish anterior to our existence as a church, or to there being any Baptists here, excepting a few individuals, who lived recluse, and had nothing to do with the existing controversy."
This controversy turned principally upon the place where a new meeting house should be set, and as the parties could not agree, they built two in places they respectively chose. Some measures taken by the party, who became Baptists, it would seem, did not receive the sanction of the Legislature, which accounts for what follows:
"After a meeting house was erected, the people, who built it made application to Presbyterian ministers, under whose ministry they had been brought up, to come and preach to them. But these gentlemen replied, that they could not in conscience preach to them, nor fellowship those that would. Why? Because the people were immoral or scandalous in their lives? No, but because they said they had gone contrary to law in building their house. They said it did not become them as leaders of the people and examples of piety, to have so much fellowship with a people, who had paid so little regard to the voice of the General Assembly, and who had been governed no more by civil law in the management of their affairs, relative to their meeting house. It is understood that a vote to this import passed in their Association.
"Many of the people by these means became convinced that late religion might, in some instances, operate unjustly by depriving individuals of their unalienable rights. Or in other words, they became convinced, that civil law and civil rulers had an undue influence over ministers and churches. Feeling the injuries produced by this legal influence, they were led to seek an acquaintance with those Christians, who acknowledge no other Lawgiver in the church but Jesus Christ, and no other law-book to govern them in their religious concerns but the Bible. And notwithstanding the many reproaches they had heard cast upon the Baptist denomination, for refusing to be dictated in their religious affairs by civil law, and for trusting alone to the spirit and providence of God to support their cause, they thought best to examine for themselves, and see, if what had so long been deemed foolishness and enthusiasm were not a virtue. Accordingly in October, 1804, application was made to the Stonington Baptist Association by some of the aggrieved people of Lebanon, requesting some of their ministers to visit them and preach the gospel to them. It being in our view consistent with the great commission to preach the gospel to every creature, whether they be governed by civil law in their religion or not, eight of our ministers agreed to visit them in their turns between that time and the next spring.
"When it came to my turn according to appointment to visit this people for the first time (which was about a year ago) I perceived so much solemnity and candour among them, and such a spirit of inquiry after the apostolic truth and practice, as could not fail to interest my feelings in their behalf. I also found how grossly mistaken many people abroad had been about them, by reason of their circumstances having been misrepresented. Their ideas were no less incorrect with respect to the Baptists. I therefore thought it my duty to pay more attention to them than just to preach a single day, and then leave them. Hence I appointed to visit them again in February, and continue with them eight or ten Sabbaths. During this visit God was pleased to move upon the minds of some by the influences of his Spirit, as I have reason to hope. While some, who had never experienced the truth, felt the pangs of conviction, a number of backsliders seemed disposed to return to the great Shepherd and Bishop of their souls. Some, who had been members of the Presbyterian church, obtained light upon Bible baptism, and the doctrine of the covenants. Many others began to inquire whether they had not taken that for granted, which ought first to have been proved, in supposing that baptism was appointed by God as a substitute for circumcision, and for a sign and seal of the same covenant. And whether in the case of infant sprinkling they had not acted without any positive or fairly implied evidence. Our assemblies were large and solemn as they have ever since continued. And on Fast day, last spring, three persons were baptized, which, I conclude, were the first ever baptized in this parish.
"As my time of engagement was near expiring, the proprietors of the new house, with others, met and requested me to remove my family, and make my home with them. With this request I thought it duty to comply, and agreed to stay and preach with them as long as they and I should think it duty; leaving it for them to do for me whatever Bible and conscience should dictate, and nothing more. They accordingly removed my family from Middletown to this place in May last, and have hitherto done for me and my family as well as the principles of honor and christian friendship require, without the aid of civil law to enforce their obligations. A people who are governed by the religion of Christ, will do their duty in these respects much more cheerfully and uniformly, than those who are goaded to it by civil penalties.
