[This article was originally written in 2015, on the 300th anniversary of the Connecticut Colonial Legislature granting the people of West Farms (now West Haven) permission to found their own church. It took 4 years to raise the funds and build the church building, which opened in 1719, 300 years ago this year. Stephen Hildrich is Church Historian this year, and Dan Shine is Assistant Historian.]
Recently, at the invitation of Church Historian Dan Shine, my wife Andrea and I, were examining documents in the Historical room (the former public bomb shelter, from World War II or early Cold War times) deep within the “dirt cellar” of the First Congregational Church. Among our finds included a dozen bound volumes of copies of Church records from 1724 to about 1908, published in 1933 by the Connecticut State Library, which presumably still archives the originals. But even more fortunately, we found copies of handwritten documents, with typed transcriptions, that describe how West Haven’s oldest church came into being. It is far, far different from the way churches are founded today.
At the May 1715 session of the General Assembly of the Colony of Connecticut, members of both houses voted to grant the “petition of the inhabitants of West Farms in New Haven [seeking] to be a [separate] society by ourselves for settling a minister and gathering into a church… to carry on the worship of God among themselves…” The petition further stated “that the dividing line between said town of New Haven and said Society begin… at the West River, running from said river on the south side of John Alling’s meadow, running…” along various property lines down various roads “westward unto the Milford line.” The General Assembly “do further order that all persons inhabiting … within such limits shall contribute”… to the religious “charges of said society.”
Thus did Connecticut’s colonial legislature 300 years ago grant the right of the people of what was later called West Haven to found their first church, which opened its doors in 1719 and came to be known as the First Congregational Church of West Haven.
Not just the phrasing of the language of 300 years ago sounds strange today. What seems most unusual today is that the General Assembly (the legislature of Connecticut) had the power to grant the right of new churches to be formed in a specific part of a town, and – even more unusual today – to impose taxes upon all inhabitants of the subsection of that town to support that church.
Before the concept of the “free exercise of religion,” embodied in the First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States - part of our Bill of Rights - most countries in Europe and most of our American colonies had one established church, as Britain still has the Church of England today [though nonestablished churches are not persecuted as they were then]. In 1715 the colonies that later became the United States of America had no Declaration of Independence, no Constitution, and even if the English Bill of Rights applied to the colonies – which arguably it did not – their Bill of Rights, unlike ours, did not include the free exercise of religion.
In those times, when countries or colonies with established churches permitted other denominations’ churches, those churches were not supported by taxes, but their members, most often, still had to pay taxes to support the established church.
Back on April 29, 1712, the West Farmers had written to the town of New Haven (Church and town were one.) requesting the right to start their own church. In their letter, they reasoned that the six mile journey on foot or by horse and wagon over primitive roads or trails was grueling, especially for the very young and the elderly. They said, “we… have thought it our duty to ask your consent and approbation th[ere] unto, and if you shal think it your duty and give your consent, we shall take it as a fatherly kindness at your hand…not for any dislike we have to our worthy pastor.”
We don’t have New Haven’s answer among the records we have located, but we know it was effectively “No.”
This was true because we have the West Farmers’ petition “to the Honourable General Assembly now sitting in Hartford, dated May 12, 1715. In it West Farms’ Petitioners state that New Haven “set such bounds for us as destroys or makes us incapable of obtaining the end proposed.” That end must include boundaries for the new West Haven Church large enough for it to support itself. The West Farmers “humbly pray this Honourable General Assembly consider our case and establish bounds for us as will be need for making a society” (church). A true copy of the petition was sent to New Haven. The signers were Samuel Burwell, Daniel Bristoll, Samuel Browne, and Sam. Smith. (It may be mere coincidence, but, with variations in spelling, each of their last names is the name of a street or road in West Haven.)
In New Haven’s “Sum of Pleas” to the General Assembly on its own behalf, it said what they granted West Farmers “include the most of their estates and exclude the estates of others who are utterly averse, and will receive no advantage at all but be very greatly prejudiced by being annexed to the said intended parish.”
New Haven claimed the distance is actually only “3 or 4 miles”, the road “plain and smooth never clogged.” They added “that instead of advancing the gospel kingdom of Christ,” it will weaken the New Haven church, and West Farmers cannot afford a pastor and other church expenses.
Fortunately, in its wisdom, the General Assembly granted the West Farmers petition, and the rest is history. Four years later, in 1719, the First Ecclesiastical Society of West Haven, later known as the First Congregational Church of West Haven, opened its doors – the first house of worship in what later became the borough, then town, then city of West Haven.
Looking back, we should be very thankful that we no longer must ask government for permission to found our churches. With the government increasingly imposing itself upon churches regarding taxing of employees, enforcing regulations, monitoring for political activities, and more and more other ways, imagine if we still had to ask for government permission to found a church. I fear we would receive a lot of “No’s.”
The first freedom guaranteed under the First Amendment – the first of our Bill of Rights - is freedom of religion. It protects us from the establishment of any particular religion by the Federal government, and guarantees our right to freely exercise our religion. That Freedom of Religion is the first freedom guaranteed is no accident. The Founders of our nation could easily have placed freedom of speech or freedom of the press first, but they did not. They knew that peoples’ unalienable rights were endowed by their Creator. They knew that encouraging religion was the best way to focus all our imperfect selves on trying to pursue the virtues they valued – no matter their own imperfections. We have perhaps forgotten that such virtues as honesty and trustworthiness are essential to the proper functioning of representative government. Let us pray that the “free exercise of religion” always has its preeminent place in America!
Stephen R. Hildrich
August 23, 2015
Revised May 23, 2019