Notes on Two Hundred Years (and More)
by Douglas H. Parkhurst
At its beginning American Unitarianism, or liberal Christianity as the faith was often known in its early manifestations, mostly by-passed Connecticut. This despite much of the state’s geographic proximity to the Congregational churches of eastern and central Massachusetts where the “Unitarian Controversy” was ongoing in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.
Connecticut, called the Land of Steady Habits, probably exceeded Massachusetts as the most religiously orthodox of the New England colonies and states. The Connecticut and New Haven colonies each were settled by Puritans in the 1630s and the two became one under the Connecticut name three decades later. The so-called Standing Order, the governing class in politics, religion, and societal norms, though its influence slowly weakened over the decades, retained much of its powerful Calvinist sway in Connecticut well into the nineteenth century. This even after the Congregational church was disestablished in the state in 1818.
There was religious dissent in Connecticut, however, in the form of Anglican (later Episcopalian), Baptist, Quaker, and as time passed Methodist and a few Universalist societies and churches. There was Unitarian dissent, too, though early on and with one notable exception this centered mostly in individuals and not in groups. Unitarians were a distinct minority in Connecticut for most of the denomination’s independent history, even into the twentieth century.
The Rev. Stanley Griswold (1763-1815) has been called “the first apostle of Unitarianism in Connecticut.” A graduate of Yale College, a Calvinist stronghold, he came to what is now First Congregational Church of New Milford in early 1790. Rev. Griswold believed salvation could be achieved through good works. He adopted other liberal views, such as denying the total depravity of human beings, offering communion to all, and advocating universal salvation (this last a fundamental tenet of Universalism). Though popular with many members of his flock, Stanley Griswold left New Milford in 1802 under pressure from the orthodox establishment. An enthusiastic supporter of Jeffersonian democracy (he was a Democratic-Republican in a Federalist state) Griswold first moved to New Hampshire where he edited a newspaper. Later he went west and entered politics, serving as secretary of Michigan Territory, as an appointed U.S. senator from Ohio, and as a federal judge in Illinois Territory.
For nineteen years minister of First Church of Christ in New London, the Rev. Henry Channing (1760-1840), also a graduate of Yale, became an early Unitarian in Connecticut. It was said that by 1791 he “was giving up the eternal generation of the Son” and in time his evolving Arminian theology became suspect to the orthodox establishment, although he apparently never preached Unitarian doctrine. Henry Channing’s nephew was William Ellery Channing, later a leading light of nineteenth century Unitarianism. William was tutored by Henry for two years before William entered Harvard College. After a successful ministry, Henry Channing left New London in 1806 of his own accord and became minister of the Congregational Church in Canandaigua, New York. He later returned to New London and was elected to the Connecticut legislature as a member of the Toleration party, which opposed the Standing Order and favored disestablishment of the Congregational church.
Another early Connecticut Unitarian was the Rev. John Sherman (1772-1828), grandson of statesman Roger Sherman. He, too, was a Yale graduate and settled at First Church of Mansfield in 1797. At first a strict Calvinist, Sherman came under the influence of English Unitarian thought and accepted belief in God as a Unity, not a Trinity. In 1805 he authored One God in one person only: and Jesus Christ a Being distinct from God…. While he was much loved by his parishoners, the Calvinist clergy around Mansfield grew alarmed and called a council to examine Rev. Sherman’s theological opinions. The council was friendly but advised he leave the Mansfield church with a favorable recommendation for a future settlement. John Sherman moved on and in 1805 was invited to minister to a religious society in Oldenbarneveldt (Trenton Village), New York. This group is now called The Unitarian Church of Barneveld. After resigning this pastorate in 1810 Sherman established an academy and built a resort lodge nearby at Trenton Falls.
The Rev. Abiel Abbot (1765-1859), unlike the three ministers mentioned above, was a graduate of Harvard College. Initially a teacher and tutor, for some years Abbot held Calvinist opinions and in 1795 became pastor of First Society in Coventry, Connecticut. Orthodox in preaching, Rev. Abbot’s personal theology evolved toward liberalism and his views regarding “the Trinity, the Death of Christ, and the Atonement” became suspect. In 1811, under pressure from the orthodox establishment, he left First Society and until 1819 taught at Dummer Academy in Byfield, Massachusetts. After farming for a few years Abbot moved to Peterborough, New Hampshire, where he ministered to the Congregational Society, Unitarian, starting in 1827. Active in town he was instrumental in establishing the town’s free public library, the Peterborough Lyceum, and Peterborough Academy. In 1989, at Peterborough’s 250th anniversary, Abiel Abbot was remembered as the town’s most influential citizen.
What would become the first Unitarian church in Connecticut, now called the Unitarian Universalist Society in Brooklyn, was organized as First Ecclesiastical Society in 1731 in the Mortlake section of the towns of Pomfret and Canterbury in the northeast part of the state. It was known as Second Church of Pomfret before the town of Brooklyn was set off in 1786. Orthodox ministers served the church during its first decades. In 1813 a young ministerial candidate, Luther Willson or Wilson (1783-1864), attended Yale College and Williams College, was ordained and became associate of the Calvinist pastor, Rev. Dr. Josiah Whitney. Before long Rev. Willson expressed doubts as to the doctrine of the Trinity and the supreme deity of Jesus, alarming some congregation members as well as Dr. Whitney and orthodox leaders in the area. Church and ministerial councils were called and a protracted controversy ensued between constituents of the Brookyn “society” and members of the Brooklyn “church” [see note below]. In 1819 the congregation split, with the society (Unitarian) retaining ownership of the church building [see note below] and the church (Trinitarian) moving to a new location. Rev. Willson departed to become minister of the Church of Christ in Petersham, Massachusetts. In 1822 Rev. Samuel J. May (1797-1871), a Harvard graduate, a liberal and later prominent Unitarian minister and reformer, was called by the Brooklyn society and served until 1836, returning for one year in 1847.
Some years after this the Brooklyn society made history in another way. In October 1871 it ordained Celia Burleigh (1826-1875), the first woman Unitarian minister. Rev. Burleigh pastored the Brookyn society for two years until she resigned due to illness, though the society listed her as their minister until her death. In 1878 the Brooklyn society again ordained a woman, Caroline Rich James (1827-1901) who served in Brooklyn for three years.
For more information about the growth of Unitarianism in Connecticut in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, including in the Danbury area, refer back to the ‘Notes on Two Hundred Years…’ article of June 2022.
Note – A dual form of local ecclesiastical government was common in New England.
Note – The Brooklyn Unitarian Universalist church, built between 1771 and 1774, stands today and is a beautiful example of colonial New England church architecture. It is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Note – Sources consulted in preparing this article are varied and interesting. These include Connecticut by Albert E. Van Dusen, 1961, which may be found in libraries. A History of Unitarianism…(volumes I and II) by Earl Morse Wilbur, 1945 and 1952, can be read on Internet Archive. The Connecticut State Library has An Inventory of Unitarian Church Records in Connecticut which can be viewed on-line. This inventory includes bibliograhical information as well. The Dictionary of Unitarian Universalist Biography is an internet source and contains a wealth of information. Some town and county histories and local church histories can also be accessed on-line and may contain information not readily available elsewhere.