"Since I commenced my stated labors here, God has been pleased graciously to continue his favor to the people. Some have been hopefully converted to God, and baptized. Several brethren and sisters from the Presbyterian church have put into practice the light they have obtained upon this ordinance. Some backsliders have been waked up to purpose, and put on the Lord Jesus Christ. NEHEMIAH DODGE Lebanon, December 7, 1805 [Massachusetts Baptist Missionary Magazines, vol. i. p. 180-8.]
This revival continued until a sufficient number of baptized believers were collected for the purpose, who received the fellowship of a large number of ministers as a distinct church, September, 1805. Among these ministers were Dr. Baldwin of Boston, Dr. Gano of Providence, and others. This church has since increased to eighty members. The meeting house, thus unexpectedly built for Baptist use, is 73 feet by 48 with a steeple and bell. By this church was sent into the ministry Mr. Jonathan Goodwin, pastor of the church in Mansfield, founded by Mr. Joshua Bradley in 1809.
GROTON UNION CONFERENCE
This name was given to an Association, which was formed in 1785. The churches of which it is composed are intermixed with those of the Stonington; they at first held pretty generally, if not uniformly, to open communion, which accounts for its being formed in the neighborhood of that body. But this practice I believe they have all now given up, and are in fellowship with the surrounding churches.
The Groton church, from which this body took its name, is the second in the town; it was formed in 1765; its first pastor, Silas Burrows, is still living, though far advanced in years. His son, Boswell Burrows, has been ordained his colleague, and will doubtless succeed him. This is a large and flourishing church, has had many refreshing seasons, and contains between two and three hundred members. Mixed communion they held till 1797, when the practice was relinquished without opposition. A few members of this community had lived a number of years at a place called Preston city, considerably to the north of it, where a revival commenced in 1811, in which forty or fifty were brought to put on Christ by a public profession. They have built them a commodious house of worship, and will probably soon become a distinct church.
Lyme. In this town a church arose in early times under the ministry of an Elder Cooley, which was long since dissolved. The wife of this Elder was a Rogerene, and gave her husband no little trouble in the prosecution of his ministry, but more especially in his family devotions. One of his deacons was a brother of the late Governor Griswold.
The present church in Lyme was formed in 1752, by the labors of Elder Ebenezer Mack, who was for some years its pastor. It arose out of a church of the Pedobaptist New Lights, which was formed in 1749. Mr. Mack removed to Marlow, in New Hampshire, in 1768, where he tarried many years, but in his old age came back and died among this people. The second pastor of this flock was Elder Jason Lee, who died among them at an advanced age in 1810.
The church is now under the care of Mr. Asa Wilcox from Rhode Island. Their number is between four and five hundred; they have a farm and parsonage house, the gift of Captain Miller, estimated at about twelve hundred dollars.
A second church was formed in this town in 1812. Their preacher is Mr. Mathew Bolles from Ashford.
In Norwich a church was formed in 1800; their pastor is Mr. John Sterry; they have lately received a legacy of real estate supposed to be worth about six thousand dollars. It was given by a Mr. Hatch, who was not a Baptist, and had never manifested any peculiar regard for the denomination. It is said that he had been heard to in merit that the Baptists were no more able to support the ministry among them; but no one knew what he had done until his Will was opened. His widow is a member of the church, and is to have her support out of the property during her life. From the preceding sketches it appears that the county of New London has been a fruitful nursery of Baptists for more than a century. The towns of Groton and Stonington have been the most distinguished for the prevalence of the denomination. In these two towns are now five churches, which contain about one thousand communicants. Our brethren here have met with but little opposition from the ecclesiastical powers of the State, compared with what they have experienced in other parts. Their contiguity to the State of Rhode Island has probably been a principal cause of the prevalence of their opinions and of the toleration they have enjoyed. This Baptist corner of Connecticut is generally represented in as deplorable a state of darkness and ignorance as Rhode Island, and ministers are frequently sent to teach and enlighten it.
A number of the churches in this body are in Rhode Island and a few in Massachusetts.
In the north-east corner of this State in the counties of Windham and Tolland, are ten churches belonging to the Sturbridge Association. Some of them arose out of Separate Pedobaptist churches, but most have had their origin at a later period. A church in Thompson was formed on the Six Principle Plan, under the ministry of Mr. Wightman Jacobs from Rhode Island, in 1750. And upon this plan was formed an Association about the same time, which increased to eight or ten churches, when it began to decline and has long since been dissolved. The churches of this Association were mostly in Rhode Island, which Thompson joins. The first church we find here was dissolved, and the present arose out of its ruins in 1773; Mr. John Martin became its pastor; after him was Mr. Parson Crosby, who is still with them. In 1811, a revival commenced among this people, during which about a hundred were added to their number by baptism. They have a farm with buildings for the accommodation of their pastor estimated at about two thousand dollars.
The first church in Woodstock was formed in 1766, by the labors of that distinguished man of God, Biel Ledoyt, who spent fourteen years of his ministry in New Hampshire, and who died among his own people this present year.
The dates of the remaining churches, their pastors, etc. will be exhibited in the General Table.
In this region are a few churches not associated, one of which in Ashford was once under the care of Mr. Thomas Ustick, afterwards pastor of the first church in Philadelphia. It now has for its pastor Mr. Frederick Wightman from Rhode Island.
Was formed in 1790 in the town from which it received its name. It extends from the line of Massachusetts south to the sea coast; it also extends to the State of New York, and a few churches are in that State. Its movements have been harmonious and respectable, but nothing very remarkable has attended them. Of only a few of its churches shall we be able to give much account.
Suffield. This town is on the Connecticut River eighteen miles above Hartford. In the time of the religious agitations in New England, two Separate churches were formed here, whose pastors were Holly and Hastings. Holly wrote first against the Connecticut establishment; then against the Baptists, and afterwards turned back and became a parish minister. Hastings persisted in his separation, and towards the close of his life became a Baptist. Some time before the year 1770, a church of the denomination arose partly out of the remains of the two Separate ones, and partly of those who had newly professed religion, and John Hastings, son of the minister just named, was ordained its pastor in 1775. He was one of the most eminent ministers among the Connecticut churches in his day, and under his labors a large and extensive church arose, which spread its branches throughout a wide extent of towns. It is said that during the whole of his ministry he baptized eleven hundred persons. He finished his course with much serenity, March 17, 1811, aged 68. His successor is Mr. Asahel Morse, late pastor of the church in Stratfield in this State.
From this church, according to a statement of its clerk, originated those of Westfield, Russell, Wintonbury, Hartford, Windsor, Enfield, Granville, Southwick, and Granby, in Massachusetts and Connecticut. Great numbers have also emigrated from this fruitful community to different and distant parts.
In 1804, a second church was formed in this town, partly of members from this body, but not in fellowship with it. Its minister is Mr. Caleb Green from Newport, Rhode-Island.
In Colebrook, west of Suffield, adjoining Massachusetts, a church was formed in 1794, and was the first of any denomination gathered in the town. Their pastor is Mr. Rufus Babcock, a descendant of a family of that name in Westerly, Rhode Island.
Hartford. In this city a church was established in 1790, mostly of members from the Suffield. For a few years after they embodied, they were supplied part of the time by Elders Winchell, Moltit, and others. In 1795, Mr. Stephen S. Nelson was settled in the pastoral office, in which he continued until 1800, when he removed to Mount Pleasant in the State of New York. Under his ministry a revival took place, in which about seventy-five were added to their number.
For about seven years from Mr. Nelson?s removal, this church remained destitute of a pastor, but was generally supplied with neighboring ministers, and two years of the time by the late Mr. David Bolles of Ashford, who, during that time, resided in the city.
In 1807, they settled among them Mr. Henry Grew from Providence. His ministry was acceptable and prosperous about four years, when he withdrew from his office, and formed a new church on the plan of weekly communion, etc.
Next to him is their present pastor, Mr. Elisha Cushman, a native of Kingston, Massachusetts.
The house of worship belonging to this church stands at the corner of Dorr and Theatre Streets, in a central part of the city; it is 51 feet by 41, with a steeple fourteen feet square. The lot is but a little larger than the house, and is the gift of deacons John Bolles and Samuel Beckwith. Both house and lot were at first owned by the church and society in connection, but in January, 1813, the society made a generous transfer of their claim to the church, with whom the estate is now wholly vested. This was a rare instance of reformation in the embarrassing tenure of property for religious purposes too common in New England. It is hoped that other societies may follow the example of the accommodating one at Hartford. This church has lately had a reversionary bequest of bank stock, to the amount of over eight thousand dollars from Mr. Caleb Moore, one of their members.
In Middletown, a church was formed in 1795. They have a commodious house of worship, and are it, a promising condition. Their first pastor was Elder Stephen Parsons, formerly a Pedobaptist minister of the Separate order, who is now settled in the Black River country, New York. After him they were supplied at different periods by Elders Enoch Green, John Grant, Asa Niles, Joshua Bradley, and others. Last year they settled among them Mr. George Phippen, a graduate of Brown University, who was sent into the ministry by the church in Salem, Massachusetts.
At a place called the Upper Houses in this town, a church was formed in 1800, mostly of members from Hartford.
Stratfield. This is an ancient and respectable church. Like many others in this State, it arose out of a Pedobaptist community of the Separate order, and was formed in 1751. Mr. Joshua Morse, then of New London, made frequent visits to the place, and baptized most of the first members in it. About six years after they were set in order as a church, Mr. John Sherwood, one of their number, was ordained their pastor, by Messrs. Morse and Timothy Wightman of Groton. He served them about ten years, when his health declined, and the pastoral office devolved on Mr. Benjamin Coles, from Oyster Bay, Long Island, who, after tarrying here about six years, removed to Hopewell, New Jersey. Since then, they have had in succession Elders Seth Higby, Stephen Royce [by Mr. Royce the Author was baptized in 1798], and Asahel Morse, now of Suffield. Unless they have settled a minister lately, the pastoral office is now vacant. This church has two houses of worship about ten miles apart; it is scattered in many of the surrounding towns, and has extended its branches to Wilton and New Canaan on towards the line of New York. They have a small estate estimated at about eight hundred dollars.
In Stamford, near the south-west corner of this State, a church was formed in 1773. Most of the first members were baptized by John Gano from the city of New York, and added to the church under his care, where they continued until their number was sufficiently large to become a distinct body. Mr. Ebenezer Ferris one of their number was ordained their pastor not long after they began their movements, and is still with them, though far advanced in years. A few other churches have, at other times, arisen in this part of the State, of which we shall give a list in the table of Associations, etc.
From this State have emigrated multitudes of the Baptist denomination to New York, Vermont, and all the surrounding States. This land of steady habits has also given birth to a great number of ministers, who have settled without its bounds. Among these are Messrs. Isaac Backus, the historian, John Waldo, Dr. Thomas Baldwin, Aaron Drake, Justus Hull, Elias Lee, Jeremiah Higbee, Stephen Parsons, Henry Green, Peter P. Roots, and many others. The maxims of the land do not well suit the genius of our Order, and besides, the country is so fully settled, as population increases, the surplusage must go abroad for settlements.
The religious laws of Connecticut are not much unlike those of Massachusetts. The Pedobaptist, frequently called the Presbyterian party, was taken under legal patronage in early times. The whole State was divided into parishes, in which houses of worship were built, ministers settled, and maintained all according to law. Some ministers here as well as in Massachusetts are supported from funds, pew rents, etc. but by far the greater part have their living by a direct tax according to the civil lists, which every human being within the parish bounds, whether Jew or Gentile, Infidel or Christian, possessed of a rateable poll or taxable property, is obliged to pay, unless he gives a certificate of his different belief.
The first certificate law in Connecticut was passed in favor of the Quakers, May, 1729. It provided that those who should produce from a society of that denomination a writing, certifying that they had united with them, and did attend their meetings of worship, should be exempted from ministerial taxes, etc.
In the autumn of that year a similar act was passed in favor of the Baptists of the following tenor:
UPON the Memorial of the people called Baptists, praying that they may be discharged from the payment of rates and taxes for the support of the gospel ministry in this government, and for building meeting houses,
"It is resolved by the Governor, Council, and Representatives, in General Court assembled, and by the authority of the same, That for the future, the same privilege and exemption from the charges aforesaid, as was granted by this Assembly in May last, unto the people called Quakers, is hereby allowed unto them, under the same regulations; any law, usage, custom, to the contrary notwithstanding."
This act appears to have been obtained principally by the friendly assistance of the Rhode Island brethren. At an Association of their churches held in North Kingston, September, 1729, they drew the Memorial above mentioned, which was signed by Richard Sweet, Valentine Wightman, Samuel Fisk, John Comer, Elders, and brethren Timothy Peckham, Joseph Holmes, Ebenezer Cook, Benjamin Herenden and others, to the number of eighteen, all of Rhode lsland except two. To this Memorial was added the following:
"We the subscribers do heartily concur with the Memorial of our brethren on the other side, and do humbly request the same may be granted, which we think will much tend to Christian unity, and be serviceable to true religion, and will very much rejoice your Honor?s friends, and very humble servants, JOESEPH JENKS, Governor JAMES CLARK, Elders DANIEL WIGHTMAN, Elders Newport, September 10, 1729"
This law continued in force without much variation over sixty years. The Quakers and Baptists were the only denominations exempted till about 1756, when the same privileges granted to them were extended to dissenters of all classes, provided they ordinarily attended meetings in their respective societies, and paid their due proportion, etc. otherwise they should be taxed.
The words "ordinarily, etc." were intended to restrain those, who might go off to dissenting sects from motives of economy only, but on the strength of the clause, collectors found pretexts to frequently distrain taxes from church members. A number of Baptists in Stafford had united with the church in Willington under the care of Elder Lillibridge from Rhode lsland. The distance being great and the way rough, they did not meet with the church so often as they could have wished, or the law required. The Presbyterians in Stafford, to pay the expense of a new meeting house, taxed them all, distrained their goods, and disposed of them at public sale. The brethren then set about seeking redress, commenced an action against the distrainers for their goods, damages, etc. The affair went through two courts; in the second the counsel for our brethren plead, that they were Baptists sentimentally, practically, and legally. To this statement the counsel on the other side acceded, but still continued his plea against them because they did not ordinarily attend their own meeting. While the lawyers were disputing, the Judge, who was an Episcopalian, and not very well affected towards the predominant party, called the attention of the court by inquiring, how long a man, who was a Baptist sentimentally, practically, and legally must stay at home to become a Presbyterian? His Honor?s logic produced the same effect upon the whole court as it must upon the reader, and the Baptists easily obtained the case.
In May, 1791, the ruling party thinking probably that certificates were too easily procured, passed a law that they should in future be signed by two magistrates before they could be valid and effectual. This law set all the dissenters in motion. Remonstrances and memorials poured into the Assembly from every quarter, and the act was repealed the October following, when the present certificate law was passed, which reads thus: "Be it enacted by the Governor 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 chosen to belong as aforesaid, be exempted from being taxed for the future support of the worship and ministry in such society" [Statutes of Connecticut].
This law is probably as favorable as any one of the kind can be framed. A dissenter has nothing to do but to write his own certificate, and then he becomes of another sect. This facility has been the cause of multitudes leaving the established order, who are of no use to any other denomination. No man can be a neuter in religion neither here nor in Massachusetts; unless he gives a certificate of dissent, he is known and dealt with in law as a Presbyterian or Congregationalist.
To the certificate law of this State as it now stands, our Baptist brethren object principally, that it presupposes a subordination, which they do not well relish, and obliges them, in Leland?s phraseology, to lower their peek to the national ship. They have made several attempts to get it repealed, but the established clergy have hitherto had influence enough to prevent it. In one of the petitions of the Baptists to the Assembly, dated February, 1803, is the following clause: "We are frequently told that giving a certificate is a mere trifle: if it be so, we would desire that the law would not intermeddle with such a trifling business or that those, who consider it as a mere trifle, may be the persons to do this trifle themselves, and not the dissenters, who consider it in a far different point of light."
Some will not give certificates at any rate, and so much are matters mollified, that very few at present meet with much trouble whether they do or not.
The Pedobaptist communities have found by experience, that it will not do to push their measures, for where ever they have, swarms have deserted from them.
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